Kurdish and Syrian rebels are launching offensive on Isis territory near Raqqa after the US-led coalition vowed to take back the group’s “centres of gravity”.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said the Northern Raqqa Liberation Campaign aimed to “liberate Syrians from Isis oppression”.
The rebels are expected to push south from their frontline in northern Raqqa Governorate but it was unclear whether they would attempt to take Raqqa city, which has been the de-facto capital of the so-called Islamic State since 2014.
“The Raqqa Liberation Brigade and Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF) forces will accompany SFD during the campaign,” commander Rojda Felat said in a statement.
“The campaign is aimed at repelling terrorist attacks on Shadadi, Tal Abyad and Kobani, ensuring the security of our people.”
The SDF is among the rebel groups receiving training and support from the US-led coalition to act as partners on the ground.
An additional 250 members of US special forces arrived overnight on Monday ahead of the Raqqa campaign, the Kurdish Hawar news agency reported.
Activists from Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) documented military manoeuvres and preparations for battle by the SDF and its dominant component, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), over the weekend.
It said American troops had been training rebels near Ayn Issa for several months but that the operation was expected to be “limited to a small geographic area”.
“The size and the numbers of the military forces being prepared for the attack are not enough to launch a major military action - they are not enough to face Isis in large areas,” RBSS said.
“Recently, Isis has strengthened their presence in the northern region by increasing the numbers of their troops in the nearby villages, not to mention trenches, barricades and minefields.”
The launch of the SDF’s campaign came as activists reported “intensive” reconnaissance flights in the region and coalition air strikes in Raqqa city and the surrounding countryside.
Thousands of leaflets have been dropped on Isis-controlled areas urging civilians to flee in recent days, despite the terror group’s tight controls on movement in its territories.
A pamphlet dropped by the US-led coalition depicted a family fleeing a ruined Raqqa littered with the bodies of dead militants into the brightly-coloured countryside, with the caption: “This is the time you have been waiting for. It is time to leave Raqqa.”
American officials at the anti-Isis Operation Inherent Resolve command centre confirmed that the US-led coalition had produced the leaflet and distributed it in Raqqa.
“Driving Daesh (Isis) out of Raqqa is one of our objectives and we continue to put pressure against it,” a spokesperson told The Independent.
“We have dropped leaflets in efforts to inform the innocent civilian population and reduce civilian casualties.”
Asked how urging civilians to flee would make a difference if Isis continues to prevent them leaving its territory, the CJTF spokesperson said it was aware the group uses human shields.
“The Coalition ensures all operations comply with respects the law of armed conflict,” he added.
“Coalition forces work very hard to be precise in our airstrikes and the safety of non-combatants on the battlefield is of the utmost concern to us.
“Mitigating civilian casualties is a key component of the air campaign, and that is why we use precision weapons.”
Officials said the US-led coalition aims to avoid civilian casualties to the “maximum extent” but did not rule them out entirely.
Targets are reviewed for validity, then vetted with available intelligence and subjected to a “collateral damage estimate” before any strike, according to CJTF protocol.
Lieutenant General Sean MacFarland, the commander of Operation Inherent Resolve announced an “important part” in the anti-Isis campaign last week.
“The focus of the campaign is shifting more toward taking back the enemy’s centres of gravity in Iraq and Syria - Mosul and Raqqa,” he said. “That’s what we’re about today.”
He hailed recent victories driving Isis out of key areas of Iraq and re-stated the coalition’s commitment to working with “partners”, including the Iraqi security forces, Syrian Democratic Forces and moderate Syrian opposition.
“We don’t want to rush them and achieve fragile victories,” Lt Gen MacFarland said. “We want to make sure that their victories are irreversible.”
The latest air strikes recorded by the US-led coalition, on Monday, included four strikes near Raqqa, targeting an Isis military garrison and tactical unit, while another hit militants in Ayn Issa.Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, said the UK has 1,100 military personnel in Iraq and Syria and had “intensified our efforts to defeat Daesh”.
“There is a long way to go and political progress needs to match military progress on the ground, but we should be encouraged,” he told the House of Commons.
“This may be a long campaign, but it is one we have to win and it is one we will win.”
An audio message by Isis spokesperson Abu Mohammed al-Adnani appeared to hint at looming territory losses on Saturday, saying the group “would not be defeated even if it returns to the desert” as an insurgency.
The Soufan Group security consultancy cautioned that driving militants out of Mosul and Raqqa could see Isis lash out with more terror attacks like the waves of bombings seen in Baghdad and on the Syrian coast in recent days.
“If the group adopts the same scorched earth approach to its much larger capitals in Iraq and Syria, the fighting and loss of life will be significant,” analysts said.
“It is uncertain whether or not the group will attempt to become a clandestine caliphate when it loses Raqqa and Mosul, but it is certain the group will persist in some fashion.”
Isis has not publicly acknowledged mounting efforts against it in Raqqa, with propaganda outlets focusing on battles around Fallujah, where militants were fighting to stave off an advance by Iraqi forces on Tuesday.
As air strikes continued in Raqqa, Isis’ propaganda agency posted photos claiming to show Syrian civilians undertaking “Sharia courses” and a video of an awards ceremony for young “Quran memorisation students”.
The footage appeared to show dozens of children inside the city on 19 May, with many wearing Isis headbands and waving flags as they were given certificates and money by militants.
The US has previously admitted dozens civilian deaths during its air strikes campaign, while activists with RBSS have documented more deaths in recent weeks.
The group said that the US-led coalition must provide safe havens and routes out of Isis territory for civilians if it continues asking them to leave their homes.
“This planned military action should not only rescue people from Isis, but it also should provide them with serious guarantees against falling under control of another extremist organisation,” spokesperson Hamoud Almousa said.
“Someone should care about the heavy losses that would affect civilians due to the upcoming military operation.”
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