The largely Kurdish and very American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are pushing south, out of the historically Kurdish northern enclaves where they’ve operated previously, toward ISIS’s “capital city,” Raqqa.
ISIS appears to have predicted this offensive, at least it does if you can believe US military reports of a couple of weeks ago suggesting that the insurgent group had declared a “state of emergency” in the city. Things really picked up late last week, when the US-led anti-ISIS coalition dropped leaflets on Raqqa advising residents to leave the city in advance of an assault. Then, earlier this week, SDF ground forces (with air support courtesy of the US) began to conduct new operations in Raqqa district, north of the city:
An unspecified number of SDF fighters were seen moving south from their stronghold of Tel Abyad near the Turkish border toward Ain Issa, a town about 60 km north west of Raqqa city, and clashes were reported nearby, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.
An SDF spokesman, Talal Silo, confirmed a military operation began this morning but gave no details. He told Reuters via internet messaging it was focused at this stage on capturing large tracts of territory north of Raqqa, not the city itself.
As that report says, the current operation is only focused on taking territory on the way to Raqqa city, not assaulting the city itself. An SDF spokesman insisted that there are no immediate plans to assault the city and that those will only take shape once this operation is completed. It’s long been the policy of the Kurdish YPG, the main component in the SDF, that it will not take the lead in an operation to liberate Raqqa, traditionally a predominantly Arab city. They want Arab forces to take the lead, both to avoid clashes with the local Arab population (I know the YPG is America’s best pal in Syria, but it has–allegedly–committed war crimes against Arab civilians in the areas it’s taken away from ISIS and it is not well-liked by Syrian Arabs in general) and so that the YPG can keep most of its forces in the north defending Kurdish territory, but the SDF’s Arab component simply isn’t up to the task at this point. That may help to explain all the Agence France Presse photos that have popped up over the past week, showing US Special Forces embedded with the SDF in front line positions around Raqqa–wearing YPG uniform insignia, no less, which won’t make isn’t making Ankara very happy (though Turkish uneasiness doesn’t seem like it will scuttle the offensive).
There is an obvious concern with assaulting Raqqa that civilians will be caught in the crossfire. ISIS is reportedly allowing some Raqqa residents to leave the city, but it’s not clear now many “some” actually is, and if Iraqi assaults on Tikrit and Ramadi are any template, it’s likely that forces attempting to liberate Raqqa will find plenty of civilians still there, prevented from fleeing either by ISIS or by their own circumstances.