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AIN ISSA, Syria: US-backed Kur­dish-Arab forces launched an of­fen­sive yes­ter­day on the Is­lamic State group’s de facto Syr­ian cap­i­tal Raqqa, up­ping pres­sure on the mil­i­tants who are al­ready bat­tling Iraqi troops in Mo­sul. The start of the as­sault by the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces (SDF) came as Iraqi forces fought in­side Mo­sul for the third day run­ning amid fierce ji­hadist re­sis­tance. The two cities are the last ma­jor ur­ban cen­ters un­der IS con­trol af­ter the suf­fered a string of ter­ri­to­rial losses in Iraq and Syria over the past year.

The US-led coali­tion bat­tling IS is back­ing both as­saults, hop­ing to deal a knock­out blow to the self­styled “caliphate” the group de­clared in mid-2014. SDF com­man­ders an­nounced the start of the op­er­a­tion against Raqqa in Ain Issa, some 50 km north of the city.

“The ma­jor bat­tle to lib­er­ate Raqqa and its sur­round­ings has be­gun,” SDF spokes­woman Ji­han Sheikh Ahmed said. Op­er­a­tion “Wrath of the Euphrates” in­volves some 30,000 fight­ers and be­gan on Satur­day night, Ahmed said.

SDF forces are ad­vanc­ing on three fronts, from Ain Issa and Tal Abyad to the north of Raqqa, and from the vil­lage of Mak­man to the east. SDF spokesman Talal Sello told AFP the op­er­a­tion would pro­ceed in two phases, first seiz­ing ar­eas around Raqqa and iso­lat­ing it, then tak­ing the city it­self. “The fight will not be easy, and will re­quire ac­cu­rate and care­ful op­er­a­tions be­cause IS will de­fend its bas­tion know­ing that the loss of Raqqa will mean it is fin­ished in Syria,” Sello said.

US Defense Sec­re­tary Ash­ton Carter in Wash­ing­ton echoed that sen­ti­ment. “As in Mo­sul, the fight will not be easy and there is hard work ahead, but it is nec­es­sary to end the fic­tion of ISIL’s caliphate and dis­rupt the group’s abil­ity to carry out ter­ror at­tacks against the United States, our al­lies and our part­ners,” Carter said, us­ing an al­ter­na­tive name for IS. An AFP cor­re­spon­dent in Ain Issa yes­ter­day saw dozens of SDF fight­ers head­ing on ve­hi­cles to­wards the front­line.

Ahmed told AFP in Beirut later that 10 vil­lages and sev­eral ham­lets had been re­taken. IS said it car­ried out a sui­cide car bomb­ing in the Su­luk area that killed 14 SDF fight­ers. The Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights re­ported wounded in the at­tack but no word of fa­tal­i­ties. Driv­ing the mil­i­tants from Mo­sul and Raqqa has been the endgame since the US-led coali­tion launched air strikes against IS in the sum­mer of 2014. The coali­tion has also pro­vided train­ing and de­ployed hun­dreds of ad­vis­ers to work with Iraqi forces and select Syr­ian fight­ers, in­clud­ing the SDF.

Sello said the al­liance had re­ceived new weapons from the coali­tion for the Raqqa bat­tle, in­clud­ing anti-tank mis­siles. An­other SDF source said 50 US mil­i­tary ad­vis­ers would be in­volved in the op­er­a­tion, par­tic­u­larly to guide air strikes. Dom­i­nated by the pow­er­ful Kur­dish Peo­ple’s Pro­tec­tion Units (YPG), the SDF has in re­cent months flushed IS out of swathes of ter­ri­tory in north­ern Syria, in­clud­ing the flash­point town of Man­bij in Au­gust. Wash­ing­ton has pro­moted the SDF as a key ally in the fight against IS, but the part­ner­ship is com­pli­cated by Turkey’s fierce op­po­si­tion to the YPG.

Mean­while, at least six chil­dren were killed yes­ter­day in Syr­ian gov­ern­ment shelling that hit a kinder­garten in the rebel-held town of Harasta out­side the cap­i­tal Da­m­as­cus, the Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory said. It said 17 peo­ple, most of them chil­dren, were also in­jured in the shelling. An AFP photographer saw the body of one child, a girl, ly­ing on a bed at a makeshift hospi­tal, her face blood­ied and her clothes torn. At the kinder­garten, smears of blood were left on the tiled floor, un­der­neath a small red slide propped against a wall painted with chil­dren’s draw­ings. Harasta is in the rebel strong­hold of East­ern Ghouta, out­side Da­m­as­cus, a re­gion that is reg­u­larly tar­geted by gov­ern­ment air strikes and shelling.


HARASTA, Syria: The body of a Syr­ian girl lies on a bed at a makeshift hospi­tal fol­low­ing shelling on a kinder­garten in this rebel-held area on the out­skirts of the cap­i­tal Da­m­as­cus yes­ter­day.

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