Syria: Raqqa operations to start in few days, militias reach Tabqa Dam

Syria: Kurdish militias cut last road to ISIS' stronghold in Raqqa

U.S.-backed Kurdish militias reached on Friday one side of the Tabqa dam near the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, while the French Defense Minister said that the international coalition battling ISIS will begin a final push towards Raqqa in the few coming days.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance, which is dominated by the Kurdish YPG militia, is supported by the US as the latter uses them in its war against ISIS.

Air strikes carried out by the US-led coalition and a long fight by the SDF forces ended in recapturing Manbij from the control of the Islamic State (ISIS) group last year.

The SDF, backed by US coalition, launched also a campaign with the ultimate aim of capturing Raqqa in November and succeeded in encircling the city. Recently, they launched an assault on Deir Ezzor province to cut the road to Raqqa and surrounding ISIS effectively and were able to achieve this goal after fierce clashes.

Moving towards Tabqa Dam

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is fighting Islamic State at the entrance to the dam, Jihan Sheikh Ahmed, the SDF spokeswoman for the Raqqa campaign, said.

The dam, the biggest on the Euphrates, stretches 4km across the river to the southern bank and provides one of the few land crossings remaining after the destruction of many bridges during the conflict.

Tabqa is about 40 km (25 miles) west of Raqqa, which Islamic State has used for years as one of its main bases of operations, including to plan and direct attacks overseas, and which sits along the northern bank of the Euphrates.

Late on Tuesday, the U.S. coalition air dropped SDF forces onto the southern bank of the Euphrates west of Tabqa, part of their preparations for an assault on the dam and a nearby town and airbase of the same name.

The US military has provided air and artillery support involving Apache helicopter gunships to help the SDF in an offensive for the strategically important Tabqa Dam near Raqqa.

A US spokesman for the coalition said last week that seizing the dam would “give the SDF a strategic advantage and launching point needed for the liberation” of Raqqa.

“The first goal of the SDF is to control Tabqa city (next to the dam) or besiege it completely before starting the battle for Raqqa,” said Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor.

Raqqa operations to start soon

French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Friday the battle to recapture Raqqa would restart in the coming days.

“Today, we can say that Raqqa is surrounded and the battle will begin in the coming days,” Le Drian told France’s CNEWS television.

“This will be a very hard battle but essential.”

France, which has been targeted by a wave of militant attacks, is one of the most active members of the US-led coalition against ISIS.

It ratcheted up its air strikes against the extremists after the Paris massacre of November 2015 which was claimed by ISIS.

A US official said last week that up to 1,000 additional American troops could deploy to northern Syria under provisional plans drawn up by the Pentagon.

The plan, which still needs to be approved by President Donald Trump, would mark a significant uptick in US boots on the ground in Syria.

But a European diplomat, who did not want to be named, said the situation surrounding the Raqqa offensive remained “blurred”.

“The Americans are still in the review process. Trump did not make a decision (on who will take Raqqa), but it is clear that on the ground it is the SDF option that is developing.”

Encircling Raqqa

Backed by U.S. air strikes and special forces, the SDF cut the last main road out of the city earlier this month.

“Cutting the road between Raqqa and Deir Az Zor means that practically the encirclement of ISIS capital is complete by land,” the Kurdish military sources told Reuters.

“It is a big victory but there is still a lot to accomplish,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The development, confirmed by the Observatory, marks a major blow against the Islamic State group that is under intense military pressure in both Syria and Iraq.

It is losing ground to three separate campaigns in northern Syria by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militias, the Russian-backed Syrian army, and Turkey and allied Syrian rebels.

The SDF advance means all main roads out of Raqqa are now cut. The U.S.-backed militias now plan to capture surrounding rural areas and advance towards the city to isolate it completely, SDF spokesman Talal Silo told Reuters.

The only way out of Raqqa now is over the Euphrates River that borders the city to the south, all bridges across which have been destroyed, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, has said. The Observatory estimates the city’s population at 200,000 and says it believes many of the IS leaders are still there.

Hemo said preparations for the attack were advanced: “The combat readiness is adequate with regards to weapons, equipment and the number of fighters, particularly after the encirclement of the city and its isolation from three sides – the west, the north and the east.”

The U.S.-led coalition last week announced that a Marines artillery unit had been deployed to Syria to help accelerate the campaign to defeat Islamic State at Raqqa, adding to some 500 U.S. forces already in Syria.

A second Kurdish military source said: “It is clear that American forces are increasing in numbers and equipment in northern Syria with the aim of creating a strategic balance and giving more momentum to the Raqqa battle and what comes after it. This momentum is subject to increase as the actual date for the battle of Raqqa draws near at the start of April.”

The Syrian crisis began as a peaceful demonstration against the injustice in Syria. Assad regime used to fire power and violence against the civilians and led to armed resistance. 450.000 Syrians lost their lives in the past five years according to UN estimates, and more than 12 million have lost their homes.