US-backed forces 10km closer to 'isolate and capture' Raqqa city from Islamic State

AMMAN: A United States-backed alliance of Kurdish-led forces battled and “advanced 10 kilometers” against the Islamic State (IS) north of Raqqa city on Monday in the second day of a campaign to surround and capture the Syrian capital of the self-styled caliphate.

“Our forces have advanced 10km from the directions of Ayn Issa town and Suluk” northwest and northeast of Raqqa city, Jihan a-Sheikh, the SDF spokeswoman for the military campaign told Syria Direct on Monday. Until publication Monday evening, the SDF had reportedly captured more than 10 villages and farms from IS, leaving the former roughly 35km north of Raqqa city.

The battles, dubbed “Euphrates Wrath,” began on Saturday evening, when the multi-ethnic Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) stationed roughly 45km north of Islamic State (IS)-held Raqqa city attacked southwards. Also called the Raqqa Liberation Campaign, the battles were officially announced on Sunday in a videotaped statement by the SDF.

The campaign aims to “isolate and capture Raqqa,” Jihan a-Sheikh told Syria Direct. Some 30,000 fighters, “men and women, including Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen, most of them from the Raqqa area,” will participate, she said. 

  A YPJ fighter in northern Syria. Photo courtesy of YPG.

The SDF, founded one year ago, is a mixed-ethnicity military coalition comprised mostly of Kurdish People’s Protection Units and their female counterparts, the Women’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ). The umbrella group also contains Sunni Arab, Assyrian, and Turkmen brigades. The forces are based in Kurdish-held territories south of Syria’s northern border with Turkey.

Supporting the SDF forces are 250 American “military consultants,” Kamal Akif, the spokesman for the Defense Ministry of Jazirah Canton in Syria’s northeastern Al-Hasakah province told Syria Direct on Monday. “They coordinate between the coalition and the SDF and provide logistical support.” Pictures of US servicemen north of Raqqa city circulated online on Sunday.

“When it comes to Raqqa, we want a force…that is primarily from the local area, Arabs from the area,” Brett McGurk, the American presidential envoy for the anti-IS coalition told reporters in Jordan’s capital, Amman, on Sunday. “We have trained many of these fighters and that force will continue to grow as we get to the subsequent phases of the campaign.”

Raqqa province has historically contained Arab, Turkmen and Kurdish populations. Raqqa city, however, was populated primarily by Sunni Arabs.

  The SDF announce the beginning of operations to capture Raqqa on Sunday. Photo courtesy of A-Raqqa Liberation Campaign.

Airstrikes and “high-level coordination” with the American-led anti-IS coalition aided SDF advances along the two axes of the group’s attack since Saturday, said spokeswoman a-Sheikh. On Sunday, French Minister of Defense Jean Yves Le Drian said that his country would also carry out airstrikes.

The battles for Raqqa follow months of rumors and anticipation of an offensive. Its current timing, Self-Administration defense spokesman Akif said, is linked to the ongoing anti-Islamic State offensive in the group’s Iraqi stronghold of Mosul.

“The operation has been discussed for a while,” he said, but “the coordination with the coalition came as the liberation of Mosul drew closer, in order to prevent Raqqa from becoming a haven for [fighters] fleeing Mosul city, and vice versa.”

For now, fighting remains north of Raqqa city, in “remote, desert areas,” Arin Sheikhmous, a Kurdish citizen journalist currently embedded with the SDF forces in Raqqa told Syria Direct on Monday.

“We always advertised that the isolation phase is going to take months,” the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford was quoted as saying in the Defense Department News on Sunday.

“Raqqa is Daesh’s main stronghold in Syria,” Jazirah canton Defense Ministry spokesman Akif told Syria Direct, referring to the Islamic State’s Arabic acronym. “The city is surrounded by fortifications, so the operation is ongoing in such a way as to weaken the positions between Raqqa and its countryside,” he said. Attacking from the Ayn Issa and Suluk axes, the SDF “will cleanse area after area until reaching the city.”

‘No conflict’

The question of who participates in the Raqqa battles and who will take control of the city once the Islamic State is driven out has been the subject of much speculation. While the beginning of the battles over the weekend indicates that an agreement has been reached among key regional players, the specifics of what that means for Raqqa itself remain unclear.

Turkey, which currently backs a second anti-IS offensive in the north Aleppo countryside, west of Raqqa, previously stated that it would not accept the participation of Kurdish fighters that Ankara considers terrorists in the battles.

Turkey is actively hostile to the SDF because the YPG/J making up the bulk of its forces constitute the military arm of the Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD). The PYD has ties to the PKK in Turkey, an internationally designated terrorist organization with which Ankara has waged an internal war for decades.

 An SDF vehicle roughly 35km northeast of Raqqa city. Photo courtesy of SDF.

On October 27, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that the Syrian rebels his country backs in northern Syria were “marching towards Al-Bab, then to Manbij and Raqqa.” One day later, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said that “Turkey won’t take part in Raqqa operation if terror organization PYD/YPG is included.”

So far, Turkey has not directly participated in the SDF battles to capture Raqqa. Turkish state media agency Anadolu was initially silent on the operations, but tweeted on Monday that “Turkey, US agree on plan to seize Raqqa” without providing further details.

On Sunday, the day Euphrates Wrath was officially announced, the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Dunford visited Ankara and spoke with his Turkish counterpart General Hulusi Akar. After the meeting, he also said the two countries had hammered out a “long-term plan for seizing, holding and governing Raqqa,” the US Defense Department reported.

For its part, the SDF has “no agreement with America regarding the participation of Turkey,” said spokeswoman a-Sheikh. However, she added there is “no conflict” between the SDF and the US-backed international coalition.

Speaking to the future administration of Raqqa, Jazirah canton Defense Ministry spokesman Akif said it would be “turned over to a civilian administration, agreed-upon by the components of the province, as happened in Manbij.”

Whoever ultimately runs the provincial capital of Raqqa, months of bitter fighting, civilian casualties and displacement likely lie ahead.

Advancing SDF forces have not yet encountered civilians, embedded citizen journalist Sheikhmous told Syria Direct on Monday.

Current battles are in “scattered villages” along a previously existing frontline between IS- and SDF-held territory, he said, “so there were no civilians.” It is not clear when or why the residents left, he added.

However, “we are expecting mass displacement” in the weeks and months to come, said spokesman Akif. The Self-Administration, to which the Defense Ministry belongs and which governs the Kurdish-held territories in northern Syria, is “preparing to set up camps to receive the displaced,” he added.

Citizen journalist Sheikhmous told Syria Direct that some members the advancing forces are in contact with activists inside Raqqa city. “Approximately 80 percent of the SDF fighters participating in the campaign are from the city and its countryside,” he claimed.

“Civilians in Raqqa are waiting for the darkness of Daesh [IS] to be lifted from their city.”

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He moved to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman.

Malek Hafez

Malek is originally from Damascus and moved to Jordan in 2013. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Middle East University in Jordan.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.

Dima al-Dimashqi

Dima grew up in Old Damascus before moving to Egypt to finish her degree in Islamic Law. She joined the Syria Direct training program because she believes quality journalism can contribute to the rebuilding of her country.