Militants strike with car bombs
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.