AMMAN: The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are battling to capture the “remaining 10 percent” of Raqqa city from the Islamic State (IS) on Tuesday, a spokeswoman told Syria Direct, in the “final stage” of the fight for the hardline Islamist group's longtime Syrian capital.
Clashes centered on Raqqa's northern and central districts on Tuesday, including the National Hospital, where up to 1,000 IS fighters remain encircled in one of their last positions in the heart of the city, SDF spokeswoman Jihan Sheikh Ahmed told Syria Direct from the ground near the battles.
Capturing the National Hospital and the adjacent a-Naeem intersection—as well as a nearby sports stadium where IS reportedly holds an unknown number of civilians captive, according to SDF media—would give the SDF full control of Raqqa’s city center, and near-total control of a key highway running through the city.
“The battle for Raqqa is now in its final stage, after [SDF forces] liberated 90 percent of the city” spokeswoman Ahmed said.
SDF fighters in Raqqa on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Euphrates Wrath Campaign to Liberate Raqqa.
Brett McGurk, the US Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, made a similar assessment via Twitter on Monday, stating that the battle for Raqqa was approaching its “final phase” as SDF fighters in the city advanced “room-by-room” through central districts.
IS media has remained largely silent since the start of October as the group continues to lose ground in Raqqa city.
The SDF—a multi-ethnic coalition mostly made up of Kurdish and Arab fighters—launched their battle for Raqqa city on June 6 within its "Euphrates Wrath" offensive to capture the de facto IS capital and one of its last major strongholds in Syria.
Steady SDF advances since then—with the support of US-led coalition aircraft and ground forces—have forced IS fighters out of most of the city.
But every inch of ground captured by the SDF came at a high cost, particularly to civilians trapped inside the city as SDF and IS forces fight building-to-building and US-led coalition airstrikes flatten residential neighborhoods.
As many as one hundred civilians have been killed in Raqqa city over the past two weeks alone, and more than 1,000 since the beginning of the Raqqa campaign, UK-based airstrike monitor Airwars estimates.
Many civilian deaths were caused by US-led coalition bombardment of Raqqa, where at least one coalition bomb or artillery round hit the city “every eight minutes” during August, according to an Airwars report released late last month.
Displaced people flee Raqqa city on Monday. Photo courtesy of Euphrates Wrath Campaign to Liberate Raqqa.
As the battle reaches its late stages, however, there are signs that the pace of US-led bombardment may be slowing.
The coalition, which releases daily reports on its anti-IS airstrikes across Syria and Iraq, did not publicly release any strikes over Raqqa city on Monday. If confirmed, Monday could mark Raqqa’s first day with no reported airstrikes since the launch of Euphrates Wrath in June, as the remaining pocket of IS control within the city continues to shrink.
On Tuesday, the embattled city witnessed a “general sense of calm,” with no airstrikes, online monitor group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently reported. The group regularly posts reports of coalition airstrikes and artillery attacks on civilians inside Raqqa city.
Still, hundreds of civilians continue to stream out of the city, fleeing the approaching frontlines. While SDF forces are imposing a tight siege on the city, the militia's official media maintain they are securing safe passage out for those trapped inside.
SDF fighters “liberated” nearly 200 Raqqa residents from the city since Monday night, spokeswoman Jihan Sheikh told Syria Direct. RBSS also reported that dozens of families fled Raqqa city via its western, SDF-held districts on Tuesday.
The fleeing residents leave behind neighborhoods with no running electricity, save for private generators, no water and no available healthcare, relief organization REACH found in a report late last month. Only one functional bakery remains in the city, while residents rely on water from makeshift wells dug into the ground, according to the same report.
An estimated 8,000 civilians remained in Raqqa city as of late September, down from up to 22,000 the previous month, according to estimates by REACH.