Iraq News

Arab-Kurd alliance surrounds ISIL-held al-Raqa

By Waleed Abu al-Khair in Cairo

Two members of the Syrian Democratic Forces at the entrance of al-Tabqa. On April 24th, the SDF entered the Syrian town for the first time after encircling it from all sides. [Photo courtesy of the SDF]

Two members of the Syrian Democratic Forces at the entrance of al-Tabqa. On April 24th, the SDF entered the Syrian town for the first time after encircling it from all sides. [Photo courtesy of the SDF]

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are drawing ever closer to the city of al-Raqa, with the aim of fully encircling it and recapturing it from the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL).

In an April 13th statement, the SDF announced the conclusion of the third phase of Operation Wrath of the Euphrates, saying it had successfully met its objective of liberating the northern countryside of al-Raqa.

By the time the SDF had announced the start of the fourth phase of the operation, its forces "had managed to take control of al-Tabqa airport", SDF combat unit commander Abdel Fattah Nasruddin told Diyaruna.

This was followed by a deep advance into ISIL-controlled areas, he said, where the SDF were able to take control of the outskirts of the city of al-Tabqa.

They entered and captured the Iskandariyah district to the east of the city, and Ayed al-Sagheer district to the west, he said. They also took full control of the northern entrance to the city.

Fighting also was taking place in the southern part of the city, as well as to the north-west, to cut off the road between al-Tabqa and al-Raqa, he said.

ISIL elements fled the area mere hours after the battle started, he added, leaving behind a large number of dead and wounded.

On April 24th, "the SDF entered al-Tabqa for the first time after encircling it from all sides", the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

"The objective of the current operations is also to take total control over the Euphrates dam and its surrounding areas to secure it fully," Nasruddin said.

Villages liberated since the fourth phase of the operation began include al-Mazraa al-Hukumiya, Kabsh al-Kabeer and Rayyan, as well as Mazraat Ayed, Jabal Ayed and Northern Mushayrifah, he said.

SDF fighters also took control of Wadi Jallab and villages in its vicinity, including Um al-Tanak, Bir Jerba, Jarwa and Rayal and Kabsh Gharbi, among others.

Foiling suicide attacks

As liberating forces moved in on al-Tabqa, ISIL stepped up its use of suicide attackers, al-Raqa resident and SDF fighter Anas Mudhir told Diyaruna.

It sent fighters to infiltrate SDF positions and blow themselves up using "not only cars and armoured vehicles rigged with explosives but also fighters wearing explosive vests", he said.

The SDF have so far been able to foil dozens of suicide attacks and avert a large number of casualties, he said, noting that the group also has been using remote-controlled drones to drop grenades.

The drones, which are active in the eastern outskirts of al-Raqa city, had previously been used for surveillance and spying, Mudhir said.

ISIL also has planted hundreds of mines to block the SDF’s advance in the city and its surrounding areas and has deployed a large number of snipers.

Specialised SDF teams have cleared a path through the mine fields to allow safe passage for the fighters, and have been targeting the group's snipers, he said.

ISIL is preventing civilians from leaving al-Tabqa and is holding dozens at its main positions, he said, thus impeding military operations and slowing the advance of the SDF, who are exercising great care to spare civilian lives.

"The co-operation between the factions operating under the Wrath of the Euphrates operations room is excellent, and every move on the ground is being co-ordinated with the international coalition," he said.

"Many of the region’s residents have joined the SDF’s ranks in large numbers to participate in liberating the city of al-Raqa, as have many other factions such as Elite Forces and the Deir Ezzor Military Council," Mudhir said.

The majority of the new recruits are Arab tribesmen "who strongly support the ongoing operation and totally oppose the presence of the group", he added.

Ensuring the safety of IDPs

Thousands of civilians flee ISIL-controlled areas every day and are housed in temporary camps, said Ocalan Sheikhi, a relief worker at the Turkish-Syrian border.

These people will return to their farms and villages once they are liberated and cleared of mines, he told Diyaruna.

"The SDF are doing all they can within the means available to them to distribute food supplies to the internally displaced persons (IDPs)," he said.

Because of the ongoing fighting, humanitarian and relief organisations are not operating in the region, he said, so SDF fighters distribute the food themselves.

"At the start of the fourth phase, the SDF liberated Wadi al-Jallab because of its strategic location, through which civilians can escape to safe areas, and the valley has indeed become the main escape route," Sheikhi said.

Hundreds of civilians pass through it every day, he said.

The main camps housing IDPs include Ain Issa, north of al-Raqa city, where the Democratic Autonomous Administration committee provides tents, blankets and essential food items.

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