The biggest showdown in the battle to bring down the Islamic State’s declared caliphate has begun in what the Syrian Democratic Forces have dubbed the “Great Battle” to retake Raqqa.
The Syrian Democratic Forces — an anti-ISIS, anti-Qaeda, anti-Assad coalition composed of more than 50,000 fighters, female and male commanders, Arabs, Assyrian Christians, Kurds, and other minority ethnic groups such as Circassians, Turkmen and Armenians — launched the Wrath of Euphrates operation at the beginning of November. Since then, the SDF has liberated more than 5,000 square miles of territory in the surgical advance to encircle and choke off Raqqa before moving in.
On Tuesday, the 73rd anniversary of D-Day, the SDF declared it was go time.
“After a long struggle, our forces and the forces carrying out a joint struggle against terrorists have marked in history their legends of heroism. From the historical resistance of Kobanê to the liberation of Girê Spî, Hawl and Shaddadi, to the villages of Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa, and to the dams in these regions, many historic steps have been taken for the liberation of the people in these regions from the terrorists and the fulfillment of their vital needs within existing resources,” the SDF said in a statement.
“…We announce the good news of the start of the Great Battle which aims to liberate Raqqa city, and we declare that our forces are ready for the fight with high morale and great preparations. We state that the battle plan which has been discussed with our partners on the ground, the International Coalition, is ready to be implemented.”
Despite some very tough fights along the way, the SDF has not lost a single battle in the drive on ISIS’ declared capital. Last month they gained control of al-Tabqa, a city 35 miles west of ISIS’ capital Raqqa that includes a critical dam on the Euphrates.
The SDF took a stab at Turkey’s April airstrikes on the YPG headquarters in Mount Karachok, noting that despite the attack on the Kurdish member of the coalition “many forces have made intensive efforts to prevent this historic campaign, but this attack and futile efforts have all been wasted.”
“Contrary to what these opposing efforts and attacks aim at, we have strengthened our will, further knowing our hatred against terrorism and increased our struggle will against it.”
The statement called on Raqqa residents still stuck in the city “to stay away from the enemy’s centers, vulnerable spots and conflict areas.” In Iraq, ISIS has shot down families trying to flee the last pockets of brutal fighting in west Mosul.
“We call on our people to gather around our forces and help them so that they can fulfill their duties. We are also urging the youth of Raqqa to continue their participation in our forces to liberate the lands they live in.” Throughout the campaign, the SDF has reported drawing new male and female fighters from towns they’ve liberated. Many of the fighters have family in Raqqa.
“In this historic day, we respect our martyrs who sacrificed their lives for us to arrive to the stage where we are now, and we wish our heroes a quick healing process. Once again in the name of the Operations Room Wrath of Euphrates, we salute the fighters and commanders of all the forces and groups involved in the Great Battle. We also express our thanks to the International Coalition Forces,” the SDF General Command added. “We also greet our people of all sects and religions who resist the terrorists, and the press workers who share the developments in the war zone with the public and are with our forces for live footage.”
The push began into the al-Mashalab district on the east edge of the city, and with clashes on the west and north.
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Prepping for the fall of the city, Raqqa Civil Council member Firas Mamdoh al-Fahid read a statement on behalf of the council alongside the SDF military leaders, assuring residents that the council will “receive the city from the liberating forces and will undertake the responsibility of administrating it.”
In Washington, State Department press secretary Heather Nauert said the fight for Raqqa is expected “to be long and difficult, but we are confident in the ability of the coalition backed by the United States to be able to take out ISIS from this stronghold and eventually be able to return the city of Raqqa back to the people to which it belongs.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told Fox News that the Raqqa offensive is “the beginning of the end,” but he’s concerned the multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian SDF is too Kurdish. Arabs comprise about 40 percent of the SDF.
“In the eyes of Turkey, they are terrorists,” Graham said of the Kurds. “I have my suspicions as to whether or not they can hold the Arab town once you take it away from ISIL… I hope we’ll get more Arabs in the fight.”