The Syrian Defense Forces (SDF), a coalition of anti-Islamic State militias largely comprised of Kurdish fighters, has confirmed that the battle to liberate Raqqa, the capital of the ISIS “caliphate,” has begun.
“We have launched this operation against ISIS in Raqqa from the north, west and east,” SDF spokesman Talal Silo confirmed at a press conference Tuesday. “Fighting and the operation actually started before the start of this press conference and our forces are moving ahead in all three directions.”
According to the Turkish government, which is part of the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State in Syria, the operation started on Friday. Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım told reporters Saturday that “The Raqqa operation, planned earlier, was launched on the night of June 2. The U.S. conveyed the necessary information on the issue before the start of the operation.”
American officials confirmed the launch of the operation Tuesday. Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the commander of Operation Inherent Resolve-Combined Joint Task Force, described the fall of Raqqa as a “decisive blow” to the Islamic State. “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,” he said.
Al-Masdar News, which has been accused of being sympathetic to the regime of dictator Bashar al-Assad, reported that the SDF had captured three villages on the outskirts of Raqqa by Monday. “With a consecutive row of news gains, the SDF is closing ever more closer to the gates of Raqqa city, preparing to finally captured the city north of the Euphrates river now almost entirely encircled,” the outlet noted. The Russian propaganda outlet Sputnik has already begun accusing the coalition of civilian deaths, downplaying the civilian chemical weapons massacres committed by the forces of Russian ally Assad.
In remarks to the press, Silo, the SDF spokesman, said observers should expect the battle to be “fierce because Daesh (Islamic State) will die to defend their so-called capital.” Reuters estimates that up to 4,000 jihadists remain in Raqqa ready to fight the coalition.
Silo added that the regime of Bashar al-Assad and its Iranian and Russian patrons had made no progress in fighting the Islamic State: “If regime forces had been able to launch an operation for Raqqa they would have done it. Neither the regime forces nor the Russians have moved one inch on that front.”
The United States is arming both the SDF generally and the Syrian Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG/YPJ). The anti-Islamist YPG wear red stars on their uniforms, a nod to their Marxist background, but have cooperated with the United States on the ground in Syria for years. The Trump administration announced in early May that it would provide the YPG with heavy weapons for the express purpose of launching a liberation operation against ISIS in Raqqa, calling the SDF generally the only force powerful enough to challenge ISIS there.
Silo acknowledged the support in his remarks: “We also have an agreement with the coalition forces especially the United States that they will deliver weapons to us for this operation of the liberation of Raqqa.” He added that the YPG would be working with a variety of Arab, Turkmen, and Assyrian Christian militias on the ground to eradicate the jihadists from the area, addressing concerns of Kurdish forces in a traditionally Arab part of the country.
While Arab populations have expressed concerns of Kurdish “ethnic cleansing” in regions like Raqqa with minimal Kurdish populations, the Turkish government considers the YPG a separatist terror organization, part of a web of organizations Ankara claims lead back to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). While the U.S. has designated the PKK a terrorist organization, it does not consider the YPG a part of the PKK network.
In remarks Tuesday, Yıldırım threatened the YPG with attack if they edged too close to the Turkish border during Raqqa operations. “We will not allow any situation that will pose a threat to our country. We will not allow any situation that creates a threat to our country. If we encounter a threatening situation in Raqqa or the region, we will give the appropriate reply immediately,” Yıldırım said in remarks that condemned the United States for choosing “to partner with a terror group against another terror group.”