US special forces, pictured in May 2016, are working with the SDF and Kurdish forces in northern Syria. Photo: Delil Souleiman/AFP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Anti-ISIS forces gained ground west of Raqqa in a joint operation conducted by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and members of the US-led coalition Tuesday night into Wednesday morning.
Coalition helicopters airdropped US special forces and SDF fighters near Tabqa, a strategic town 40 kilometres west of Raqqa, “in order to retake the town” announced a statement on Wednesday from the SDF’s Wrath of Euphrates military campaign to isolate and liberate Raqqa.
“The two ground forces were able to take the villages of Abu Huraira, al-Mushirfa, al-Karin, and al-Muhima,” on the southern banks of the Euphrates River, the statement detailed.
The forces also cut the road linking Aleppo to Raqqa and further east to Deir ez-Zur.
The coalition’s media office confirmed the operation in a statement issued Wednesday evening. The offensive was led by the SDF in coordination with the Syrian Arab Coalition and supported by the coalition, the statement detailed.
“The Coalition supported this offensive with air movement and logistical support, precision airstrikes, Apache helicopters in close air support, Marine artillery, and special operations advice and assistance to SDF leadership.”
A commander within the coalition hailed the bravery of the SDF forces. "It takes a special breed of warrior to pull off an airborne operation or air assault behind enemy lines," said Col. Joe Scrocca, according to the coalition’s statement. "There is nothing easy about this – it takes audacity and courage. And the SDF has that in spades."
He added that the SDF are the most effective force on the ground. "It is the SDF on the ground, putting their lives at risk, and violently engaging the enemy," said Scrocca. "And it is the SDF, like the Iraqi Security Forces, who are making the sacrifice so that other Coalition nations do not continue to suffer the threat of ISIS terrorism inside our own borders."
Tabqa dam is a strategic site that has been used by ISIS as a headquarters, training location, and prison.
The SDF launched an offensive last December with the aim of taking control of the dam and surrounding area. They progressed within kilometres of the location by late January.
There are fears that the dam, which has already taken some damage in the conflict, may burst, causing a disaster to communities living downriver. “The Coalition will take every precaution to ensure the dam's integrity,” the media office’s statement vowed.
The coalition statement added that taking the dam will further isolate Raqqa “and give the SDF the strategic advantage and launching point needed for the liberation of the city,” as it is the extremist group’s last connection to its territory west of the Euphrates River.
The US has stepped up its support for the SDF on the ground in northern Syria as preparations continue for an assault on the city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of ISIS.
In March, a US Marine force was deployed to the Raqqa area to provide artillery support for the SDF.
The 68-member global coalition is currently meeting in Washington where Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged greater commitment to the war with ISIS.
“Now is the time to strengthen our shared commitment to security and invest in a fight in which we all have a say,” Tillerson said, adding that terror threats are outstripping the resources allocated and that military deterrence is only credible if the military strength is formidable.