U.S.-backed Kurd force moving to take Syria city
SDF aims to drive weakened Islamic State out of Raqqa
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.