U.S.-backed Kurdish militias have captured more villages as it prepares for an assault on the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa, which will start early in April.
At the height of its power two years ago, Islamic State ruled over millions of people in territory running from northern Syria through towns and villages along the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys to the outskirts of Baghdad in Iraq.
However, ISIS’s territory is shrinking rapidly since last year as the US-led coalition, the Turkish-backed forces, and the Russian-backed Assad regime forces have fierce fights against its forces in both Syria and Iraq.
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.
Capturing more ground around Raqqa
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has trapped Raqqa in a shrinking pocket of territory on the northern bank of the Euphrates and has advanced toward it in a multi-pronged offensive over several months.
Dejwar Khabat, a field commander with the SDF, said he expects the assault on Raqqa to begin in early April, affirming a timeline reported by Reuters earlier this month, after the U.S.-backed militia closes the gap on the city on more fronts.
He was answering Reuters questions in a press conference with local reporters in Karama, the last significant town to the east of Raqqa, which lies about 18km (11 miles) away along the Euphrates. Another thrust of the SDF advance has already reached a few kilometers from Raqqa in the northeast.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said the SDF had almost completely captured Karama but that clashes between it and Islamic State were still going on.
To the west of Raqqa, the SDF is aiming to capture the town of Tabqa on the south bank of the Euphrates, along with a nearby dam, and airbase after US helicopters helped the militia’s fighters establish a bridgehead across the river last week.
Khabat said the SDF has besieged the airbase, but the Observatory said it was still several kilometers away. It was captured by Islamic State at the height of the group’s expansion in August 2014 and the jihadists then killed at least 160 captive soldiers, the Observatory has said.
Moving towards Tabqa Dam
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is fighting Islamic State at the entrance to the dam, Jihan Sheikh Ahmed, the SDF spokeswoman for the Raqqa campaign, said.
The dam, the biggest on the Euphrates, stretches 4km across the river to the southern bank and provides one of the few land crossings remaining after the destruction of many bridges during the conflict.
Tabqa is about 40 km (25 miles) west of Raqqa, which Islamic State has used for years as one of its main bases of operations, including to plan and direct attacks overseas, and which sits along the northern bank of the Euphrates.
Late on Tuesday, the U.S. coalition air dropped SDF forces onto the southern bank of the Euphrates west of Tabqa, part of their preparations for an assault on the dam and a nearby town and airbase of the same name.
The US military has provided air and artillery support involving Apache helicopter gunships to help the SDF in an offensive for the strategically important Tabqa Dam near Raqqa.
A US spokesman for the coalition said last week that seizing the dam would “give the SDF a strategic advantage and launching point needed for the liberation” of Raqqa.
“The first goal of the SDF is to control Tabqa city (next to the dam) or besiege it completely before starting the battle for Raqqa,” said Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor.
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.