Final push on Raqa to begin in days: France

BEIRUT/GENEVA: The international coalition battling the IS group will begin a final push on the militants’ Syrian stronghold Raqa in the coming days, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Friday.
But on the ground, the US-backed Kurdish-Arab alliance spearheading the battle for the militant group’s de facto Syrian capital expressed caution about how soon the battle for Raqa would begin.
Also on Friday, the Syrian chief negotiator at peace talks in Geneva said that any US- or Turkish-backed attack on IS in the Syrian city of Raqa would be illegitimate unless coordinated with President Bashar al Assad’s government,.
Bashar al Jaafari said countries backing rebel groups in Syria, such as Britain, France, Turkey and Qatar, were sponsors of terrorism, and said that a recent rebel offensive was designed to disrupt peace talks in Geneva and Astana.
“All the terrorist attacks, as I said, are pushing everybody towards a total failure and fiasco in the political and diplomatic process,” he told reporters, adding that his delegation would never walk away from the talks.
IS has come under growing pressure from twin US-backed ground offensives targeting Raqa and their other main stronghold, Mosul in Iraq.
“Today, we can say that Raqa is surrounded and the battle will begin in the coming days,” Le Drian told France’s CNEWS television.
“This will be a very hard battle but essential.”
The militants are under attack from several directions in northern Syria, with Russia supporting its Syrian ally President Bashar al Assad on one front and Turkey providing air cover for rebel groups battling the militants on another.
The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-Arab alliance, has been working for months to encircle Raqa.
But a spokesman for the alliance said there was still work to do.
“The operation to besiege Raqa will take several weeks and that will then lead to the official launch of the operation,” Talal Sello said.
For now, the alliance is focused on the strategically important Tabqa Dam near Raqa and the adjacent town of Tabqa and its airport.
“The first goal of the SDF is to control Tabqa city (next to the dam) or besiege it completely before starting the battle for Raqa,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor.
The US military has provided air and artillery support involving Apache helicopter gunships to help the SDF in the battle for the dam and the surrounding area, as well as airlifting in fighters.
 — AFP/Reuters