CAIRO - U.S.-backed Kurdish YPG militia forces chanted as they advanced toward the northern outskirts of the Islamic State-held town of Raqqa in northern Syria, attempting to set foot inside the city and dislodge the militant group from its so-called capital.
The U.S. envoy to the anti-IS coalition, Brett McGurk, said Wednesday in Baghdad that the battle for Raqqa would "only escalate," as the group loses control of its northern Iraqi stronghold of Mosul. He added that the fight for Raqqa would be a "difficult and very long-term battle."
McGurk made the comment one day after Kurdish YPG spokesman Talal Selo announced the start of the campaign to liberate Raqqa, while surrounded by militia fighters in a northern suburb of the city. He also thanked the U.S.-led coalition and President Donald Trump for helping his forces. Arab media showed video of what it said were skirmishes against Islamic State forces Tuesday.
Kurdish YPG media also showed video of its forces lowering an IS flag from a telephone pole in an area somewhere close to the city. Additionally, it broadcast video of Kurdish fighters welcoming refugee women and children who appeared to be fleeing the city.
The U.S.-led coalition thinks there are about 3,000 to 4,000 IS fighters holed up inside Raqqa. The Saudi-owned Al Hayat newspaper warned Wednesday that some sources thought the group was holding many residents inside the city as hostages.
Control on three sides
Kurdish commander Mohammed Hijazi told Arab media that YPG forces and their allies controlled the north, east and west of Raqqa, but not the south. Syrian government media have warned that its forces will not allow IS fighters to escape Raqqa toward the south, where it controls the nearby historic oasis town of Palmyra, recaptured from IS in March. Russian and Syrian government planes have bombed the outskirts of Palmyra repeatedly in recent weeks to prevent IS forces from approaching the city.
Arab media also reported that Shi'ite militia allies of the Syrian government were trying to advance in the direction of Raqqa from areas surrounding the government-held town of Hasaka to the east of Raqqa. Some reports also said that Iraqi Shi'ite volunteer militiamen were trying to enter Syria from areas of northern Iraq.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi said in a news conference late Tuesday, however, that Iraqi government military forces were trying to secure the border with Syria but had no plans to enter its western neighbor. He maintained that "no Iraqi security force, whatsoever, will cross the border into Syria."
It was not clear how many militia and military forces the Syrian government controlled in the northeastern Kurdish region of Syria. Syrian government forces have also reportedly made territorial gains further south, in and around the desert town of Deir ez-Zor. The Islamic State group holds chunks of territory in and around Deir ez-Zor as well.
Jockeying for position
The region of northern and eastern Syria remains complicated, as Syrian government forces, Kurdish YPG forces and IS jockey for position. Each appears to have territorial aims, while the ethnic and sectarian populations of many northern and eastern Syrian towns do not always correspond with the forces that control them.
Iran, which backs many of the Shi'ite militias supporting the government of Assad, also is hoping to capture and maintain a land link between Tehran and the Mediterranean Sea, going through parts of Syria. The U.S. and its coalition allies say that they are trying to prevent that from happening.
Neighboring Turkey, which controls several chunks of Syrian territory north of Aleppo, has its own regional ambitions, along with a long-standing animosity to the Kurdish YPG militia. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yilderim expressed irritation with the U.S. for supporting the YPG in a recent speech. He said the operation to capture Raqqa was going on with the U.S. supporting terrorist groups, despite a warning from Ankara about them.
Syrian government media have reported heavy fighting around the southern city of Daraa and in the region around Deir ez-Zor since Monday. Kurdish YPG forces do not appear to have made any significant advances around Raqqa, though.