U.S.-backed Syrian fighters fought Islamic State militants in the heart of Raqqah, the extremists' self-styled capital, on Monday, as scores of civilians fled areas controlled by the group.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, has been one of the most effective groups fighting Islamic State in Syria, but has also clashed with Turkish-backed Syrian forces elsewhere in the country. As it battled Islamic State in Raqqah, the SDF also fought Turkish-allied Syrian forces in Ein Daqna, in neighboring Aleppo province, according to Syrian activists and Turkish media.
The SDF, aided by the U.S.-led coalition, launched its offensive to capture Raqqah on June 6, and has since taken several areas. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Monday's fighting is concentrated in Raqqah's southwestern neighborhood of Yarmouk as well as a central area close to the Old City.
The SDF says intense fighting is underway in central Raqqah, adding that its fighters have taken positions near a centuries-old mosque known as the Old Mosque. The Kurdish-run Hawar news agency said about 180 civilians were able to flee areas controlled by Islamic State, while the Observatory for Human Rights put the number in the hundreds.
The SDF said 11 Islamic State fighters have been killed in the clashes since Sunday. The Islamic State-linked Amaq news agency said 14 SDF fighters were killed in the fighting in Raqqah on Sunday alone.
The intensification of fighting comes a week after Iraqi forces declared victory against Islamic State in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, the largest the extremists have held. The loss of Raqqah would deal a major blow to Islamic State, but the group still holds wide areas of the eastern province of Dair Alzour, bordering Iraq.
That province figures to be the backdrop of the next phase of the war on Islamic State, with government forces backed by Russia and Iran approaching from the west and south. Pro-government forces reached the edges of the Bashari mountain range on Monday, after seizing the Zamla natural gas field one day earlier, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Syrian military media reported. The advance secures further natural resources revenues for the government and puts government forces in a position to penetrate the Dair Alzour countryside.
The SDF is dominated by a Kurdish militia known as the People's Protection Units, which Turkey views as an extension of the Kurdish insurgency raging in its own territory. Turkish troops and allied Syrian forces rolled into Syria last year to battle Islamic State and halt the advance of the SDF. The U.S.-led coalition has sought to stop the fighting between Turkey and the SDF, both of which are allies against Islamic State.
The website of Turkey's pro-government A Haber television said Turkish-backed Syrian opposition fighters launched a "large" operation against the SDF in Ein Daqna, close to the Turkish border. The website quotes unnamed local sources as saying that intense clashes are ongoing.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Monday's fighting killed two Turkey-backed fighters and left several SDF fighters wounded. A Haber said at least one Turkish-backed fighter was killed and about 14 were wounded.
Rezan Hiddo, an SDF political officer, said the group had repelled the assault on Ein Daqna. Hiddo said Turkish artillery struck the village as well as near a Russian military outpost in nearby Kafr Janneh, which is also under SDF control. Russia deployed what it called observer units into the region this year to discourage clashes between Turkey and the SDF.
"We are waiting for the American government to apply diplomatic pressure on Turkey to halt the aggression," said Hiddo.