Sunday 21 January 2018

Kurdish-led rebels move to drive Isil from Raqqa

SDF commanders announce the offensive on Raqqa. Photo: Reuters/Rodi Said
SDF commanders announce the offensive on Raqqa. Photo: Reuters/Rodi Said

Sara Elizabeth Williams

Fierce clashes were reported after US-backed forces in Syria began a long-awaited offensive to liberate Raqqa, the de-facto capital of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil).

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced Operation Euphrates Wrath, a "massive military campaign to liberate the city and its countryside from the clutches of Isil", in a statement yesterday.

The SDF called on Raqqa's civilians to avoid areas where Isil militants are present and to go to "liberated territory".

Commanders said the operation will involve 30,000 troops from the SDF, a coalition spearheaded by Syrian Kurdish militias but including Arab and Turkmen groups. They will be backed by US support and coalition air cover.

Isil detonated two car bombs as SDF forces backed by intensive coalition air strikes seized control of six small villages and farms in the north Raqqa countryside yesterday evening, the Syrian Observatory for Human rights said.

Isil has controlled Raqqa, which it declared the capital of its self-styled caliphate, since January 2014. It captured Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, in June the same year.

A Western-coalition-backed alliance including Iraqi security forces, Kurdish Peshmerga, and allied militias launched an offensive to liberate Mosul three weeks ago.

The timing of the announcement of the assault on Raqqa appears to confirm rumours that coalition battle planners hope to engage Isil in both cities at the same time.

In late October, Ash Carter, the US defence secretary, said he wanted to attack both strongholds at the same time in order to deny Isil militants the opportunity to regroup between battles.

Mr Carter warned yesterday that the fight to wrest control of Raqqa "will not be easy".

"The effort to isolate, and ultimately liberate, Raqqa marks the next step in our coalition campaign plan," Mr Carter said in a statement. "As in Mosul, the fight will not be easy and there is hard work ahead, but it is necessary to end the fiction of Isil's caliphate and disrupt the group's ability to carry out terror attacks against the United States, our allies and our partners," he said.

One major challenge will be managing the tensions between the SDF and Turkey, the key American allies in the area. Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish YPG and YPJ groups that spearhead the SDF to be linked to Kurdish terrorist groups operating inside Turkey. Tensions between the two sides erupted into open conflict after Ankara sent troops into northern Syria in August. SDF commanders yesterday explicitly requested Turkey stay out of the battle for Raqqa. (© Daily Telegraph London)

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