Squeezed in Raqa, ji­hadists ramp up counter-at­tacks

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

As Is­lamic State group fight­ers steadily lose chunks of their Syr­ian bas­tion Raqa to a US-backed force, the ji­hadists are ramp­ing up the fe­roc­ity of their counter-at­tacks. The Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces (SDF) first broke into Raqa in early June and have ad­vanced in a pin­cer-like mo­tion to­wards the heart of the city. The al­liance’s Arab and Kur­dish fight­ers now hold half of Raqa, but as they tighten the noose around IS, the ji­hadist group ap­pears to be lash­ing out.

“The closer we get to the city cen­tre, the harder IS de­fends it­self, be­cause it’s com­pletely be­sieged,” said Davram Dersem, an SDF field com­man­der. To de­fend Raqa, IS has de­ployed a bar­rage of car bombs, sui­cide bombers, weaponized drones, snipers, and mines scat­tered across the city. “They’re cor­nered like a wounded an­i­mal. Raqa is their main strong­hold-they’re not go­ing to aban­don it eas­ily,” Dersem added.

The Kur­dish com­man­der spoke to AFP in the western Raqa neigh­bor­hood of Al-Daraiya. Mor­tar shells crashed into sur­round­ing neigh­bor­hoods, which were also hit by the oc­ca­sional air strike. Af­ter IS cap­tured Raqa in 2014, the group trans­formed the city into a sym­bol of its most macabre prac­tices, in­clud­ing pub­lic be­head­ings. Raqa was also thought to have been used as a hub for plan­ning at­tacks over­seas. Now, much of it has been de­stroyed by the fierce fight­ing and US-led air strikes. Roofs have col­lapsed and streets are lit­tered with rub­ble, metal, and glass.

‘Life-or-death bat­tle’

In the ad­ja­cent dis­trict of Mas­saken Al-Dub­bat, 24-yearold SDF fighter Talal Sharif pointed at a dev­as­tated row of two-storey homes ahead. “All of this de­struc­tion, it’s be­cause of their car bombs. There have been at least four in each of these streets,” Sharif told AFP. “Lit­tle by lit­tle, they’re be­ing suf­fo­cated in Raqa. This is why they’re re­sist­ing.”

Sharif spoke con­fi­dently, but his face was marked by ex­haus­tion af­ter weeks of street-by-street bat­tles. When his unit re­cently stormed an IS-held neigh­bour­hood, they stum­bled on four en­emy fight­ers sleep­ing in­side a home. “Dur­ing the raid, one of the ji­hadists blew him­self up, an­other two were killed, and one was taken pris­oner,” Sharif re­called.

But if they don’t have ac­cess to belts of ex­plo­sives or car bombs, IS fight­ers re­sort to some­thing much sim­p­ler­grenades. “In close com­bat, they just toss grenades. For them, it’s a life-or-death bat­tle,” Devrem said. Up to 50,000 civil­ians re­main trapped in Raqa in in­creas­ingly dire cir­cum­stances, with lit­tle ac­cess to food, wa­ter, or life-sav­ing med­i­ca­tion, ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions.

The in­ten­si­fy­ing fight for Raqa has also forced tens of thou­sands of its res­i­dents to flee, dodg­ing IS sniper fire, mines, and even US-led coali­tion air strikes. On Fri­day, the Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights said at least 21 civil­ians-in­clud­ing eight chil­dren from a sin­gle fam­ily-had been killed in “in­ten­si­fy­ing air strikes by the coali­tion” over the pre­vi­ous 24 hours.

The Bri­tain-based mon­i­tor says more than 300 civil­ians in­clud­ing dozens of chil­dren have died since the SDF first broke into Raqa. An­other 467 IS ji­hadists and 219 SDF have also been killed in the fight­ing. SDF ad­vi­sor Nasser Hajj Man­sour said the bat­tle for Raqa is far from over. “It could still be long. In the com­ing days, the bat­tles will be­come more fe­ro­cious,” Man­sour said. “IS ji­hadists will ei­ther try to hide amongst the civil­ians or fight un­til the end.” — AFP

RAQA: Smoke bil­lows out from Raqa fol­low­ing a coali­tion air strike. — AFP

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