Fighters backed by US begin ‘final assault’ on Islamic State’s Syrian stronghold Raqqa
US-backed militias said they had launched their final assault on Syria’s Raqqa yesterday after a convoy of Islamic State fighters left the city, leaving only a hard core of extremists to mount a last stand.
“The battle will continue until the whole city is clean,” said a statement by the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a US-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters who are trying to overthrow the Syrian government.
The SDF said earlier that a group of extremists left in a convoy taking some civilians with them. But there were conflicting accounts as to whether the evacuees included both Syrian and foreign fighters.
Raqqa’s fall now looks imminent after four months of battle.
“We still expect there to be difficult fighting,” said Colonel Ryan Dillon, spokesman for the US-led international coalition backing the militant groups in the war against Islamic State.
Raqqa was the first big Syrian city to fall to Islamic State as it declared a “caliphate” and rampaged through Syria and Iraq in 2014.
But Islamic State has been in retreat for two years, losing territory in both countries and forced back into an ever-diminishing foothold along the Euphrates river valley.
Before the convoy left, the coalition estimated that about 300-400 fighters remained.
The convoy would head to the remaining Islamic State territory in eastern Syria and included about 400 civilians along with the fighters, said Omar Alloush, a member of the Raqqa Civil Council set up by the SDF to oversee the city.
Mostafa Bali, an SDF spokesman, described the civilians who left with Islamic State as human shields. The extremists had refused to release them once they left the city as agreed, wanting to take them as far as their destination to guarantee their own safety, he said.
The agreement was brokered by the Raqqa Civil Council and tribal elders to “minimise civilian casualties”, the US-led coalition said on Saturday. Tribal leaders from Raqqa said they sought to prevent bloodshed among civilians still trapped in the city.
The SDF’s decision to allow Islamic State fighters to leave Raqqa was at odds with the wishes of the US-led coalition.
Dillon said on Sunday: “We may not always fully agree with our partners at times. But we have to respect their solutions.”
The SDF announced the start of the battle for Raqqa in June.
Islamic State captured the city in January 2014, seizing it from US-backed rebels which had ousted the Syrian army a few months earlier.
As the group became more entrenched in Syria and Iraq leading up to its capture of Mosul in June that year, Raqqa became its most important centre, and its series of victories were celebrated in a massive parade through the city.
Many top IS leaders were at times based there, and former hostages said Mohammed Emwazi, better known as Jihadi John, imprisoned them along with those he later executed, in a building near an oil installation near the city.
The group killed dozens of captured Syrian soldiers there in July 2014 and it was also the site of a slave market for Yazidi women captured in Iraq and given to fighters.
The coalition claims Raqqa was a hub for attacks abroad, and in November 2015, after militants killed more than 130 people in Paris, France launched air strikes on Islamic State targets in the city.
But the group is now in disarray. In Syria it not only faces the US-backed SDF offensive but a rival one by the Syrian army supported by Russia.
A Syrian military source said on Saturday the army had captured the city of al-Mayadin in the Euphrates valley, leaving Islamic State only a few more towns and villages in Syria.
But the battle for Raqqa has come at great cost to its people. Much of the city has been pulverised by the intense US-led air strikes and by the months of street-to-street fighting. Thousands of people have fled as refugees and hundreds of civilians have died.