The US-led coalition has airdropped allied ground forces near the ISIS-controlled city of Raqqa in a surprise attempt to cut off the group’s main route out and secure the strategic Tabqa dam across the Euphrates river.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance, which is dominated by the Kurdish YPG militia, is supported by the US as the latter uses them in its war against ISIS.
Air strikes carried out by the US-led coalition and a long fight by the SDF forces ended in recapturing Manbij from the control of the Islamic State (ISIS) group last year.
The SDF, backed by US coalition, launched also a campaign with the ultimate aim of capturing Raqqa in November and succeeded in encircling the city. Recently, they launched an assault on Deir Ezzor province to cut the road to Raqqa and surrounding ISIS effectively and were able to achieve this goal after fierce clashes.
Turkey sees the YPG as an extension of Kurdish PKK militants, who have waged a three-decade insurgency in southeastern Turkey, and sought therefore to sideline the Kurdish role in Raqqa operations but failed until now to achieve this goal.
One aim of the campaign is to cut ISIS’s supply lines from Raqqa to Deir Ezzor province and widen the Kurdish militias’ influence in the area, making it harder for the Turkish forces to oust them or put pressure on their held-region.
However, with the US sending its troops to take part in Raqqa’s operations, it seems that Turkey has been fully sidelined and that the battle will be leaning essentially on the Kurdish militias.
Air-dropping ground forces
The Pentagon said on Wednesday the U.S. military had airlifted SDF fighters near Tabqa, providing them fire support in a move aimed at retaking a major dam that remains in the hands of Islamic State.
The SDF said U.S. forces had deployed with them in the air drop, saying the operation also aimed to block any advance by government forces from the west.
A local official familiar with SDF operations said the airdrop took place on Tuesday.
Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway, a Pentagon spokesman, said U.S. air assets had been used to airlift members of the Syrian Arab Coalition, part of the SDF, in a bid to retake the Tabqa Dam. He did not provide details on the size of the forces moved or what type of fire support was provided.
The SDF, in a statement circulated on an official Telegram account, said: “American forces have conducted a landing operation for U.S. ground forces, along with (SDF) special forces”.
The landing forces had seized four small villages in the area west of Tabqa and cut a main highway that links the provinces of Raqqa, Deir Ezzor, and Aleppo, it said.
Islamic State captured the Tabqa Dam, also known as the Euphrates Dam, and a nearby major air base at the height of its expansion in Syria and Iraq in 2014. It is located about 40 km (25 miles) to the west of Raqqa city.
Upcoming Raqqa battle and the Kurdish militias
A few hundred marines with heavy artillery have been deployed to Syria in preparation for the fight to oust Islamic State from its self-declared headquarters of Raqqa, according to US officials.
The deployment is temporary but is a sign Donald Trump’s White House is leaning toward giving the Pentagon greater flexibility in making routine combat decisions in the fight against ISIS.
A spokesman for the U.S. Pentagon said no decision had been made yet on the Raqqa offensive, but according to Kurdish officials, the Kurdish militias will be the leading power in this offensive in addition to the newly deployed US forces.
Sipan Hemo, A YPG commander, said: “Regarding the decision to liberate Raqqa and storm it, the matter is decided and at the start of the month of April the military operation will begin.”
He added: “We believe that liberating Raqqa will not take more than a number weeks.” His comments were relayed via a YPG spokesman.
Hemo said YPG militia would storm Raqqa alongside Arab fighters in the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). “Of the total force for storming Raqqa, 25 percent are YPG, who are set apart in their combat experience and high-level command skills directing battles in cities,” he said.
The Pentagon spokesman, Navy Captain Jeff Davis, said: “We have not made any decisions on how and when we will move in for the liberation of Raqqa.”
Asked about Hemo’s assessment that it would take weeks, Davis said he would not want to put a timetable on how long the operation could take. Islamic State had had ample time to build defenses, emplacements, fighting positions, and to rig houses and cars with improvised explosive devices, he said.
“All of these things await whoever moves in to ultimately liberate Raqqa. And if you compare it to other, similar sized cities in Iraq, you’ve seen that these things do tend to take a bit more time than that,” he said.
Backed by U.S. air strikes and special forces, the SDF cut the last main road out of the city earlier this month.
“Cutting the road between Raqqa and Deir Az Zor means that practically the encirclement of ISIS capital is complete by land,” the Kurdish military sources told Reuters.
“It is a big victory but there is still a lot to accomplish,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The development, confirmed by the Observatory, marks a major blow against the Islamic State group that is under intense military pressure in both Syria and Iraq.
It is losing ground to three separate campaigns in northern Syria by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militias, the Russian-backed Syrian army, and Turkey and allied Syrian rebels.
The SDF advance means all main roads out of Raqqa are now cut. The U.S.-backed militias now plan to capture surrounding rural areas and advance towards the city to isolate it completely, SDF spokesman Talal Silo told Reuters.
The only way out of Raqqa now is over the Euphrates River that borders the city to the south, all bridges across which have been destroyed, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, has said. The Observatory estimates the city’s population at 200,000 and says it believes many of the IS leaders are still there.
Hemo said preparations for the attack were advanced: “The combat readiness is adequate with regards to weapons, equipment and the number of fighters, particularly after the encirclement of the city and its isolation from three sides – the west, the north and the east.”
The U.S.-led coalition last week announced that a Marines artillery unit had been deployed to Syria to help accelerate the campaign to defeat Islamic State at Raqqa, adding to some 500 U.S. forces already in Syria.
A second Kurdish military source said: “It is clear that American forces are increasing in numbers and equipment in northern Syria with the aim of creating a strategic balance and giving more momentum to the Raqqa battle and what comes after it. This momentum is subject to increase as the actual date for the battle of Raqqa draws near at the start of April.”
The Syrian crisis began as a peaceful demonstration against the injustice in Syria. Assad regime used to fire power and violence against the civilians and led to armed resistance. 450.000 Syrians lost their lives in the past five years according to UN estimates, and more than 12 million have lost their homes.