U.S.-backed military forces in Syria are poised to launch in a “few days” an offensive to capture the Islamic State’s (IS) defacto capital of Raqqa, according to a spokesman for the Syrian Kurdish militia group YPG.
“The forces reached the outskirts of the city and the major operation will start …in the coming days,” YPG spokesman Nouri Mahmoud said Saturday.
Mahmoud confirmed Saturday remarks by American military officials who said Thursday that Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have pushed within three kilometers of Raqqa and action to gain control “could begin in the coming days.”
Speaking in Baghdad, U.S.-led counter IS coalition spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon told reporters the SDF is “poised around Raqqa,” after gaining significant territory from IS in Syria in the last week.
The forces are within three kilometers of Raqqa to the north and the east and about 10 kilometers from the city to the west, said Dillon.
“The fight for the city could begin in the coming days,” a U.S. military official separately told VOA on the condition of anonymity. “The encirclement of Raqqa is almost complete.”
The U.S. military has distributed weapons and vehicles to Syrian Kurdish fighters in preparation for the Raqqa battle. That move, confirmed earlier this week, placed the United States at odds with NATO ally Turkey, which contends the SDF’s Syrian Kurdish militia is a terrorist group affiliated with the outlawed PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a terror group that has been battling the Turkish state for many years.
Dillon said the SDF has instructed remaining Raqqa citizens to leave the city, with nearly 200,000 people already displaced. Camps for displaced citizens have been established around the Syrian city, Dillon added, with SDF screening sites in place to prevent Islamic State militants from escaping among the fleeing civilian population.
Pro-Syrian regime forces still near al-Tanf
Meanwhile, U.S. military officials say Iranian-backed pro-regime forces continue to violate a deconfliction zone set up around the al-Tanf army base, where special forces are training Syrian militias.
Dillon said the coalition has communicated to the “small element” of forces that they are considered a threat and need to leave the zone.
“We want them out of there,” he told reporters from Baghdad Thursday.
Dillon said the forces violating the deconfliction zone have stopped establishing defensive positions after coalition airstrikes targeted their tanks and equipment two weeks ago, but have remained a little more than halfway into the established zone, which has a radius of 55 kilometers from al-Tanf base.
“It’s not like they’ve dipped their toe into the deconfliction zone; they’re well inside it,” said Dillon.
Additional pro-regime reinforcements have not entered the deconfliction zone, Dillon explained, but forces just outside the deconfliction zone at al-Tanf are reinforcing their positions and bringing in combat type assets, including tanks and artillery systems.
“All these things put together present a threat to the coalition forces,” he noted.
VOA Pentagon Correspondent Carla Babb contributed to this report.