On Tuesday, June 6, a spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced that their forces had begun attacking Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State (IS), from the north, west, and east. According to reports, fighting has started in the eastern al-Mashlab district and the Division 17 military base in northern Raqqa. SDF fighters have been preparing for the offensive by surrounding Raqqa since November 2016. The People's Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian Kurdish militia that is the primary fighting force of the SDF, began receiving small arms for the offensive from the United States military on May 30. SDF leaders have called for all civilians to leave Raqqa.
In addition to the ongoing offensive against IS-controlled Mosul in Iraq by Iraqi and US-backed coalition forces that began in October 2016, the Raqqa offensive is intended to root out IS from its territorial stronghold. The SDF is estimated to have around 50,000 fighters while 3000 to 4000 IS fighters are believed to be positioned in Raqqa. US Army Lieutenant General Steve Townsend, the commander of the anti-IS coalition, stated that the offensive will be "long and difficult".
The SDF is a collection of armed groups that is backed by the US military. YPG forces account for approximately 70-75 percent of the SDF, with 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 their 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 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 Assad's government and opposition forces since March 2011. The Syrian conflict includes the Syrian government, the Iranian government, the Turkish government, the Russian government, the US-backed coalition, and numerous armed opposition groups (including the Islamic State) with competing goals.
Multiple rounds of negotiations to establish a political solution to the Syrian civil war have taken place in Geneva, Switzerland. The recent Russian initiated rounds of peace talks in Astana 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.
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