Raqqa offensive (2016–present)

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Raqqa offensive (November 2016–present)
Part of the Syrian Civil War,
the Syrian Kurdish–Islamist conflict (2013–present), and
the American-led intervention in Syria
Northern Raqqa Offensive (November 2016).svg
Map showing the SDF advances
Date 6 November 2016 – present
(4 months, 2 weeks and 4 days)
Location Raqqa Governorate, Deir ez-Zor Governorate, Syria
35°57′00″N 39°01′00″E / 35.9500°N 39.0167°E / 35.9500; 39.0167Coordinates: 35°57′00″N 39°01′00″E / 35.9500°N 39.0167°E / 35.9500; 39.0167
Status

Ongoing

  • The SDF captures more than 236 villages, hamlets and strategic hills, two water and power stations,[8][9] and Tabqa Dam[10][11][12]
  • The SDF, after latest advances, are now at a distance of 5 km from the ISIL capital city of Ar-Raqqah[13]
  • The SDF and allies cut off all main roads out of Raqqa (minus Baath Dam)[14]
Territorial
changes
The SDF capture more than 7,400 square kilometres (2,900 sq mi) of territory from ISIL during the first, second and third phases of the offensive[15][16]
Belligerents

Syrian Democratic Forces
Self Defence Forces (HXP)[1]
Leftist/Anarchist volunteers[a]
CJTF–OIR


 Russia[7]
 Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant
Commanders and leaders

Rojda Felat[17]
(leading YPJ commander)[18][19]
Kino Gabriel[20]
(MFS commander)
Syrian opposition Fayad Ghanim[21]
(Raqqa Hawks Brigade commander)
Abu Issa
(Jabhat Thuwar al-Raqqa chief commander)
Syrian opposition Muhedi Jayila[22]
(Elite Forces commander)
Bandar al-Humaydi[20]
(Al-Sanadid Forces military chief commander)
Siyamend Welat[23]
(HXP chief commander)
United States Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend
(CJTF–OIR chief commander)

For other anti-ISIL commanders, see order of battle

Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (WIA)[24][25]
(Leader of ISIL)
Abu Jandal al-Kuwaiti [26]
(leading ISIL commander for Raqqa defenses, c. 11–26 December)[27]
Abu Saraqeb al-Maghribi[28]
(Head of security in Al-Thawrah)
Abu Jandal al-Masri[28]
(Chief of Information in Raqqa)
Abu Muhammad al-Jazrawi[28]
(Chief of Al-Hisba secret police)
Mahmoud al-Isawi [29]
(ISIL proganganda chief)
Abd al-Basit al-Iraqi [30]
(ISIL commander of Middle East external networks)
Zainuri Kamaruddin [31]
(Katibah Nusantara commander)

For other ISIL commanders, see order of battle
Units involved
See anti-ISIL forces order of battle See ISIL order of battle
Strength

30,000+ SDF fighters[32][33] (70% Arab acc. to the SDF)[34]

500 HXP soldiers[1]
United States 900 American special forces,[45][46][47] 1 artillery battery[48]


Russia Several Tupolev Tu-95 bombers[7]

10,000–20,000+ fighters[37][49][50][51][52] (estimate by Western SDF volunteers & some experts)

Unknown number of UAVs (drones)[57]
Casualties and losses

140+ killed[58][c]

1 killed[62]
United States 1 killed[63]


232+ killed, 30+ wounded, 15 armored vehicles lost (ISIL claim)[64][65][27]
1,098+ killed and 20 captured[66] (SDF claim)
95 civilians killed[67][68]
7,000+ displaced[69][70]

The Raqqa offensive (codenamed Operation Wrath of Euphrates), is an ongoing military operation launched by the Syrian Democratic Forces against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the Raqqa Governorate, with the goal of isolating and eventually capturing the Islamic State's capital city, Raqqa. Another one of the main goals is to capture the Tabqa Dam and the nearby city of Al-Thawrah,[71] as well as the Baath Dam further downstream.[72] The offensive has also been dubbed the Battle to End All Battles in the War on ISIL.[73]

The offensive is concurrent with the Turkish anti-ISIL Battle of al-Bab, the Battle of Mosul in Iraq, the Battle of Sirte (2016) in Libya, the Palmyra offensive (December 2016) launched by ISIL, and a reignition of fighting in Deir ez-Zor's siege.

Background

In late October 2016, the United States Secretary of Defense Ash Carter called for an offensive on Raqqa to take place concurrent with the Battle of Mosul in Iraq. He stated that the US was cooperating with its allies in order to launch an "isolation operation" around Raqqa. On 26 October, the President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called the President of the United States Barack Obama and stated that he did not want the People's Protection Units (YPG) to participate in the planned operation, and instead planned to involve the Turkish Armed Forces. The United Kingdom's Secretary of State for Defence Michael Fallon rejected the idea of non-Arab forces taking part in the offensive and demanded a purely Arab force.[74]

On the same day, the commander of the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend stressed that the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces was the only armed group capable of capturing Raqqa in the near future. Fewer US-led coalition troops were to be involved than in the Battle of Mosul.[75] On 3 November, the commander of the Seljuk Brigade and SDF spokesman Col. Talal Silo rejected the participation of Turkey in the operation.[76]

After the start of the Battle of Mosul (2016–17) in Iraq, many of the 20,000 ISIL fighters estimated to be living in the city[77] fled to Raqqa, boosting the ISIL forces that were already present in their de facto capital city.[78]

Announcement

The SDF officially announced the start of the operation on 6 November in the village of Ayn Issa.[79] The intention was to proceed in two phases, first seizing areas around Raqqa and isolating the city, advancing from three fronts, then taking control of the city itself.[80] The SDF general command called for the international coalition against ISIL to support the operation.[81] In response, Ash Carter welcomed the announcement and emphasized the importance of capturing Raqqa and defeating ISIL, while cautioning that "there is hard work ahead".[82]

The offensive

Phase One: Isolating Raqqa from its northern hinterland

Tal Saman, ISIL headquarters in the northern Raqqa countryside, after being captured by the SDF.

On 6 November, the SDF captured six small villages,[32] including the villages of Wahid, Umm Safa, Wasita, Haran, al-Adriyah and Jurah south and southeast of Ayn Issa.[83] The Islamic State detonated four car bombs on the first day of the offensive.[84]

On 8 November, the SDF reported that they had taken control of 11 villages near Ain Issa. The SDF also claimed that ISIL used several car bombs against their forces.[85] By 11 November, the SDF had captured over a dozen villages and the strategically significant town of Al-Hisbah, which had served as a local headquarters and command center for ISIL.[86] On the next day, the SDF continued to advance against ISIL in the area around Tal Saman and Khnez, bringing the number of captured farms and villages to 26.[87]

As of 14 November, the SDF reported the completion of the initial phase of the operations, stating that 500 km2 has been captured: 34 villages, 31 hamlets and seven strategic hills, along with 167 Islamic State casualties.[20] The SDF had also begun to besiege Tal Saman, the largest village and ISIL headquarters north of Raqqa,[88] while ISIL launched a counter-attack near Salok in the eastern countryside of Raqqa Governorate in order to force the SDF to split its forces and open a new front.[89] On the next day, the SDF advanced into Tal Saman, resulting in a fierce battle with its ISIL defenders.[90] At the same time, the SDF also captured 10 more villages and farms.[91][92] By 19 November, the SDF had fully captured Tal Saman and had driven ISIL completely from the surrounding countryside.[93][94] With this, the first phase of the offensive was considered completed.[95] On 20 November 2016, 200 fighters completed training joined the SDF and then where sent to participate in the offensive.[96]

Stalemate and preparation for the second phase

A United States Air Force airstrike on an ISIL position to the north of Raqqa

The second phase of the offensive aimed to enforce a full blockade of the city of Raqqa.[95] On 21 November, the SDF captured two more villages,[97] while ISIL launched a counter-attack near Tal Saman.[98] Over the next days, the SDF attempted to further advance, such as at al-Qalita,[99] but was unable to break through ISIL's defense line south of Tal Saman.[100] On 24 November, a US serviceman died from wounds he suffered after stepping on an improvised explosive device near the town of Ayn Issa, to the north of Raqqa.[101]

On 25 November, ISIL received reinforcements from Iraq, among them explosive experts and defected Iraqi Army personnel.[102] On the next day, ISIL launched a counter-attack, retaking parts of Qaltah village and a nearby water pump station, while the SDF managed to advance in the village's vicinity.[103][104] Boubaker Al-Hakim, an ISIL commander who was linked to the Charlie Hebdo shooting, was killed in an American airstrike in Raqqa on 26 November.[105][106]

On 27 November, the SDF announced the offensive's second phase was due to start,[107] though this was then delayed. At least five SDF fighters were killed in renewed clashes north of Raqqa on 29 November.[108] Meanwhile, ISIL suffered from the defection of two senior commanders, who fled from Raqqa to join Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in Idlib.[109] On 4 December, a coalition drone strike in Raqqa killed two ISIL leaders who had helped facilitate the November 2015 Paris attacks and another who was involved in a foiled suicide attack in Belgium in 2015.[105][110] Three days later, co-Chair of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) Salih Muslim said that the first phase to surround Raqqa was almost over, while a new Arab brigade consisting of more than 1,000 men and women from the al-Raqqa area had joined the SDF as part of the second phase which was slated to be launched on 10 December.[111] More than 1,500 Arab fighters who were trained and equipped by the anti-ISIL coalition joined the SDF for the second phase on its launch day.[112]

Phase Two: Isolating Raqqa from its western countryside

Initial advances

SDF fighters advance northwest of Raqqa after the start of the offensive's second phase.

The SDF launched the second phase on 10 December, with the aim of capturing the northwestern and western countrysides of al-Raqqa and ultimately reaching and securing the Tabqa Dam. The same day, it was announced that Arab SDF groups, consisting of the Elite Forces, Jabhat Thuwar al-Raqqa and the newly formed Deir Ezzor Military Council would be taking part. During the first day, the SDF began to advance south of the Tishrin Dam and captured al-Kiradi village.[113][114] The United States announced that it would send 200 more troops to assist the SDF.[45] The next day, the SDF captured seven more villages from ISIL.[115][116] On 12 December, the SDF captured four villages as well as many hamlets south of Tishrin Dam.[117][118][116] The SDF captured five villages during the next two days.[119][120][121] On 15 December, the SDF captured three villages, taking the total number of villages captured by them in the second phase to 20.[122]

Over the next four days, the SDF captured 20 more villages, while finally reaching Lake Assad's shore, thereby cutting off and besieging 54 ISIL-held villages to the west. In response to these territorial losses, ISIL began to carry out more suicide attacks against both the SDF as well as civilian targets within SDF-controlled areas in an attempt to hinder the offensive.[123][124][125][126][127] On 19 December, ISIL launched a counter-attack to regain four villages in the northwestern countryside,[128] but the attack was repelled after a few hours.[129] The following night, ISIL forces retreated largely unopposed from the besieged 54 villages, leaving them to be captured by the SDF.[130][131] The SDF declared that they had captured 97 villages overall during the second phase, and had begun to advance against Qal'at Ja'bar.[132]

Battle of Jabar

Killed ISIL fighters near Mahmudli.

On 21 December, the SDF seized five villages near Qal'at Ja'bar, including Jabar,[131] which served as the main weaponry storage and supply centre for ISIL in the northwestern countryside.[133] The coalition then began to move toward Suwaydiya Saghirah and Suwaydiya Kabir, the last villages before Tabqa Dam.[131][134][135] Even though an ISIL counter-attack managed to retake Jabar village soon after,[136] the SDF attacked again on 23 December, and once again took control of it, while also capturing another village.[137][138] This prompted ISIL to launch yet another counter-attack later that day, which was accompanied by several suicide car bombs.[139][140][141] As a result, heavy clashes took place between them and SDF fighters in several villages along the frontline that lasted until the early morning of 24 December. The ISIL forces were eventually forced to withdraw after the SDF first shelled and then stormed their positions, whereupon the latter took control of most of Jabar as well as two more villages,[142][143][144] though some ISIL holdouts persisted in Jabar.[133]

ISIL was pushed out of the neighboring, strategic village of Eastern Jabar on the next day, bringing SDF within 5 kilometres (3.1 mi) of Tabqa Dam,[145][146] and by 26 December, the SDF had finally fully secured the main Jabar village, with the last ISIL defenders being expelled after heavy fighting.[133] An ISIL counterattack on the village later that day failed,[27][147] with a US airstrike killing Abu Jandal al-Kuwaiti as he commanded the assault. Al-Kuwaiti, also known as Abdulmuhsin al-Zaghelan al-Tarish, was a high-ranking ISIL commander leading the defense of the whole Raqqa region against the SDF.[27][26] Meanwhile, the Amaq News Agency declared that Iman Na'im Tandil (nom de guerre: Abu 'Umar Al-Hindi), one of the few Indian ISIL fighters active in Syria, had also been killed during the fighting near Jabar. The Islamic State's official media wing later also officially paid tribute to Iman.[148]

Battle for Jabar's surroundings

A YPG BMP, loaded on a truck, being transported to the frontline near Mahmudli on 4 January.

On 27 December, ISIL launched an attack on the village of Secol in the northern countryside, reportedly breaching the local SDF defences.[149] On the next day, the SDF reportedly captured Hadaj village after two days of heavy fighting, while another ISIL counter-attack against Jabar was repelled.[150] Mahmud al-Isawi, a senior ISIL facilitator who was also a manager of instructions and finances for the group's leaders as well as a provider of propaganda and intelligence support, was killed on 31 December in a US-led coalition airstrike on Raqqa.[151] After three days of heavy fighting, the SDF captured all or most of Mahmudli, the largest town of Al-Jarniyah Subdistrict, on 1 January 2017. ISIL counterattacked later in an attempt to regain the town.[152][153] The SDF leadership said that in the clashes since the launch of the second phase they had captured 110 villages, killed 277 ISIL fighters, and captured 13.[154]

Also on January 1, the SDF resumed its offensive on the northern front, reportedly advancing 6 km south of Tal Saman against ISIL positions.[9][155] The SDF reportedly captured nine more villages in this area in course of the next three days.[156][157][158][159][160] Meanwhile, with the SDF edging closer to Raqqa, ISIL further restricted Internet access and increased surveillance over Internet users in Raqqa. There were harsh punishments for accessing anti-ISIL websites, with a new special unit within the ISIL's security office searching for offenders. Several online activists in Raqqa were captured and tortured or executed.[161] Another two villages and hamlets were captured by the SDF on 5 January.[162]

SDF fighters examine Qal'at Ja'bar. ISIL had built tunnels and weapons depots into the medieval castle.[163]

The SDF captured Qal'at Ja'bar (Ja'bar Castle) from ISIL on 6 January.[164][165] The same day, ISIL was reported to have moved its 150 prisoners from Tabqa city due to the offensive.[166] The SDF later captured eight villages and five hamlets at the Ayn Issa front.[167] On 7 January, the SDF captured five villages including the strategic Suwaydiya Gharbi[168][169] and Suwaydiya Saghirah, reaching the outskirts of Tabqa Dam.[170] ISIL reportedly recaptured Suwaydiya Saghirah by the next day after a counterattack, while a local leader of the group was killed in clashes.[171] Meanwhile, ISIL was reported to have withdrawn 150 of its fighters towards Raqqa city.[172]

On 8 January 2017, US Special Forces raided the village of Al-Kubar, between Ar-Raqqah and Deir ez-Zor, killing at least 25 ISIL militants in the 2-hour operation.[173] It was believed that the goal of the US may have been to rescue hostages from an ISIL secret prison in the village. After the end of the raid. ISIL forces cut off access to the village.[173]

On 9 January, the SDF captured another village, along with three hamlets.[174]

On 10 January, ISIL launched a large-scale counter-attack at the Jabar frontline and reportedly recaptured several sites;[175] with pro-Free Syrian Army sources claiming Qal'at Ja'bar and the village of Jabar were among these.[176] ISIL consequently released photos of dead SDF fighters, while claiming that over 70 of them had been killed in the counter-attack.[177] However, the SDF was reported to still be in control of Jabar village and Qalat Jabar a few days later.[178][179]

An ISIL attack on Jib Shair village, trying to resist SDF advances from the north, was repelled on the next day, after which the SDF advanced and captured six hamlets around it.[180] The SDF later announced that their forces advancing from the Ayn Issa front and on the Qadiriya front linked up in Kurmanju village after capturing several villages over the past few days,[181] besieging a large pocket of about 45 villages and 20 hamlets.[182] All of them were captured by the next day, resulting in the alliance gaining about 460 square kilometres (180 sq mi) of land.[183] Another village was captured by the SDF on 13 January.[184][185] On 15 January, the SDF progressed to Suwaydiya Kabir village,[186] while ISIL launched a large-scale counter-attack against Mahmudli and a nearby village, resulting in clashes within these settlements.[187] The attack was repelled after several hours of fighting.[188] The SDF captured three villages during the day,[189] while Suwaydiya Saghirah was also reported to be under its control again.[190] On 17 January 2017, 28 Arab tribes from Raqqa announced their support for the offensive and encouraged locals to join the SDF.[191][192]

The SDF attacked Suwaydiya Kabir on the next day, leading to heavy clashes in the village.[193] Meanwhile, it was announced that about 2,500 local fighters had joined the offensive since it began.[194] On 19 January, ISIL launched a counter-attack against Suwaydiya Saghirah, supported by mortars and heavy machine guns, killing or wounding several YPG fighters.[195][196] Despite this, the SDF made further progress on the next day, capturing a village and advancing against many other ISIL-held villages.[197] The SDF again attacked Suwaydiya Kabir on 20 January, reaching the outskirts of the village, and captured it on 22 January after heavy clashes, with the support of U.S. special forces.[198][199]

Attack on Tabqa Dam, and further SDF advances in the north

The Tabqa Dam in 2014.

In late January 2017, it was reported that a number of ISIL militants were hiding inside the structure of Tabqa Dam, with senior militant leaders who used to be "very important prisoners" wanted by the US and several other countries, in order to deter a possible US-led Coalition strike to take out those targets.[200]

On 23 January, the SDF began to advance on the Tabqa Dam, spurring ISIL to open its turbines to raise the Euphrates' water levels, which was seen as an attempt to hinder the progress of the Kurdish-led forces and a scare tactic.[201] This caused the water level of the Euphrates River to rise to its highest level in 20 years, causing record flooding downstream.[73] Coinciding with this, pro-SDF sources reported that US special forces and SDF units had launched a raid against Al-Thawrah across the river.[202] By 24 January, SDF forces had managed to capture parts of the town, and SDF forces on the dam began working towards the Tabqa Dam's control rooms, at the southern part of the dam, in an attempt to stop the massive outflow of water released by ISIL. However, the entrance to the dam's control rooms was too well defended, and with the continued threat of disastrous flooding downstream, SDF and US Special Forces withdrew from both the Tabqa Dam and the town of Al-Thawrah, after which ISIL closed the dam's turbines again.[73]

Over the next three days, ISIL repeatedly launched fierce counter-attacks against SDF positions in the western and northern countryside.[203][204][205] ISIL managed to retake ground in the area around the dam,[206] but the attack was later repelled.[207]

Preparation for the third phase

An SDF IAG Guardian armoured personnel carrier in February 2017, one of several APCs that were supplied by the United States to the SDF.

On 31 January 2017, the SDF received a number of armoured personnel carriers supplied by the US. The SDF spokesman stated that preparations for a new phase of the operation were continuing and the operation will begin in "a few days". The next phase will reportedly involve capturing the road between Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor.[208] Meanwhile, the leader of the SDF-aligned Syria's Tomorrow Movement and its paramilitary wing, Ahmad Jarba, announced that 3,000 Arab fighters under his command were training with US special forces to be deployed in the battle for Raqqa against ISIL.[40]

In the night of 2–3 February, intense CJTF–OIR airstrikes targeted several bridges in or near Raqqa city, destroying them as well as the local water pipelines, leaving the city without drinking water. Meanwhile, the SDF advanced against the village of Qaltah in the northern countryside,[209] which the coalition had already unsuccessfully attacked in November.[103] ISIL maintenance crews managed to fix the pipelines during 3 February, restoring Raqqa's water supply.[210][211] On 3 February, 251 Arab fighters in Hasaka completed their training and joined the SDF.[212]

Phase Three: Isolating Raqqa from its eastern countryside

Pressing south

YPG and YPJ fighters in combat.

On 4 February, the SDF announced the offensive's third phase, aiming at capturing Raqqa's eastern countryside, and to separate Raqqa city from ISIL forces in Deir ez-Zor, though operations in the west and north would continue simultaneously.[213][214] The SDF captured a village and three hamlets to the northeast of Raqqa later that day, with clashes being reported at al-Qaltah and Bir Said.[215] On the next day, the Kurdish-led forces captured another two villages along with a hamlet and two farms, and besieged Bir Said,[216][217] while especially intense airstrikes hit several ISIL targets in Al-Thawrah.[218] Bir Said, along with another village, was eventually captured by the SDF on 6 February.[219][220][221] In addition to these villages, the SDF also captured another five villages on two fronts.[222] The SDF made further progress, capturing three more villages on 7 February.[223] In early February 2017, the US-led Coalition also largely destroyed the Deir ez-Zor-Raqqa Highway, with the highway reduced to a single-file gravel road in some spots, with the SDF patrolling other areas with minefields, in order to prevent ISIL from reinforcing Raqqa city.[73] By this point, almost all of the five bridges leading to Raqqa had been destroyed either by the US-led Coalition or by ISIL, with the only exceptions being the Tabqa Dam and the Baath Dam, both west of Raqqa city.[224]

As these advances continued, ISIL responded by launching several unsuccessful counter-attacks against Suwaydiya Kabir and other strategic territories captured by SDF.[225][226] On 8 and 9 February, the SDF further advanced at the northern and northeastern frontline, capturing several villages and besieging Mizella, a major strategic ISIL stronghold in the northern countryside. The advance put them within 11 kilometres (6.8 mi) of Raqqa.[227][228][229][230][231] The SDF captured Mizella on the next day.[34][232] The two fronts of the alliance converged on 11 February as it also captured two villages and wheat silos to the north of Raqqa during the day;[233][234] the next day, the SDF attempted to cross the Balikh River northeast of Raqqa, leading to heavy fighting with local ISIL defenders.[235] On 12 February, a large-scale counter-attack by ISIL reportedly succeeded in retaking Suwaydiya Kabir and four other nearby villages.[236][237] However, pro-YPG sources denied these reports.[238] Another counterattack was carried out by ISIL to the northeast of Raqqa where the SDF had advanced to, leading to heavy clashes between both sides.[239] Clashes continued over the next few days.[240] On 4th February. 750 Arabs completed training and joined the SDF.[241] On 16 February, 165 more SDF fighters completed training and joined the offensive.[242]

Capturing the eastern countryside

A destroyed bridge over the Euphrates in Deir ez-Zor Governorate. As result of the CJTF–OIR bombing campaign, as well as ISIL detonations, most bridges across the river were destroyed.

On 17 February 2017, the SDF announced the launch of the second stage of the third phase, aimed at capturing the eastern countryside of Raqqa near Deir ez-Zor, with the Deir Ezzor Military Council leading the operation.[243] On the same day the SDF captured two villages from ISIL to the north of Deir ez-Zor and came within 6 kilometres (3.7 mi) of the northeast of Raqqa,[244] while the Russian Air Force conducted airstrikes on ISIL forces in Raqqa city for the second time since its entry into the war.[7] The next day, the SDF captured another village to the southwest of the Makman front (north of Deir ez-Zor) as well as another near Raqqa.[245][246] On 18 February, the SDF stormed a prison a few kilometres northeast of Raqqah, freeing some of the inmates.[247] They later captured three villages in Deir ez-Zor's northern countryside.[248] On the next day, the SDF captured five villages to the east of Raqqa.[249] On 20 February, they captured four villages in the Makmen front including the strategic village of Sebah al-Xêr as well as a base station of Syriatel, thus cutting off the road between Makman and Raqqa, besieging three ISIL-held villages. Furthermore, the SDF took control of a significant bridge over the Balikh River on the western front.[250][251][252][253][254][255]

On 21 February, the SDF captured two villages on the Makman front and another one near Raqqa.[256][257][258] Later, the SDF was also reported to have reached the northern bank of the Euphrates River, to the east of Raqqa, after capturing five villages, including Al Kajla, Judayat Khabur, Hamad Assaf, and Al Kulayb, as well as the Al Kulayb Grain Silos. and the strategic Abu Khushab This move nearly besieged Ar-Raqqah from the east, although the partial siege from the east was still tenuous, and the Raqqa-Deir Ezzor routes had not yet been fully severed.[259][260][214] ISIL later again assaulted Suwaydiya Kabir, attacking it from three fronts, leading to heavy fighting around it.[261] The SDF continued advancing in the eastern countryside of Raqqa on 22 February, capturing three villages, and merging the two fronts at Makman and Bir Hebe. A YPJ commander declared that SDF had cut the road to Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor.[262][263][264] SDF also stated that it had entered Deir ez-Zor Governorate for the first time in the offensive.[265] On the next day, they captured six villages and sixteen hamlets.[266]

Opening of a new front

On 24 February, the SDF captured four villages in the Makman front and another three in a fourth front to the northeast of Deir ez-Zor.[267][268] Later, they captured the strategic Abu Khashab village later on 24 February.[269] On 25 February, they captured another 3 villages in the fourth front.[270][271]

On 26 February, a US airstrike near Tabqa Dam destroyed the former government facility, which was being used as a headquarter by ISIL. The airstrike's vicinity to the dam's structure led to fears that the dam could potentially be destabilized or destroyed during the fighting.[272] Later on the same day, it was reported that the SDF had captured the village of Al-Kubar, on the northern bank of the Euphrates in the Deir ez-Zor countryside, further tightening the siege on Raqqa.[273] On 28 February, it was reported that the US-led Coalition had completely destroyed the Tabqa Airbase in an airstrike.[274]

On 27 February, the plan that the Pentagon submitted to US President Trump to significantly speed up the fight against ISIL included a significant increase in US participation in the Raqqa offensive, with the possibility of the US increasing its ground presence at the Raqqa front to 4,000–5,000 troops.[275]

Advance to the Raqqa-Deir Ezzor highway

YPG/SDF fighters on the bank of the Euphrates east of Raqqa.

The offensive resumed on 5 March, with the SDF capturing at least 7 villages and 15 hamlets to the northeast of the Euphrates River, east of Ar-Raqqah. The offensive had previously been paused due to bad weather, according to the SDF.[276][277][278] The area captured by SDF forces on that day was about 19 square kilometers, and about 32 ISIL militants were killed in the clashes.[279] After further advances on 6 March, the SDF cut the highway between Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor, which was the last road out of the city,[280][14] and reached the Euphrates River.[281] The SDF captured six villages, the Al-Kubar Military Base (a former nuclear facility), and the Zalabiye Bridge, during the day.[282][283] On 8 March, the SDF took control of strategic West Menxer hill in the eastern countryside,[284] while elements of the US 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit were deployed to northern Syria, bringing with them an artillery battery of M777 howitzers to support the attack on Raqqa.[48] Meanwhile, about 150 ISIL militants from Hama and Deir-ez Zor managed to reinforce Raqqa, by crossing the Euphrates, despite the partial siege that had been imposed by the SDF on the city.[285]

On 9 March, SDF captured the strategic East Menxer hill. They also captured 3 villages in 2 different fronts. 2 villages, including Kubar, were captured on the front to the far east of Raqqa, and 1 near Raqqa.[286][287][288] Also on 9 March 2017, 244 completed training and joined the offensive.[289][290] On the next day, SDF forces advancing from the Abu Khashab front captured three villages, including 2 near Kubar.[291][292][293][294] Al-Masdar News stated that the SDF forces captured the Zalabiye Water Treatment Station on the same day, as well as the remaining 4 villages in the besieged ISIL pocket along the Raqqa-Deir Ezzor Highway, to the east of Raqqa, tightening SDF control of the Raqqa-Deir Ezzor highway, and effectively allowing the SDF to solidify the siege on Raqqa from the east. The SDF captured about 40 square kilometers of land during this advance.[295] On 12 March, they captured the Khas Ujayl village to the southeast of Raqqa, on the Abu Khashab front,[296][297] while ISIL continued to launch repeated counter-attacks in the area in an attempt to check the SDF advances.[298] Meanwhile, 230 ISIL fighters and commanders entered Raqqa to reinforce the city.[299][300]

On 14 March, SDF captured the Khass Hibal village, as well as the Al-Kulayb Grain Silos along the Raqqa-Deir Ezzor highway.[301][302] A SDF spokeswoman meanwhile stated that Raqqa had been isolated. The advance of SDF put them in control of the land region used by ISIL to connect to their territories in the east, stretching from al-Kubar to northern bank of Euphrates measuring 30 kilometres (19 mi).[303] The SDF captured the Hamad Asaf silos, as well as the[304] Al Kulayb villages on the next day. Hamad Assaf was also reported captured.[305][306] On 17 March, a commander of SDF's YPG stated that the SDF planned to storm Raqqa city in April 2017, and that the YPG would be participating in the attack, despite the fierce opposition from Turkey. However Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis denied they had made any decisions regarding how and when an assault on Raqqa will be carried out.[307] Meanwhile, clashes continued to take place around Khas Ujayl.[308][309]

Heavy clashes took place in the town of Karama near east of Raqqa on 19 March.[310][311] On the next day, SDF captured al-Karama along with Jarqa village as well as a train station and water pumping station nearby.[312][313][314][315][316] On 21 March, it was reported again that SDF had captured Hamad Assaf in the eastern countryside from the Abu Khashab front.[317][318] Another village was captured on 22 March from the Abu Khashab front.[319][318] Meanwhile, Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) and Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RIBSS) stated that coalition airstrikes hit a school being used as a shelter for displaced people in a village to the west of Raqqa on 20 March. SOHR stated that 33 civilians were killed in the airstrikes while RIBSS stated that it was unknown what happened to 50 families who were there.[320] SDF continued advancing in the eastern countryside on 23 March, capturing 2 more villages on the Abu Khashab front.[321][322][323][324]

Battle for al-Tabqa countryside

On 22 March, the SDF began an assault to capture the Tabqa Dam, al-Thawrah (Tabqa) city, and its airbase. SDF fighters and SOF from CJTF-OIR were airlifted by helicopters of the United States military, across the Euphrates River and Lake Assad, and were dropped on two peninsulas to the west of Al-Thawrah. The attack was supported by artillery support from United States Marines, as well as air support.[325][326][327][328] Four villages southwest of Tabqa were captured in the attack, including Abu Hurayrah, al-Mushayirafah, al-Krain, and al-Jameen. The SDF also advanced towards the town of Al-Thawrah, where fliers were dropped, asking residents to stay indoors and avoid clashing against ISIL for now. These fliers were also dropped on Raqqa city.[329] An anti-ISIL coalition spokesman announced that the advance had cut off the highway linking the Aleppo, Deir ez-Zor, and Raqqa Governorates. He added that around 75-80% of the attacking force consisted of Arab fighters, with the rest being Kurds. The SDF stated that the advance was also meant to block any advance on Raqqa by the Syrian Arab Army from the west.[330] On the same day, SDF and US forces stormed the Tabqa Dam, triggering "intense" clashes with ISIL forces. US officials stated that it may take several weeks to capture Tabqa Dam, Al-Thawrah city, and the surrounding countryside from ISIL.[331][332] Airstrikes by the coalition on Tabqa city were reported to have killed about 25 civilians.[333] On 23 March, it was reported that the SDF had captured Tabqa Dam from ISIL, after clashing with ISIL forces for a few hours.[11][10] The reports were however not confirmed nor any announcements were made by SDF or CENTCOM.[11][334] SDF spokesman Talal Silo stated during the day that they were still advancing on the dam and the city and expected to attack the dam soon.[335] Later on the same day, however, US sources reported that Tabqa Dam had been captured in the operation.[12] Later on the same day, it was reported that ISIL was redeploying a large number of fighters from the Deir ez-Zor Province to Al-Thawrah and Raqqa city, in order to reinforce those fronts.[336]

Civil administration of captured territory

On 14 November, the SDF's civilian sister institution, the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), started working on the establishment of a civilian administration to run the city of Raqqa after the expulsion of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. SDC co-chair Îlham Ehmed was quoted saying that "such an administration could provide a good example for democratic change in Raqqa, especially that the city has been for years a de facto capital for the ISIS terrorist group. This accomplishment would be a major change in the overall situation in Syria, and would help the country move towards stability, democratic change. Raqqa will be an example for the whole country."[337]

On 8 December, Col. John Dorrian, the Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman, stated that "a governance structure representative of the local population" similar to that in Manbij is planned for Raqqa.[338] On 10 December, Cihan Shekh Ehmed, the spokesman of the SDF-led operation, said that Raqqa would be run by a local elected civilian council after it was liberated.[112]

Gallery

Notes

  1. ^ Most Leftist Western volunteers fight as part of the YPG,[2] though some have also formed an independent unit, the Antifascist International Tabur,[3] or joined the International Freedom Battalion. The latter is a larger unit, mostly composed of Kurdish and Turkish communists.[4]
  2. ^ 1,500 volunteers from villages captured by the SDF during phase one;[44] 1,000 volunteers from villages captured during phase two,[15] 750 volunteers from villages captured during phase three[23]
  3. ^ According to SOHR, 8 SDF casualties were Western volunteers; among these were 4 Americans (one of which fought for the MFS), 1 British, 1 Canadian, and 1 German.[59] ARA News, on the other side, reported that only 5 Western volunteers had been killed.[60]

See also

References

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Bibliography

External links

  • Interactive Syria and Iraq map with current Raqqa situation
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