U.S.-backed Kurdish militias are advancing slowly near a strategic town on the way to ISIS stronghold of Syria, as the major Raqqa operations have been delayed due to ISIS resistance. In addition, the military operation left dozens of civilians killed as US coalition denies.
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, reaching finally to the strategic Tabqa city.
Preparations for the final Raqqa offensive which was expected to start in April.
Current goal: retrieving Tabqa
Officials have given different estimates for how long the campaign will take, and the assault on Raqqa itself appears to have been delayed after one high-ranking military official said it would begin at the start of April.
Meanwhile, the immediate goal is to capture the city of Tabqa, some 40 km (25 miles) west of Raqqa, and a nearby dam on the Euphrates river, an official for the Raqqa campaign said.
“For now, the target in front of our eyes is the city of Tabqa, and the dam,” Gharib Rasho, a media official for the campaign, told Reuters.
He said the SDF had taken control of around 60 percent of the dam, after capturing its northern entrance last month. The SDF is made up of Syrian Arab and Kurdish forces, including a large contingent from the powerful Kurdish YPG militia.
On Tuesday, SDF forces thwarted an Islamic State counter-attack near Tabqa and advanced to within 2 km of the city from the east, an SDF statement said.
Rasho said Islamic State had been trying to break a siege the SDF had imposed on Tabqa by attacking both from inside and from areas to its south which Islamic State still holds.
It is unclear how many Islamic State militants remain in Tabqa, but Rasho said they were “few”, based on the estimates of residents fleeing the city.
Thousands of residents have left in recent weeks, though tens of thousands are thought to remain in Tabqa.
The militants were using car bombs, mortar fire and suicide attackers – methods similar to those the militants have employed to defend their urban bastion of Mosul in Iraq, he said.
The head of the YPG said last month the Raqqa assault would begin at the start of April, and would take no more than a few weeks. The commander of the Raqqa operation, also a YPG official, later said the offensive to capture the city would likely last several months.
U.S. coalition spokesman Colonel John Dorrian said Washington’s partners on the ground would choose when to move in on Raqqa. “Ultimately we are isolating Raqqa and we’re going to, at a time of our partner’s choosing, move in and liberate that city from Daesh (Islamic State),” he said in a statement.
“This is an important task. It’s the equivalent in Syria of what’s being done to eliminate the enemy in Mosul.”
224 civilians killed
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that 4 civilians, two women with their children, were killed on April 11 and in a bombing by warplanes believed to belong to the U.S.-led coalition on areas in Teshreen Farm area in the northern countryside of Raqqa.
In addition, U.S.-led coalition aircraft struck two locations near on the 9th of April, killing at least 21 people, including a woman and her six children who were on a boat fleeing clashes between ISIS and the Kurdish militias.
Activist groups that operate in the ISIS-held territory and are opposed to the militants have reported increasing numbers of civilian deaths from U.S.-led airstrikes in recent weeks.
With these renewed airstrikes, the civilians’ death toll reached 224, the number of civilian casualties who were killed in these strikes, including 38 children under the age of eighteen and 37 women, they were killed and documented by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights from the 1st of March 2017 until the 10th of April 2017.
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.