AIN ISSA (Syria) • A US-backed Kurdish-Arab alliance pushed closer to Raqqa while Iraqi forces seized a key town near Mosul as offensives advanced yesterday against the two strongholds of ISIS.
After announcing the start of the long-awaited offensive on Raqqa on Sunday, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance said it had moved south towards the so-called capital of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, despite fierce fighting from the militants.
Meanwhile, south of the Iraqi city of Mosul, Iraqi forces had retaken the town of Hamam al-Alil from ISIS, a key objective in their three- week advance on the city. The ISIS militants had set fire to oil wells last week before they fled the oil-producing region of Qayyara.
The offensive is going according to plan. The battle will be long.
SYRIAN DEMOCRATIC FORCES SPOKESMAN JIHAN SHEIKH AHMED, on the battle for Raqqa.
Raqqa and Mosul are the last major cities in Syria and Iraq under the control of the militants, and their capture would deal a knockout blow to the self-styled "caliphate" ISIS declared in mid-2014.
The US-led coalition that launched operations against ISIS two years ago is providing crucial backing to the offensives, with both air strikes and special forces advisers on the ground.
SDF spokesman Jihan Sheikh Ahmed told AFP that forces had advanced on two fronts towards Raqqa amid heavy fighting.
Alliance forces had pushed at least 10km south towards the city from the towns of Ain Issa and Suluk, she said.
In both cases, SDF fighters were still some distance from Raqqa - on the Ain Issa front at least 30km away. "The offensive is going according to plan," said the spokesman, who added that at least 10 villages had so far been taken from ISIS. "The battle will be long."
An SDF commander said ISIS was fighting back with its favourite tactic of sending suicide bombers in explosives-packed vehicles against the advancing forces.
As a Kurdish peshmerga column moved into Bashiqa yesterday, a loud explosion rocked the convoy, and two large plumes of smoke could be seen just 15m away. A peshmerga officer said two suicide car bombs had tried to hit the advancing force.
The SDF said some 30,000 of its fighters are taking part in the operation, dubbed "Wrath of the Euphrates". It aims to surround and isolate ISIS inside Raqqa before eventually assaulting the city itself. Both SDF commanders and coalition officials have warned that the battle is likely to be long and difficult.
"As in Mosul, the fight will not be easy and there is hard work ahead," US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter said in a statement after the assault was launched.
"But it is necessary to end the fiction of ISIL's caliphate and disrupt the group's ability to carry out terror attacks against the United States, our allies and our partners," Mr Carter said, using an alternative name for ISIS.
Driving ISIS from both cities has been the endgame since the US-led coalition launched air strikes against it in summer 2014, shortly after the militants seized control of large parts of Syria and Iraq.
Some 50 US military advisers are involved in the Raqqa operation, particularly to guide air strikes, according to an SDF source.
Near Ain Issa, an AFP correspondent saw at least one soldier who had US markings on his helmet with SDF fighters.
The Mosul offensive has advanced faster than expected but the battle for Raqqa is far more complicated. Unlike in Iraq, where the coalition has a state-controlled ally in federal forces, in Syria its ground partner is made up of local militias, including some rebel groups that have been battling President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
The domination of the SDF by the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) has also raised deep concern with Turkey, which considers the YPG a "terrorist" group linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party. Turkey in August began its own operation inside northern Syria, targeting both ISIS and the YPG.