Coali­tion be­gins fight to lib­er­ate Daesh cap­i­tal

30,000 fighters to take part in Kur­dish-led of­fen­sive

Toronto Star - - WORLD - ZEINA KARAM AND PHILIP ISSA THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

BEIRUT— Kur­dish-led Syr­ian forces be­gan an of­fen­sive Sunday to lib­er­ate Daesh’s de facto cap­i­tal of Raqqa, clash­ing with the ex­trem­ists north of the Syr­ian city and warn­ing neigh­bour­ing Turkey not to in­ter­fere in the op­er­a­tion.

The United States, France and Bri­tain said they would pro­vide air sup­port for the of­fen­sive, which was an­nounced at a news con­fer­ence in Ein Issa, north of Raqqa, by a coali­tion of Kurds and Arabs known as the Syria Demo­cratic Forces (SDF).

But it lacked de­tails on how the group, dom­i­nated by Kurds, plans to oust the mil­i­tants from the city, home to nearly 200,000 mostly Sunni Arabs and an es­ti­mated 5,000 Daesh (also known as ISIS or ISIL) fighters.

Un­like sev­eral suc­cess­ful mil­i­tary ef­forts to drive Daesh mil­i­tants out of cities in Iraq, the Raqqa of­fen­sive faces sev­eral po­lit­i­cal ob­sta­cles and is likely to be much more com­plex.

In Iraq, a U.S.-led coali­tion is work­ing with the gov­ern­ment in Bagh­dad, but Washington and its part­ners in Syria are re­ly­ing on a hodge­podge of lo­cal Arab and Kur­dish op­po­si­tion groups, some of which are fierce ri­vals.

The ten­sions are ex­ac­er­bated by Rus­sian and Syr­ian forces on one side and Turk­ish forces on an­other.

Still, the start of the Raqqa of­fen­sive, which aims ini­tially at iso­lat­ing and en­cir­cling the city, in­creases the pres­sure on Daesh, mak­ing it harder for its fighters to move re­in­force­ments be­tween Syria and Iraq. The city, which has been un­der Daesh con­trol since early 2014, is home to some of the group’s top lead­ers and is seen as the key to de­feat­ing the group mil­i­tar­ily.

Daesh forces are al­ready un­der at­tack by U.S.-backed Iraqi forces on the eastern edges of the city of Mo­sul, which the mil­i­tant group seized two years ago when it cap­tured ter­ri­tory across Iraq and Syria for its self­pro­claimed caliphate.

Iraq’s Hezbol­lah Brigades, one of the main Shi­ite mili­tias tak­ing part in the gov­ern­ment-led push to drive Daesh from Mo­sul, said Wed­nes­day its men had taken con­trol of a high­way link­ing Mo­sul and Raqqa, sev­er­ing a key sup­ply route be­tween the two mil­i­tant strongholds.

“We call on our heroic, stead­fast peo­ple in Raqqa and sur­round­ing ar­eas to stay away from en­emy gath­er­ings, which will be a tar­get for the lib­er­at­ing forces and the coali­tion forces, and to head to ar­eas that will be lib­er­ated,” said Ci­han Ehmed, an SDF fighter.

She said 30,000 fighters will take part in the of­fen­sive, dubbed “Euphrates Rage,” and that a joint op­er­a­tions com­mand had been set up to co-or­di­nate var­i­ous fac­tions.

“I wel­come to­day’s an­nounce­ment by the SDF that the op­er­a­tion to free Raqqa from ISIL’s (Daesh’s) bar­baric grip has be­gun,” U.S. De­fence Sec­re­tary Ash Carter said.

“As in Mo­sul, the fight will not be easy and there is hard work ahead.”

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