A coalition of anti-Islamic State groups backed by the United States has officially begun its assault on the jihadist-held city of Raqqah in northern Syria. Raqqah has been controlled by jihadist forces since 2013 and has become the de facto capital of the Islamic State inside Syria.
The US Department of Defense announced the commencement of the operation to liberate Raqqah in a news article on its website.
“The offensive would deliver a decisive blow to the idea of ISIS as a physical caliphate,” according to the DoD.
The push to take Raqqah is led by the Syrian Democratic Forces, which is largely comprised of the Kurdish YPG (or People’s Defense Units). The YPG is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been designated as a terrorist organization by the US government for terrorist attacks throughout Turkey. The Turkish government has opposed US support for the YPG.
The US military attempts to mitigate Turkish anger over the support of the YPG by emphasizing the “Syrian Arab Coalition’s” role in the offensive. However, there is no official group known as the Syrian Arab Coalition, it is merely the Arab component of the SDF.
The US military noted that it is “providing equipment, training, intelligence and logistics support, precision fires and battlefield advice” to the SDF for its Raqqah offensive. To emphaisize this point, the US military, in a separate press release that tallied air operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria noted that “24 strikes engaged 18 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 19 boats, 12 fighting positions, eight vehicles, a house bomb and a weapons storage facility; and suppressed an ISIS tactical unit” in and around Raqqah yesterday.
The SDF and the US have shaped the battlefield in northern Syria for months in preparation to advance on Raqqah. But the final push on Raqqah could not be launched until the SDF secured the town of Tabqa and its dam, which are located about 20 miles west. The SDF seized Tabqa on May 11 after six weeks of fighting.
The SDF now controls the terrain north of the Euphrates river from Tabqa all the way to the town of Madan, which is due east of Raqqah. Madan is south of the Euphrates, remains under control of the Islamic State. Raqqah is situated north of the Euphrates, so the SDF does not need to cross the river to take the city.
The fight for Raqqah takes place as Iraqi forces are making their final push to root out the Islamic State in Mosul. The Mosul offensive began six months ago, however, the Islamic State still controls pockets within the city.
While the US military insists that the loss of Raqqah and Mosul will deal a “a decisive blow” to the Islamic State, the group still controls a significant amount of terrain in both Syria and Iraq. The Islamic State still occupies a large area in central and southern Syria, and continues to besiege Syrian military forces in the city of Deir al Zour. The Islamic State controls all of the Euphrates River Valley south of Madan down to the Iraq towns of Rawa and Anah.