U.S.-backed Kurdish militias on Sunday captured a military airport near ISIS-held Raqqa, while reports said dozens of civilians were killed by US-coalition airstrikes on the region.
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.
Now, ISIS is trapped in a shrinking pocket of territory in Raqqa as the SDF forces continue to advance and gain more important locations, preparing for the final Raqqa offensive which is expected to start in April.
Capturing Tabqa airbase
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.
Last week, 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.
SDF was 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.
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.
The SDF said in a statement on Sunday it had seized the air base after fierce clashes.
Earlier, SDF spokesman Talal Silo said its fighters had seized “60 to 70 percent” of the airport but were still engaged in intense clashes with the ultra-hardline militants inside the air base and on its outskirts.
SDF forces were within 10km of Raqqa from the north, and aimed to effectively surround the city before launching an assault.
Tabqa airbase was captured by ISIL fighters from the Syrian government in August 2014.
Shortly afterward, the group announced it had killed about 200 government soldiers at the base, in a mass killing recorded and distributed on video over social media.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group also reported the SDF advance.
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.
Dozens of civilians killed
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war in Syria, said a week-long campaign of U.S-led strikes on Tabqa and the western countryside of Raqqa province had killed at least 90 civilians, a quarter of them children, while injuring dozens.
A media representative for the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State said it was looking into the Observatory’s assertion.
Last week, the Pentagon said there were no indications a U.S.-led coalition air strike near Raqqa had hit civilians, in response to an Observatory statement that at least 33 people were killed in a strike that hit a school sheltering displaced people near the city.
The air raid early on Tuesday morning was also reported by the activist-run Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently group, which said dozens of civilians were dead or still missing after the air raid.
A journalist said the school in al-Mansoura housed many refugees who had fled the fighting in Raqqa.
“This is an area where the US-led coalition has been launching air strikes to break the defense lines of ISIS in Raqqa,” he said.
“Some say that more than 30 people were killed in the strikes, others suggest that this number could be even higher.”
The Pentagon added it would carry out further investigations.
A group of civic bodies and local and tribal notables from Raqqa province warned of an impending humanitarian crisis in the city of Raqqa as a result of the escalating campaign to seize the de facto capital of the militants.
“We call for immediate efforts to save people and protect them,” the statement of the Turkey-based opposition-run Local Council of Raqqa Province said, urging the international coalition to provide safe passage to civilians and ending the bombing of infrastructure in the fight against Islamic State.
The concerns of Raqqa civilians’ safety grew even more after the US-coalition conducted deadly airstrikes on the ISIS-held parts of Mosul city in Iraq, leaving more than 500 civilians dead until now, most of them were buried under the rubble of their houses or died due to sustained injuries.
— الرقة تذبح بصمت (@Raqqa_SL) March 22, 2017
Warning for the Raqqa civilians
The US-coalition airstrikes in Raqqa have always left civilian casualties, but the toll is expected to rise in the densely-populated city of Raqqa.
In the last incident, at least 22 civilians were killed and scores injured in US-led coalition airstrikes on the Islamic State group’s Syrian stronghold of Raqqa, local sources and a monitor said last week.
“International coalition warplanes hit a school complex overnight in the village of Kassrat, south of Raqqa, housing displaced people from Aleppo province, killing 17 civilians, mostly women and children,” local activist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently said.
The group added that another 15 people were injured in the airstrike.
In addition, the US-led coalition warned residents of the Syrian city of Raqqa to avoid boats and ferries regularly used by the militants to escape airstrikes.
The leaflets, which are approximately the size of a US dollar bill, say in Arabic “ISIS is using boats and ferries to transport weapons and fighters. Do not use ferries or boats, air strikes are coming.”
“As our partner forces prepare to liberate Raqqah, the Coalition routinely drops leaflets as an effective means of communicating messages to civilians who are trapped in the city and subject to the barbaric rule of ISIS ,” a coalition spokesperson said.
The spokesperson added the primary reason for the leaflets is to mitigate civilian casualties as much as possible during the operation to retake the city from ISIS.
On March 16, the activist group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently reported that the coalition was warning civilians in leaflets to leave their homes after 9 p.m. because coalition forces planned to bomb the city.
The reports came as Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper reported Daesh militants were building fortifications around the city.
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.