U.S. backed-Syrian fighters have reached the heart of the city of Raqqa, the Pentagon announced Tuesday, a significant step in the campaign to drive ISIS from its principal stronghold in Syria.
Department of Defense officials said that targeted airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition blasted two holes in the wall surrounding Raqqa’s Old City, allowing Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to penetrate the most heavily fortified portion of the ISIS-held city. The precision air support helped SDF fighters breach the Old City while avoiding potentially deadly, pre-positioned explosives that ISIS had placed along the wall.
“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,” coalition spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon said. “SDF fighters would have been channeled through these locations and were extremely vulnerable as they were targeted with vehicle-borne IEDs … as they tried to breach the Old City.”
Purging Raqqa of its remaining ISIS fighters would be a major milestone in the coalition’s fight to defeat the terror group in Syria. Although several ISIS leaders once based in Raqqa have fled to other parts of Syria, the U.S.-led coalition estimates that about 2,500 hard-core fighters are still entrenched in the Old City, reports the Associated Press.
The battle for Raqqa began in June when the Kurdish-led SDF assaulted the city, following a campaign to secure the surrounding countryside. U.S.-backed fighters completely surrounded Raqqa Sunday, after crossing the Euphrates River on the southern edge of the city.
As the fighting in Raqqa reaches a decisive stage, Pentagon officials say that the priority for the U.S-led coalition is to achieve a quick victory while protecting the estimated 100,000 civilians still trapped in the Old City by the fighting.
“The most humane way to save the people of Raqqa is to swiftly and decisively defeat ISIS, who have terrorized the people of Raqqa for more than three years,” Col. Dillon said. “Only this way can the people of Raqqa be saved and city return to peace.”
The loss of Raqqa would be a major blow for ISIS, which has controlled the northern Syrian city since 2014. The group is also on the verge of losing Mosul, its base in Iraq, as U.S.-backed Iraqi forces make a final push to take back the city.