The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have stormed the first district of Raqqa as the operation to rid the Syrian city of Daesh terrorists picks up steam. The SDF also seized buildings and a checkpoint from Daesh, their first gains in the battle for Raqqa which has been the de facto capital of Daesh in Syria since 2014.
The SDF said on Tuesday it was launching attacks from the east, west and north of the city, which is bordered to the south by the Euphrates River. The US-led coalition is carrying out air strikes on Raqqa to support the SDF offensive.
The advance took place in Al Mashlab, a district in southeastern Raqqa after a night of heavy air strikes. Clashes are also taking place in Division 17, a former army base one kilometre north of Raqqa.
TRT World's Alican Ayanlar has more.
The fighting will be "fierce because Daesh will die to defend their so-called capital," SDF spokesperson Talal Silo said about the operation which reached Raqqa on Monday. Daesh captured the city from rebel groups in 2014 and used it as an operations base to plan attacks in the West.
The assault on Raqqa will pile more pressure on Daesh’s self-declared "caliphate" with the group facing defeat in the Iraqi city of Mosul and being forced to retreat from most of Syria, Silo said, speaking from the Hukoumiya farms area, 10 km (6 miles) north of Raqqa.
An ongoing battle
The SDF have spent months cornering Daesh in the city.
"The coalition has a big role in the success of the operations. In addition to warplanes, there are coalition forces working side by side with the SDF," Silo said.
"[The SDF] reached the eastern edge of the city but have not entered yet. They also broke through Daesh's first line of defence on the northern outskirts of Raqqa," Rami Abdel Rahman, head of Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), said.
The assault overlaps with the final stages of the US-backed attack to recapture the Iraqi city of Mosul from Daesh. It follows months of advances to the north, east and west of Raqqa by the SDF.
The commander of the Raqqa campaign, Rojda Felat, confirmed an assault had begun on the Al Mashlab district at the city's southeastern outskirts.
US-led coalition sees "long and difficult" war for Raqqa
The US-led coalition said on Tuesday the fight for Raqqa would be "long and difficult" but would deliver a "decisive blow to the idea of Daesh as a physical caliphate".
"It’s hard to convince new recruits that Daesh is a winning cause when they just lost their twin 'capitals' in both Iraq and Syria," a coalition statement cited Lt Gen Steve Townsend, the coalition commanding general, as saying.
He said once Daesh was defeated in Raqqa and Mosul in neighbouring Iraq, there would still be a lot of hard fighting ahead but reiterated that coalition was strong and committed to the complete annihilation of terrorists in both countries.
Turkey to retaliate if Raqqa operation presents threat
Turkey’s Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said on Tuesday Ankara will retaliate immediately if the operation by US-backed forces to capture Raqqa presents a threat to Turkey. The city is about 90 km (56 miles) from the border with Turkey.
Speaking to deputies from the ruling AK Party after the SDF said they had launched their battle for Raqqa, Yildirim said Turkey was taking the necessary measures on the issue.
The SDF is a coalition of forces, but dominated by the YPG. Turkey views the YPG as a terrorist group aligned with the PKK which has fought a bloody campaign in southeast Turkey since 1984.
The Raqqa campaign has been the source of tension in ties between the US and Turkey, which lobbied Washington to abandon its support for the YPG.
The YPG has been the main partner for the US in its campaign in Syria against Daesh, which is also the target of separate campaigns waged by the Russian-backed Syrian regime and Free Syrian Army rebel groups, the latter backed by Turkey.
The US last week said it had started distributing arms to the YPG to help take Raqqa.
The SDF has said it will hand control of Raqqa to a civilian council from the city after its capture, echoing the pattern in other areas retaken by the SDF.
Coalition air strike kills 21 civilians in Raqqa
"The civilians were boarding small boats on the northern bank of the Euphrates River to flee southern neighbourhoods of Raqqa," said SOHR head, Rahman.
He said women and children were among the dead, but he could not immediately give a specific number.
Thousands of civilians have fled the northern city as the SDF has closed in on it.
Russian aircraft have also carried out bombing raids against Daesh convoys fleeing the city.
According to the Britain-based Observatory, the death toll in Monday’s attack could rise as some of the wounded were in critical condition.
Civilian casualties on the rise due to coalition air strikes
The Syrian war began in March 2011 with widespread protests against the regime, but it has since morphed into a multi-front war that has left over 400,000 people dead.
The US military has said coalition air strikes in Iraq and Syria had "unintentionally" killed 484 civilians, but observers say the number is much higher.
The Observatory has given a toll of around 1,500 civilians in Syria alone since the coalition began air assaults on September 23, 2014.
The monitor recorded the coalition's deadliest month for Syrian civilians between April 23 and May 23, with 225 civilians killed.