At least 18 members of the US-backed Kurdish Forces were killed in a US-led coalition air strike that mistakenly targeted them in Syria’s Raqqa province, as the offensive on the province continues.
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 but the battle was delayed due to ISIS resistance.
Kurdish militia members killed
In a statement released on Thursday, US Central Command (CENTCOM) said 18 SDF fighters died in the air raid south of the city of Tabqa on April 11. The attack was believed to be hitting members of Islamic State (ISIS).
“The strike was requested by the partnered forces, who had identified the target location as an ISIS fighting position. The target location was actually a forward Syrian Democratic Forces fighting position,” CENTCOM said.
“The coalition’s deepest condolences go out to the members of the SDF and their families. The coalition is in close contact with our SDF partners who have expressed a strong desire to remain focused on the fight against ISIS despite this tragic incident.”
The coalition added it is assessing the cause of the friendly fire attack.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Thursday at least 25 other SDF fighters were killed in clashes against ISIS in the suburbs of 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.”
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.