Turkish Prime Minister: U.S.-Led Operation to Liberate Raqqa from Islamic State Began This Weekend

The Associated Press
Syrian Democratic Forces, via AP

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım told reporters on Saturday that the official operation to eradicate the Islamic State from Raqqa, Syria, the capital of the “caliphate,” had begun on Friday, June 3.

The U.S.-led coalition to defeat the Islamic State told the Russian propaganda outlet Sputnik that it could not confirm Yıldırım’s claim, though U.S.-allied militias on the ground had told reporters the mission would begin “soon.”

“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,” Yıldırım told reporters on Saturday during a meal following the daily Ramadan fast, according to the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet. Yıldırım confirmed that the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) was participating in the operation, once again condemning America’s cooperation with the Kurdish elements of the SDF and lamenting that the United States is forcing all members of the coalition to work with the most effective ground force against ISIS in Syria.

“They told us that this was not a decision but an obligation and that they won’t continue their cooperation with the YPG after this operation, as it was a tactical cooperation,” Yıldırım claimed. “We have an unchanged strategy. Wherever they are, inside or outside the country, whatever their names are … all terror organizations are the same for us and they are all our targets. We won’t hesitate to take the necessary actions for our security inside and outside our country.”

The YPG are the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units, the militia of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). The YPG are anti-Islamist and pro-American, also cooperating with Russian fighters by sharing intelligence on ISIS targets on the ground. The YPG are a Marxist militia, however, and Turkey considers them indistinguishable from the Marxist, U.S.-designated terrorist organization, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Washington sees the YPG as a discrete entity from the PKK.

“It is no secret that Turkey does not approve the method of the U.S. to drive Daesh out of Raqqa,” Yıldırım noted during his remarks, according to the pro-Turkish government outlet Sabah.

In addition to Yıldırım’s statement, reports from the outskirts of Raqqa indicate that the SDF–a combination of the YPG and non-Kurdish anti-ISIS forces–have moved closer to the city line. Reuters reports that the SDF appeared to regain control of the Baath Dam on the outskirts of Raqqa on Sunday, quoting a YPG spokesperson who referred to the area as “completely liberated.” The spokesperson did not confirm that the operation to liberate Raqqa had started, instead telling Reuters that “the forces reached the outskirts of the city, and the major operation will start … in the coming few days.” Another SDF spokesperson similarly told Radio Free Europe that the mission would officially begin “very soon.”

The United States has not confirmed the Turkish PM’s statements. In direct response to them, a U.S. official told the Russian outlet Sputnik, “No, we cannot confirm the operation has started and we do not discuss future operation.” On the mission in general, spokesman for the coalition, Colonel Ryan Dillon, told Al Jazeera that the coalition was merely “advancing closer and closer every day.”

The Associated Press notes that the SDF currently surrounds Raqqa “from the north, west, and east,” and is fighting to secure a position south of the city. Ensuring no escape routes for the terrorists will be key both to keeping both Syria safe and preventing fighters from traveling west and for many of them, returning home. As early this year as March, reports began surfacing of Islamic State jihadists fleeing Raqqa to avoid being swept into the battle for the city. NGOs such as Raqqa are being slaughtered silently, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that dozens of Islamic State vehicles fled the city that month, most appearing to carry “high-ranking commanders.”

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