SDF announce the start of the “Great Battle” for the liberation of Raqqa

SDF have begun the “long and difficult” battle to capture the city of Raqqa, Daesh’s de facto capital, the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Jihadist group said Tuesday.

YPG-led rebels began laying the groundwork for the offensive in November, edging through the surrounding province and cutting supply lines into the city. But a showdown for the city itself will prove a major test for the coalition, with the potential for high civilian casualties. “The fight for Raqqa will be long and difficult,” Lt. Gen Steve Townsend, the coalition’s commanding general, said in a statement.

In northeastern Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces announced that “Great Battle” had begun for the liberation of the city of Raqqa, with the participation of the Army of Revolutionaries (Jaysh al-Thuwar), Jabhat al-Akrad, Democratic al-Shamal Brigades, Tribal Forces, Maghawir Humus Brigades, Siqur al-Raqqa, Liwa al-Tahrir, Seljuk Turkmen Brigade, Hamam Turkmen Martyrs Battalion, Sanadid Forces, Syriac Military Council, Manbij Military Council, Deir ez-Zor Military Council, Self-Defense Forces, Asayish Forces, YPG/YPJ and Nuxbe Forces.

Western diplomats and experts monitoring the Jihadist group say Daesh has relocated foot-soldiers and senior leaders to the eastern province of Deir al-Zour, where an even tougher fight against the Jihadists will be expected. But U.S. officials estimate that at least 3,000 Daesh fighters are still holed up inside Raqqa, where they have erected defenses against the anticipated assault. Among them are as many as 200,000 civilians, who aid groups fear may be used as human shields, a tactic employed by Daesh in its strongholds across Syria and Iraq as coalition forces closed in. Conditions inside the city are understood to be dire. According to a recent assessment by the Syria Relief Network, a coalition of nongovernmental organizations, two-thirds of the population are living on two meals a day amid dwindling supplies of essentials caused by the siege on the city.

SDF forces reached the northern and eastern gates to Raqqa last week after intense clashes under the cover of U.S.-led airstrikes. Talal Sillo, a spokesman for the SDF, said Tuesday that the “great battle” had begun. “Morale is high and military readiness to implement the military plan is complete, in coordination with the U.S.-led coalition,” he told reporters in northeast Syria, flanked by representatives of Kurdish male and female fighting units, as well as Syrian rebel groups and Arab tribesmen.

Ankara’s sour reaction

Washington’s decision to back a Kurdish-led force has soured relations with Turkey, a NATO ally, which is battling PKK militants within its own borders. In Ankara, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said Tuesday that the army is not ruling out military force if the battle for Raqqa is seen as a threat to Turkey.

As Daesh forces dig deep across their remaining territory, civilians have increasingly been caught in the cross-fire, dying at the hands of the militants’ bombings and land mines as well as U.S.-led coalition airstrikes and SDF shelling. The International Rescue Committee said Tuesday that it was “deeply concerned” for Raqqa’s civilians and warned that they risked “facing the full brunt of the assault to come.”

Turkey ready to join U.S. in capturing Raqqah from Daesh: Erdoğan

U.S. President Barack Obama floated the idea of joint action with Turkey to capture the Syrian city of Raqqah from Daesh, Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan said in remarks published on Wednesday. Ankara would not object, Erdoğan said.

Turkey, which is battling a Kurdish insurgency at home, launched an incursion into northern Syria last month with the stated aims of clearing Daesh from its border and preventing the Kurdish YPG militia expanding into new territory.

Ankara now wants international support for an operation to take control of a rectangle of territory stretching about 40 km into Syria, creating a buffer between two Kurdish-held cantons to the east and west and against Daesh to the south.

Speaking to reporters on his plane back from the G20 summit in China on Monday, Erdoğan said Turkey’s military was ready to join any offensive on Raqqah, Daesh’s de facto capital.

“Obama wants to do some things together concerning Raqqah in particular,” Erdoğan said in comments published by Hurriyet newspaper, following meetings in China with Obama, Russian President Vladimir Putin and other world leaders. “We stated that would not be a problem from our perspective. We said, ‘Let our soldiers come together, whatever is necessary will be done’,” Erdoğan said. Any Turkish role would be have to be determined in further talks, he said. “But at this stage we have to show our presence in the region. We do not have the chance to take a backward step. If we take a backward step terror groups like Daesh, PKK, PYD and YPG will settle there,” he said.

Turkish president Erdoğan and US president Obama during a meeting of G20 in Huangzhou, China [4/9/2016]
Turkish president Erdoğan and US president Obama during a meeting of G20 in Huangzhou, China [4/9/2016]
 Source: Reuters/Syria & Iraq News