Fighting in Raqqa intensifies
A fighter for the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces takes cover Monday in Raqqa, Syria, the Islamic State’s self-declared capital. The Syrian Democratic Forces reported intense fighting in central Raqqa, as a Kurdish news agency said scores of civilians were able to flee areas controlled by the militant group.
BEIRUT — U.S.-backed Syrian fighters fought Islamic State militants in the heart of Raqqa, the extremists’ selfstyled capital, on Monday, as scores of civilians fled areas controlled by the group.
The Kurdish-led group has been one of the most effective forces fighting the Islamic State extremist group in Syria, but it has also clashed with Turkish-backed forces elsewhere in Syria. As it battled the Islamic State in Raqqa, the Syrian Democratic Forces also fought Turkish-supported factions in Ein Daqna, in the neighboring Aleppo province, according to Syrian activists and Turkish media.
The Syrian Democratic Forces, aided by the U.S.-led coalition, launched its offensive to capture Raqqa on June 6, and have since taken several areas. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Monday’s fighting was concentrated in Raqqa’s southwestern neighborhood of Yarmouk as well as a central area close to the Old City.
The Syrian Democratic Forces said intense fighting is underway in central Raqqa, adding that its fighters have taken positions near a centuries-old mosque known as the Old Mosque. The Kurdish-run Hawar news agency said some 180 civilians were able to flee areas controlled by the Islamic State, while the Observatory put the number in the hundreds.
The U.S.-backed fighters said 11 Islamic State fighters have been killed in the clashes since Sunday. The Islamic State-linked Aamaq news agency said 14 Syrian Democratic Forces fighters were killed in the fighting in Raqqa on Sunday alone.
The intensification of fighting comes a week after Iraqi forces declared victory against the Islamic State in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, the largest city the extremists have held. The loss of Raqqa would deal a major blow to the Islamic State, but the group still holds wide areas of the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, bordering Iraq.
That province figures to be the backdrop to the next phase of the war against the Islamic State, with government forces backed by Russia and Iran approaching from the west and south. Pro-government forces reached the edges of the Bashari mountain range on Monday, after seizing the Zamla natural gas field a day earlier, the Observatory and Syrian military media reported. The advance secures further natural resources revenue for the government and puts government forces in a position to penetrate the Deir el-Zour countryside.
The Syrian Democratic Forces is dominated by a Kurdish militia, which Turkey views as an extension of the Kurdish insurgency raging in its own territory. Turkish troops and allied forces rolled into Syria last year in order to battle the Islamic State and halt the advance of the Syrian Democratic Forces. The U.S.-led coalition has sought to stop the fighting between Turkey and the Kurds, both of which are allies against the Islamic State.