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Reuters

Battle for Raqqa: US-backed forces ‘tighten noose’ on Islamic State stronghold in Syria

18 May 2017

US-backed forces have “tightened their noose” on Islamic State militants in Raqqa, seizing large swathes of the region in an offensive aimed at dismantling the group’s operations in its de facto Syrian headquarters, US officials say.

Key Points:

  • US-backed forces are closing in on north, east and western parts of Raqqa
  • Coalition is aiming for surprise attacks but expects to reclaim city this year
  • Trump recently authorised supplying weapons to Kurdish fighters for assault

Some 3,000 to 4,000 Islamic State fighters are thought to be left holed up in Raqqa city where they continue to erect defences against the anticipated assault, drawing coalition air strikes to stop them, Colonel Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the US-led coalition, said.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a US-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters, has been encircling Raqqa since November in a multi-phased offensive that is also fighting Islamic Statemilitants in Iraq.

Last week, the SDF accomplished a major goal by capturing Tabqa, some 50 kilometres west of Raqqa.

“In the last week, the SDF have tightened their noose around ISIS in the northern and eastern and western part of Raqqa,” Colonel Dillon said.

SDF fighters had drawn as near as four kilometres to Raqqa at their closest point to the city.

“They [SDF] have taken almost 350 square kilometres of ground from ISIS,” he said.

“[So now they are continuing] to just encroach and tighten and tighten that isolation ring, quite frankly largely uncontested.”

The SDF, which includes the powerful Kurdish YPG militia, said last week it expected to launch the final assault on Raqqa city this year.

YPG and SDF officials had previously given April start dates for the assault, but these slipped as the battle for Tabqa went on.

“We do not try to stick to a timeline … there’s a principle of war called surprise,” Colonel Dillon said.

“We want our partner force to achieve that — when they do decide it is the right time and place or places — to start their assault.”

Defences being erected by Islamic State militants include earthen berms, some of them designed to hold large pools of water. In some cases, these had collapsed, causing flooding in Raqqa city.

While the coalition has already armed Arab fighters in the SDF, the White House last week authorised supplying weapons for the YPG to help in the Raqqa assault.

Colonel Dillon said there had been no deliveries and no specifics on the types of weapons and equipment the SDF will receive.

Turkey sees the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has fought a three-decade insurgency for Kurdish autonomy and rights inside Turkey.

Reuters