Mil­i­tants strike with car bombs

Baltimore Sun - - NATION & WORLD - — The Wash­ing­ton Post

Syria Demo­cratic Forces patrol an area in the Syr­ian vil­lage of Tal Aaj, about 30 miles from Raqqa, on Mon­day.

Is­lamic State fight­ers launched a wave of car bombs in north­ern Syria on Mon­day as U.S.-backed forces made the first moves in a long-awaited push to re­take the mil­i­tants’ de facto cap­i­tal, Raqqa. The rush of car bombs that met the Kur­dish-led al­liance, known as the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces, of­fered an early taste of just how fe­ro­cious the bat­tle for Raqqa may be­come. The blasts oc­curred as the forces pushed south from the towns of Ain Issa and Su­luk, about 30 miles north of Raqqa.

Raqqa has been un­der Is­lamic State con­trol since early 2014 and is home to some of the group’s top lead­ers. It has been the ex­trem­ists’ self-styled cap­i­tal since they de­clared a caliphate in ar­eas they cap­tured that year in Iraq and Syria.

The U.S. com­man­der of coali­tion forces fight­ing Is­lamic State said the Raqqa op­er­a­tion is aimed at even­tu­ally cut­ting off the ex­trem­ists from Mo­sul, where U.S.-backed Iraqi forces have en­tered the city’s east­ern out­skirts amid fierce re­sis­tance.

Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend said the Arab el­e­ment of the SDF is “indige­nous to the area” and will help es­tab­lish “re­gional sup­port” for SDF op­er­a­tions.

His com­ments ap­peared to be aimed at sooth­ing con­cerns that Kur­dish forces would take over the pre­dom­i­nantly Sunni Arab city

spokes­woman for the Raqqa cam­paign said the SDF as a whole is half-Arab and half-Kur­dish, but the 30,000 troops fight­ing in the Raqqa cam­paign are 80 per­cent Arab. Many in Syria are wary of those fig­ures, and they fear that the Kurds are aim­ing to carve out an au­ton­o­mous state in Syria.

Un­like other suc­cess­ful mil­i­tary ef­forts to drive Is­lamic State out of cities in Iraq, the Raqqa of­fen­sive faces sev­eral po­lit­i­cal ob­sta­cles.

In Iraq, the U.S.-led coali­tion is work­ing with the gov­ern­ment in Bagh­dad, but Wash­ing­ton and its part­ners in Syria rely on a mix­ture of Arab and Kur­dish op­po­si­tion groups, some of which are bit­ter ri­vals. Ten­sions are ex­ac­er­bated by Rus­sian and Syr­ian forces on one side and Turk­ish­backed forces on an­other.

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