In battle for Raqqa, Syrian Democratic Forces make steady advances

AMMAN: The United States-backed Syrian Democratic Forces captured their third district inside Raqqa city on Sunday, tightening their encirclement of the Islamic State’s de facto Syrian capital.

Sunday’s ground advances come five days after the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) launched “the great battle” for Raqqa city this past Tuesday. The SDF's current, three-pronged offensive on Raqqa city is the culmination of seven months of advances that cut off the provincial capital to the north, east and west as part of a broad military campaign dubbed Euphrates Wrath.

Fighting on Sunday focused on the western fringes of Raqqa city, where SDF forces seized the Rumaniyah district—an urban area of more than a dozen city blocks.

“The Islamic State (IS) is withdrawing its men deeper into Raqqa city, as they try to defend themselves on a smaller and smaller patch of turf,” Serdar Haji Mahmoud, a war correspondent embedded with the SDF on the frontlines in the city’s western neighborhoods, told Syria Direct on Sunday.

Also on Sunday, SDF social media accounts claimed that the Islamic State's third-ranking leader, Abu Khatab al-Tunisi, had been killed, but did not provide further details. IS-linked media has not reported the death, and Syria Direct cannot immediately confirm the claim. 

SDF forces have now captured three Raqqa city districts—Rumaniyah, Mashlab and Sabahiya—since the launch of their urban campaign last Tuesday.

The United States and other nations in the international, anti-Islamic State coalition are providing air support, weapons, training and intelligence to the Kurdish and Arab components of the SDF.

So far, the SDF—backed by the coalition—appear to have advanced with relative ease, capturing territory on all three axes of the offensive. IS forces have retaliated with suicide attacks, car bombs and heavy gunfire against advancing ground forces.

Aiding the ground advance is air support from the US-led coalition, which came under criticism on Thursday when accused of firing incendiary white phosphorus munitions in the immediate vicinity of the frontline districts.

Videos purportedly taken in Raqqa city on Thursday and posted online show the characteristic white streaks of incendiary weapons lighting up the sky. While it is not illegal for a military to possess white phosphorous, its weaponized use in a civilian area is banned by international law.

 An SDF soldier in Raqqa city on Thursday. Photo courtesy of Raqqa Campaign.

US CENTCOM, which reports the coalition’s strikes and engagements on IS targets reported “nine strikes” on targets inside Raqqa city on Thursday but made no public mention of any specific white phosphorus attacks.

The alleged phosphorous attack resembled “an enormous fireworks display that left behind a huge amount of fire and destruction," one resident currently inside the IS-held city told Syria Direct on Sunday.

“The entire night sky was illuminated by the bombing…people were terrified because they had never seen such a bomb before,” Abu Jawad a-Raqqawi, 26, told Syria Direct, using a pseudonym out of fear for his safety in a city where all outside communication is closely monitored and can be severely punished.

It is not immediately clear whether the reported phosphorus attack resulted in casualties. But as the fighting for Raqqa focuses on an increasingly smaller and more densely crowded residential area, the potential for mass civilian casualties rises.

At least 150,000 people have already been displaced by the battles in Raqqa province, according to UNICEF. As the battle for Raqqa city itself begins, that number is likely to rise, inundating nearby displacement camps.

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.

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali, originally from Daraa, had completed his first year studying Broadcast Journalism at Damascus University before leaving Syria in August 2012.

Justin Schuster

Justin Schuster graduated from Yale University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Affairs and Modern Middle Eastern Studies. He was a 2015-2016 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. Justin worked as a reporter and translator with Syria Direct before serving as the Managing Director.