US-backed forces enter Islamic State stronghold within Raqqa

Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have entered the Old City of Raqqa, according to the US military and posts on the SDF’s social media. Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) announced the “breach” in a statement released today.

SDF fighters, who have faced “heavy ISIS resistance,” streamed into the Old City after the US-led coalition created two holes in the Rafiqah Wall, a historic barrier that dates back to the 8th Century Abbasid caliphate. CJTF-OIR emphasizes that great care was taken to avoid destroying the entire wall, in contrast to the Islamic State’s own tactics.

“ISIS fighters were using the historic wall as a fighting position and planted mines and improvised explosive devices at several of the breaks in the wall,” CJTF-OIR said in its statement. “SDF fighters would have been channeled through these locations and were extremely vulnerable as they were targeted with vehicle-borne IEDs and indirect fire as well as direct fire from heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and snipers as they tried to breach the Old City.”

Therefore, the US-led coalition conducted “targeted strikes” on two small 25-meter sections of the 2,500-meter wall.

“Unlike ISIS who deliberately destroyed the ruins of Palmyra and the Al-Nuri mosque and uses sites such as the Rafiqa Wall, hospitals, schools and mosques as weapons storage facilities and fighting positions, Coalition forces are making a great effort to protect civilians and preserve these sites for future generations,” military spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon said.

The Old City is the “most heavily fortified portion” of Raqqa, meaning that the battle for the Islamic State’s capital is entering a new stage. Press reports indicate that the SDF reached the outskirts of the Old City in mid-June. But they were evidently stalled there, and in a nearby neighborhood, for more than two weeks since.

The self-declared caliphate continues to produce propaganda from the battle for Raqqa. One video, released on July 3, features an Australian jihadi known as Abu Yousuf al-Australi. He was previously identified in the Australian press as Tareq Kamleh after he first appeared in Islamic State productions more than two years ago. In his latest appearance, Abu Yousuf is first shown (see the screen shot above) attending to a child purportedly wounded during coalition airstrikes. The scenery changes and he is then depicted as a fighter stationed in one of the jihadists’ tunnels.

Abu Yousuf calls on Muslims in the West to either join the Islamic State’s cause overseas, or lash out at home — a recurring theme in the group’s propaganda.

“Is there no shame in those Muslims still in the West, sitting in the West, even the doctors in the West?” he asks.

“These kids are still only here, and their families are only here, because they wanted to live under the law of Allah,” Abu Yousuf says, as he is standing over the wounded child. “And they don’t want to live under this concept of democracy.”

There are hints of desperation in Abu Yousuf’s propaganda video. Even though the Islamic State mushroomed into a global menace, Abu Yousuf expresses his dismay with the limited support the organization receives throughout the broader Muslim-majority world.

“It really surprises me of [sic] how the Muslim nation is acting at the moment and how stagnant you have all become,” Abu Yousuf says. “We are under continuous bombing here and we are fighting hard to try to hold the lands of Islam.” He adds that only the “law of Allah is implemented in these lands.”

“What more will it take for it to be a justified cause for you to come here to fight for Allah’s sake?” the Australian jihadi asks. He continues: “And if you can’t…make hijrah, you can’t come here, jihad itself isn’t only in the lands of Syria, or only in the lands of Iraq. Fighting for the cause of Allah is anywhere. You are living in the countries that are sending us rockets. You are living in the countries that are killing [Muslims] here. You are paying taxes still to them. You have no honor. You have no self-respect. You have no love for fellow Muslims. You can’t undertake anything in your own countries, if you can’t come here.”

Abu Yousuf directly addresses President Trump, claiming that the jihadis can’t wait to battle American forces in northern Syria. He references the increased presence of US Special Operations forces, which are supporting the SDF in its head-to-head match with Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s men.

“We were so happy, because for a long time we have been waiting for your soldiers to meet us on the ground here,” Abu Yousuf says while dressed in fighting garb. “And your effeminate predecessor Obama danced around this subject for too long. He refused to send us your soldiers. And now we know they are on the lands, wanting to enter our lands. We are really eagerly awaiting for them to enter our cities.”

“We love death more than you love life,” the Australian says, repeating a common jihadi concept.

While Abu Yousuf claims he can’t wait to face off with American soldiers, the truth is that the bulk of the fighting is carried out by the SDF’s fighters. The Islamic State frequently refers to the SDF as the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a US-designated terrorist organization. For instance, Amaq News Agency released an infographic on July 1 claiming that that 74 PKK fighters had been killed in the Islamic State’s sniping operations between June 6 and June 30.

The SDF draws many of its fighters from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Defense Units (YPJ). The PKK is affiliated with the YPG/YPJ.

The SDF has played a key role in taking territory from the Islamic State in Raqqa province and elsewhere. With American support, the SDF helped liberate the city of Tabqah, the Tabqah Dam and an airfield from the Islamic State in May. The battle for Tabqah was a key part of the US strategy for capturing Raqqa, which is less than 30 miles away. The Islamic State has continued to launch attacks near Tabqah, including to its south, in the weeks since.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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