by Hummam Sheikh Ali
DAMASCUS, June 12 (Xinhua) — The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are advancing in the Islamic State (IS) group de facto capital of Raqqa in northern Syria, while civilians are paying the price of the battles.
Since unleashing their offensive last Tuesday, the SDF, a combination of Kurd, Arab and Assyrian fighters led by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) group, has made progress on several fronts in the east, west and northeast of Raqqa.
A well-informed source familiar with the operations in Raqqa said the SDF and allies, with the heavy backing of the U.S.-led anti-terror coalition, have so far captured several neighborhoods in Raqqa, namely the Mashlab and Sina’a in the east, and Sbahiyeh, Jazra and Romaniyeh in the west.
The source and the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the SDF’s control over Sina’a neighborhood is their largest achievement so far, as it will put them at the gates of the old city of Raqqa.
The SDF have reached the Bab Baghdad area as well as two shrines called Ammar Bin Yasser and Oweis al-Qurani, the source said.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the source said the Kurdish-led forces are expecting to capture Raqqa within two months.
Meanwhile, activists close to the SDF said the Kurdish-led group has liberated 350 square km of areas in Raqqa since last Tuesday, adding that 44 IS militants were killed Monday, when the SDF foiled an IS attack in the liberated areas in Raqqa.
As for the liberated areas in Raqqa, the SDF will hand over the administration to local councils once they are cleared of explosive devices.
Meanwhile, the SDF is urging the IS fighters to surrender to the U.S.-backed forces in exchange for “a humanitarian treatment.”
But these battles are a bitter-sweat experience for civilians, who want to get rid of IS, but are also paying a steep price for the current battles.
Since the beginning of the battles in Raqqa, civilians have started to flee the war zones, but IS militants have prevented scores of them from leaving, burning their cars and keeping them hostage as human shields.
Some Raqqa-based activists said IS are trying to recruit people to help defend the city from SDF attacks.
Activists also said civilian casualties are falling as a result of heavy shelling of the U.S.-led coalition on the city.
Government media outlets said the U.S. coalition struck Raqqa with white phosphorus at least twice, leaving an undisclosed number of people killed.
These battles and attacks have also reverberated on the health situation, as the city is suffering a lack of medical supplies.
As for the Syrian government forces, they have captured several areas from IS in the western countryside of Raqqa.
A source told Xinhua that there is no direct coordination between the SDF and the Syrian army, adding that there seems to be a plan between the U.S. and Russia regarding the roles of each force in the battle for Raqqa.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the aim of the Syrian forces’ advance in western Raqqa countryside is to secure areas that will besiege IS in the southern countryside of Aleppo province as a prelude to dislodge the remaining IS fighters in Aleppo out of the key province.