Large parts of Raqqa are in utter ruin as a result of the battle between “Islamic State” forces and coalition troops. The area was liberated in October 2017, but only now are residents cautiously returning to the city.
Russia’s Defence Ministry has repeatedly been forced to deny accusations of indiscriminately bombing Syrian civilians.
Russia has accused the US-led coalition in Syria of wiping the city of Raqqa “off the face of the Earth” with carpet-bombing, in the same way America and Britain bombed Germany’s Dresden during World War Two.
The Russian Defence Ministry, which has repeatedly been forced to deny accusations from activists and western politicians of indiscriminately bombing Syrian civilians, said it looked like the West was now rushing to provide financial aid to Raqqa to cover up evidence of its own crimes.
Major-General Igor Konashenkov, chief spokesman for the Defence Ministry, said around 200,000 people had lived in Raqqa before the conflict in Syria but no more than 45,000 people remained.
“Raqqa has inherited the fate of Dresden in 1945, wiped off the face of the Earth by Anglo-American bombardments,” he said.
Most of the German city was destroyed in Allied bombing raids just before the end of the Second World War.
US-backed militias in Syria declared victory over Isis in Raqqa, the group’s de facto capital, last week, raising flags over the last jihadist footholds after a four-month battle.
Though he said Russia welcomed western promises of financial aid to rebuild Raqqa, Major-General Konashenkov complained that numerous Russian requests for the West to give humanitarian aid to Syrian civilians in other parts of the country had been rejected in previous years.
“What is behind the rush by western capitals to provide targeted financial help only to Raqqa?” he asked.
“There’s only one explanation – the desire to cover up evidence of the barbaric bombardments by the US air force and the coalition as fast as possible and to bury the thousands of civilians ‘liberated’ from Islamic State in the ruins.”
The US-led coalition says it is careful to avoid civilian casualties in its bombing runs against Isis in both Syria and Iraq, and investigates any allegations.
The coalition has previously denied killing civilians in air strikes on Raqqa, saying its goal is “zero civilian casualties”.
Independent journalist Mesut Mohammed, who works in Syria’s Kurdish region, informed that the Syrian government army has freed several Armenian and Assyrian families in Raqqa, and who could not leave the town ever since the Islamic State took control there, according to Agos Armenian weekly of Istanbul.
One of these Armenian women, Saus Karapetyan, said the Islamic State militants had forced them to wear a head covering, but not to cover their face, to differ from Muslim women.
And the other Armenians said they were ridiculed and debased every so often, and forced to pay tremendous amounts of taxes.
Clashes are underway in northern Syria over the strategic town of Manbij where Daesh terrorists come to via Turkey. The liberation of Manbij, located on the way to Raqqa, would cut off supply lines for the terrorists.
The Syrian Army backed by allied militia forces for the first time in two years entered the province of Raqqa. As the regional capital, the city of Raqqa is considered the de-facto capital of Daesh.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) mainly composing Kurdish militia fighters are carrying out an operation to liberate Tabaqah, Manbij and Raqqa. At the same time, from the south the Syrian Army is advancing on Raqqa.
Manbij is located between Raqqa and the Turkish-Syrian border. Arms supplies to the Daesh capital reportedly come via Manbij.
Local residents told RT about the rules the terrorists have imposed in Manjib.
SDF fighters rescued thousands of refugees from the Daesh-seized surroundings of Manbij and Mascana. They are hiding in the village of Tal-Arsh.
“We were rescued by the Syrian Democratic Forces. I hope we will never meet terrorists again. They did not let us leave the town, they killed people. Smoking was prohibited. The terrorists forced us to grow beards,” a refugee said.
Among the refugees in Tal-Arsh are women, children and the elderly. Their goal is to save their lives from the terrorists.
“Civilians are suffering from Daesh’s atrocities. Look what’s happening out there! Daesh is to blame for this! Its ideology has nothing to do with Islam. People are suffering. They left their homes and have to live without water. The terrorists did this. But we’ll liberate Syria from them,” a fighter from the Manbij military committee said.
Within a few days, the Syrian Democratic Forces backed by a US-led coalition’s airstrikes liberated a number of villages near Manbij.
“Our goal is to liberate Manbij from Islamists. Now we’re pursuing the rest of the enemy near the village of Mubalgam. Then we’ll continue our offensive on Manbij,” a militia fighter said.
Manbij is a strategic town where Daesh militants come to from Turkey. The restoration of control over the town would also facilitate the liberation of Aleppo Province.
By Pepe Escobar
The road to Raqqa, capital of the phony ISIS/ISIL/Daesh “Caliphate”, will continue to be a riddle wrapped inside an enigma at least until the US Presidential elections. Let’s examine why.
The loose combo known as Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), led by the Kurdish YPG alongside its women’s brigade, the YPJ, are trying to advance against Daesh north and now also west of Raqqa.
The key target is Tabqa, west of Raqqa. Tabqa is crucial because it links Raqqa with Daesh positions near Aleppo — where an embryonic Mother of All Battles is gearing up. Conquering Taqba itself will be no mean feat as it implies the SDF forces crossing the Euphrates River, which happens to be a red line imposed by Turkey’s Sultan Erdogan.
Embedded with the SDF advance is a massive P.R. operation deployed by Washington, involving a hilarious controversy on American boots on the ground. President Obama has always repeated non-stop there would not be US boots on the ground in Syria. The State Department parroted the White House line. But boots — as many as 250 — are indeed on the ground, even as they may disguise themselves with YPG insignia.
The Pentagon maintains they are only acting in an “advise-and-assist” role — as in trademark Obama “leading from behind” format. The boots are in fact Special Forces specialized in UW (unconventional warfare). Yet the theater of war — as established by Daesh — is quite conventional. Daesh is constituted as a small army, with heavy armor and considerable artillery, against which UW is meaningless.
The lame duck Obama administration — whose Syria “policy” hardly deviates from the “Assad must go” mantra — is trying to convey the impression for US public opinion that it is actively fighting Daesh. Yet this is a fiction. With no considerable “coalition” air power (apart from some bombing of Daesh targets south of Ain Issa) and no sizeable troops, no “leading from behind” will yield a US victory in Raqqa.
The election battlefield
It’s enlightening that the offensive on Raqqa got the go-ahead only after CENTCOM Commander Gen. Joseph Votel traveled to Kobani, in Syria, and Ankara. Yet CENTCOM only gave the green light to a partial operation — vetoing the YPG plan to go after the key border town of Jarablus, one of Daesh’s only remaining revolving doors to Turkey. That’s because the Pentagon refuses to confront a NATO ally’s red line.
This is not even about taking over Raqqa; the SDF does not have the manpower and the resources. As SDF commander Abu Fayyad put it, this is mostly about liberating the region north of Raqqa.
Syrian Kurds though simply won’t resign themselves to not advance on Jarablus; their strategic priority for months has been to try to open a corridor between their cantons in Kobani and Afrin. While commanders insist Washington would not interfere were that to happen — and that’s highly debatable — they also point out that the lame duck Obama administration wants a “victory” in Raqqa (as well as Mosul in Iraq) before the November presidential election.
So this is what it’s all about; a “gift” from the foreign policy-handicapped Obama administration to Hillary Clinton, assuming she survives the subterranean email server scandal.
As for the Syrian Kurds, even if they were able to conquer Raqqa with “leading from behind” assistance — again highly debatable, as Daesh will fight to the death with all its firepower — they would not be able to clear and hold it. Raqqa is a Sunni Arab city. The SDF could hardly transfer enough resources to Raqqa without compromising its defense of Rojava.
Once again, “on the road to Raqqa” is being sold in the US essentially as a P.R. stunt, as in “we’re fighting to win”. Perversely, the P.R. stunt also carries the embedded element of a possible trap to Damascus. The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) is very much focused on trying to secure Palmyra for good — as well as multiple supply lines, oil and gas fields, small regional airbases to be used by Russian helicopters, and trying to close multiple remaining pockets of surrounded “moderate” rebels and/or jihadis. That’s a lot of work. There’s no way the SAA will overextend itself and make a play for Raqqa.
The bottom line is that for Damascus — as well as for Moscow — Raqqa is a non-issue, for now. A much more worrying scenario is Aleppo, where Sultan Erdogan’s mercenaries, weaponized and paid-for, are gearing up for the Mother of All Battles.
The game plan
Assuming an — unlikely — scenario of Syrian Kurds managing somehow to conquer Raqqa, it’s not hard to forecast the follow-up, whoever wins in November. Washington will make Raqqa its own satrapy and invest — once again — in Divide and Rule; creating a joint Kurd/Sunni Arab vassal state within Syria, along the Euphrates.
So those “advise-and-assist” boots on the ground are in fact the vanguard for a complex game plan — through which Washington, if successful, would be able to cut off that fiction much entertained by the petrodollar gang — the Shi’ite crescent — as well as weaken a fragmented Syria for the foreseeable future.
“NATO ally” Turkey though will pose a tremendous problem to the US game plan. There’s no way Ankara under Sultan Erdogan will abolish its Syrian Kurd red lines. Quite the contrary; Sultan Erdogan is doubling down. Erdogan is avidly betting on Jabhat al-Nusra — being bribed by Turkish operators to extricate itself from al-Qaeda — to wreak further havoc in Syria in the Aleppo front.
And one should not — ever — forget the gas; after all Syria is an energy war. Syria’s gas reserves happen to lie mostly between Raqqa and Deir Ez-Zoor. It’s not hard to fathom many a US Big Oil player salivating as these reserves may one day be under proxy US control.
Which brings us to the key question; how will Moscow crack the Raqqa riddle? Here’s another riddle — inside an enigma.
U.S.-led coalition warplanes carried out intense airstrikes Tuesday on Raqqa, the de facto Syrian capital of the Islamic State group, a monitoring group said, continuing days of air-raids that appear to be aimed at demoralizing jihadist fighters before an offensive by Kurdish-led forces on villages to the north of the city.
The airstrikes appear targeted mostly on IS defensive positions on the outskirts of the city. This may be to try to avoid civilian casualties, although civilian deaths have been reported.
Raqqa political activists have been warning that IS is using civilians as human shields, spreading fighters and their weaponry around civilian areas and housing militants in residential blocks.
Leaders of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-dominated coalition that also includes a mixed bag of small Sunni Arab armed groups and some Syriac and Turkmen community defense forces, announced Tuesday it had started an offensive to liberate Raqqa from the Islamic State.
Americans in combat mode?
SDF spokesmen said U.S. commandos are embedding with their fighters in the offensive and posted videos purportedly showing this. U.S. officials deny American soldiers are taking on combat roles in the fighting and insist U.S. Special Forces won’t be exchanging fire with IS.
Colonel Steve Warren, the spokesman for the U.S.-led international coalition against IS, says U.S. Special Forces personnel are only providing assistance and advice to the SDF in the battle, but they are not on the front line. “We are in their off centers and headquarters providing advice,” he said.
U.S. officials, and some Kurdish officials, are also cautioning the objective of the military operation is to seize villages and territory north and west of Raqqa rather than to seek to retake the beleaguered city. The objective, they say, is to squeeze the city and further isolate it.
Civilians urged to leave
Some Western officials concede the SDF doesn’t have the capability yet to mount a full-scale assault on the city. That has prompted political activists to question why the international coalition has been air-dropping leaflets in the past few days on Raqqa urging civilians to flee the city, implying that an assault is in the offing.
Civilians flee to countryside
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitoring group that relies on a network of activists inside Syria, reported Wednesday sharp clashes between SDF and IS forces around villages close to Ain Issa, 56 kilometers north of Raqqa. The monitoring group also said dozens of civilians left Raqqa city Wednesday and headed into the western countryside.
Meanwhile, Turkish military officials have warned their U.S. counterparts that Turkey will not accept American-backed Kurdish-led forces crossing the Euphrates River to mount assaults on two other IS-held towns, Manbij and Jarabulus.
Reports recently suggested the Turks may have been reducing their objections to Kurdish-led forces moving west of the Euphrates, but in a meeting with General Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, deputy chief of the Turkish general staff Yaşar Güler warned Turkey still considers the Azaz-Jarablus line as a “red line” when it comes to the Kurdish-led forces.
The Syrian armed forces plan to retake the city of Raqqa from Daesh, and Russian aviation is expected to support the operation, according to Russia’s UN Office envoy.
GENEVA (Sputnik) – The Syrian army is planning to launch an offensive on Deir Ez-Zor and Raqqa with the support of the Russian air group deployed in Syria, Permanent Representative of Russia to the UN Office and Other International Organizations in Geneva Alexei Borodavkin said.
“In line with UNSC [UN Security Council] Resolution 2254, the ceasefire regime in Syria does not apply to Daesh, al-Nusra Front and other terrorist groups…As a result of operations by the Syrian armed forces with [the] support of Russian combat aircraft [the Syrian] city of Palmyra has been liberated, and now further offensive operations are being planned in the direction of Deir Ez-Zor and Raqqa,” Borodavkin told reporters in Geneva.
Syria Ceasefire Mostly Holding but Some Forces Attempt to Disrupt It
“There are forces that are deliberately provoking the failure of the cessation of hostilities. We are constantly talking about the need to block the Turkish-Syrian border through which terrorist group fighters flow and weapons, military equipment and ammunition are smuggled. It is necessary to firmly curb this flow in order to strengthen the ceasefire regime,” Borodavkin stressed.
According to the Russian envoy, the United States and Russia are making joint efforts to put an end to the Syrian conflict.
“We are well aware that there are opponents of the cessation of hostilities and they will do everything they can to disrupt this regime, which is what is happening now,” Borodavkin said, adding nonetheless that “in general, the regime is being adhered to.”
A US-Russia-brokered ceasefire came into force across Syria on February 27. Syria has been mired in civil war since March 2011, with government forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad fighting numerous opposition factions and extremist groups. The truce does not apply to terrorist groups such as Daesh and al-Nusra Front.
More Militant Groups Cut Ties With al-Nusra Front, Join Ceasefire
“The groups that want to join the cessation of hostilities must sign relevant documents, report their exact location and disengage from Nusra Front units because, at present, they are, unfortunately, heavily mixed on the battlefield,” Borodavkin told reporters.
According to Borodavkin, “certain progress” has been observed in the US work with illegal armed groups in Syria.
“Contacts and cooperation between Russian and US militaries have recently intensified. Phone conferences between Hmeymim [Russian air base in Syria], Amman, Moscow and Washington are regularly held. Our militaries are meeting at the negotiating table with maps and necessary intelligence data that help to prevent violations of the cessation of hostilities and strengthen it. I think that in the near future many issues will be resolved within this US-Russian military cooperation,” Borodavkin told journalists.
No Evidence Jaish al-Islam, Ahrar ash-Sham Join Truce
“We heard statements from these groups that they have allegedly joined the cessation of hostilities [in Syria] but we have no official confirmation [of these statements],” Borodavkin told journalists.
The envoy recalled that the leadership of Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar ash-Sham had repeatedly stated they were fighting “shoulder to shoulder” with al-Nusra Front militants and called on the jihadists to unite in their fight against government forces.
“If Ahrar ash-Sham and Jaish al-Islam are serious about finding a political solution to the conflict in Syria, they have to radically change their positions,” Borodavkin emphasized.
On Tuesday, Russia requested to add the two groups operating in Syria to the UN sanctions list that already contains Daesh. The Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee (HNC) of the Syrian opposition includes representatives of both Ahrar ash-Sham and Jaish al-Islam.
The Russian Air Force chose the twilight hours on Saturday to strike the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS) inside the Al-Raqqa Governorate; this would prove to be a wise decision as the terrorist group typically travels at night to transport supplies and reinforcements. The Russian Air Force conducted at least 10 airstrikes near the Tabaqa Military Airport and another half dozen strikes at the Al-Mansourah District of Al-Raqqa, killing several terrorists from the Islamic State inside the provincial capital on Saturday. Following these airstrikes in Al-Raqqa, the Russian Air Force would concentrate on the northeastern countryside of Homs, hitting several targets near the towns of Al-Sakhanah and ‘Arak.
The handful of Christian families remaining in the Islamic State’s Syrian stronghold of Raqqa have been forbidden from fleeing the city, according to a tweet from a secret group that reports from inside the caliphate, Fox News says.
The activist group Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered said the black-clad terrorist army issued a decree that any Christians or Armenians still within city limits may not leave. It is believed that there are just more than 40 Christian families left in the city, and that they have been forced to register with the extremist group and to pay a “jizya,” or a minority tax in exchange for being unharmed.
“Any Christian living within Syria or Iraq is in a very dangerous and precarious position,” David Curry, president and CEO of Open Doors USA, a Christian advocacy organization, told Fox News. ‘We want to see the Christian church survive in the Middle East, especially in the areas occupied by the Islamic State.”
Raqqa first fell into rebel control in March 2013 after a battle between Al Qaeda-linked jihadi group Al Nusra and Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s regime, becoming the first provincial capital under rebel control. ISIS has since used the city as a launching point to increase their caliphate.
According to Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered, there are about 43 Christian families left in the city, Fox News says. “The suffering of Christians began with ISIS control of Raqqa,” RIBSS said on its website,. “ISIS looks at Christians as infidels loyal to the West more than their loyalty to their homeland which they live.”
Russian monitors of the ceasefire in Syria have recorded nine violations of the truce over the last 24 hours. They said overall the ceasefire is holding up, but some of the violations were attributed to the rebels.
Pledges to observe the ceasefire have been submitted by 17 “moderate” rebel groups and elders of 35 towns and villages, who said that they would expel anyone not willing to uphold the deal and enlist those willing to do it into local militias, the Russian center for reconciliation said. The US has filed a list of 69 rebel groups who have subscribed to the ceasefire, they said.
Six of the nine violations were noted because the fire came from the regions of suburban Damascus under the control of “moderate” rebel groups listed as observing the ceasefire by the American side, the report said.
In the Raqqa province, a group of some 100 fighters crossed into Syria from Turkey. The group later joined forces with other militants and attacked the Kurdish town of Tell Abyad.
The 250-strong group was supported by artillery fire from the Turkish territory, a fact that Russia said the US should explain. The Kurdish YPG militia fended off the attack, the report said.
In Latakia province, fighters of the Al Nusra Front terrorist group, which is not included into the ceasefire deal, fired mortar shells at a local militia force, which returned fire.
The terrorist positions were in an area under control of a “moderate” rebel group, the monitors said. Multiple casualties were reported in the clash.
A suicide attacker detonated his car bomb on a road about 1km east from Hama city. The car came from an area controlled by “moderate” rebels, the report noted.
The US Strategic Command confirmed that the Syrian ceasefire was generally adhered to.
The rebel High Negotiating Committee (HNC)’s spokesman Salim al-Muslat claimed that Russia and Hezbollah violated the ceasefire at least 15 times, but didn’t provide any details. Russia said it is no longer conducting airstrikes in areas where the hostilities were put on hold.
The ceasefire was brokered by leading world powers, including the US and Russia, and is meant to pave the way to reconciliation between the Syrian government and moderate rebel forces, which would together agree on a peaceful transition in the country. Some of the stronger forces in Syria, including the terrorist groups Islamic State and Nusra Front, rejected the negotiation and are not subject to the ceasefire.