On Tuesday, June 6, a spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced that their forces had begun an offensive against Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State (IS). The attack is coming from the north, west, and east of the city and is supported by coalition airstrikes. The fighting is expected to be fierce as IS militants (between 3000 and 4000) are putting up a strong resistance.
Tensions between Washington and Damascus have risen due to the use of US airstrikes, one of which downed a drone belonging to pro-Syrian government forces that had targeted US-backed forces on the ground. Civilians are caught in the fighting and are regularly killed by airstrikes. SDF leaders have called for all civilians to leave Raqqa.
Raqqa, considered as the capital of the “Caliphate” as proclaimed by IS, is the group’s last stronghold.
The SDF is a collection of armed groups backed by the US military. YPG (People’s Protection Units) forces account for approximately 70-75 percent of the SDF, with the remaining 20-25 percent coming from Arab militias and a few thousand fighters from other minority ethnic group militias. The YPG has been the most effective local fighting force against IS due to extensive combat experience and preference for fighting IS rather than the regime of Bashar Al-Assad, with most Sunni Arab opposition groups preferring to fight Assad rather than IS. The YPG's involvement in the anti-IS coalition and the recent weapons transfers from the US have angered Turkey, a US ally and a primary actor in the anti-IS coalition, who views the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), an armed Kurdish group that has fought an insurgency against the Turkish government since 1984. This has severely complicated any plans for governing Raqqa once IS is expelled and the overall prospects of a long-term political settlement for ending the Syrian civil war.
Syria has experienced a complex civil war between the President Al-Assad's government and opposition forces since March 2011. The Syrian conflict involves the Syrian government, the Iranian government, the Turkish government, the Russian government, the US-backed coalition, and numerous armed opposition groups with competing goals.
Multiple rounds of negotiations to establish a political solution to the civil war have taken place in Geneva. More recently, Russia-initiated rounds of peace talks have taken place in Astana but do not include a US delegation as an active participant.
Due to extremely poor security conditions, Western governments generally advise against all travel to Syria, with some countries banning all travel to the country. Professional security advice and support should be sought prior to any travel to the country.