A large-scale offensive to liberate al-Raqa and surrounding areas from the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) is under way, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced Sunday (November 6th).
"The major battle to liberate al-Raqa and its surroundings has begun," SDF spokeswoman Jihan Sheikh Ahmed said at a news conference in the town of Ain Issa, about 50 kilometres north of al-Raqa.
The operation, dubbed the "Wrath of the Euphrates", includes the participation of about 30,000 fighters representing all ethnicities that make up the social fabric of al-Raqa region, the SDF said.
Ahmed said the operation has full support from international coalition forces as well.
The SDF operations room will co-ordinate all military operations and efforts between commanders and forces on the battlefronts, she said.
Ahead of the offensive, the operations room appealed to residents to stay away from areas where ISIL elements assemble, head to liberated areas or join the forces carrying out the operation.
'Everyone harmed by ISIL'
All ethnic components in al-Raqa region, including Arabs, Turkmen and Kurds, are involved in the military campaign, "thus reflecting the reality of the region as a whole, where everyone without exception has been harmed by ISIL's presence", said Aram Shamoun, a unit commander with the Syriac Military Council.
The units involved in the operation are advancing from their previous positions in various areas of al-Raqa's countryside, from which they have been battling ISIL since 2015, he said.
"The SDF's general command circulated directives to all forces involved in the operation on the need for deliberate action and patience during the upcoming military operations to spare civilians from harm and avoid targeting enemy positions that could potentially be adjacent to houses inhabited by civilians, as the group is expected to hide among civilians to protect themselves from artillery shelling and airstrikes ," Shamoun told Diyaruna.
What distinguishes this campaign from other ongoing campaigns against ISIL is the fact that "the region's people are the ones liberating their land from the group, and thus their will to fight is heightened several fold", he said.
The fighters' morale is very high, he said, especially that the planning and preparation for the battle has been ongoing for quite some time.
The motivation behind the fighters' determination is "to free residents from the injustice they are subjected to by [ISIL] and rid them of the group's tyranny, humiliation, punishment and endless killings", Shamoun said.
Joy tinged with anxiety
"After a long wait, the practical steps towards the liberation of al-Raqa city and its rural areas have begun," said Syrian journalist Mohammed al-Abdullah, who currently resides in Cairo.
"The region's people have waited for more than two years for this historical and fateful decision," he told Diyaruna.
Al-Abdullah said he spoke with al-Raqa residents a few days ago and they reported heavy activity in the city's streets as ISIL elements have moved, along with their families, from the outskirts of al-Raqa into the city, where they have spread out among civilians.
"Intense fear and anxiety mixed with joy over the start of the military operation prevails among residents, who are fearful of being used as human shields once the SDF reach the outskirts of the city," he said.
Residents' fears are not unfounded, as ISIL used thousands of civilians as "human shields" in and around Mosul, where Iraqi forces are waging an offensive to liberate the ISIL stronghold .
"ISIL's depraved, cowardly strategy is to attempt to use the presence of civilian hostages to render certain points, areas or military forces immune from military operations -- effectively using tens of thousands of women, men and children as human shields," UN spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said October 28th in Geneva.