TABQA, Syria: US-backed fighters said Friday they were preparing for a final assault on the Islamic State group’s Syrian bastion Raqa, likely next month, after seizing a key city to the west.
The Syrian Democratic Forces earlier this week captured Tabqa and an adjacent dam, a major prize in the offensive for Raqa, the Syrian heart of IS’s self-proclaimed “caliphate”.
“The attack on Raqa will take place in the beginning of the summer,” Syrian Democratic Forces commander Rojda Felat told Agence France-Presse.
She later specified that it would likely start in June based on “military and tactical considerations.”
Felat spoke at a press conference in Tabqa, which the SDF captured from IS on Wednesday along with its nearby dam in one of its most important victories yet.
Tabqa lies on the banks of the Euphrates River, about 55 kilometres (34 miles) west of Raqa.
On Friday, an Agence France-Presse team entered Tabqa and the adjacent dam—Syria’s largest—and saw rows of sandbags, mangled cars and craters from heavy bombardment dotting the structure.
The battle for Tabqa was marked by fears that the dam would be severely damaged and collapse, leading to massive flooding downstream.
The body of an alleged IS fighter was seen on Friday floating in the artificial reservoir created by the dam.
US arms to arrive ‘soon’
The SDF’s fight for Raqa—dubbed Operation Wrath of the Euphrates—has already seen the alliance capture large swathes of the surrounding province with help from the US-led coalition bombing IS in Iraq and Syria.
The SDF are working to tighten the noose around Raqa before a final assault. At their closest point, the US-backed forces are just eight kilometers (five miles) from the city.
The joint Arab-Kurdish forces have received significant support from the US-led coalition in the form of air strikes and special forces advisers.
SDF deputy head Qahraman Hassan said: “In the beginning of the summer, we will storm and liberate (Raqa) city.”
His forces would receive “special weapons and armored vehicles” to enter the city, Hassan said, after President Donald Trump changed US policy to allow arms deliveries to the SDF’s Kurdish component.
No newly authorized aid had been delivered yet, Hassan said, but he added that “I believe this support will arrive soon.”
The SDF is dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), seen by the US as an indispensable ally in the fight against IS but considered a “terrorist group” by Turkey.
The US change in policy has reignited a dispute with Ankara, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan calling for an “immediate” reversal. AFP