Coalition begins fight to liberate Daesh capital
30,000 fighters to take part in Kurdish-led offensive
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.”