U.S.-Backed Forces Seize Half of Raqqa, The Capital Of ISIS's 'Caliphate'

Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters, drive on the western front in Raqa on July 19, 2017, during an offensive by the SDF to retake the city from Islamic State (ISIS) group fighters. Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty

The U.S.-backed forces fighting to oust the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) from its eastern Syrian bastion of Raqqa have seized half of the city less than two months into a multi-pronged offensive, a Syrian monitor said Thursday.

Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a U.K.-based opposition-leaning monitoring group with an extensive network of contacts on the ground in Syria, confirmed to Newsweek that half the territory previously controlled by ISIS is now in the hands of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurdish-Arab alliance leading the ground offensive.

"Fifty days after the start of the battle of Greater Raqqa...the Syrian Democratic Forces control about 50 percent of the city of Raqqa," director Rami Abdelrahman said in an email.

A spokesperson for the SDF, Cihan Shekh Ahmed, also confirmed in an Arabic-language tweet that the coalition of militias had captured half of the city.

The forces, supported by U.S. air power and special forces, launched their offensive to liberate the city on June 6. They have made quicker gains than the Iraqi forces who earlier this month wrested the northern Iraqi city of Mosul from ISIS after a protracted nine-month operation.

The operation has been slowed by ISIS sniper fire, booby traps and suicide car bombs. The jihadi group has had a significant amount of time to prepare for battle, planting explosives, digging escape tunnels, and building berms around the city.

The SDF, which is dominated by the Kurdish YPG militia, now controls much of northeastern Syria after its successes against the militant group.

But rights groups and monitors have expressed concern about mounting civilian casualties in and around Raqqa. On Wednesday, U.S.-led airstrikes in the city killed 29 civilians, including eight children, SOHR reported, bringing the total of civilian dead since the start of SDF's operation in June up to 325.

ISIS continues to control the eastern Syrian cities of Deir Ezzor and Mayadin, as well as the lawless borderlands that connect Iraq with Syria, but the loss of Raqqa as well as Mosul—the group's two greatest prizes in Syria and Iraq respectively—will mark an ideological defeat as well as a territorial one.

Raqqa was the site of several filmed executions of western hostages, including American journalists James Foley and Stephen Sotloff , as well as British nationals Alan Henning and David Haines.

After the group overran the city in January 2014, it imposed its brutal brand of Islamic law, lashing, beheading and executing opponents, and instilling fear among the estimated 200,000-strong population of the city at the time of its capture.

The group's control over the city gave rise to a group of activists now famous for their dispatches from within the enclave: Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently. The danger of operating inside the city forced many of its members to flee to neighboring Turkey, where suspected radical Islamists killed several of its activists.

Meanwhile, the Syrian government, supported by Iranian-backed militias and Russian air power, is advancing toward Deir Ezzor province in eastern Syria, preparing to open up a path toward the city through an offensive on Al-Sukhna town in Homs province, 50 kilometers from the front.