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Turkey wary as SDF launch Raqqa offensive

June 6, 2017

The US-backed alliance of Arabs and Kurds has launched a long-awaited attack on the Islamic State's stronghold in Raqqa. The coalition expects a long, bloody battle for the city.

Syrien Offensive auf Rakka
Image: Reuters/R.Said

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Binali Yildrim said Turkey would act immediately should any perceived threats arise from the Syrian Democratic Forces' operations to recapture the city of Raqqa from the so-called "Islamic State" (IS).

Yildrim made his remarks in Ankara to deputies from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling Law and Justice Party on the same day that the SDF launched an attack on the IS stronghold from the east, north and west.

Türkei Wichtiger Berater von Regierungschef Yildirim festgenommen
Yildrim said Turkey was taking precautions in case its interests were threatenedImage: picture alliance/abaca/M. Aktas

The SDF, a roughly 50,000-member alliance backed by the United States, largely consists of Arabs and fighters from the People's Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia that Turkey consider a terrorist organization.   

The Turkish state has been facing a nearly three-decade-long insurgency led by the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has links to the YPG. 

Officials in Ankara have expressed concern that a YPG takeover of Raqqa, about 55 miles (90 kilometers) south of Turkey's border, and other territorial gains made by the Kurds over the past two years could embolden its own Kurdish population's demands for autonomy at a time of heightened clashes between the PKK and Turkish security forces. 

Read: The Middle East's complex Kurdish landscape

But the United States views the SDF as key partners in the fight against IS in Syria and has provided the alliance with air support, training and weapons. It also has said it does not view the YPG as the same as the PKK, putting Washington and Ankara at odds. 

The United States also began arming the YPG directly to help them battle the approximately 3,000-4,000 IS fighters believed to still be in Raqqa.

Karte Syrien al-Bab ENG
The recapture of Raqqa could also be a blow to IS's international image

A 'fierce' battle 

IS seized Raqqa in 2014 and made the city the Syrian capital of the group's self-declared caliphate - the counterpart to the group's besieged former stronghold of Mosul in Iraq. The SDF's launch of its operation to retake Raqqa on Tuesday comes after months of fighting clearing IS from a string of towns and villages to the north, west and east.

Read: Civilian casualties surge as anti-IS coalition moves towards Raqqa

Using a common Arabic acronym for IS, SDF spokesman Talal Silo said late Monday that the battle to retake Raqqa would be "fierce because Daesh will die to defend their so-called capital."

But "morale is high and military readiness to implement the military plan is complete, in coordination with the US-led coalition," Silo added.

The offensive would be "long and difficult," but that retaking the city would be a "decisive blow to the idea of ISIS as a physical caliphate," said Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, the US commander in charge of anti-IS operations, using a common English-language acronym for IS, Reuters reported.

The assault on Raqqa began with US-led coalition airstrikes that reportedly killed 12 people, including women and children who were fleeing the city, according to Syria's state news agency.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported the number to be as high as 21.

An estimated 160,000 civilians are believed to be in Raqqa, according to the UN.  

Read: US plan to "annihilate IS" raises questions about civilian toll

Symbolbild Rakka Kämpfer der IS
A photo released in 2014 shows IS militants marching through the streets of RaqqaImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Forces battle at the city's edge

The attack on Raqqa's urban area "started today at dawn," Observatory director Rami Abdulrahman said, adding that SDF forces "have reached the city but they have not entered any of its buildings."

The Observatory reported the presence of coalition forces in Raqqa's eastern al-Mosheileb neighborhood, as well as engaged in fighting at a military base on the city's northern edge.

Fighting to regain control of IS-held urban areas has proved tactically difficult because of cities' narrow roads and dense infrastructure, which offer ample hiding places. IS forces have also required all men in municipalities under their control to don the group's typical outfits in order to make it more difficult for coalition forces to differentiate between militants and civilians. 

Coalition forces have been fighting to recapture Raqqa since November 2016. Last week, SDF forces captured the key town of Mansoura, the last remaining urban center on the way to Raqqa.

cmb/mkg (Reuters, AP, dpa)