A U.S.-backed Syrian coalition of Kurdish and Arab fighters has launched an offensive to begin forcing Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters from the de-facto capital city of their self-proclaimed Islamic “caliphate” — or at least to begin doing so.
The Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, as the umbrella group of fighters is called, announced the move on Twitter, and it was soon reported on Kurdish media and confirmed to CBS News by a representative for the group.
SDF statements posted on the group’s official Twitter account said the operation was focused on liberating northern Raqqa, to protect the largely-Kurdish areas to the north from ISIS attack.
Early reports of casualties all centered in the rural area to the north of the city.
ISIS has controled Raqqa in northern Syria since sweeping across vast swathes of that country and neighboring Iraq in 2014. It is believed to operate most of its administration and control and command from the city.
It was not immediately clear how far the SDF hoped to push into Raqqa proper — or how quickly, but a commander with the Kurdish YPG militia, which is taking part in the operation, said the operation launched Tuesday was a necessary first step to reclaim the city.
He told CBS News the SDF fighters needed to focus on clearing the area to the north of the city of ISIS militants, and then hold that ground before launching a wider attack on the heart of ISIS-held Raqqa.
U.S. officials have indicated to CBS News that the push announced by SDF likely does not amount to a concerted effort to retake the entire city, yet. The task is too large for the SDF on its own, and there is no indication, in spite of SDF claims of backing by the U.S.-led coalition, that a significant international operation is under way.
Raqqa sits only about 50 miles south of Syria’s border with Turkey, in land long-dominated by Kurds.
In a message posted to its official Twitter account, the SFD said members of the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition, dubbed “Operation Inherent Resolve,” would “accompany” SDF forces on the offensive.
Operation Inherent Resolve has largely consisted, from the U.S. standpoint, of airstrikes against ISIS positions in both Syria and Iraq. Pentagon officials would not comment on any level of involvement by Operation Inherent Resolve or the U.S. military in or around Raqqa.
About 200 U.S. troops are in Syria in a training capacity.