Kurds be­gin cam­paign to oust IS from Raqqa

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - NEWS - By Zeina Karam and Philip Issa

BEIRUT >> Kur­dish-led Syr­ian forces be­gan an of­fen­sive Sunday to lib­er­ate the Is­lamic State group’s de facto cap­i­tal of Raqqa, clash­ing with the ex­trem­ists north of the Syr­ian city and warn­ing neigh­bor­ing Turkey not to in­ter­fere in the op­er­a­tion.

The United States, France and Bri­tain said they would pro­vide air sup­port for the of­fen­sive, which was an­nounced at a news con­fer­ence in Ein Issa, north of Raqqa, by a coali­tion of Kurds and Arabs known as the Syria Demo­cratic Forces. But it lacked de­tails on how the group dom­i­nated by Kurds plans to oust the mil­i­tants from the city, home to nearly 200,000 mostly Sunni Arabs and an es­ti­mated 5,000 IS fighters.

Un­like sev­eral suc­cess­ful mil­i­tary ef­forts to drive Is­lamic State mil­i­tants out of cities in Iraq, the Raqqa of­fen­sive faces sev­eral po­lit­i­cal ob­sta­cles and is likely to be much more com­plex.

In Iraq, a U.S.-led coali­tion is work­ing with the gov­ern­ment in Bagh­dad, but Washington and its part­ners in Syria are re­ly­ing on a hodge­podge of lo­cal Arab and Kur­dish op­po­si­tion groups, some of which are fierce ri­vals. The ten­sions are ex­ac­er­bated by Rus­sian and Syr­ian forces on one side and Turk­ish forces on an­other.

Still, the start of the Raqqa of­fen­sive, which aims ini­tially at iso­lat­ing and en­cir­cling the city, in­creases the pres­sure on the Is­lamic State group, mak­ing it harder for its fighters to move re­in­force­ments be­tween Syria and Iraq. The city, which has been un­der IS con­trol since early 2014, is home to some of the group’s top lead­ers and is seen as the key to de­feat­ing the group mil­i­tar­ily.

Is­lamic State forces al­ready are now un­der at­tack by U.S.-backed Iraqi forces on the eastern edges of the city of Mo­sul, which the mil­i­tant group seized two years ago when it cap­tured ter­ri­tory across Iraq and Syria for its self-pro­claimed caliphate. The Iraqi forces be­gan their op­er­a­tion Oct. 17 and are try­ing to push deeper into the city, which is the mil­i­tants’ last ur­ban bas­tion in Iraq.

Iraq’s Hezbol­lah Brigades, one of the main Shi­ite mili­tias tak­ing part in the gov­ern­ment-led push to drive IS from Mo­sul, said Wed­nes­day its men had taken con­trol of a high­way link­ing Mo­sul and Raqqa, sev­er­ing a key sup­ply route be­tween the two mil­i­tant strongholds.

Se­nior com­man­ders and rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the SDF at­tended the news con­fer­ence in Ein Issa, about 30 miles north of Raqqa. The Kur­dish of­fi­cials said the anti-IS cam­paigns in Mo­sul and Raqqa are not co­or­di­nated but sim­ply a matter of “good tim­ing.”

“We call on our heroic stead­fast peo­ple in Raqqa and sur­round­ing ar­eas to stay away from en­emy gath­er­ings which will be a tar­get for the lib­er­at­ing forces and the coali­tion forces, and to head to ar­eas that will be lib­er­ated,” said Ci­han Ehmed, an SDF fighter.

She said 30,000 fighters will take part in the of­fen­sive, dubbed “Euphrates Rage,” and that a joint op­er­a­tions com­mand had been set up to co­or­di­nate var­i­ous fac­tions.

“I wel­come to­day’s an­nounce­ment by the SDF that the op­er­a­tion to free Raqqa from ISIL’s bar­baric grip has be­gun,” U.S. De­fense Sec­re­tary Ash Carter said. “The ef­fort to iso­late and ul­ti­mately lib­er­ate Raqqa marks the next step in our coali­tion cam­paign plan.

“As in Mo­sul, the fight will not be easy and there is hard work ahead, but it is nec­es­sary to end the fic­tion of ISIL’s caliphate and dis­rupt the group’s abil­ity to carry out ter­ror at­tacks against the United States, our al­lies and our part­ners,” he added.

Ac­tivists re­ported clashes Sunday be­tween IS mil­i­tants and SDF forces north of Raqqa.

SDF forces seized con­trol of six vil­lages and farms, the Bri­tain-based Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights said. It also re­ported strong ac­tiv­ity by U.S.-led coali­tion war­planes and airstrikes that hit IS po­si­tions. The Ob­ser­va­tory also said IS det­o­nated two car bombs tar­get­ing the ad­vanc­ing forces.

The Raqqa-based Syr­ian ac­tivist group known as Raqqa is Be­ing Slaugh­tered Silently also re­ported the clashes south of Ein Issa.

There was no im­me­di­ate com­ment from the gov­ern­ment of Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad on the Kur­dish an­nounce­ment.

Brett McGurk, the White House en­voy to the anti-IS coali­tion, said the U.S. will pro­vide air sup­port for the Raqqa of­fen­sive and is in “close, close con­tact” with its ally 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.

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Of­fi­cials with the U.S.-backed Syria Demo­cratic Forces speak Sunday at a press con­fer­ence in Ein Issa in north­ern Syria.

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