AMMAN: The United States-backed Syrian Democratic Forces broke into Raqqa city for the first time on Tuesday, capturing territory in an eastern district hours after announcing the launch of the “great battle” for the heart of the Islamic State’s caliphate in Syria.
Tuesday’s assault on Raqqa city follows seven months of advances by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to cut off the provincial capital to the north, east and west within the Euphrates Wrath military campaign.
“Today, we announce the beginning of the great battle to liberate Raqqa city, the so-called capital of terrorism and terrorists,” SDF spokesman Talal Silo said Tuesday morning in a video put out by the Kurdish-led alliance.
The SDF announces the launch of battles in Raqqa city on June 6. Photo courtesy of Raqqa Campaign.
The US-led coalition quickly reported the launch of the battle on its website, calling the battle against the Islamic State in Raqqa a “blow to the idea of a physical caliphate.”
The United States and other countries in the international, anti-Islamic State coalition are providing air support, weapons, training and intelligence to the Kurdish and Arab components of the SDF.
Coinciding with Tuesday’s announcement, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) battled Islamic State (IS) fighters on fronts west, north and east of Raqqa city.
By mid-afternoon, a number of neighborhoods inside the al-Mashlab district in eastern Raqqa city had been captured, Serdar Haji Mahmoud, a war correspondent embedded with the SDF told Syria Direct.
“Fighting continues in eastern Raqqa city and warplanes are striking,” he said.
The US-led coalition has reported 89 airstrikes near Raqqa since the beginning of June, a figure that does not include Tuesday’s battles inside the city.
Airwars, an independent monitoring group that tracks coalition airstrikes and civilian casualties in Syria and Iraq, estimates that between 283 and 366 civilians were likely killed by the coalition this past April alone.
On April 30, the United States, which leads the anti-IS coalition, accepted responsibility for 377 civilian deaths since 2014 during the campaign in Iraq and Syria. The coalition reported an additional 80 casualties, but none of the other 12 allied nations has claimed the killings, Airwars reported in May.
The Islamic State captured Raqqa city from Syrian rebels in 2014. The city is the heart of IS territory in Syria, the center of the self-proclaimed caliphate and the current focus of the United States-led coalition’s operations in Syria.
Meanwhile, other SDF forces are working to fully encircle the provincial capital by advancing from the southwest.
“Our task is to fully isolate Raqqa city in the coming days,” Muhammad Abu Adel, a commander within the SDF’s Manbij Military Council told Syria Direct on Tuesday.
“Once encircled in the city, the Daesh members can be eliminated,” said the commander, who is currently near the southwest Raqqa town of al-Mansourah.
More than 15 factions are participating in the battle for Raqqa city, including the Kurdish YPG/J militia and a number of local Arab brigades, according to Tuesday’s SDF announcement.
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.
Looming over the Raqqa battles is the potential for mass civilian casualties similar to those seen during the battle for Mosul, the Islamic State’s capital in Iraq.
As the frontlines draw near to and enter the city, which is ringed by landmines to keep outsiders out and insiders in, civilians will inevitably find themselves under fire.
“We call on our family in Raqqa city to stay away from the enemy’s centers and the clashes,” said the SDF’s statement on Tuesday. SDF commander Abu Adel said his forces aim “as much as possible to spare the civilians and make sure they are not harmed in any way.”
Airwars urged the warring parties via Twitter on Tuesday to “take all possible measures to protect civilians” in the upcoming battles.
“Both the SDF and Coalition have a history of downplaying civilian casualties,” the monitor tweeted on Tuesday. “That cannot happen at Raqqa.”
Additional reporting by Ammar Hamou and Bahira al-Zarier.