Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have launched an operation to capture areas north of Raqqa, the Syrian de-facto capital of Islamic State, with the aim of eventually liberating the city.
The U.S. allied group made the announcement in a video statement posted online Tuesday. “We’re launching this campaign with the help of [U.S.-led] coalition forces in northern Raqqa,” said Rojda Felat, a female Kurdish commander.
A senior SDF commander told VOA his forces are advancing from three different directions. "[Kurdish] YPG tanks and other heavy weaponry have been deployed," he said.
“The SDF has announced they have begun operations to liberate the countryside north of Raqqa. We have always been focused evicting Da'esh [Islamic State] from Raqqa and we will continue to support the SDF as they conduct ground operations to further isolate the city,” said Col. Steve Warren, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition fighting IS.
A commander with the Syrian Democratic Forces said earlier that coalition troops would be fighting with SDF forces, but Warren refused to comment on the specific role coalition forces would play.
"As you know, we don’t talk about Special Forces operations,” he said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, during a visit to Uzebekistan, said Moscow is ready to coordinate efforts with the Kurds and the U.S.-led coalition to liberate Raqqa.
Warren rejected any notion of possible coordination with Russia.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the U.S. focus with Russia right now is on restoring Syria's fragile cessation of hostilities and that the two countries were discussing proposals that could help strengthen and sustain the cease-fire.
"We believe that with our [U.S.] support for the Syrian Democratic Forces, that we can effectively put pressure on Raqqa, acting with the [U.S.-led] coalition,” Toner said.
Hussam Eisa of Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, a Syrian group that reports on IS abuses, said the offensive is focusing on areas around two towns.
Soldiers participate in an operation to liberate Raqqa, Syria, from Islamic State militants, May 24, 2016. (Photo courtesy of ANHA)
"I think it will take a long time before the YPG decides to march toward Raqqa city. They are supported by U.S. warplanes. They have targeted areas around the towns of Tel al-Saman and al-Haisha, 40 kilometers north of Raqqa. These areas are almost empty of civilians. Most residents have fled to Raqqa city,” Eisa said.
The U.S. is supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces, mostly made up of Syrian Kurds, numbering at least 25,000 fighters, with a smaller element of Syrian Arabs, numbering perhaps 5,000 to 6,000. The U.S. is trying to increase the Arab numbers.
But U.S. officials have been tamping down expectations of rapid progress. And a European diplomat told VOA that the plan currently is to try to encircle much of the city of Raqqa, at least to take outlying villages north, west and south.
“The Arab fighters are not sufficient in numbers, nor do they have the capabilities to take on the hardened IS fighters defending the city,” he said. “And the Kurds can’t be in the vanguard in capturing Raqqa.”
He puts the numbers of Sunni Arab fighters in the SDF lower than 5,000.
The diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said there are an estimated 185,000 civilians left in Raqqa — out of an original population of 400,000.
In Washington, U.S. Senator John McCain told VOA's Azerbaijani Service that the push to retake Raqqa will be a "very difficult" undertaking.
"It is going to take a very big and important effort. ISIL, or Daesh, will not go down easy. They will fight to retain their territorial capital," McCain said.
Congressman Adam Schiff said he believes it will take time before there is a real push to retake Raqqa.
"But they are losing ground all around Raqqa,” he said. “And I think there is a beginning sense of siege for ISIL forces in Raqqa. They sense their days are numbered."
Jamie Dettmer and Pam Dockins contributed to this report.