Coali­tion ad­vis­ers help fight for Raqqa

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

On the roof of a house in north­ern Syria, a for­eign sol­dier from the US-led coali­tion against the Is­lamic State group mon­i­tors progress towards the mil­i­tant bas­tion of Raqqa. He is one of a few dozen ad­vis­ers from the in­ter­na­tional coali­tion help­ing a Kur­dishArab al­liance known as the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces ad­vance towards IS’ Syr­ian strong­hold. The ad­vis­ers are leery of jour­nal­ists, de­mand­ing that an AFP pho­tog­ra­pher stop tak­ing pho­to­graphs and leave when they spot him.

SDF sources say that around 50 for­eign troops are in­volved in the op­er­a­tion, which be­gan on Nov 6, pri­mar­ily to guide anti-IS coali­tion air strikes. AFP jour­nal­ists on the ground have seen sol­diers with US mark­ings on their uni­forms, along with oth­ers speak­ing French. The coali­tion’s press of­fice de­clined to de­tail the num­ber of its forces on the ground, or their na­tion­al­i­ties, but con­firmed they were play­ing a wide-rang­ing role in the fight for Raqqa.

“As part of the coali­tion’s com­mit­ment to ad­vise, as­sist and ac­com­pany the SDF, we are asked to help with op­er­a­tional plan­ning, the co­or­di­na­tion of air strikes, ar­rang­ing troop move­ments, train­ing and sup­ply­ing equip­ment to the SDF for the iso­la­tion of Raqqa,” a spokesper­son told AFP. In the vil­lage of Al-Huriya, one ad­viser peers through binoc­u­lars at the fight­ing in the nearby vil­lage of Al-Heisha, which SDF fight­ers even­tu­ally wrenched from IS con­trol on Fri­day. On ra­dios, SDF fight­ers can be heard re­lay­ing de­tails to com­man­ders about their progress and where they might need help from the coali­tion air­craft fly­ing con­stantly over­head.

‘Civil­ian Hu­man Shields’

“The forces ad­vanc­ing on the ground give us co­or­di­nates close to the tar­gets,” says SDF com­man­der Ahmed Os­man, in the yard of an­other house that has been turned into a com­mand cen­ter. “They cal­cu­late the dis­tances be­tween them and the mer­ce­nar­ies and work out where the fire is com­ing from, then they send us the co­or­di­nates and we trans­mit them to the coali­tion so the tar­gets are hit.” The strikes are some­times used against one of IS’ fa­vored weapons: Sui­cide car bombs. “Some­times we take them out with our weapons, but other times coali­tion air­craft strike them af­ter we tell them the co­or­di­nates,” Os­man says.

The US-led coali­tion be­gan strikes in Syria in Sept 2014, and has worked closely with Syr­ian Kur­dish-led forces to push IS from large swathes of ter­ri­tory. Such co­op­er­a­tion has an­gered Wash­ing­ton’s NATO ally Tur­key, which con­sid­ers the main Syr­ian Kur­dish YPG mili­tia a “ter­ror­ist” group, and is cur­rently wag­ing its own of­fen­sive in­side Syria, tar­get­ing both IS and the Kurds. On the ground, SDF ve­hi­cles speed through the desert towards the front line, de­spite the mor­tar rounds IS fires as it strug­gles to hang on to Al-Heisha.

“Our com­rades are pre­par­ing for an at­tack, and the mer­ce­nar­ies are fir­ing mor­tars, but planes are over the re­gion now,” says Akid Kobane, an­other SDF com­man­der. Kobane says the air strikes are a key part of the SDF as­sault, con­sid­ered a pre­cise way to tar­get IS while min­i­miz­ing civil­ian ca­su­al­ties. “IS is us­ing civil­ians as hu­man shields,” he says. “We’re not us­ing heavy weapons in the bat­tle for Raqqa, we’re re­ly­ing on per­sonal weapons and the coali­tion’s strikes.”

Con­ceal­ing Car Bombs

In a bid to pro­tect them­selves, some civil­ians have raised white flags on their roofs, but there have been al­le­ga­tions of civil­ian deaths in air strikes. The Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights, a Bri­tain-based mon­i­tor, re­ported at least 20 civil­ians killed in coali­tion strikes on Al-Heisha on Nov 9. An SDF spokes­woman at the time dis­missed the re­port as IS pro­pa­ganda, although the coali­tion said it was in­ves­ti­gat­ing the in­ci­dent. Civil­ians who have fled the fight­ing con­firm that IS is em­bed­ded among lo­cal res­i­dents.

“There are al­ways strikes on ar­eas where Daesh (IS) is present... and Daesh hides it­self, even among chil­dren,” says 38-year-old Amsha at a makeshift camp for dis­placed civil­ians out­side the town of Ain Issa, around 50 km north of Raqqa. “Our chil­dren are ter­ri­fied when the planes are over­head. We’ve a lit­tle girl who shrieks ‘Plane, plane!’ each time she hears one and runs to hide,” she says. “Daesh would hide ex­plo­sive-packed cars be­tween houses to try to con­ceal them from the planes,” adds Ghada, in her twen­ties. “The mil­i­tants would tell us they had no prob­lem dy­ing, so why would they care if civil­ians are killed along­side them?” —AFP

Fight­ers from a Kur­dish-Arab al­liance known as the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces are seen in the north­ern Syr­ian vil­lage of Al-Huriya on Nov 11, 2016 near the front­line of fight­ing against mil­i­tants of the Is­lamic State group. —AFP

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