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A US-backed alliance of Syrian militias launched an offensive against the Islamic State (IS) group near their de facto capital of Raqqa on Tuesday, a monitoring group and an official said.
An unspecified number of Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters were seen moving south from their stronghold of Tel Abyad near the Turkish border Tuesday towards Ain Issa, a town about 60 km northwest of Raqqa city, and clashes were reported nearby, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.
The SDF alliance is the main Syrian partner for the US-led coalition battling the IS group that controls large areas of northern and eastern Syria. Its most powerful component is the Kurdish YPG militia.
Aided by US-led air strikes, the YPG has driven the IS group from wide areas of northern Syria over the last year or more, though its advances have recently slowed.
There has been no indication of when a full assault on Raqqa city might take place. A Kurdish official contacted by Reuters declined to say whether it was a target of the latest offensive.
Syrian Kurdish groups have previously said an attack on the predominantly Arab city of Raqqa should be led by Arab militias. Syria experts say the SDF’s Arab groups are not yet ready for such an attack, however.
‘Beginning of the end’
The ground operation was accompanied by a series of air strikes on militant hideouts in the area carried out by jets belonging to a US-led coalition.
Baghdad-based US military spokesman Colonel Steve Warren confirmed the assault, saying: “The SDF have begun operations to clear the northern countryside, so this is putting pressure on Raqqa.”
If Raqqa falls, “it’s the beginning of the end of their caliphate”, Warren said.
The attack follows a recent visit to northern Syria by US Central Command Commander General Joseph L. Votel, the highest-ranking US military official to visit Syria since the war erupted in 2011.
Neither Washington nor its allies have indicated they are about to embark on a campaign to retake Raqqa or Mosul city, the other main stronghold of the militants in Iraq.
Raqqa city sits in the centre of the province of the same name, which borders Turkey to the north.
During his visit, Votel met some SDF commanders as well as US troops who are training the force, the US Defence Department said.
The SDF have driven the IS group from wide areas of northern Syria and in February captured the town of al Shadadi, a major logistics hub for the militants that was connected by a network of highways in Hasaka province. Its capture had further isolated Raqqa.
The IS group’s territory in Iraq and Syria has shrunk significantly from its peak. The group is also being targeted in a separate campaign by the Syrian military and its allies, including Russia.
At the same time as the offensive near Raqqa was getting underway, Iraqi forces were closing in Tuesday on the city of Falluja another IS group stronghold, after capturing the nearby town of Garma.
“Federal forces advanced towards the east of Falluja early today from three directions,” police Lieutenant General Raed Shakir Jawdat told AFP.
The Hashed al-Shaabi umbrella paramilitary organisation, dominated by Tehran-backed Shiite militias that are heavily involved in the operation, said ground was also gained south of Falluja.
A Fallujah resident reached by telephone told AFP there was heavy shelling on the northern edge of the city Tuesday.
“Daesh (the IS group) is still imposing a curfew, preventing people from coming out on the street,” said the man, who gave his name as Abu Mohammed al-Dulaimi.
“The number of Daesh members is decreasing and we have started seeing them walk in the street in groups of two or three. We don’t know where the others are,” he said.
It was unclear what kind of defence the IS group was prepared to put up in Falluja, a city that looms large in modern jihadist mythology since 2004 battles that saw US forces suffer some of their worst losses since the Vietnam War.