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Raqqa operation crucial to wipe out IS group in Syria
Last Updated: 2017-06-07 09:17 | Xinhua
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Time has forgotten Syria's northern city of Raqqa since the Islamic State (IS) group self-declared its caliphate there, claiming it as its capital in 2014.

Since then, the city's name has become infamous as it's become associated with IS and their violent acts when its name is mentioned.

Even the city's inhabitants became akin to aliens compared with other Syrians, particularly due to the blackout imposed by IS on the city, blocking photographs and videos from being taken or sent out of the city save for a few breaches now and again, giving a meager glimpse of how people live there.

Several Raqqa inhabitants succeeded in fleeing the city over the past few years by paying large amounts of money to smugglers in order to scuttle them to government-controlled areas, where they are placed in government-run shelters.

In 2016, Xinhua visited one of the shelters near the southern province of Sweida, where reporters met with many of those fleeing Raqqa, and heard some of their stories.

A number of them spoke of being deprived of basic needs and simple pleasures, such as smoking a cigarette without fearing the tough reprisal of either paying a large fine, or losing their fingers.

Women were also exposed to a substantial amount of harassment if they were not completely covered from head to toe.

Bassem, a 25-year-old man, told Xinhua the horrible scenes he witnessed in al-Raqqa would turn a man's hair white from shock.

"I was arrested because they spotted a cigarette in my hand. People don't dare to smoke in public and those caught smoking are subjected to a brutal punishment."

Bassem recounted that IS police, called Husbah, arrested a woman on street and charged her with showing part of her foot.

"They put her in a cage in a cemetery and left her screaming all night long, until the woman went crazy," he recalled.

All such horrible practices and the ramped up military offensives against IS strongholds pushed people to flee the city.

These horror movie-like stories continue to be recounted.

When news about Raqqa is not about the practices of the terrorist-designated group, it is about an imminent military operation by U.S.-backed Kurdish groups to liberate Raqqa.

A few months ago, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurds, Arabs and Assyrians, started an operation dubbed the Euphrates Wreath, against IS in Raqqa's countryside.

The operation started with offensives to isolate Raqqa from its countryside and other IS-held areas in eastern Syria.

After the operation's success, the SDF, heavily backed by the U.S.-led anti-terrorism coalition, declared the commencement of the fourth stage of the offensive against Raqqa, basically when the SDF and allied fighters stormed the city itself.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the SDF began the offensive's last stage of storming IS's heartland in Raqqa city on Tuesday.

Intense battles raged between the U.S.-backed SDF and IS militants on both Raqqa's eastern and northern fronts, according to the Observatory.

It said the SDF stormed the Mashlab, Raqqa's first eastern neighborhood, hours after announcing the operation's commencement.

The UK-based watchdog group said U.S.-backed forces captured the first building in the neighborhood, as IS fighters withdrew from neighborhood areas stormed by the SDF.

Commenting on the operation, the U.S.-led coalition acknowledged on Tuesday that the Kurdish-led forces began the "long and difficult" battle to recapture Raqqa.

Journalist and political analyst, Maher Ihsan, said the IS is on the verge of falling apart, but it will not happen overnight.

"It will be long, and the results can't be predicted so far," he told Xinhua.

Ihsan referred to the war against IS in neighboring Iraq, particularly in Mosul, where battles have been raging there for months to strip IS from its capital city in Iraq.

The ongoing battles are joined by the Iraqi army, and the paramilitary forces of the Hashd al-Shabi, or the popular mobilization forces.

Other Iraqi forces are also fighting against IS in the battle of Mosul.

Those forces are assuredly larger than those of the SDF's and a new force called the Elite Forces is fighting alongside them, but there is a big difference between Raqqa and Mosul as well, in terms of geography and population.

In terms of population Raqqa's civilian population before the war was estimated at around 300,000 with an additional 200,000 in communities around it.

Mosul's population approached two million before the war.

"So Raqqa should theoretically be easier to recapture than Mosul, but when you speak of IS and their suicide bombings and other unpredictable tactics, the operation could take a long time, and we will definitely see street battles, with civilians paying the price," Ahmad Ashqar, a political analyst, told Xinhua.

As for the Syrian army's role in this battle, it's highly unlikely the army will take part, mainly because the U.S. is supporting the battle and therefore after the city's imminent downfall, the victory will be claimed by U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters and other rebel groups.

Yet, the Syrian army is advancing against IS in Aleppo province's countryside as well as the Syrian desert, reaching Raqqa's administrative borders.

Analysts believe this battle is likely coordinated between the U.S. and Russia, so ground forces will not be stepping on each others' toes, at least for now.

This coordination, or understanding, was obvious when Russians struck any and all IS convoys fleeing Raqqa for the Syrian desert.

Syria's Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said last May that the Kurdish groups' battle against IS was a legitimate one, but he along with other government officials and statements, largely criticized the U.S.-led coalition's operations in Syria, branding them as illegitimate.

Furthermore, the government has yet to comment on declaring Raqqa's major battle, another reason to suspect that something remains hidden regarding what will happen after Raqqa's downfall.

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