US-backed forces along Euphrates aim to ‘seize control’ of key city on road to Raqqa

AMMAN: American-backed forces vying to seize the Islamic State’s Syrian capital of Raqqa are now about 40km to the west, preparing for what appears to be an imminent attack on the nearby city of Tabqa, home to one of Syria’s largest air bases, an SDF military spokesman told Syria Direct on Tuesday.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by international coalition airstrikes, recently captured the twin towns of Little Suwaydiyah and Big Suwaydiyah, on the Euphrates’ northern bank, just across the river from Tabqa. They now aim to “seize control” of Tabqa, the SDF military spokesman, who requested anonymity, told Syria Direct on Tuesday.

The SDF’s advances are part of a broader campaign to capture IS-controlled Raqqa city. The offensive, now in a “second phase” that was announced last December 10, accelerated this month, when SDF fighters, backed by coalition warplanes, surrounded and captured a pocket of IS-controlled farmland roughly 50 km northwest of Raqqa city.

Since the launch of phase two in December, the SDF “was able to liberate an area of 2,480 sq. kilometers (1,542 sq. miles), including 196 towns and dozens of farms,” including the 12th century Qalaat Jaabar castle situated on the Euphrates River, SDF spokeswoman Jehan Sheikh told Syria Direct on Tuesday, citing an official SDF statement.

“We’ve liberated a total of 3,200 sq. kilometers (1,988 sq. miles) and 236 towns since the beginning of the Raqqa campaign,” she said.

As the current focus of the SDF’s offensive, Tabqa sits on a key crossroads linking four provinces. The Salamiya-Raqqa highway and the Aleppo-Deir e-Zor highway both pass through the city. Tabqa is home to an air base and the nearby Tabqa Dam (also known as the Euphrates Dam), which is Syria's largest and provides a crucial source of electricity and irrigation for the surrounding Raqqa farmland. The dam is now under Islamic State control.

The capture of the dam would bring the SDF closer to Raqqa city, and leave Tabqa “totally surrounded from the west and the north,” the unnamed SDF spokesman said.

Tabqa Dam would be the second major dam along the Euphrates that the SDF has taken from IS—the first was northeastern Aleppo province’s Tishrin Dam in December 2015.

On Tuesday, SDF forces reportedly “defeated an attempted IS counterattack in Little Suwaydiyah,” just north of the Tabqa Dam, as “US-backed coalition warplanes destroyed several IS armed vehicles,” the SDF spokesman said.

Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), a group of media activists that documents human rights abuses in IS-held Raqqa province, also reported that coalition planes bombed “the northern entrance to the Euphrates Dam” on Tuesday.

Though Syria Direct could not independently verify either source’s claims, coalition airstrike reports from recent days detail dozens of strikes against IS “tactical units” and “fighting positions” near both Raqqa city and the Tabqa Dam.

The purpose of the campaign, dubbed “Euphrates Wrath” and launched last November by an alliance of SDF forces with US air support, is to “isolate and capture Raqqa, SDF spokeswoman Jihan a-Sheikh told Syria Direct at the time. IS has controlled the city of Raqqa, its de facto Syrian capital and key stronghold, since 2014.

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 at least 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 in early November, after the SDF officially announced Euphrates Wrath. “They coordinate between the coalition and the SDF and provide logistical support.”

The American government recently praised the progress in capturing Raqqa from the Islamic State.

US Air Force Col. John Dorrian, international coalition spokesman, on "phase two" of Euphrates Wrath Tuesday. 

“We’re in the middle of the isolation of Raqqa, and that’s going well,” US. Acting Assistant Undersecretary of Defense Elissa Slotkin told reporters at the Pentagon last week. “We have in place a plan right now that moves as fast as the local forces on the ground are able to move.”

Recent SDF advances along the Euphrates River in Little Suwaydiyah, and late last week near Ayn Issa, are reminiscent of a previous campaign to capture the north Aleppo city of Manbij from the Islamic State last May.

SDF forces, backed by coalition airpower, wrested Manbij from IS control after a grueling three-month offensive during which at least 190 civilians were killed by coalition airstrikes, London-based independent monitor Airwars reported.  

Though Airwars has not released civilian casualty counts for Raqqa in recent days, residents of Raqqa’s northern countryside, where the SDF has focused its offensive in recent weeks, are critical of the campaign’s advances as thousands of civilians flee their homes for fear of airstrikes and violent clashes, Syria Direct reported in November.  

“Fifty thousand civilians in the northern countryside were the victims of the fake liberation,” RBSS reported on Sunday of the SDF’s recapture of IS-held territory. “Most of them now live in camps…and some others are using the roads as homes.” 

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Political Science in 2016. She was a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) recipient in Arabic in 2013. Her studies have brought her to Jordan, Palestine and Turkey.