US-backed forces capture ‘90 percent’ of key town from Islamic State: spokeswoman

AMMAN: The United States-backed Syrian Democratic Forces have driven Islamic State fighters from “90 percent” of strategic Tabqa city in Raqqa province, a spokeswoman told Syria Direct on Monday, following weeks of intense fighting.

“We have now liberated 90 percent of Tabqa city,” Jihan Sheikh Ahmed, the SDF spokeswoman for the battles told Syria Direct on Monday.

Located 40km up the Euphrates River from Raqqa city, Tabqa is home to both a major military airbase and the largest dam in Syria.

The SDF, a multi-ethnic coalition of Syrian forces of which the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) militia is a main component, has been battling Islamic State forces near Tabqa since late March with support from US airstrikes and artillery.

The Tabqa battles are currently the focus of the SDF’s multi-stage Euphrates Wrath operation to ultimately isolate and capture Raqqa city, the Syrian capital of the Islamic State’s self-styled caliphate.

One week ago, SDF fighters entered Tabqa for the first time after more than one month of fighting with the Islamic State in the surrounding countryside.

In subsequent days of heavy battles, supported by US-led coalition airstrikes, the SDF pushed IS fighters from the majority of the city. Pictures from Tabqa show US-backed fighters lowering the black flag of the Islamic State on Sunday.

As of Monday afternoon, three districts and the southern section of the Euphrates Dam were still held by IS, said Ahmed, the Euphrates Shield spokeswoman. A second SDF spokesman gave Syria Direct the same account on Monday.

Earlier on Monday, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the SDF controlled “more than 80 percent” of Tabqa after capturing the entire old city.

“IS fighters are still holed up in a few districts, where they are using civilians as human shields,” Serdar Haji Mahmoud, a reporter with the SDF in Tabqa city told Syria Direct on Monday.

 An SDF fighter lowers an Islamic State flag in Tabqa city on April 30. Photo courtesy of Delil Souleiman/AFP.

In addition to a few districts inside Tabqa, IS fighters still hold the southern section of the neighboring Euphrates Dam, an area which is “difficult for planes to strike,” said Mahmoud.

Concerns for the structural integrity of the Euphrates Dam have long troubled the battles in Tabqa. In March, IS-linked media reported extensive damage to the structure and warned of a possible collapse, an event that would devastate cities and agricultural land downstream.

However, images posted online by the SDF in April appeared to show that the dam’s main floodgates were operational in the section with the hydroelectric station that IS still controls.

On Monday, SDF fighters conducted sweeping operations in the six districts captured from IS inside Tabqa city over the past week, searching for remaining fighters or explosives, sources on the ground told Syria Direct.

SDF spokespeople claimed that at least 75 IS fighters had been killed and five captured in the recent days of fighting.

It is not clear how many civilians have been killed in the latest battles. Last month, residents in the IS-held city told Syria Direct that they were trapped inside Tabqa, unable to flee coalition bombings while food and other vital supplies ran low.

Over the past week for which coalition strike releases are available, US-led aircraft carried out 55 strikes in and around Tabqa city. Twelve strikes were reported in Raqqa city and the surrounding countryside over the same period.

As SDF forces advanced inside Tabqa in recent days, they encountered “waves of fleeing civilians,” Mehiar Mohammad, the spokesman for the SDF’s Manbij Military Council, who is currently in the city told Syria Direct.

Amidst concerns of IS personnel escaping alongside the displaced, SDF forces were conducting “rigorous searches” of civilians, with a host of checkpoints, Mohammad said. Reconnaissance aircraft also monitored “where the displaced fled from, and how,” he added.

Battles continued in Tabqa city at time of publication. 

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.

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.

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.