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Battle of Raqqa (2017)

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The Battle of Raqqa is the fifth and final phase of the Raqqa campaign launched by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) de facto capital in the city of Raqqa. The battle began on 6 June 2017, and is being supported by airstrikes and ground troops from the US-led coalition.[15] The operation was named the "Great Battle" by the SDF.[31] The battle ran concurrently with the Battle of Mosul, although it started 6 months earlier, as part of an effort by the CJTF–OIR and its allies to strip ISIL of its regional centers of power, and to dismantle it as an organization controlling territory.[32]

Background

In 2015, ISIL began to fortify the city and its surrounding areas with bunkers and a network of tunnels.[33]

By June 2017, Raqqa remained the only major Syrian city fully under ISIL control and was, therefore, its effective center of operations. With a large number of foreign fighters, Raqqa has been a planning center for terrorist attacks against European cities.[34] The Raqqa campaign was launched by the SDF on 6 November 2016 in an effort to capture the city, and it has resulted in the SDF capturing a large amount of territory in the Raqqa Governorate from ISIL, including the city of al-Thawrah, and the infrastructure at Tabqa Dam, and Baath Dam.

As many as 500 US special forces are operating on the ground in northern Syria in support of the Raqqa campaign. The US and other coalition members are supplying heavy weapons, intelligence collection, communications support and other assistance to the SDF as part of their intervention in the conflict.[34] The battle began in the wake of a tumultuous period for the coalition, as internal pressures had been elevated by the Qatar diplomatic crisis, which had seen diplomatic relations between Qatar and other coalition members severed, and was publicly supported by President Donald Trump.[35][36]

Local residents stated that many ISIL militants had abandoned the city and traveled to Deir ez-Zor, in anticipation of the impending attack on their capital. It is speculated that the group will assault the city, currently held by the Syrian Government forces, in an effort to make a last stand.[35]

It was reported by AFP that in an US-led airstrike, 21 civilians were killed while attempting to flee Raqqa by dinghy on the Euphrates River. The event was also reported by Al Jazeera, but with uncertainty as to who carried out the bombing.[37][38][39][40][41]

Timeline of the battle

Entering Raqqa

An SDF MRAP and pickup truck in Raqqa

The United States Air Force conducted heavy airstrikes on Raqqa the day before the battle.[42] The battle was officially launched by the SDF in the dawn of 6 June 2017. The offensive came from Raqqa's north, east, and west. Supported by US airstrikes, the SDF attacked the former base of the 17th Division north of Raqqa and the Mashlab district in the southeastern part of the city.[15] By the end of the day, the SDF captured more than half of Mashlab district and also attacked the Andalus district in the northwest.[12] The SDF also captured the village of al-Jazra.[43]

On 7 June, the SDF captured a ruined fortress on the edge of the city, and a U.S. coalition official said the attack was set to accelerate.[44] On the same day, the SDF captured Tell Harqal districts of the city.[45]

Brett H. McGurk, the special envoy with responsibility over the US-led military coalition, claimed that the fighting in the city would be accelerated by the failures of ISIL in the Battle of Mosul, and claimed that the forces were prepared for a "difficult and very long-term battle".[46]

The SDF entered the 17th Division base and the nearby sugar plant on 8 June,[47] but were eventually forced to retreat, due to casualties as a result of persistent ISIL resistance.[48]

The following night, Coalition airplanes heavily struck the city, killing 23 civilians. At the same time the SDF, backed by special forces, were close to capturing the entire al-Mashlab neighborhood.[49] Later that day, the SDF entered Sabahiyah neighborhood from the western axis[50] and captured the remaining parts of the al-Mashlab neighborhood within hours.[51][52][53]

On 10 June, SDF forces entered the Roman suburb and were locked "in fierce fighting", while they were reinforcing the western half of Al-Sabahiya.[53] The International Coalition itself stated that they had destroyed numerous targets in Raqqa between 7-9 June; a minefield, eleven fighting positions, four vehicles, three ISIL headquarters, two vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) and an ISIL-held building.[54] At the end of the day, SDF forces managed to take control over Harqaliya Suburb.[55] During the battle, US forces reportedly used white phosphorus munitions several times while thousands of civilians remained in Raqqa. A spokesman for the U.S. military did not confirm or deny the allegation.[56]

SDF fighters walk through a destroyed area in the suburbs of Raqqa.

By 11 June, 79 civilians reportedly had been killed.[57] The SDF forces captured "wide parts" of the Roman suburb and advanced into al-Sinaa neighborhood and al-Hal Market near the northern banks of the Euphrates River.[58] ISIL fighters attacked the sugar plant that the SDF had captured three days earlier in the northern part of the city.[59]

On 12 June, SDF forces began the process of capturing al-Sinaa and al-Hattin neighborhoods, along with the al-Sinaa industrial zone.[60][60] SDF forces captured Sahil village southwest of Raqqa after clashes between the SDF and ISIL broke out and lasted until the next morning.[61]

On 14 June, SDF forces entered the al-Berid neighborhood in the western part of Raqqa, following intense fighting in which an ISIL suicide bomber was killed.[62]

On 15 June, SDF forces captured the al-Sinaa neighborhood and entered the Batani neighborhood.[63] Several CJTF-OIR troops were injured by a VBIED planted by ISIL in al-Sinaa neighborhood.[64]

On 18 June, SDF forces captured Kasrat Sheyh Juma village, to the south of Raqqa.[65] The Kurdish-led forces also captured a greenhouse in the south of the city[66] as well as Batani neighborhood in the east.[67][68]

Encirclement of Raqqa

On 19 June, ISIL counter-attacked at the old city walls and managed to encircle a group of SDF fighters, among them members of the Elite Forces (SEF).[69] The Elite Forces then attempted to break the encirclement of their comrades, shooting down an ISIL bombing drone,[70] breaking through to their fifteen besieged fighters at the Bab Baghdad gate of the old city. In the course of this operation, the SEF lost its first member in the battle for Raqqah city and its fourth in the “Euphrates Wrath” Operation.[71] On the next day, the SDF, supported by especially heavy airstrikes, continued to advance in northwestern Raqqa amid "desperate" attempts of ISIL to stop their progress.[72] An ISIL counter-attack on the Batani district was repelled.[73] On 23 June, the SDF began an assault on the Qadisiya district, which led to fierce fighting in the area.[74] On the next day, the SDF completely encircled and besieged Raqqa city, trapping about 4,000 ISIL militants inside.[75]

The United States Marine Corps provides fire support to the SDF during the battle.

By 25 June, the SDF had captured the western Qadisiya district, whereupon ISIL launched a major counter-attack, leading to extremely heavy fighting.[76] On the following day, however, the SDF finally captured all of Qadisiya, making it the sixth district in the city under SDF control.[74][77] In response, ISIL launched multiple counter-attacks in the city[78] and on the Euphrates' southern bank, though these failed. By the end of the day, the SDF had also taken control of al-Farkha village to Raqqa's southwest.[79] CJTF–OIR spokesman Ryan Dillon noted that the resistance of ISIL increased as the SDF further advanced into the city.[80]

On 27 June, the SDF launched an attack against the old city which was repelled by ISIL, though they succeeded in capturing the village of al-Ghota south of Raqqa.[81][82]

On 28 June, SDF forces clashed with ISIL militants near a kindergarten in Ar-Ruda neighborhood in eastern Raqqa, killing 8 ISIL fighters.[83] SDF forces also entered al-Nahda neighborhood in western Raqqa where they clashed heavily with ISIL militants, which resulted in 19 ISIL fighters being killed.[84] In course of the next two days, the SDF cut off all remaining escape routes for ISIL from Raqqa.[85][86] Clashes between the SDF and ISIL militants also began in al-Yarmouk and Huteen neighborhoods in western Raqqa,[87] while the SDF captured another village south of the city.[88] Nevertheless, a major ISIL counter-attack on 30 June, spearheaded by numerous VBIEDs, retook the al-Sinaa neighborhood[89][90] after 350 SDF fighters who were part of a unidentified Free Syrian Army (FSA) unit abandoned their posts and fled.[17]

The SDF advance into the old city

SDF fighters in a largely destroyed part of Raqqa's downtown.

During 1-2 July, SDF fighters cleared the al-Hal market in eastern Raqqa of ISIL militants, while the SDF continued to advance in other neighborhoods of city with the help of heavy CJTF–OIR airstrikes. Ratla, a village southeast of the city also fell to the SDF.[91][92] The SDF entered the Hashim Bin al-Melek neighborhood in southern Raqqa and the al-Yarmouk neighborhood in the west on 3 July.[93][94] In the night of 3-4 July, a CJTF–OIR precision airstrike destroyed a 25-meter long section of the medieval wall surrounding Raqqa's old city. This was done so that the SDF could finally enter the heavily fortified old city, while at the same time preserving most of the wall. The SDF consequently advanced into the old city, capturing the Palace of the Maidens, albeit encountering heavy resistance. Meanwhile, the US-backed forces continued to make progress in other parts of Raqqa, reportedly capturing half of the Hashim Bin al-Melek neighborhood,[95][96][97] while a major assault by the Elite Forces managed to retake the al-Sinaa neighborhood from ISIL.[98] Some less disciplined Elite Forces units, however, were demoralised by the heavy fighting and retreated from the city against the orders of the SDF command and their own superiors and comrades.[17][b] Nevertheless, the other Elite Forces units remained at the frontlines.[99]

Heavy fighting in the old city continued through the next two days, and the SDF advances were slow despite heavy airstrikes in their support. Intense ISIL counter-attacks inside Raqqa and south of the city at Ratla were mostly repelled, though ISIS militants managed to retake a part of the al-Hal market. Especially intense clashes also took place in the western city, mostly for the al-Bareed neighborhood, as both sides launched repeated attacks in attempts to gain territory.[99][100][101] By 6 July, pro-SDF media claimed that the coalition forces were making progress in the west, and that the ISIL defenses there showed signs of breaking.[102] The international coalition also sent further weapons, supplies and reinforcements to Raqqa. Meanwhile, ISIL put up a bounty of approximately $4,000 USD for every US soldier or foreign SDF fighter killed.[103] Over the next days, the fierce fighting in Raqqa continued, with the SDF capturing the Harun al-Rashid Castle in the old city[104] and the al-Mazarie Square in west.[105] By 10 July, the battle in Raqqa was described as increasingly "desperate house-to-house fight" without frontlines, as ISIL fighters holed up in small pockets of resistance which proved to be only extremely difficult to clear out for the often not adequately armed SDF fighters. ISIL suicide attacks also hampered the advance of the coalition forces.[106]

Female Yazidi fighters of the YJÊ also participate in the battle for Raqqa. Yazidis were massacred or enslaved by ISIL, and the YJÊ aims to liberate Yazidi slaves who still live in the city, while taking revenge on ISIL.[107]

The SDF progress was also reportedly hindred by disputes within the SDF[106] and the distrust of the locals toward the anti-ISIL coalition. Due to ISIL propaganda and long-standing distrust between the ethnic groups in Syria, many of Raqqa's Arabs are wary of the Kurdish forces within the SDF.[108] On 8 July, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the Arab Elite Forces had withdrawn from Raqqa as result of disputes within the SDF and their sometimes inferior battlefield performance;[108][109][110] the SDF however denied this claim as baseless rumours, and said that the Elite Forces were still involved in the operation.[111] One Elite Forces' commander, Abu Saleh, later confirmed that at least the unit of around 1000 fighters that he led had withdrawn from Raqqa;[112] nevertheless, there were still reports that at least some of the Elite Forces still continued to be active in Raqqa.[113] The reports of the Elite Forces' purported retreat furthered the distrust of the local population toward the SDF.[108] There were also claims that members of the Manbij Military Council were looting houses in the city.[114] Whereas progress in Raqqa city during this time proved slow, the SDF made some progress south of the Euphrates on 10 and 11 July, capturing two villages,[115][116] including al-Ukeirshi which had served as major military base for ISIL.[117]

These are days of trials. The greatest thing you can present to God is to sell yourself to him cheaply.
Statement of an ISIL fighter in Raqqa to his comrades. The ISIL militants in Raqqa are considered to fight extremely tenacious, again and again launching "vicious" counter-attacks and holding out amid massive bombardements.[118]

Over the next four days, the SDF made some major advances, securing the al-Batani, Hisham Ben Abdel Malik, al-Bareed and al-Qasyeh neighbourhoods,[119] and about 50% of the old city;[120] after heavy counter-attacks, however, the SDF had to abandon some of its newly captured territory in the old city and the aforementioned neighbourhoods.[119] Meanwhile, CJTF–OIR chief commander Stephen J. Townsend said that the only options for the ISIL fighters in Raqqa were to "surrender or be killed".[121]

Between 15 and 18 July, fighting mostly concentrated on the western neighbourhoods of al-Tayyar and Yarmouk as well as the Hisham bin Abdul Malik neighbourhood in the southeast, as both sides tried to gain/regain ground. Even though the SDF eventually prevailed in the former two, the coalition made little to no progress in the eastern and old city, while casualties among both the SDF as well as the civilian population had risen drastically. As result, the SDF began to shift its strategy in the east and the old city, advancing slower and with more caution in order to minimize further losses and to avoid the destruction of historic monuments, such as the Abbasid al-Atiq mosque.[122][123] In course of the fighting a major ISIL headquarters and weapons storage centre was destroyed.[124] On 20 July, ISIL launched intense counter-attacks against all the areas where the SDF had progressed over the last days.[125]

Conquest of the city's south

Foreign volunteers of the Anarchist IRPGF, a unit of the International Freedom Battalion, in Raqqa.

Despite these continued counter-attacks,[126] the SDF further advanced against ISIL during the following four days. By 24 July, the coalition had fully secured the neighborhoods al-Romaniya, Hutteen, Qadisiyah, Yarmouk, Mashlab, al-Batani and al-Sinaa, while having taken control of parts of Hisham bin Abdul Malik, al-Rawda, al-Rumaila, al-Muazzafin, al-Hamra and Nazlat Shehada, and the old city. As a result, around 41% of Raqqa was held by the SDF.[127][128] By this time, the centre of fighting was in the southern city, namely for the Nazlat Shehada, Hisham bin Abdul Malik and al-Kournish neighborhoods.[128][129] By 28 July, the SDF had made further important advances in the western and southern city and increased their territorial control to 50% of Raqqa.[130][131] While combat in the central and southern city continued, the SDF advanced into the al-Nahdah neighborhood in Raqqa's northeast on 30 July.[132][133]

Between 1 and 3 August, the SDF captured most of the Hisham Ben Abel Malik and Nazlat Shhada neighborhoods and other important locations, thus largely securing southern Raqqa. ISIL was also pushed back in the old city, losing control of the Uwais al-Qarni Mosque and the ‘Ammar Ben Yasser shrine, and in Raqqa's north, where the SDF conquered around 10km2 (four square miles) of territory.[134][135][136] As result of their shrinking territory and constant bombardments, both the c. 2,000 militants[137] as well as tens of thousands of civilians still trapped in the ISIL-held areas increasingly suffered from shortages in food, medicines and drinking water, causing ISIL to alleviate the situation by granting 3,000 civilians safe passage from their territory to SDF-held neighborhoods. Nevertheless, ISIL's deteriorating prospects in Raqqa were beginning to seriously undermine the morale of the group's Syrian fighters, many of which wanted to escape or surrender. These native militants remained, however, due to fear of ISIL's foreign mujahideen. These foreigners wanted to make their last stand at Raqqa, and are ready to kill all who want to surrender.[138] The hardcore ISIL elements in Raqqa also reportedly had chemical weapons in their possesson which they would use when their position became completely untenable, regardless of possible civilian casualities.[139]

Much of Raqqa has suffered extensive damage during the battle,[140] while an activist in the ISIL-held neighborhoods has said that the situation for the besieged populace is "beyond catastrophic, I can’t describe the situation as anything besides hellish. People are just waiting for their turn to die."[141]

By 6 August, the SDF controlled around 55% of Raqqa.[113] Over the next days, the SDF, bolstered by new reinforcements,[142] evicted ISIL fully from the southern city. By 10 August the western and eastern fronts of the SDF linked up in the south and thereby cut off the access to the Euphrates from the ISIL militants.[143][144] The remaining ISIL forces responded to these advances by launching major counter-attacks between 12 and 14 August in an attempt to regain ground in the northeastern and southern city; although the assaults were reportedly unsuccessful, both sides suffered numerous casualties.[145][146][147]

Despite this, the SDF managed to capture more territory in the Old City, bringing about 57% of Raqqa under their control by 14 August.[148]

Notes

  1. ^ Most leftist foreign volunteers fight as part of the YPG,[2] though some have also formed an independent unit, the Antifascist International Tabur,[3] or joined the International Freedom Battalion. The latter is a larger unit, mostly composed of Kurdish and Turkish communists.[4]
  2. ^ While they are simply said to be members of unspecified FSA units in the article, the retreating fighters can be identified in the photographs[17] as members of the Elite Forces due to their arm patches.[18]

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