U.S.-backed forces in final push to liberate jihadist group’s central base of operations
Raqqa, Syria—The battle for Raqqa, ISIS’ de-facto capital in Syria, is nearing completion, but the commanders and medics on the ground are concerned over the safety of civilians still trapped in areas under the jihadists’ control.
“We [possess] most of the city,” affirmed Comrade Mustafa, a forty-year-old Kurdish commander in the Western-backed Syrian Democratic Forces [SDF] who is currently holed up in the dusty town of Ayn Issa, located north of Raqqa. “We would liberate [these areas] sooner if it were not for the remaining civilians and the fact that [ISIS] is using them as human shields.”
Mustafa and his men in the SDF encircled Raqqa in November, amid concerns that the fighting force—whose core is made up of People’s Protection Units known by their Kurdish acronym YPG—would not be welcome by the Arab population in and around the city.
However, Mustafa said that this scenario has not played out as ethnic Arab fighters are also heavily involved in the city’s liberation. In this respect, he emphasized the SDF’s multi-ethnic make-up.
At an SDF post in eastern Raqqa, a commander calling himself Comrade Kané explained that “We have been welcomed by [most] of the locals. We are completely non-sectarian, we don’t care if you are Arab, Christian, or Kurdish.
“In opposition to ISIS’ zero-sum ideology, we fight for all of humanity.”
The battle has been a grueling one, as urban warfare coupled with barrages of air strikes have leveled Raqqa’s infrastructure. Nevertheless, U.S.-led coalition forces have gradually advanced from the west of the city and many believe they will recapture the city center within a month.
As a result, the jihadists have fled to the north, where their grain silos are located, and are putting up stiff resistance in what is possibly their last stand.
“We are finding it hard to remove the terrorist from these areas,” one fighter conceded, “[but] it will not be long before we are in complete control of Raqqa—they have nowhere to run now.”
The softly spoken combatant, who has been involved in the operation since the start, claims the SDF would have liberated the area fully already had ISIS not used such brutal tactics. “They are forcing civilians to stay [to use] as shields—it is preventing us from advancing faster,” he said.
Like in Mosul, which was retaken by Iraqi-led forces at the end of July, ISIS’ strategy in Raqqa includes the deployment of snipers and suicide bombers. “They are using the same approach…they are attacking us with AK47s and [even] vehicles. The only [difference] is that the SDF does not have the same resources as the Iraqi army,” one SDF fighter asserted. Another issue preventing the total defeat of the remaining jihadists is their use of “tunnels and irrigation systems” to ambush anti-ISIS coalition forces.
Although Commander Mustafa believes Raqqa fall soon, he is unsure of the exact number of terrorists left in the city.
Pulling out his phone, he shows a picture of an alleged ISIS fighter. “Look at this man,” he said “Just a few hours ago we got intelligence [that] he is a high-level emir in Raqqa who escaped the city, [but] we will capture him soon.”
Inside Raqqa—only an hour’s drive south of Ayn Issa—only a few buildings are without signs of the heavy fighting that has taken place. “We had a lot of civilian causalities at the start of the operation, particularly when the YPG and SDF entered,” explained the head physician of the Kurdish Red Crescent, in Raqqa’s eastern district of al-Meshlib.
The Red Crescent has been operating in the region since the coalition forces retook the district in June. “We are the [only] hospital for both civilians and soldiers inside Raqqa,” the elderly doctor revealed, “however, we have limited resources, and need more supplies.
“Thankfully today we have not had any casualties, but I am certain more will come before the operation is finished…[as] there are still many civilians still trapped.”
The fall of Raqqa would be a major blow to ISIS, leaving the jihadist group in control of only sparsely populated swaths of desert in the eastern Deir ez-Zor region, located near the troubled border with Iraq.
“I don’t think ISIS will last much longer in Syria. They will lose Raqqa soon and are losing territory elsewhere,” another Kurdish soldier with the SDF predicted while walking through the rubble of the city’s center.
“It is symbolic, it is the capital of their so-called caliphate—[its fall] signals the fall of ISIS in Syria.”