Allied forces breach wall, slip into Raqqa’s Old City
BEIRUT — U.S.-backed forces in Syria breached the wall around Raqqa’s Old City, the U.S. military said Tuesday, marking a major advance in the weeks-old battle to drive Islamic State militants out of their declared capital.
U.S. Central Command said the coalition struck two “small portions” of the Rafiqah Wall, allowing the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces “to advance into the most heavily fortified portion” of the city, bypassing booby traps and snipers. It said the strikes left most of the 2,500-yard wall from the eighth century intact.
The head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdurrahman, said the breaching of the wall was the most important development to date in the battle for Raqqa, which the militants have held since January 2014. He said three Syrian Democratic Forces units advanced
toward the wall under air cover, breaking through the Islamic State defenses, and that heavy clashes were underway.
Footage provided by the Syrian Democratic Forces showed their fighters roaming Qasr al-Banat, a historic quarter inside Raqqa’s Old City. Another unit entered through the so-called Baghdad Gate, opening up a second front inside the Old City.
Brett McGurk, the top U.S. envoy for the international coalition against the Islamic State group, hailed the breach, saying it was a “key milestone” in the campaign to seize the Islamic State stronghold.
Another U.S. official warned that the foothold in the neighborhood, one of the city’s most densely populated, does not mean the 4-week-old battle for control of Raqqa is nearing a conclusion.
Unlike in Mosul, Iraq, where the Old City has been the scene of the Islamic State’s last stand after nearly nine months of fighting, Raqqa’s Old City is one of the first central city neighborhoods to be breached by the advancing forces, said Col. Ryan Dillon, the U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad.
“Being in the Old City in Raqqa does not mean the same thing as it does in Mosul, where the Old City was the last bastion for ISIS,” Dillon said, using an acronym for the Islamic State. “That is not the case in Raqqa. It’s just where the [Syrian Democratic Forces] … have penetrated right now, but there is plenty of fighting that remains in Raqqa.”
The neighborhood is one of the areas Islamic State fighters had expected to defend most fiercely, relying on the city wall to provide cover and focusing their defenses around two existing breaches.
Had the Syrian Democratic Forces fighters attempted to storm the area through those gaps, they would have encountered an array of heavy machine guns, artillery, snipers, mines, booby traps and car bombs, Dillon said. By blowing up two different sections of the wall, U.S. warplanes enabled them to bypass those, he said.
By averting a battle for control of the walls, the attack also may have helped preserve the historic monument, the military statement said.
The structure is one of the last remaining monuments of the headquarters of the Abbassid caliphate, which was briefly seated in Raqqa before relocating to Baghdad. It was in part because of its historical association with the ancient caliphate that the Islamic State declared Raqqa, the first major city its forces conquered, to be the capital of its self-proclaimed caliphate.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces opened a multipronged assault on Raqqa in early June, after securing the surrounding countryside. On Sunday, the U.S.-backed fighters crossed the Euphrates River on the southern edge of the city, completing its encirclement.
U.N. officials say 50,000 to 100,000 civilians remain in the city, enduring “dire” conditions. Those who try to escape risk being attacked by Islamic State militants or forcibly recruited as human shields.
Several Islamic State leaders were once based in Raqqa, where the group plotted attacks in Europe. The loss of the northern Syrian city, one of the last Islamic State strongholds, would deal a major blow to the group. The militants are also on the verge of losing their last foothold in Mosul, where Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed the group’s caliphate in July 2014.
Only around 5,400 square feet remain under Islamic State control, Dillon said, and a final declaration of victory could be just days away.
MOSUL ‘VICTORY’ DECLARED
Even as the fighting continued in Mosul’s Old City neighborhood, where Iraqi forces are facing increasingly fierce resistance as they near the Tigris River, Iraq’s prime minister on Tuesday congratulated his fighters on “the big victory in Mosul.”
Haider al-Abadi spoke during a news conference in Baghdad, less than a week after he declared an end to the Islamic State’s self-styled caliphate after Iraqi forces achieved an incremental win by retaking the landmark al-Nuri Mosque.
In Mosul, dazed and malnourished civilians were evacuated to safety as Iraqi forces advanced.
Gen. Sami Al-Aridhi, a commander with the Counter Terrorism Service, said his troops were advancing on foot through the Old City’s winding maze of streets.
“It’s a battle inside alleyways against an enemy that commits to no ethics,” he said.
Elite Iraqi rapid-response units were calling in U.S.-led coalition airstrikes at close quarters Tuesday as Iraqi special forces moved door to door, evacuating civilians who had cowered in their homes through the final, terrifying assault.
Dozens of those families crossed the Tigris River in the beds of pickups as temperatures soared to 122 degrees. Disembarking to meet aid workers at an abandoned fairground, they looked exhausted. Some were holding back tears. Others crouched over their bags and cried.
“There was no food, no water; we had nothing. We were so scared,” said Hana’a Ashifa, a mother of four evacuated early Monday from the Old City. “When we finally heard the security forces, my mother looked at me, picked up our white flag and said: ‘It’s time to go.’”
More than 400,000 people have fled Mosul’s western districts since May 10, according to the United Nations. Tens of thousands more are still thought to be trapped.
With people largely cut off from food and water for months, humanitarian groups are reporting a spike in the number of the displaced who are suffering from malnutrition and dehydration.
“None of the previous battles were like this,” said Iraqi Maj. Faris Aboud, working at a small field hospital just outside the Old City.
“In a single day we received 300 wounded,” Aboud, a father of three continued. “For me, seeing the wounded children is the hardest; we see children who have lost their entire families under the rubble. They have no one now.”
Aid groups said this week that hundreds of civilians had been killed or wounded in the fight for the Old City.
“They have been caught between aerial bombardment, artillery, snipers and car bombs. They live in fear; they hide in their homes without food or water,” said Iolanda Jaquemet, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross.
That fight was visible on the bodies of women and children freed Tuesday. Shrapnel laced the faces of several young girls. Parents described shelling that had hit their homes directly, wounding those inside without options for treatment.
“Our medical teams have been treating 50 to 60 casualties per day. The hospitals are overwhelmed,” said Jaquemet.
Iraqi civilians flee Tuesday through the rubble of destroyed houses in the Old City of Mosul, Iraq.
This frame grab from video released Tuesday and provided by Furat FM, a Syrian Kurdish activist-run media group, shows U.S.backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighters in the eastern side of Raqqa, Syria.