U.S.-backed Syria force advances in Raqa, battles for base

RAQA, Syria – US-backed Syrian fighters seized a 2nd district of Raqa on Sunday, June 11, and launched a renewed assault on a base north of the city, as they pursued an offensive against the Islamic State (ISIS) group.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) broke into Raqa earlier this week after announcing the start of a final assault on the ISIS-held city.

On Sunday, the Arab-Kurdish alliance said its fighters had "liberated the neighborhood of Al-Romaniya on the western front of Raqa, after two days of continued clashes."

It was the first time the SDF was reported to have taken a western district of Raqa, after seizing control of the Al-Meshleb district in the east.

The western approach to the city was littered with mangled motorcycles and unexploded mortar rounds fired by ISIS, AFP's correspondent there said.

Inside the city, SDF commanders took up positions on the rooftops of modest one-storey homes that were eerily empty of civilians.

"Daesh is shooting anyone who sticks their head out," one SDF fighter said, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.

Artillery, sniper fire, and air strikes rang out throughout Sunday, and pillars of thick black smoke snaked up from the city skyline.

Bombardment had taken chunks out of the white dome of a neighborhood mosque, and the notorious black ISIS flag hung limply from a roof.

After its capture by ISIS in 2014, Raqa city emerged as a key hub for ISIS' operations in Syria, neighboring Iraq, and beyond.

Fortified northern approach

The SDF – an Arab-Kurdish alliance formed in 2015 – spent 7 months tightening the noose on Raqa city from the north, east, and west.

While it has advanced steadily against ISIS inside east and west Raqa, it has made less progress on the northern front, where jihadists are using a military base and adjacent sugar factory to defend the approach into the city.

SDF fighters were battling on Sunday to dislodge the jihadists from the Division 17 base, with backing from the US-led coalition bombing ISIS, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

"Blasts could be heard throughout the night because of the exchange of fire between the two sides," the Britain-based monitoring group said.

Originally a Syrian army base, Division 17 was seized by ISIS in 2014 when it took control of swathes of the wider Raqa province.

Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said ISIS had "heavily fortified" the base in anticipation of a ferocious SDF assault. 

In the city's east, SDF fighters were using the Al-Meshleb neighborhood on Sunday as a launching pad for new operations against ISIS.

The alliance seized Al-Meshleb on Wednesday, June 7, a day after announcing its final push for Raqa city itself.

The district is one of the more built-up residential neighborhoods in the city's east, and the surrounding areas are made up of markets and small shops.

Bakeries closed

An estimated 300,000 civilians were believed to have been living under ISIS rule in Raqa, including 80,000 displaced from other parts of Syria.

Thousands have fled in recent months, and the UN humanitarian office estimates about 160,000 people remain in the city.

They have no electricity and were facing severe water shortages, according to the activist collective known as Raqa is Being Slaughtered Silently.

"Most of the bakeries are closed because of the lack of flour," the group wrote on Sunday.

The Observatory said that coalition air strikes on Saturday, June 10, killed 24 civilians inside Raqa, up from an earlier toll of 13.

Abdel Rahman said the increased toll brought civilian deaths in coalition raids to a total of 58 since the battle for Raqa city was launched on June 6.

To back the assault, the US-led coalition has provided the SDF with air cover, special forces advisers, weapons, and other equipment.

The alliance first began bombing ISIS positions in Iraq in August 2014, and expanded its operations to Syria the following month.

In addition to heavy raids on Raqa, the coalition also pounded the ISIS-held town of Al-Mayadeen in eastern Syria on Sunday, the Observatory said.

"Many of ISIS' 2nd-tier leaders fled to Al-Mayadeen when the offensive for Raqa started months ago," said Abdel Rahman.

More than 320,000 people have been killed since Syria's conflict erupted in March 2011 with demonstrations against President Bashar al-Assad.

It has since turned into a complex, multi-front conflict pitting jihadists, rebel groups, government forces, and Kurdish fighters against each other. – Rappler.com