US-backed fighters battling to oust the Islamic State group from Syria’s Raqa were nearing the “final week” of their assault, the campaign’s commander said today. The Syrian Democratic Forces have captured around 90 percent of IS’s one-time bastion and are closing in on the jihadists in a pocket of territory near Raqa city centre.
The SDF alliance’s Kurdish and Arab fighters are advancing on IS-held districts from two fronts in the city’s north and east, said Rojda Felat, who heads the “Wrath of the Euphrates” campaign. “If the two fronts meet, we can say we have entered the final week of our campaign to liberate Raqa,” Felat told AFP on the western outskirts of Raqa on Sunday. “Within 3-4 days, we will be able to take the decision to begin the final campaign,” she added.
Felat said fighting was still fierce along the front line, with IS using snipers, suicide bombers and reinforced positions in tunnels to hold up the SDF advance. The jihadists still hold Raqa’s national hospital, the nearby football stadium and surrounding residential neighbourhoods.
SDF fighters have surrounded the hospital and were on Sunday preparing a fresh push around the stadium further north, said Ali Sher, a field commander with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which make up the bulk of the SDF. “We will advance at night on foot into new positions around the stadium’s north. It will be the first time we use this military tactic in Raqa,” Sher told AFP.
As he spoke, Sher fed bullets into a rifle magazine in one of several bombed-out apartment buildings taken up by his fighters to monitor different parts of the stadium. One room provided a clear view of the field’s edge and surrounding buildings.
An anti-IS sniper lay flat on furniture piled in a corner, peering out of a melon-sized hole in the wall, his finger on the trigger. Another building overlooked the stadium’s abandoned entrance. SDF members said they expected IS fighters were holed up in the complex’s seating or underground rooms.
“The battle is in its final steps. When we finish with the area north of the stadium, we’ll be able to attack it and reach Al-Naim,” Sher said.