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SDF Fight to Oust ISIS from Capital Raqqa Enters Third Phase

SDF commanders announce the third phase in the Wrath of Euphrates operation on Feb. 3, 2017. (Screen grab from YPG press office)

The alliance working hard to retake the Islamic State’s declared capital of Raqqa, Syria, said it’s now in the third phase of the extensive ground offensive — and they’re picking up new fighters as they go.

The Syrian Democratic Forces — an anti-ISIS/al-Qaeda, anti-Assad alliance of Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Circassians, Turkmen and more — began what was expected to be the most difficult and bloody fight against ISIS three months ago with a force some 30,000 strong.

Last month, the Pentagon credited the SDF with capturing nearly 1,900 square miles of ISIS territory, and growing.

The SDF said over the weekend that they’ve cleared most of the countryside west of Raqqa, and are still conducting operations there to root out the last ISIS holdouts. They announced the launch of the third phase of operation Wrath of Euphrates: liberating the countryside east of the city and cutting off ISIS’ supply route to Deir Ezzor, which is about two hours southeast of Raqqa.

In addition to militias from liberated towns who joined the SDF, eager to get back at ISIS, the alliance said “a huge number of youths from the areas recently liberated” have joined. The SDF said volunteers are being “trained and armed by the aid and support of the global coalition forces to fight Daesh.”

“We call our people to get away from the terrorists’ positions, and aid our forces as they reach their areas,” the SDF said, stressing residents will be able to find shelter in “safe regions under our forces’ control.”

“Moreover, we call our free men and women of al-Raqqa to join our forces to complete liberating their areas.”

Col. John Dorrian, spokesman for U.S. operations in Iraq and Syria, told reporters last week that SDF fighters “continue to back-clear and strengthen defensive positions four to five kilometers west of Tabqa Dam.”

“As local Arab tribes join the ranks, the coalition will continue to bolster these fighters’ abilities with training, weapons and equipment as we have already done for more than 3,000 members of the [Syrian Arab Coalition],” Dorrian said. “Most recently, the coalition provided several Guardian armored vehicles to provide the Syrian-Arab Coalition with increased survivability from ISIL’s small arms and improvised explosive device threats.”

“Coalition efforts to isolate and pressure Raqqa continue,” he added. “As we’ve discussed before, Raqqa represents the nexus of ISIL’s external operations. With that in mind, we continue conducting strikes there to disrupt the enemy while the city if being isolated. As the pressure mounts in the city, ISIL fighters in Raqqa have been invading homes to search for satellite dishes and mobile phones used to communicate with the outside world. We’ve seen these same measures in other places that ISIL controls.”

Activists in Raqqa report that coalition airstrikes have taken out bridges around the city, leaving one civilian escape route toward the SDF.

One of the SDF commanders, Rojda Felat, reiterated their goal of rescuing Yazidi sex slaves from ISIS. She noted that women are among the volunteers joining the alliance as they move toward Raqqa.

One Yazidi woman who was recently rescued by Kurdish forces, a 35-year-old called H.N., told Kurdish agency ANF News that ISIS took her husband and three of her seven children.

“They took our clothes off and made us walk in a square full of ISIS gangs. They read our names including mine and sold me to a guy there. I stayed with him for two months. He was Syrian. Then, there was a problem between that man and his superiors. He gave me to a Sudanese,” she said. “That man took me and my children to Bab. We later went to Raqqa. Later, I found out that my daughter had been sold to a guy. They had already taken my son away from me in Tetmur. They took my other son later in Raqqa.”

ISIS takes boys to be trained as jihadis, she said, while girls are sold after they have their first period.

The SDF has captured some kidnapped boys sent to the front lines by ISIS and is returning them to relatives when able.