Posts Tagged ‘Raqqa’

Explosion hits US-French base in northern Syria’s Raqqa

June 4, 2018

A military base hosting American and French troops in northern Syria’s Ain Issa town was hit by an explosion on Sunday night, according to local sources in Raqqa on Monday.

Ain Issa in northern Raqqa is under the control of the PKK-linked People’s Protection Units (YPG) terror group, the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to restrictions on talking to the media, said.

The base reportedly hosts around 200 American and 75 French troops. It remains unclear if there have been any casualties following the blast.

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The YPG is the Syrian branch of the PKK terrorist network, which has waged war against Turkey for more than 30 years.

The U.S. and the coalition have largely ignored the links of the YPG and Democratic Union Party (PYD) with the PKK, which the U.S. and the EU also list as a terrorist group.

Turkey has repeatedly objected to U.S. support for the terrorist YPG as a “reliable ally” in Syria, which has included supplying arms and equipment.


UN calls on Russia, Iran and Turkey to break Syria aid deadlock

February 1, 2018


United Nations Syria envoy’s Special Adviser Jan Egeland attends a briefing after the meeting of the humanitarian task force on Syria in Geneva, Switzerland. (Reuters)
GENEVA: A United Nations humanitarian task force has been unable to make deliveries to desperate Syrians for the past two months as President Bashar Assad’s government has witheld approval for aid convoys, the UN humanitarian adviser said on Thursday.
Before they can move into besieged areas or across front lines, the convoys require letters from the government and security guarantees from armed groups.
“It’s an all-time low in giving us the facilitation letters,” adviser Jan Egeland told reporters after meeting senior diplomats in Geneva.
Insurgents fighting Assad’s forces were also creating obstacles, contributing to the worst situation since 2015, he said.
Egeland called on Russia, Turkey and Iran to de-escalate the fighting in Idlib governorate, which he said was “screaming for a cease-fire.”
“When we need their ability to influence the parties the most, in this bleak hour for humanitarian work, humanitarian diplomacy seems to be totally impotent. We’re getting nowhere at the moment.”
This week Russia convened a Syrian peace congress in Sochi. Egeland said it had so far not resulted in any progress but he hoped that it would.
Air strikes hit two crowded markets in Idlib this week, killing at least 31 people, and have deprived hundreds of thousands of health care.
“I told the members of the humanitarian task force, we cannot have conventional warfare in what is essentially a refugee camp,” Egeland said.
Further north, a Turkish offensive in Afrin district has displaced about 15,000 people, Egeland said, adding: “There are also reports…that local authorities have made it hard for people to flee from the Afrin area.”
And outside Damascus, the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta, where almost 400,000 people are under siege and about 750 need urgent medical evacuation, desperately needs a pause in the fighting, he said.
“We have indications from both sides that they want it, but it hasn’t happened. And it’s both sides that have to help us here. There are air raids, fighting from the government side, but there is a barrage of mortars and grenades going from this area going into civilian neighborhoods in Damascus.”
He also said 112 people had been killed by explosions in the town of Raqqa since it was recaptured from Daesh fighters in October because people had been allowed back to their homes before the town had been cleared of bombs.


U.S. Commander Sees Urgent Need for Recovery in Raqqa

January 23, 2018

Army Gen. Joseph Votel tours city once claimed by Islamic State as its capital; ‘incredible work’ lies ahead

Gen. Joseph Votel, right, in Raqqa with USAID’s Mark Green.Photo: Nancy A. Youssef/The Wall Street Journal

RAQQA, Syria—The U.S. military commander overseeing the war against Islamic State visited the city once claimed by the group as its capital, saying Monday that a more difficult campaign now must begin to help local residents regain control and prevent a slide back into extremist hands.

Army Gen. Joseph Votel, head of the U.S. Central Command, spent more than an hour in his first visit to Raqqa, where intact buildings were a rare sight in block after block of rubble. Residents were at work rebuilding inner walls of buildings that have little in the way of outer structure, and several business have opened in various parts of the Syrian city.

Three months after Raqqa was reclaimed by U.S.-backed forces, remnants of Islamic State’s presence remain widespread. They include berms built in the north to slow a feared U.S.-backed ground invasion, mines protruding from the ground, and explosives in homes awaiting clearance efforts. U.S. forces have located documents left behind throughout the city, detailing the brutal form of governance in effect under ISIS, military officials said.

The area’s roadways were the only structures that escaped complete destruction through the U.S.-led aerial assault and local ground campaign, allowing the general to tour much of the city.

Its current state “just highlights the challenge of what has to be done next, the incredible work that has to be done just to get people back into their homes,” Gen. Votel said to reporters traveling with him.

The destruction, much of it the result of coalition airstrikes, was on a scale he had not seen since the campaign last year in Iraq to rid western Mosul of Islamic State. “These are hard-core fighters. They have to be rooted out,” he said. “This is ugly business but it is necessary business.”

Joining Gen. Votel was Mark Green, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. Mr. Green became the highest-ranking Trump administration official to visit the city. Later, Mr. Green took a nearly two-hour drive to the nearest camp for internally displaced residents, home to roughly 18,000 people.

Mr. Green and Gen. Votel visited a soccer stadium that had been transformed into an Islamic State execution site; the town square where extremists first announced control of Raqqa after seizing it in 2013 and more recently where U.S.-backed forces declared victory; and the only elementary school now open, educating 800 students.

Throughout their tour, Gen. Votel, Mr. Green and U.S. special operations forces based there were greeted warmly by the few thousands citizens—a fraction of the population, according to local officials—who have returned since local forces reclaimed the city in October.

Children ran alongside a U.S. convoy, flashing V-signs while adults waved, in an outward sign of gratitude for the U.S. role in the campaign for the city. U.S. forces on Monday moved around the city with relative ease, in sharp contrast to their heavily fortified presence in neighboring Iraq.

The tour was both a showcase of ISIS’s loss of its most important city and physical display of the costs of that victory. U.S. personnel stationed there said they saw incremental improvement with each day—more residents on a certain block, or a local restaurant reopened amid the debris.

U.S. troops also sense that the gratitude is finite, and that the enthusiasm of locals carries an expectation that the city will be rebuilt, they said. But it could be months before there is running water, U.S. troops said. As for electricity: “We can’t even think about that now,” one Special Forces officer explained.

ISIS punctured or destroyed water pipes in some areas and replaced them with underground tunnels, U.S. forces based in the area said. In other parts of the city, water lines were destroyed by the U.S.-led air assault and now are buried under rubble. Makeshift trucks bring water, or residents buy from an emergent black market.

U.S. personnel based in the city said the local government must show rebuilding progress, or the resulting anger could present an opening for extremists.

Added to that, U.S. troops worry about what would happen if Kurdish fighters helping hold Raqqa abandon the city to help fellow Kurds under Turkish assault near the border in northern Syria. Turkish forces over the weekend began airstrikes and a ground offensive on a Syrian Kurdish force allied with the U.S. in the fight against ISIS.

Could local forces still hold Raqqa?

The uncertainty about how long stability will remain in Raqqa “keeps me up at night,” one special operations forces captain said. “This is the honeymoon.”

There already have been snags: retribution attacks, political disagreements, the lack of a central government, say U.S. officials.

And U.S. forces on the ground said they have seen residents returning from the south of Raqqa—not the north, where most are believed to have fled. They fear these migrants may be loyal to the Syrian regime—or ISIS—and plotting to stoke instability.

For Gen. Votel, efforts to form a local government and the rebuilding effort will answer whether the scale of damage was worth the result.

“There has to be some kind of local governance structure that can receive NGO, international donations … and guide that work into the right areas,” Gen. Votel said. “When we talk about consolidating gains here, what we really think of is stability.”

Assad Regime Prepares to Expand Its Control Over Border Area With Israel

December 20, 2017

After the conquest of Aleppo, Dir a-Zur and Raqqa, the regime is ready for its next move. Israel will now have to rethink its policy

By Amos Harel Dec 20, 2017 8:23 AM

Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces during a battle against ISIS in Raqa, September 28, 2017.

Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces during a battle against ISIS in Raqa, September 28, 2017. BULENT KILIC/AFP

The Assad regime is gearing up to expand the area it controls in southern Syria, near the border with Israel.

The Syrian army and the militias supporting it are likely to start their attack on the rebel forces in the vicinity of the border with Lebanon, by the Syrian Mount Hermon. Later they may try to advance southward, along Israel’s border in the Golan Heights.


Israel has taken a harder line against the Assad regime in recent years. Now it will have to rethink its policy, mainly after hundreds of people from radical Sunni organizations, identified with Al-Qaida and ISIS, reached the area.

The Syrian side of the border with Israel in the Golan has been relatively stable in the last year. The Assad regime controlled the northern part, returning to outposts on the Syrian Hermon and in the new town of Quneitra. There were also two enclaves, a Druze one in the village of Khader, which is controlled by a local militia that maintained contact with the Assad regime; and a Sunni enclave in villages along the Lebanon border.

Rebel organizations controlled the main part of the border, from the old town of Quneitra and southward. This area was mainly the fiefdom of local Sunni militias, some of which accepted aid from Israel in the form of food, clothing, medicine and medical care in Israeli hospitals. Arab-language media claim that Israel also supplies these militias with arms and ammunition. Farther from the border, extreme organizations identified with Al-Qaida, first and foremost the Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly known as the Nusra Front).

The southern enclave, by the triangle of borders with Israel and Jordan, is controlled by a local arm of ISIS, today called the Jaysh Khalid Ibn al-Waleed Army. The Jaysh army is embroiled in battles for control with other rebel organizations north and east of it, and is barely involved at all in the war against the regime.

The dramatic turns in the Syrian civil war seem likely to affect developments on the border with Israel. Abetted by Russian might in the air and Shi’ite militias sent to him by Iran, Bashar Assad is racking up more and more successes. The conquest of Aleppo last December, followed by the conquest of Dir a-Zur and Raqqa in eastern Syria from ISIS frees the Syrian army, and Shi’ite militias, to resume their interest in other areas that had been considered less critical to Assad. The regime’s next move, presumably, could happen near Israel, though when that might be is not clear, and as usual with Syria, it could be delayed – meaning that the Syrian army would first aim to reconquer the southern part of the Syria-Lebanon border, cutting off supplies to the rebels in Lebanon once and for all. If that works, Assad might later try to shoo away the rebel organizations from the southern Golan as well.

Meanwhile, ISIS’s rout has other implications for the area near Israel’s border. Lately several hundred fighters arrived at the southern enclave, by the border with Jordan. These were refugees from the battles in areas that ISIS lost. About 1,000 armed rebels are estimated to be operating under the auspices of the local ISIS branch. Another Al-Qaida arm beefed up with fighters fleeing the war in the country’s east is increasing its presence in the central section of the border with Israel.

During the last year, as the Assad regime scored its gains, and Shi’ite militias and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard stepped up their involvement in the fighting, Israeli leaders have been warning about Iranian influence in Syria, and mainly its approach to the Israeli border. But the situation is now a little different. Firstly, the gathering of extremist rebels, whose organizational ideologies are supremely hostile to Israel, could create the potential for terrorism near the border.

Secondly, there is a question whether giving humanitarian assistance to the local Sunni militias won’t put Israel on a direct collision course with Assad and Iran, who, in any conflict with the rebels, would probably win.

On this matter, opinions in the defense and political establishments diverge. One opinion favors maintaining humanitarian aid to the Sunni villages and notes the concern that if the regime expands its influence near the border, the Iranians and militias associated with Assad will show up too.

Others suggest that the regime’s return could actually stabilize the border, staving off the organizations associated with Al-Qaida, and mainly with ISIS.

In any case, the resumption of internal strife within Syria near the border would plainly require Israel to be especially alert and to reconsider its positions.

Israel repeats assurances to the Druze

Last week Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and other top defense officials talked with leaders and military officers belonging to the Druze community following the crisis that began in early November.

Back then, as Sunni rebel organizations advanced toward the Druze town of Khader, in the northern Syrian Golan, the clan’s leaders in Israel claimed the Israeli government was collaborating with the rebel factions and imperiling the lives of the people in Khader. Following the protest, Israel warned the rebels that it might intervene on behalf of the Druze in Khader. The rebels retreated to their positions near the village.

The latest developments in southern Syria reawakened fear among Israeli Druze leaders that members of the community in Syria will get caught between the rebels and the regime. At their meeting, Lieberman and Eisenkot again stressed Israel’s commitment to the Druze community, and presented the defense establishment’s opinion of events in Syria.

The instability in southern Syria continues to worry Jordanian circles too. The journalist Bassam Badareen, who has many a source in the Jordanian establishment, wrote this week in the Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper that Jordan feels abandoned despite the understandings achieved between it, the U.S. and Russia in an agreement signed last month for the establishment of regions to reduce friction in southern Syria.

Badareen writes that Major General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds force in the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, continues to encourage Shi’ite militias to “seep” through to the town of Daraa by the border with Jordan, thereby endangering the security of the Hashemite kingdom, and the superpowers are leaving it to deal with the problem by itself.


Amos Harel
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Hashed al-Shaabi coalition of Iraqi paramilitary forces report fierce clashes near Mosul Tuesday with Jihadists from the Islamic State group

October 24, 2017


© AFP | Fighters of the Hashed al-Shaabi coalition of Iraqi paramilitary forces have been instrumental in fighting around Mosul
BAGHDAD (AFP) – Jihadists from the Islamic State group and fighters from Iraq’s Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary coalition were locked in fierce clashes near Mosul Tuesday, with nearly 30 reported dead, the coalition said.

Mosul, Iraq’s second city, was retaken from IS in July after a massive months-long offensive.

“Waad Allah forces are repelling an IS attack southwest of Mosul in the Hatra desert” some 100 kilometres (60 miles) southwest of Mosul, said a spokesman for the Hashed unit.

The Hashed is an umbrella group of paramilitary auxiliaries formed in 2014 to support Iraqi regular forces after IS swept across swathes of northern Iraq.

In a series of online posts, Waad Allah said IS sent “numerous suicide bombers” to attack its forces, and gave a death toll of 24 jihadists and four of its own men.

Iraqi forces have retaken more than 90 percent of the territory IS seized in the country in 2014, with the jihadists now confined to the desert areas in Anbar province bordering Syria.

But despite a series of stinging defeats, IS in Iraq retains the ability to launch attacks in areas declared “liberated” months previously.

After losing Mosul in July, IS has also just lost Raqa, its “capital” in Syria.

The Hashed took over the Hatra area in April this year after IS forces were ousted.

The ancient walled city of Hatra in northern Nineveh province is on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Symbol of Kurdish Nationalism Rises in Raqqa

October 20, 2017
Two days after leading the battle to oust Islamic State from Raqqa, U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters on Thursday made clear they have replaced the extremist group as the Syrian city’s new authority.
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Raqqa: Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces raised a giant banner of Abdullah Ocalan —the Kurdish nationalist leader jailed as a terrorist in Turkey. The divisive photo of the Turkish Marxist leader stood out amid a sea of mostly yellow and green flags representing the various Kurdish militias

By Raja Abdulrahim
The Wall Street Journal

Two days after leading the battle to oust Islamic State from Raqqa, U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters on Thursday made clear they have replaced the extremist group as the Syrian city’s new authority.

Members of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces held a news conference in a symbolic public square, where they raised a giant banner of Abdullah Ocalan —the Kurdish nationalist leader jailed as a terrorist in Turkey. The divisive photo of the Turkish Marxist leader stood out amid a sea of mostly yellow and green flags representing the various Kurdish militias that make up the bulk of the fighters in the SDF.

There were no flags in sight representing the Arab groups that are part of the SDF and also took part in capturing the city.

The four-month campaign to reclaim what was once Islamic State’s de facto capital, backed by U.S. airstrikes and American special forces on the ground, was hailed as a victory in driving the extremists from a city that became synonymous with their reign of terror.

But for residents of the predominantly Arab city, this display of Kurdish nationalism has subdued their celebrations.

“The photo clearly represents who controls Raqqa now,” said Mohamad al-Mosari, an activist and one of the founding members of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, the first anti-Islamic State group that formed in the city.

The banner reignited concerns among some residents and activists over the ground force chosen by the United States to lead the battle for Raqqa. The campaign was delayed for many months as the U.S. and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally Turkey debated what groups should steer the fight.

Turkey considers the YPG, the main Syrian Kurdish militia in the SDF, a terrorist group and one and the same with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, the separatist group headed by Mr. Ocalan that Ankara has been battling for years. Both the U.S. and Turkey have designated the PKK as a terrorist organization.

As Islamic State faces mounting defeats across Syria and Iraq, long-brewing tensions between rival parties once allied against the terror group are flaring. That scenario is playing out dramatically across northern Iraq, where the central government’s military forces—once allied with the Kurds against the extremist group—are now seizing back territory the Kurds captured from Islamic State.

Raqqa native Uday has been watching the battle in his hometown from southern Turkey and waiting for the day he can return.

“We all want to go back,” said Uday, adding that the photo of Mr. Ocalan was “disrespectful” to the people of Raqqa. “It’s a message that the character of the city has changed.”

Kurdish commanders defended the move and said it wasn’t meant to be divisive.

“Ocalan represents an idea. We look at him as a philosopher who spreads democracy,” Mirvan Rojava, a military commander of the YPG, said of the Marxist leader. “The issue is not connected with his political party or his military followers.”

Ankara has watched warily over the past few years as the Syrian Kurdish allies of the PKK have gained territory through fighting Islamic State, all with strong U.S. backing, worried it could embolden its own restive Kurdish population.

The Kurds have used Syria’s multi-sided conflict and the campaign against Islamic State to carve out their own semi-autonomous region across northern Syria, in the process exacerbating ethnic tensions. They have been accused by human-rights groups of at times forcibly displacing Arabs and ethnic Turkmen. YPG officials have said the displacements are necessary to prevent Islamic State sleeper cells.

From the first hours of the city’s takeover on Tuesday, the Kurdish militias made clear they were the new controlling power—spinning doughnuts atop an armored vehicle in the same roundabout that Islamic State had used to stage a mini-victory parade to celebrate its blitz through large parts of Syria and Iraq three years ago.

That roundabout later became the setting for much of the group’s brutal propaganda—public beheadings and headless corpses hung for days as a warning to residents to fall into line with their extremist interpretation of Islamic law.

A Kurdish fighter with the Syrian Democratic Forces taking part in a celebration Thursday at the Al-Naim square in Raqqa.Photo: BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images

Despite the declaration of victory over Islamic State this week, the city remains dangerous, and most civilians are being prevented from returning to their homes, activists and residents said.

Independent monitoring group Airwars estimated Thursday that at least 1,300 civilians were killed as a result of U.S.-led coalition strikes on the city of Raqqa during the four-month campaign to take the city.

The coalition has denied most reports of civilian casualties as a result of its airstrikes and has released much lower estimates. Since the coalition began carrying out strikes against Islamic State in August 2014, at least 735 civilians have been killed in Syria and Iraq as a result of coalition military activities, according to estimates released in late September. It is still investigating 350 additional reports of civilian deaths.

The Syrian Democratic Forces are still combing through the city searching for Islamic State sleeper cells and defusing explosives planted by the terror group—a favored tactic.

The militants spent months preparing for the Raqqa battle by digging tunnels underneath homes and other buildings.

Army Col. Ryan Dillon, spokesman for U.S. forces, tweeted on Thursday that the SDF had cleared 98% of Raqqa and were checking buildings and tunnels for any holdouts.

—Nour Alakraa in Berlin and Nazih Osseiran in Beirut contributed to this article.

Write to Raja Abdulrahim at

After Raqqa, the U.S. sees Russia, Assad looming over remaining Syrian battlefield

October 20, 2017

Rapid gains by government forces may have cut off planned advances by U.S.-backed fighters.

By Karen DeYoungLiz Sly

     The Washington Post

Female fighters with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces celebrate Oct. 19, 2017, in Raqqa, Syria, beneath a banner of Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has been designated a terrorist group by Turkey and the United States. (Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)
Rapid advances by Russian- and Iranian-backed government forces in eastern Syria are thwarting the U.S. military’s hopes of pressing deeper into Islamic State territory after winning the battle for Raqqa.

An expansion of territory held by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad is also likely to provide Assad with additional leverage in political negotiations over Syria’s future, talks the United Nations hopes to reconvene next month.

In a statement this week, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said the “latest developments” in Syria pointed “to the urgent need to reinvigorate the political process.”

The recent government gains have cut off the approach of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces to remaining militant strongholds in the southeastern part of the country, including the crucial town of Bukamal near the Syria-Iraq border.

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Russian airstrikes

Aided by Russian airstrikes, in apparent violation of a deconfliction line along the Euphrates River that U.S. officials said had been tentatively agreed on with Moscow, government forces have encircled and claimed control of another location that had been on the wish list of U.S. military planners — the town of Mayadeen, where many senior Islamic State leaders are thought to have been hiding. The militants put up little resistance, and most appear to have escaped.

The rise and fall of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria VIEW GRAPHIC
[Graphic: The rise and fall of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria]

The unexpected militant withdrawal has “thrown for a loop” U.S. military assumptions that it could beat overstretched government forces in a race to the key river strongholds, said Nicholas Heras, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “Because ISIS has decided not to put up a tough fight against Assad’s forces,” Heras said, “it has forced a change of assumptions about what the situation will look like on the ground.”

The advance has also taken government forces, and supporting Russian strikes, east of the river and into Syria’s main oil-producing region of Deir al-Zour province, once a key source of Islamic State revenue.

“I’m not going to address whether or not an agreement or deconfliction line has been broken,” Army Col. Ryan S. Dillon, spokesman for counter-Islamic State military operations, said in a telephone interview from Baghdad. “That’s why we maintain an open dialogue” with Russia.

In addition to daily contact between the two militaries on a hotline, U.S. and Russian generals have held two face-to-face meetings in recent weeks, at least one of them in Jordan, to discuss the increasing proximity of their air operations in the Euphrates River valley, and that of the separate ground forces they back.

Progress against the Islamic State in Syria has been measured since 2016 by towns and cities seized from militant control along the Euphrates by the SDF, a combination of Arab and Syrian Kurdish fighters, aided by U.S. air power and advisers. Manbij, near the Turkish border in the north, was recaptured in 2016, followed by Tabqa and now Raqqa.

After Raqqa, the intention was to proceed downriver through Mayadeen to Bukamal, where SDF fighters would link up with Iraqi government forces trying to regain control over the Islamic State-controlled town of Qaim, just across the border inside Iraq. A major goal was to block Iran from securing a land corridor, through Iraq, between Tehran and Damascus.

Dillon declined to say whether the U.S. military’s plans had changed.

“There are always plans,” Dillon said. “You don’t fight the plan, you fight the enemy . . . where they are.” The military, he said, was not concerned with “greater policy decisions” over who fought the militants or who controlled Syria, as long as it was not the Islamic State.

“We’re not in a race, we’re not in the land-grab business. We’re here to defeat ISIS,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State.

Others were less sanguine about the effect of government gains, predicting that Assad’s ability to remain in power would leave open the door for Islamic State militants, gone to ground in the vast desert that spans the Syria-Iraq border, to regroup.

“That’s what you get when you make a deal with the Russians,” said Jennifer Cafarella of the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, which monitors the fighting in Syria. “What we see is a push by the regime and its backers to seize key infrastructure, such as oil and gas fields, and to position to disrupt U.S.-led anti-ISIS operations further down the Euphrates.”

With the remaining Islamic State strongholds in Syria increasingly likely to fall into ­Syrian government hands, the Trump administration will have to decide whether the U.S. military remains in Syria to protect areas that have been captured by the SDF — which is dominated by Syrian Kurds of the People’s Protection Units, or YPG.

On Thursday, female YPG fighters marked the victory in Raqqa by raising a giant banner of the Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan over the central square where the Islamic State carried out most of its grisly executions. Ocalan, who heads Turkey’s militant Kurdish movement, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, is serving a prison sentence in Turkey for terrorism.

The public declaration of fealty to Ocalan by the Syrian Kurds who led the Raqqa offensive points to one of the many challenges confronting the Trump administration as it seeks to forge a coherent policy for the post-Islamic State era. Although the Syrian Kurds have admitted many Arabs into their ranks, they have retained overall control of the SDF coalition’s command and ideology.

Turkey, which shares a long border with the autonomous enclave the Kurds have established in northeastern Syria, is enraged at the U.S. military’s support for the SDF, which it considers an appendage of Ocalan’s terrorist movement. That leaves the SDF vulnerable to potential military action by Turkey to quell its aspirations for a ministate in Syria.

Many Syrian Arabs are also deeply uncomfortable about the prospect of being governed by Kurds. Raqqa is an almost wholly Arab city, and the photographs of the Ocalan banner that circulated on social media triggered widespread condemnation by Arabs on Thursday.

“For us Raqqans, we do not know whether the SDF taking over the city and expelling ISIS is a liberation or an occupation,” Tareq Sham, a former Raqqa resident living in Turkey, wrote on his Facebook page. “The vast majority of us consider what happened a switch between two occupiers.”

Remaining in Syria to protect its Kurdish allies risks embroiling the United States in possible future conflicts between Arabs and Kurds, and between Turkey and the Kurds.

The Kurds are also vulnerable to the Syrian government’s declared ambition to reclaim all of the territory it lost in the war that began as a political rebellion in 2011. Much of what happens in Raqqa will depend on the speed and success of reconstruction there. U.S. special envoy Brett McGurk is visiting the Raqqa area, accompanied by Saudi Arabian Minister for Gulf Affairs Thamer al-Sabhan, whose government the Trump administration hopes will put up funds for the effort.

Sly reported from Beirut.


Inside Islamic State’s Other Grisly War, a World Away From Syria

October 18, 2017

Islamists in the Philippines pledged allegiance to ISIS, devastated a city and built a model for jihadists after the fall of Raqqa

Image may contain: one or more people, house and outdoor

MARAWI, Philippines—On the third day of his captivity, during one of the most violent jihadist rebellions outside the Middle East and Africa, Ronnel Samiahan watched Islamist militants make an example of a fellow hostage who had tried to break free.

After dragging the conscious man onto the street and pulling his head up by the hair, the militants began sawing at his neck with a knife. Five minutes later, the executioner thrust the severed head toward the remaining hostages, warning, “If you try to escape, this is what is going to happen to you,” recalled Mr. Samiahan, a Christian local laborer.

Islamist militants took over this city of 200,000 people in late May, modeling themselves on Islamic State, or ISIS. Philippine soldiers, assisted by the U.S. military, struggled to reclaim it.

The Philippine military has struggled to defeat hundreds of well-armed militants who seized the southern city of Marawi in May. Photo: Linus Guardian Escandor II for The Wall Street Journal

Philippine authorities on Monday said two of the militants’ most senior leaders had been killed, including one on Washington’s list of most-wanted terrorists, and that it was a few days from securing the city. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Tuesday declared the city liberated.

The militants’ occupation—and the military’s siege—has left Marawi in ruins, with more than 1,000 soldiers, civilians and militants killed and many neighborhoods devastated by airstrikes. A few dozen militants remain in the city, the military said on Tuesday.

The Marawi battle shows how militant groups outside the Middle East and Africa are finding a template in Islamic State, not just as an exporter of terrorism, but also as a holder of territory. ISIS itself is looking for new beachheads having been pushed out of strongholds such as its de facto capital of Raqqa, Syria, which U.S.-backed forces said they captured this week.

“They look around the globe,” said Colin Clarke, a counterterrorism researcher at Rand Corp., a policy think tank. “They try to find a place where there is an ongoing insurgency, and they latch themselves onto that cause and exploit those local grievances.”

President Duterte has voiced concern that violence could spread from Marawi to other areas in the southern Philippines. Analysts say revenge or copycat attacks are likely to strike Manila or other Southeast Asian capitals.

In mid-2016, ISIS called on potential new recruits unable to join it in the Middle East to look to the Philippines. ISIS media agencies have promoted the Marawi conflict to their followers.

A Philippine soldier during clearing operations against Islamist militants in Marawi in September.
A Philippine soldier during clearing operations against Islamist militants in Marawi in September.

Behind the Battle

A brief history of the Marawi conflict and the Islamist groups that sparked it.

Isnilon Hapilon and his Abu Sayyaf Islamist militant group kidnap tourists, later beheading some.
Hapilon swears allegiance to Islamic State, which later endorses him as “emir” in Southeast Asia.
Fighters from a newly emerging Islamist group in Mindanao, led by Omar and Abdullah Maute, occupy a town, later bomb Davao City.
Maute fighters swear allegiance to Islamic State, raid Marawi jail.
Hapilon and his group begin joining Maute fighters.
Philippine military mobilizes against militants in Marawi, beginning long siege as Maute fighters dig in, using improvised explosives and snipers.
Maute fighters flying Islamic State flags occupy Marawi, burning buildings, taking hostages.
A misaimed airstrike kills 11 Philippine soldiers as troops push militants to city’s east.
The U.S. says it is providing special forces assistance to the Philippines.
Military takes back first of three key bridges, later retakes key buildings.
Military retakes remaining bridge. Earlier in the month, Philippine authorities say one Maute brother believed killed.
Philippine authorities say two remaining militant leaders killed; military declares battle nearly over.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declares Marawi liberated.

Sources: Armed Forces of the Philippines, Philippine Government, Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict

“It will be difficult to replicate a similar urban assault like Marawi in the short term,” said Francisco J. Lara, Philippines country manager of peace-building agency International Alert. “But the threat of a similar attack in the future remains real.”

Marawi is on Mindanao island, long known as a haven for extremists, from communist guerrillas to separatist Muslims. The U.S. for years has kept a small special forces contingent on the island.

The militants in Marawi, known as the Maute after the brothers who led them, Omar and Abdullah Maute, received funds from ISIS and modeled many of their tactics on the group, Philippine officials say. Their goal was to create a caliphate, or Islamic kingdom, with fighters from abroad including Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, these officials say.

Marawi was once a relatively prosperous trading hub, surrounded by hills and a lake. It is predominantly Muslim, with the minarets and domes of mosques. There is a small Catholic minority.

The siege

The tale of the Marawi battle—told by the Philippine military and witnesses on the ground, including former hostages—shows how ISIS-inspired militants can quickly consume a city far from its base and supply lines in the Middle East.


  • Brothers based in and around Butig, a town near Marawi
  • From a wealthy elite family with Middle East connections. Omar studied in Egypt and Abdullah, in Jordan
  • In 2016, led a brief occupation of Butig and bombed a market in Davao City, southern Philippines
  • Swore allegiance to Islamic State in April 2016
  • Abdullah believed killed in August and Omar killed Oct. 16, Philippine authorities say


  • A faction leader of the extremist Abu Sayyaf Group, which allied with other pro-Islamic State groups including the Maute
  • U.S. State Department has $5 million bounty on his capture
  • Known for kidnappings, including of Americans in 2001
  • Stronghold in Basilan island, southwest Philippines
  • Swore allegiance to Islamic State in 2014
  • Islamic State in 2016 declared Hapilon its “emir,” or ruler, in Southeast Asia
  • Killed Oct. 16, Philippine authorities say

Sources: Armed Forces of the Philippines, Philippine Government, Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict

It began May 23. Soldiers and police moved in on a house after receiving intelligence showing the Maute brothers and another militant leader, Isnilon Hapilon, were hiding there.

The military, which inadvertently interrupted a plan to occupy Marawi, found itself laying a siege that would last roughly five months.

Known for kidnapping and beheading foreigners from tourist resorts even before his ISIS affiliation, Mr. Hapilon is on the U.S. State Department’s most-wanted-terrorists list. In 2014, he swore allegiance to ISIS, which two years later endorsed him on its central media channel as its “emir,” or ruler, in Southeast Asia.

The Maute brothers were a lesser-understood threat. They were educated in Egypt and Jordan and from an elite local family, according to the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, a terror-research group in Jakarta. In 2016, they briefly occupied a town about a two-hour drive from Marawi. Their group later attacked a Marawi prison, releasing some of their captured fighters, and bombed a night market in Davao City, President Duterte’s hometown.

Before government troops could get close on May 23, they came under fire from several buildings and retreated. Soon, hundreds of heavily armed fighters who had infiltrated Marawi began flooding the streets, planting the black ISIS flag in public areas and taking hostages, primarily Christians and the Muslims who sought to protect them.

The militants torched a cathedral and a school. Photographs by residents show Maute fighters in dark clothing and hats or balaclavas patrolling streets and mounting ISIS flags on vehicles. Civilians fled to surrounding towns and to government-run refugee camps. President Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao.

A hostage’s tale

Mr. Samiahan, who witnessed the hostage’s execution, had lived in Marawi for five years. His family of seven slipped out the back of their house after darkness and hid in the tall grass of an adjacent field as Maute fighters, yelling in triumph, set fire to the next-door Dansalan College, a Christian school.

The family spent the night huddled in the rain as Maute fighters shined flashlights across the grassy field. They were so close, Mr. Samiahan’s wife, Yolanda, said, “you could almost shake their hands.”

Ronnel Samiahan, 34, here with his son Greg, witnessed a beheading during his captivity by the Islamist militants.
Ronnel Samiahan, 34, here with his son Greg, witnessed a beheading during his captivity by the Islamist militants.

In following days, they hid in a hospital and other buildings before deciding no rescue was coming. Attempting to leave the militant-controlled part of the city, they were stopped at a Maute checkpoint. There, militants tested residents to see if they were Muslim or Christian: Only those who could reply to a Muslim greeting in Arabic were allowed to leave.

Mr. Samiahan, unlike most of his relatives, failed the test and was locked in a warehouse. On his second night, one captive tried to loosen his bonds while the Maute were sleeping. When fighters discovered the ruse, they performed the beheading and forced the remaining hostages to bury the head, Mr. Samiahan said.

It took the military several days to mobilize and push Maute fighters back from western portions of the city and liberate the city hall and hydroelectric dams that provide most of Marawi’s power. The Maute fought back fiercely, killing several troops.

By May 28, bodies of at least 16 civilians had been recovered, according to military officials, including those of eight men who were dumped in a ravine—the number had climbed to at least 47 late last week. Several were shot in the head with hands bound, accompanied by a sign in a local language reading “traitor,” according to local media reports.

The Agus river separated the battle zone, left, and the safe zone in Marawi.
The Agus river separated the battle zone, left, and the safe zone in Marawi.

The Agus River bisects Marawi, with the central business district and Marawi’s largest mosque and church in the Maute-controlled east. Maute fighters fortified three bridges, presenting a formidable obstacle to the military’s counteroffensive, and soldiers who tried crossing were met with sniper fire and rocket-propelled grenades.

The military, unused to urban warfare, called in airstrikes. Lacking guided munitions, the Philippine military divebombed the city with FA-50 jets and OV-10 Bronco propeller aircraft. On May 31, a badly aimed airstrike killed 11 soldiers. Government officials called it a tragic incident and launched a review.

In early June, the U.S. disclosed it was providing special forces assistance to Philippine troops but didn’t elaborate.

The constant aerial bombardment devastated Marawi’s center. Businessman Solaiman Mangorsi, 58, said he lost nearly $600,000 in damaged property after bombs struck areas that included a bookstore and other properties he owned. He said he wasn’t insured.

By mid-June, the battle had become a grind, with both sides digging in. Militants avoided airstrikes by boring holes in walls so they could move from house to house undetected.

Lt. Kim Adrian R. Martial of the Philippine Marine Corps led his platoon across this bridge in June before being forced to retreat.
Lt. Kim Adrian R. Martial of the Philippine Marine Corps led his platoon across this bridge in June before being forced to retreat.

A Christian hostage, Lordvin Acopio, a 29-year-old teacher, said militants forced him and other captives to make improvised explosives from firecrackers and shrapnel. They sent other hostages to search houses for guns, food and ammunition.

As the weeks passed, more hostages escaped. Mr. Samiahan, who witnessed the execution, broke free after discovering a padlock wasn’t properly closed. He made a mad dash for the military-held portion of the city, leaping over concrete barriers and plunging into the river and to safety.

Mr. Acopio escaped at night after a mosque he was held in was bombarded with tear gas. He and a priest scrambled through a hole blasted in the building, he said, and “just ran and ran and ran.”

Teacher Lordvin Acopio, 29, was held hostage by militants he says forced him to make improvised explosives.
Teacher Lordvin Acopio, 29, was held hostage by militants he says forced him to make improvised explosives.

By early September, the military had achieved several key victories, taking back landmarks including Marawi’s largest mosque. And it concluded, based on intercepted terrorist chatter, that Abdullah Maute had been killed in late August. By September’s end they had retaken the remaining bridges and pushed the militants into a few blocks bordering the lake.

The final battles were fought in close quarters. In one mission, Sgt. Roderick Peruandos of the Philippine Marine Corps, led a team to clear houses on the approach to what is known as the “White Mosque,” where senior militants including Mr. Hapilon were believed to be holding out. Moving room to room, they spotted a hole in the floor, when suddenly a homemade grenade was tossed out.

One corporal, who celebrated his 27th birthday with his squad just a few weeks earlier, was killed almost instantly, said Sgt. Peruandos. The grenade was made, he said, out of scrounged shrapnel and explosives from firecrackers and unexploded bombs dropped during airstrikes.

The other marines fled, leaving Sgt. Peruandos alone to fend off insurgents with rifle fire as he wrapped a tourniquet around his wounded leg. After an hour of bombardment, he crawled to safety, a bone in his leg snapped in two. The insurgents, though weakened, were left secure in their redoubt.

The government on Monday said Omar Maute and Mr. Hapilon had been killed, and the military said its offensive had boxed the remaining militant-controlled area to one or two hectares. The bodies of the two leaders were recovered and the remaining 30-odd fighters “were seen scampering in disarray,” the military said.

Displaced people from Marawi at an evacuation camp in Pantar district, southern Philippines. PHOTOS: LINUS GUARDIAN ESCANDOR II FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL(3)

If Marawi is declared militant-free, the Philippine government will then face painstaking work clearing improvised explosive devices and rebuilding the city. Tens of thousands of displaced people whose homes were destroyed remain in government-run camps.

Sgt. Peruandos, who has fought communist rebels and gangs in Mindanao for nearly all his 15-year military career, said he had never encountered an enemy like those who nearly killed him in Marawi. “It’s like they don’t care for their lives,” he said. “They just want to kill or be killed.”

After authorities declared the militant leaders dead, a pro-ISIS messenger channel said the group would train new recruits with combat knowledge learned from the battle, according to SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadist activity online. The channel declared: “Marawi is just the beginning!”

A government soldier took up position in the battle area of Marawi in September.
A government soldier took up position in the battle area of Marawi in September.

Write to Jake Maxwell Watts at

U.S.-Backed Forces Say They Have Taken Raqqa, Islamic State’s Last Urban Stronghold

October 18, 2017
U.S.-backed forces said they have captured Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa, Syria, wrenching away the terror group’s last major urban stronghold in the Middle East.

By Maria Abi-Habib
The Wall Street Journal

Updated Oct. 17, 2017 6:46 p.m. ET

BEIRUT—U.S.-backed forces said they have captured Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa, driving the extremists from a Syrian city that became synonymous with their reign of terror and was used as a nerve center to stage attacks on the West.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, backed by U.S. airstrikes and American special forces on the ground, on Tuesday said they had captured Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa.Photo: Erik De Castro/Reuters

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, backed by U.S. airstrikes and American special forces on the ground, on Tuesday said they had secured a sports stadium in the city the group had converted into a fortified compound for its final stand.

“The military operations within the city are completely over,” said Talal Silo, a spokesman for the SDF, which led the monthslong battle against Islamic State in Raqqa. “We are combing through the city to make sure there are no sleeper cells and to defuse the mines.”

Army Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State, said the extremist group is “on the verge of a devastating defeat,” adding that 90% of Raqqa has been cleared.

Islamic State hasn’t commented.

With the fall of Raqqa—Islamic State’s last major urban stronghold in the Middle East—the self-declared caliphate is meeting an inglorious end.

The first significant city to come under Islamic State’s control, in 2014, Raqqa became a template for the group’s brutality. Militants in the city carried out public beheadings for blasphemy and crucifixions for murder. Child soldiers were radicalized and taught to kill. The city also held some of the most important assets and institutions for the group’s statelike operations in Syria, such as its highest courts.

Raqqa became a funnel for thousands of people from places as disparate as the U.K., China and Saudi Arabia to join the group. The recruits were processed and given their marching orders in the city, and some were given explosives training before being shuttled back to Europe to plan attacks there, Western officials said.

But Islamic State’s empire is now largely destroyed. At the height of its power in 2014, the group ruled a contiguous territory in Iraq and Syria the size of Belgium, while affiliates have sprung up from Nigeria to the Philippines. Now many of the cities it occupied have been reduced to rubble.

At the same time, Islamic State leaves in its wake radicalized youth and an extensive internet network still actively recruiting new jihadists and proselytizing an extremist ideology. The group’s initial rise showcased its strategy of preying on weak nations.

For months, U.S. war planners have warned the insurgency is seeking to exploit a power vacuum in Libya. Islamic State in the Sahara, a new affiliate, killed four U.S. Green Berets in an ambush in Niger this month.

Even if Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is killed in the near term, U.S. officials say the group will continue, much as al Qaeda did after Osama bin Laden’s death in 2011. The U.S. and its allies, as well as other countries that have fought Islamic State and other militant groups in recent decades, have been unable to kill off the extremist ideology that feeds the groups.

“The communist party didn’t die with the death of Stalin. Our ideology will persist,” one Islamic State supporter said recently in an online forum.

In a defiant speech in September, Mr. Baghdadi said that although his fighters were being uprooted across the Middle East, his organization’s ideology and appeal will live on.

“We will remain steadfast, patient,” he vowed, and laid out the group’s strategy for defeating the U.S. and its allies by drawing them into costly, asymmetrical warfare to wear them down.

U.S. and European officials predict that Islamic State will prioritize attacking Western capitals to stay in the headlines and remain relevant as the group is pushed out of the last patches of territory it holds in eastern Syria and western Iraq.


  • Iraqis Push Deeper Into Kurdish Areas
  • Middle East Crossroads: Simmering Conflicts Flare Up as Islamic State Fades
  • Europe Doesn’t Expect Influx of Returning ISIS Fighters

In Washington, Pentagon officials have long expected a defeated Islamic State to evolve into an general insurgency, potentially aligning with al Qaeda in Syria and fueling sectarian tensions by presenting itself as a Sunni vanguard against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian backers.

Newly uprooted fighters also are likely to pose a persisting threat by moving about the region, hovering in border areas or even trying to exploit the territorial struggle in Iraq between Iraqi forces and Kurdish units, experts said on Tuesday. The departure of Kurdish fighters from areas such as Kirkuk, Sinjar and Khanaqin in the east could create security gaps, said Jennifer Cafarella, an analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.

“ISIS has the intent and likely the capability to penetrate behind defensive lines of anti-ISIS forces and could choose to exploit the disruption caused by recent massive troop movements in Iraq,” Ms. Cafarella said. “How does the Iraqi government intend to govern all the territory it jus t took?”

The U.S. military estimates there are roughly 100 Islamic State fighters remaining in Raqqa, from a peak of 2,500. Some of those fighters have resettled in other parts of Syria and Iraq where about 6,500 militants remain, said Col. Dillon, the coalition spokesman. About 400 have surrendered over the past month, he added. By comparison, a Defense Intelligence analysis concluded there are as many as 1,500 Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan, 1,000 in Egypt and 500 in Libya.

On Tuesday, Col. Dillon stressed that the fight against the extremists isn’t over and there are still swaths of territory on the Iraqi-Syrian border still under militant control.

A Syrian Democratic Forces fighter gestures the “V” sign at the frontline in Raqqa on Oct. 16.Photo: rodi said/Reuters

“Yes, ISIS will be defeated militarily, but we know that there still is going to be the ideology and the continued insurgent activity as they devolve into that,” he said.

The U.S. military trained roughly 1,000 local residents to conduct security in Raqqa after Islamic State’s demise. But the challenges before such a force already have emerged. Col. Dillon said the head of that force was killed on Monday by an explosive.

The head of Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, MI5 chief Andrew Parker, said on Tuesday in a rare public speech that there has been a dramatic uptick in the threat of Islamist extremism to the U.K. He said the types of threats are changing rapidly and sometimes accelerate from inception to action in days, leaving authorities with a smaller window to intervene.

A U.S. official specializing in European security said that while intelligence experts had predicted a flow of foreign fighters returning to Europe, so far it hasn’t happened. The U.S. official cautioned the trend could reverse, but for now European officials have told their counterparts they don’t expect the fall of Raqqa to trigger a migration of militants to Europe to launch attacks.

Western counterterrorism officials say they worry Islamic State will try to take advantage of the crisis facing Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims.

A Syrian Democratic Forces commander walks with her group’s flag at Al-Naim square in Raqqa on Tuesday.Photo: BULENT KILIC/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

“They’re already messaging that the Rohingya are the new Palestinians, using it to recruit,” one U.S. counterterrorism official said. “Southeast Asia is the new concern.”

Islamic State’s rise and fall has divided and reshaped Syria.

Many Syrians and top American officials blame Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the rise of Islamic State. In the first years of the Syrian uprising, which began in 2011, Mr. Assad emptied Syrian prisons of those convicted of terrorism, filling the cells with more-liberal activists—many of whom had peacefully demonstrated to demand political change.

The regime’s military focused on attacking rebel groups while allowing Islamic State to grow, launching its first major assault against the extremist group in 2015, four years after the uprising began.

“Assad wanted Islamic State to rise so the world would have to choose between terrorism and him,” said one Arab diplomat, echoing a sentiment expressed by Western counterparts.

Now, nearly seven years into Syria’s civil war, the U.S. and its allies, from the U.K. to Saudi Arabia, have largely stopped funding the Syrian rebels and have begun preparing for Mr. Assad to remain in power.

The rebels are deeply fractured, with many living in exile, while Mr. Assad has slowly regained control over the country with the help of Iran, Russia and the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah.

Syrian Kurds, who have made up the bulk of the U.S.-backed forces fighting Islamic State, have, meanwhile, used the conflict to carve out their own autonomous region across northern Syria. But with the long-term presence of the U.S. in Syria in serious doubt, the Kurds fear they will become the regime’s next target as Mr. Assad tries to consolidate control over the entire country.

Raqqa residents have borne much of the consequences of Islamic State’s rise. As foreign fighters flocked to the city to join Islamic State, some residents sought to defy the terror group and expose the atrocities they committed against fellow Muslims to dissuade potential recruits from joining. An underground resistance emerged, including the activist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently.

They secretly filmed Islamic State brutality against ordinary Syrians and posted it online, countering the extremists’ narrative of a glorious caliphate ruling over millions of adoring and loyal Syrian Muslims.

Mohamad al-Mosari, an activist with Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, said recently, “One thousand four hundred years of this city’s history is wiped out.”

— Nazih Osseiran and Raja Abdulrahim in Beirut, Nour Alakraa in Berlin, Julian E. Barnes in Brussels, Jenny Gross in London and Nancy A. Youssef in Washington contributed to this article.

Write to Maria Abi-Habib at

Corrections & Amplifications Four U.S. Green Berets were killed in an ambush in Niger earlier this month. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated three Green Berets were killed. Oct. 17, 2017

U.S.-allied forces begin final assault on Islamic State in Syria’s Raqqa

October 16, 2017
By Bassem Mroue
Associated Press

U.S.-backed Syrian fighters launched an operation to retake the last Islamic State-held pocket of the northern city of Raqqa on Sunday after some 275 militants and their family members surrendered.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said the operation will continue “until all the city is cleansed from terrorists who refused to surrender.”

The SDF has been on the offensive in Raqqa since early June and now controls about 90 percent of the city that was once the extremist group’s self-styled capital. Most of the fighters who remain in the pocket are foreigners, according to the SDF and opposition activists.

The operation was named after Adnan Abu Amjad, an Arab commander with the SDF who was killed in August while fighting against IS in central Raqqa.

The loss of Raqqa would hand another major blow to IS, which has lost most of the territory it once held in Syria and Iraq. Iraqi forces captured the northern Iraqi city of Mosul — the largest ever held by the extremist group — in July, and Syrian government forces retook the eastern Syrian city of Mayadeen, near the border with Iraq, on Saturday.

IS still holds parts of Syria’s Deir el-Zour province and Iraq’s Anbar province, as well as small, scattered pockets elsewhere.

On Saturday, the U.S.-led coalition and local officials said Syrian IS fighters and civilians would be allowed to leave Raqqa, but not foreign fighters. The evacuation appeared aimed at sparing the lives of civilians being used as human shields. As of last week, around 4,000 civilians were believed to still be in the city.

The SDF said the initiative by local tribesmen and members of the Raqqa Civil Council “succeed in evacuating civilians who were still in the city and the surrender of 275 local mercenaries and their families.” It added that the ongoing offensive aims to “end the presence of mercenaries of the terrorist organization inside the city.”