Syrian Forces Begin Battle for Raqqa With Help of US Airstrikes

A member loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) waves the militant group's flag in Raqqa, Syria on June   29, 2014. (Reuters)
A member loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) waves the militant group's flag in Raqqa, Syria on June 29, 2014. (Reuters)

WASHINGTON -- Syrian forces aided by U.S. airstrikes and advisers have begun their assault to take back Raqqa from the Islamic State group, the Pentagon confirmed Tuesday.

Several thousand fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces, the umbrella group that also includes fighters from the Syrian Arab Coalition and the Kurdish People's Protection Forces, or YPG, are massed about 30 to 40 miles north of Raqqa, two senior defense officials told Stars and Stripes on the condition that they not be named. On Tuesday, those forces began to advance toward Raqqa, which is the Islamic State's primary headquarters in Syria.

"They're moving on Raqqa now," said Col. Steve Warren, who is the Baghdad-based spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve.

The Syrian Democratic Forces announced the launch of the operation through its official Twitter account: "With the participation of all [Syrian Democratic Forces] units, we start this operation to liberate northern [Raqqa]" the group said. "[Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve] forces will accompany [Syrian Democratic Forces] during the campaign."

Since Friday, U.S. and coalition aircraft have conducted 10 airstrikes against Islamic State group positions in Raqqa and hit tactical units, an Islamic State garrison and oil infrastructure, according to Defense Department news releases on the airstrikes.

The two defense officials confirmed Syrian forces are being re-supplied and supported by U.S. advisers who are located behind the forward line of troops.

The Islamic State group is estimated to have several thousand fighters defending Raqqa, Warren said. In the last week, U.S. and coalition jets have dropped leaflets warning civilians to flee, warning of the coming fight for the city. On Friday, the Islamic State group allowed civilians in the city to leave, according to the Associated Press.

The effort to retake Raqqa is occurring as Iraqi forces, also aided by U.S. and coalition airpower, are advancing on Fallujah, an Islamic State-controlled city located west of Baghdad. It is believed Islamic State fighters in Fallujah are responsible for a recent string of deadly bombings in Baghdad, Warren said last week.

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