HUKOUMIYA (Syria) • The United States-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) says it has launched a battle to capture Raqqa, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria's (ISIS) de facto Syrian capital, piling pressure on the militants whose self-declared caliphate is in retreat across Syria and Iraq.
SDF spokesman Talal Silo yesterday said the operation started on Monday and that the fighting would be "fierce because Daesh will die to defend their so-called capital". Daesh is an acronym for the Arab name of ISIS.
The commander of US-led coalition forces said the fight for Raqqa would be "long and difficult" but would deliver a "decisive blow to the idea of ISIS as a physical caliphate".
"It's hard to convince new recruits that ISIS is a winning cause when they just lost their twin 'capitals' in both Iraq and Syria," a coalition statement cited Lieutenant-General Steve Townsend, the coalition commanding general, as saying.
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"We all saw the heinous attack in Manchester, England," said Lt-Gen Townsend.
"ISIS threatens all of our nations, not just Iraq and Syria, but in our own homelands as well. This cannot stand," he said.
"Once ISIS is defeated in both Mosul and (Raqqa), there will still be a lot of hard fighting ahead, but this coalition is strong and committed to the complete annihilation of ISIS in both Iraq and Syria."
The assault overlaps with the final stages of the US-backed attack to recapture the Iraqi city of Mosul from ISIS, and follows months of advances to the north, east and west of Raqqa by the SDF, which includes Arab and Kurdish militias.
ISIS captured Raqqa from rebel groups in 2014 and has used it as an operations base to plan attacks in the West.
The SDF spokesman said the assault had begun from the north, east and west of the city, which is bordered to the south by the Euphrates River.
"In addition to warplanes, there are coalition forces working side by side with the SDF," he said.
The Raqqa campaign commander Rojda Felat said an assault had begun on the al-Mushleb district at the city's south-eastern outskirts, confirming an earlier report by the United Kingdom-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The Observatory said the SDF had captured some buildings in the al-Mushleb area and had also attacked a military barracks, Division 17, on the northern outskirts of Raqqa.
The US-led coalition has said that 3,000 to 4,000 ISIS fighters are holed up in Raqqa city.
The SDF, which includes the Kurdish YPG militia, has been encircling Raqqa since last November in an offensive backed by the coalition that is also fighting ISIS in Iraq.
The city is about 90km from the border with Turkey.
The Raqqa campaign has been the source of tension between the US and Turkey, which fears growing Kurdish influence in northern Syria and has lobbied Washington to abandon its Kurdish YPG allies.
The US last week said it had started distributing arms to the YPG to help retake Raqqa.