U.S.-backed rebels launch assault on Islamic State’s ‘capital’ in Syria

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By Rodi Said and Tom Perry
BEIRUT- The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said on Tuesday it had launched an operation to capture Raqqa, Islamic State’s de facto Syrian capital, piling pressure on the jihadists whose self-declared caliphate is in retreat across Syria and Iraq.

SDF spokesman Talal Silo told Reuters the battle started on Monday and the fighting would be fierce “because Daesh (Islamic State) will die to defend their so-called capital”.

The assault overlaps with the final stages of the U.S.-backed attack to recapture the Iraqi city of Mosul from Islamic State. It follows months of advances to the north, east and west of Raqqa by the SDF, which includes Arab and Kurdish militias.

Islamic State captured Raqqa from rebel groups in 2014 and has used it as an operations base to plan attacks in the West. Silo said the assault had begun from the north, east and west of the city, which is bordered to the south by the River Euphrates.

The commander of the Raqqa campaign, Rojda Felat, told Reuters SDF fighters were attacking the al-Mishlab district at the city’s southeastern outskirts, confirming an earlier report by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

“The coalition has a big role in the success of the operations. In addition to warplanes, there are coalition forces working side by side with the SDF,” Silo said by phone from the Hukoumiya farms area, 10 km (6 miles) north of Raqqa, where the SDF later declared the start of the assault.

A Reuters witness at the location could hear the sound of heavy shelling and air strikes in the distance.

The U.S.-led coalition said the fight for Raqqa would be “long and difficult” but would deliver a “decisive blow to the idea of ISIS (Islamic State) as a physical caliphate”.

HARD FIGHTING

“It’s hard to convince new recruits that ISIS is a winning cause when they just lost their twin ‘capitals’ in both Iraq and Syria,” Lt. Gen Steve Townsend, the coalition commanding general, said in a coalition statement.

“We all saw the heinous attack in Manchester, England,” said Townsend. “ISIS threatens all of our nations, not just Iraq and Syria, but in our own homelands as well. This cannot stand.”

“Once ISIS is defeated in both Mosul and (Raqqa), there will still be a lot of hard fighting ahead,” he said.

From Monday afternoon to Tuesday afternoon, coalition warplanes and artillery hit IS boats, tactical units, fighting positions, vehicles and a weapons store, spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon said.

The coalition struck 19 boats that jihadists were using to ferry fighters and equipment across the Euphrates – their only means of accessing the city from land they control on the south bank, he said.

Security officials in the West have warned of increased threat of attacks such as last month’s Manchester suicide bombing and Saturday’s attack in London as Islamic State loses ground in Syria and Iraq. Both attacks were claimed by Islamic State.

An Arab group fighting with the SDF, the Syrian Elite Forces, which was established in February, had entered al-Mishlab with coalition air support, its spokesman Mohammed al-Shaker said by phone.

“The Syrian Elite Forces one or two hours ago entered the first quarter of Raqqa, which is al-Mishlab quarter, via the eastern front,” he said.

The Observatory said the SDF had captured some buildings in the al-Mishlab area and Islamic State fighters had withdrawn from parts of the district. The Observatory also said an attack was underway against a military barracks, Division 17, on the northern outskirts of Raqqa.

The U.S.-led coalition has said 3,000-4,000 Islamic State fighters are thought to be holed up in Raqqa city, where they have erected defences against the anticipated assault. The city is about 90 km (56 miles) from the border with Turkey.

The SDF includes the powerful Kurdish YPG militia.

Fighting around Raqqa since late last year has displaced tens of thousands of people, with many flooding camps in the area and others stranded in the desert.

CIVILIAN DEATHS

The U.N. human rights office has raised concerns about increasing reports of civilian deaths as air strikes escalate.

The Raqqa campaign has “resulted in massive civilian casualties, displacement and serious infrastructure destruction” so far, it said in a May report. Islamic State militants have also reportedly been preventing civilians from leaving, it said.

The U.S.-led coalition says it tries to avoid civilian casualties in its bombing runs in Syria and Iraq and investigates any allegations.

It is unclear how many civilians remain in Raqqa.

U.N. humanitarian spokesman Jens Laerke told Reuters that, for its planning purposes, the United Nations estimates there are approximately 160,000 people left in Raqqa city, but said this was not a formal estimate.

Humanitarian aid organization International Rescue Committee said 200,000 people were still trapped inside, and warned civilians in Raqqa risk being killed by Islamic State snipers or mines if they try to flee but could be used by the militants as human shields if they remain.

“The IRC has seen a drop in the number of people escaping Raqqa over the past week,” its Middle East Director of Public Affairs Thomas Garofalo said, adding this may indicate Islamic State intended to use them as human shields.

Dillon said the SDF had encouraged civilians to quit Raqqa to avoid this fate and had set up screening centers on front lines to separate civilian refugees from fleeing fighters.

He said the coalition expected IS to use similar tactics to those it had employed during the months-long battle in Mosul, including the use of armored car bombs as its “weapon of choice”.

“They have had three years to establish their defences there. We expect a fight very similar to what we’ve seen in Mosul,” he said, while adding that Raqqa is a much smaller city.

The Raqqa campaign has been the source of tension between the United States and Turkey, which fears growing Kurdish influence in northern Syria and has lobbied Washington to abandon its Kurdish YPG allies.

The YPG has been the main partner for the United States in its campaign against Islamic State in Syria, where the group is also being fought in separate campaigns waged by the Russian-backed Syrian government and Free Syrian Army rebel groups.

The United States last week said it had started distributing arms to the YPG to help take Raqqa.

The SDF has said it will hand control of Raqqa to a civilian council after its capture, as in other areas the SDF took from Islamic State.

The SDF and YPG control a swathe of northeastern Syria from the Iraqi border to the city of Manbij on the western banks of the Euphrates. The main Kurdish groups and their allies have established autonomous administration in the areas under their control, which they aim to preserve in any peace deal.

REUTERS

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7 responses to “U.S.-backed rebels launch assault on Islamic State’s ‘capital’ in Syria”

  1. yalibnan, what about falsetinians?

  2. Omega Avatar

    How can the revels launch anything against ISIS when they are both on the same side?

    1. Rudy1947 Avatar
      Rudy1947

      You forgot to tell them.

      1. Omega Avatar

        I sent a telegram.

  3. Niemals Avatar
    Niemals

    Once used in Gaza war, now White phosphorus munitions were used in western Mosul on Saturday, Human Rights Watch said, based on their analysis of still photographs and videos taken by a number of television channels.
    Video distributed by Rudaw, an Iraqi Kurdish television channel, showed the smoke rounds exploding several times over the city where Iraqi troops were fighting Islamic State militants.
    Kurdistan 24, another Iraqi Kurdish channel, and Aamaq, the media arm of the Islamic State group, published similar footage.
    Human Rights Watch said in a statement sent to The Associated Press that based on analysis of photographs and video, the smoke rounds were artillery-delivered white phosphorus rounds.
    The Iraqi ministry of defence did not directly confirm or deny the use of white phosphorus but said that at the request of Iraqi commanders, the coalition fired smoke rounds to protect a group of civilians fleeing IS snipers in the medical complex area by the Tigris river.
    White phosphorus is a highly incendiary weapon often used as smokescreen because it produces thick, long-lasting smoke.
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/ad208e5ab18014ddbdd2ca9afadd9d5cd0c889bc5f398430710e1d614169f972.jpg
    Its use is not specifically prohibited by the laws of war but considered problematic in densely populated areas because of its propensity to burn for a long time and cause horrific burn injuries.
    HRW said the use of these munitions “raises significant concerns about potential harm to civilians from fires and intense burns” and urged Iraqi forces to “clarify their policy on the use of white phosphorus and to take all feasible measures to protect civilians in Mosul.”
    The United Nations estimates that as many as 180,000 civilians may still be living in the IS-controlled areas of western Mosul.
    http://www.euronews.com/2017/06/05/iraqi-government-accused-of-firing-white-phosphorus-shells-into-mosul

    1. “HRW

      Francis of Assisi gave a vow of eternal poverty and preached to the birds. But with his successor, the Franciscan order became one of Europe’s richest and most selfish institutions. With the human rights movement, by the end of the 20th century, the same thing happened as with the Franciscan order.

      The
      oldest and most famous human rights organization, Human Rights Watch,
      was created by Robert Bernstein in 1978 to monitor the way the USSR is
      implementing the Helsinki Accords. But in 1992 the USSR collapsed, and HRW remained alive. Moreover, it only grew; Its budget amounts to tens of millions of dollars, the representative offices are in 90 countries.

      And on October 19, 2009, there was a huge scandal: the eighty-year-old
      founder of HRW spoke in The New York Times with an article that
      reproached HRW for betraying the principles and consistent support of
      Hamas and Hezbollah, with a constantly biased and unfair attitude
      towards Israel.

      The two tricks that HRW uses for constant criticism of Israel are very simple. The first is a refusal to study the causes of the conflict. “We do not study the causes of the conflict,” says HRW, “we are studying how the parties to the conflict observe human rights.”

      Great! Imagine that you are a woman who was attacked by a maniac in the forest, and you managed to shoot him. From the point of view of human rights defenders from HRW, you will be to blame.

      The position “we do not study the cause” deliberately puts the
      terrorist aggressor, who has less resources, in a favorable position
      compared with the state that responds to terror.

      The second method is even simpler – it is juggling, silence and lie. For
      example, in a 2007 report, HRW stated that Hezbollah did not have the
      habit of “using the population as a human shield,” and at the same time
      stated that it had evidence that the Israeli army “deliberately targeted
      civilians”. When
      the epidemic of Falestinian suicide bombings reached its peak in 2002,
      HRW published press releases on human rights violations by Israel. HRW took another 5 months to issue a report on suicide bombers, and 5
      years to issue a report on the bombardment of Israel from the territory
      of Gaza.

      In 2009, HRW went to Saudi Orabia, where it collected money for anti-Israel reports. The situation with human rights in Saudi Orabia is somewhat worse than in Israel. In addition, Saudi Orabia is the largest sponsor of terrorism. But HRW did not embarrass.

      The
      same position is taken by HRW in Sri Lanka, where government forces are
      fighting against the “Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam,” a brutal
      terrorist organization that killed tens of thousands of people and uses
      Tamils ​​as a human shield. In any attempt of an offensive by government forces, HRW immediately declares that government forces strike civilians.”

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