U.S.-backed Kurd force mov­ing to take Syria city

SDF aims to drive weak­ened Is­lamic State out of Raqqa

Baltimore Sun - - NATION & WORLD - By Hugh Nay­lor As­so­ci­ated Press con­trib­uted.

BEIRUT — A Kur­dish­led force backed by the United States an­nounced Sun­day the start of a ma­jor mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion to drive Is­lamic State mil­i­tants out of their self-de­clared cap­i­tal of Raqqa in north­east­ern Syria.

The op­er­a­tion by the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces, or the SDF, is timed to co­in­cide with the U.S.-sup­ported mil­i­tary ef­fort to seize the Iraqi city of Mo­sul from Is­lamic State. The as­sault by the SDF — an al­liance of Kur­dish and Arab forces that has dealt sub­stan­tial blows to Is­lamic State — rep­re­sents an in­ten­si­fied in­ter­na­tional ef­fort to squeeze the ex­trem­ist group as it loses con­trol of vast ter­ri­tory in Iraq and Syria.

Is­lamic State has been badly weak­ened by airstrikes that have killed its lead­ers and de­stroyed its in­fra­struc­ture, as well as by ground as­saults from an ar­ray of U.S.-backed forces.

Those ground at­tacks, car­ried out by Kurds and Arabs in Iraq and Syria, have driven the mil­i­tants out of key strongholds, such as the Iraqi city of Fal­lu­jah, and towns along the bor­der with Turkey that had been used as hubs for trade and fun­nel­ing fight­ers and weapons.

Brett McGurk, the White House en­voy to the an­tiIs­lamic State coali­tion, said the U.S. will pro­vide air sup­port for the Raqqa of­fen­sive and is in “close, close con­tact” with Turkey. “We want this to be as co­or­di­nated as pos­si­ble, rec­og­niz­ing that there will be a mix of forces on the field,” he told re­porters in Jor­dan. White House en­voy Brett McGurk says the U.S. will pro­vide air sup­port for the of­fen­sive in Raqqa, Syria.

Of­fi­cials in the U.S.-led coali­tion against Is­lamic State be­lieve that de­feat­ing the group in its two most im­por­tant ci­ties, Raqqa and Mo­sul, could deal a dev­as­tat­ing blow to the group.

But the op­er­a­tion to seize Raqqa, about 275 miles east of Da­m­as­cus, adds yet an­other po­ten­tially com­bustible wrin­kle to the dev­as­tat­ing con­flict in the coun­try.

Al­ready, Kur­dish ef­forts to ex­ploit the chaos and build an au­ton­o­mous re­gion in north­ern Syria has ag­gra­vated the coun­try’s sec­tar­ian pol­i­tics — with some U.S.-al­lied Syr­ian rebels op­posed to the Kur­dish moves — and in­flamed re­gional ten­sions.

Turkey, in par­tic­u­lar, views with great sus­pi­cion the lead­er­ship role of the Kur­dish Peo­ple’s Pro­tec­tion Units, or the YPG, in the SDF, which is backed by the U. S.- led coali­tion with train­ing, arms and air sup­port. Over the sum­mer, Turk­ish forces in­ter­vened in north­ern Syria, tar­get­ing Is­lamic State mil­i­tants but also act­ing as a curb to Kur­dish ter­ri­to­rial am­bi­tions in the coun­try.

The SDF made the an­nounce­ment in the eastern Syr­ian town of Ain Issa, say­ing that as many as 30,000 fight­ers would par­tic­i­pate. At the news con­fer- ence, an un­named SDF of­fi­cial ex­pressed con­cern about po­ten­tial Turk­ish in­volve­ment in the Raqqa as­sault.

“Our hope is that the Turk­ish state will not in­ter­fere in the in­ter­nal af­fairs of Syria,” said the uniden­ti­fied SDF of­fi­cial, the Reuters news agency re­ported.

Last week, Turkey’s de­fense min­is­ter said his forces could lead the at­tack on Raqqa in­stead of the SDF. Even though the United States con­sid­ers the Syr­ian force to be the most ef­fec­tive in bat­tling Is­lamic State, Turkey sees the in­volve­ment of YPG mil­i­tants as a threat.

Turkey, a NATO mem­ber and U.S. ally, con­sid­ers the YPG a ter­ror­ist group be­cause of its links to Turkey’s own Kur­dish sep­a­ratists. Nev­er­the­less, U.S. of­fi­cials have in­di­cated that the SDF would lead the Raqqa op­er­a­tion. Last month, De­fense Sec­re­tary Ash Carter said an op­er­a­tion tar­get­ing the city should co­in­cide with the at­tack on Mo­sul. By Sun­day af­ter­noon, SDF fight­ers did not ap­pear to have made any ma­jor ad­vances, ac­cord­ing to the Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights, a Bri­tain-based mon­i­tor­ing group.

AH­MAD ABDO/GETTY-AFP

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