US-backed alliance begins Raqqa assault

Sunday 11/06/2017
Long battle lies ahead. Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters on their way to Raqqa, on June 6. (Reuters)

Tunis- Activists with the Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Si­lently (RBSS) Facebook page told of the besieged Syrian city — The de fac­to capital of the Islamic State (ISIS) — being targeted: “The average number of air strikes on Raqqa has reached about 20 strikes by manned and unmanned military aircraft a day. A further 100 mortar shells have also landed at neighbourhoods around the city.”

RBSS, in messages to The Arab Weekly, also said more than 421 civilians were killed during fight­ing in May. Forces belonging to the US-backed and Kurdish-dominated militia alliance, the Syrian Demo­cratic Forces (SDF) were reportedly clashing with ISIS fighters on the outskirts of the city.

SDF and coalition forces, which had been steadily massing out­side the city, began their assault on Raqqa, the latest chapter in Opera­tion Wrath of the Euphrates. Esti­mates of how long the campaign may last vary but, after protracted battles against entrenched ISIS po­sitions at Sirte in Libya and Mosul in Iraq, few expect the campaign to take Raqqa to be quick.

SDF spokesman Talal Silo on June 6 announced the beginning of the as­sault on the city, saying: “We declare today the beginning of the great bat­tle to liberate the city of Raqqa, the alleged capital of terrorism and ter­rorists. Morale is high and military readiness to implement the military plan is complete, in coordination with the US-led coalition.”

Few positions are as entrenched as that of ISIS at Raqqa. The jihadists sought to establish the Syrian city as a model for life in their caliphate, making it a magnet for foreign fight­ers and a key strategic planning centre for terror attacks around the world.

Coalition forces estimate the number of ISIS fighters in Raqqa at 3,000-4,000 but the SDF says the number is less. It is suspected that the battle-hardened core of the ji­hadists has retreated east, 140km along the Euphrates to established positions at Deir ez-Zor.

It is also difficult to know how many civilians remain in the city after three years of ISIS occupation. However, the International Rescue Committee said there were as many as 200,000 in Raqqa. There are fears civilians who try to flee the city will be killed by ISIS fighters, who are also known to use inhabitants as hu­man shields. SDF commanders said electricity has been cut off and in­ternet cafés shut.

Coalition forces have been mass­ing outside the city. In March, sev­eral hundred US special operations troops supporting the estimated 55,000 SDF fighters were joined by units from the 11th Marine Expedi­tionary Unit. Attack helicopters and other special operations forces are expected, the Washington Post re­ported.

Nicholas Heras, a fellow at the Centre for a New American Security, said the battle is at Phase One, with whatever awaits within the city cen­tre an unknown.

Moreover, while many of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) within the SDF are veterans of battles at Kobane, Tabqa and Manbij, others within the militia alliance, such as the Syrian Arab Coalition, are new to the battlefield. That lack of experience could prove important in determining not only who takes the Sunni-dominated city but who eventually holds it.

“The conflict will probably oper­ate along the Manbij model,” Heras said. “That is, an alliance of differ­ent militias trained by the United States call in air strikes and artillery fire on enemy positions.”

While that model has previously been successful, how effective it may be against the entrenched op­position at Raqqa is uncertain and few doubt the ferocity of the battle to come.

“ISIS has been prepping Raqqa as if it’s the second battle of Fal­luja,” Heras said, “The SDF may be facing booby traps, [improvised ex­plosive devices], fire boxes, what­ever. Whatever it is, it’s going to be intense. The question is how drawn out it will be.”