By Josko Baric (Twitter)
The Raqqa operation, named Wrath of Euphrates, is entering its final stages as Syrian Democratic Forces are clearing areas north and east of the city of Raqqa from Islamic State presence. During this operation, which started in November 2016, more than 200 villages, hamlets, hills and other localities that span over 7, 400 square kilometers (2, 900 square miles) were captured. Three phases of Wrath of Euphrates operation were successfully concluded as more than 30,000 SDF fighters backed by American special forces attempt to push Islamic State out of its biggest stronghold in northern Syria, Raqqa.
The first phase started the process of isolating Raqqa from other Islamic State's strongholds in Syria such as Deir al-Zour. During the first phase, which focused on capturing ground north of Raqqa, more than 40 localities were captured and 160 ISIS fighters killed by SDF. As the preparations were ongoing for the second phase a 'U.S. soldier fighting ISIS was killed in northern Syria on Thanksgiving after stepping on an IED near Raqqa'. Incident occurred near Ayn Issa and it is the only American casualty in the operation so far.
On the 10th of December 2016, the SDF began the second phase west of Raqqa with the end goal of reaching Tabqa Dam. The US defense secretary at the time, Ashton Carter, confirmed the deployment of additional 200 US forces in Syria to assist SDF along the already present 300 military personnel.
SDF backed by US troops easily overcame IS west of Raqqa capturing several villages per day. Outnumbered IS forces resorted to the frequent usage of suicide attacks against both SDF and civilians. After capturing more than 100 villages from the Islamic State, SDF reached the outskirts of Tabqa Dam.
While SDF was preparing to launch the third phase of Wrath of Euphrates, it received a shipment of armored vehicles from the United States.
Third phase of Wrath of Euphrates operation "split" SDF forces into two fronts. Part of SDF was preparing for the battle of Tabqa while the other half was ready to isolate Raqqa from Deir al-Zour. The eastern, Deir al-Zour front was opened on the 4th of February. SDF's 'Deir Ezzor Military Council' also joined the battles against IS in northern Deir al-Zour governorate. Due to SDF forces being split into two, rate of advances was smaller compared to the previous phases. SDF concluded operations on the eastern front by the end of March.
SDF forces fighting on Tabqa front had a tougher time against IS as they performed an airborne and a naval assault on territory west of Tabqa. Both assaults were supported by US special forces.
SDF quickly organized after landing and captured several villages in the vicinity of the landing point. Before entering the city of Tabqa, the SDF captured Tabqa Airbase located south of the city. This base proved to be a good staging point for an assault on the city of Tabqa. The southern neighborhoods of Tabqa fell pretty quickly once IS' defense lines were breached. Islamic State made a stand in three neighborhoods north of Tabqa, stalling the complete capture of the city for a week. Remaining IS fighters were eventually evacuated from Tabqa city and dam on the 10th of May. Operation Inherent Resolve's news release about capture of Tabqa included the part about evacuation:
The fourth, currently active phase started during the Battle of Tabqa but only kicked in once the city was fully captured. The Battle of Tabqa also postponed the planned assault on Raqqa city in April of 2017.
SDF is currently advancing against Islamic State north and east of Raqqa slowly reaching the city's outskirts. Once SDF captures more territory at the outskirts of Raqqa we could see an assault on the city. However, SDF could also decide to advance southwest of Raqqa from Tabqa in order to impose siege on Raqqa.
No matter which approach SDF takes towards Raqqa, the start of the battle for the city might be just weeks away. United States-led coalition is expected to provide even greater support, regarding both the airstrikes and ground troops.