US-backed forces launch assault on Syrian IS ‘capital’
UNITED States-backed Kurdish-Arab forces launched an offensive on the Islamic State group’s de facto Syrian capital Raqa, upping pressure on the jihadists 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 centres under IS control after the jihadists 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 self-styled “caliphate” it declared in mid-2014.
SDF commanders announced the start of the Raqa operation in Ain Issa, saying the battle to liberate Raqa and its surroundings has begun.
SDF spokesperson Jihan Sheikh Ahmed said Operation “Wrath of the Euphrates” involves some 30,000 fighters.
SDF forces are advancing on three fronts, from Ain Issa and Tal Abyad to the north of Raqa, and from the village of Makman to the east.
US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said the fight will not be easy but is necessary to end the fiction of the IS’s caliphate and disrupt the group’s ability to carry out attacks.
Ms Jihan said 10 villages and several hamlets had been retaken.
Later the powerful Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) denied an IS report that 14 of its fighters were killed in a car bomb attack the Suluk area.
Driving the IS from Mosul and Raqa has been the endgame since the US-led coalition launched air strikes against it in summer 2014.
The coalition has also provided training and deployed hundreds of advisers to work with Iraqi forces and select Syrian fighters, including the SDF.
Near Ain Issa, the AFP correspondent saw at least one soldier who had US markings on his helmet with SDF fighters.
Another SDF source said 50 US military advisers would be involved in the operation, particularly to guide air strikes.
After it was seized by IS, Raqa saw some of the jihadists’ worst atrocities, from stonings and beheadings to the trading of sex slaves. –