U.S.-backed forces in Syria begin final assault on Raqqah after scores of militants surrender

Syrian forces backed by the United States said Sunday that they have launched a final push to drive Islamic State from its last footholds in Raqqah, after tribal leaders and a provincial council negotiated the safe exit of civilians along with the surrender of local militants and family members.

An alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias known as the Syrian Democratic Forces said its fighters had achieved “great victories” since the offensive to recapture the group’s self-styled capital began in June and now control over 90% of the city.

Fighting continues in seven neighborhoods and will last until “the city is completely purified of the terrorists who refuse to surrender, which include foreign fighters,” the alliance said in a statement.

Some commanders have said the city could be recaptured in a matter of days, but the U.S.-led coalition has not specified a timeline, predicting difficult fighting ahead.

Though Raqqah holds little strategic value for Islamic State, its loss would be a major symbolic blow. The city was once home to many of the group’s leaders, serving as a stage for some of its most notorious atrocities and a launchpad for attacks around the world.

But Islamic State has been on the retreat for two years, losing most of the territory it seized in a sweep across Syria and Iraq in 2014. It is expected to make its final stand in Syria in Dair Alzour province, on the eastern border with Iraq. It also controls a strip in Iraq’s Anbar province, as well as small pockets elsewhere.

Coalition officials said they weren’t involved in negotiating the surrender agreement but believe it will allow the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces and their international allies to focus on defeating Islamic State holdouts with less risk of civilian casualties. As of August, about 4,000 civilians were believed to be in the city, where they have faced a barrage of fire from all sides.

Video released Friday by the Mezopotamya news agency, a Turkey-based Kurdish outlet, captured the relief of civilians who had made it to a position of the Syrian Democratic Forces. Some laughed and embraced the fighters, while a man on crutches collapsed on the ground and kissed it.

Those leaving under the deal are subject to search and screening by Syrian Democratic Forces, according to local and coalition officials.

“We do not condone any arrangement that allows Daesh terrorists to escape Raqqah without facing justice, only to resurface somewhere else,” the coalition’s director of operations, Brig. Gen. Jonathan Braga, said Saturday, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

In September, U.S. warplanes temporarily blocked a convoy of buses carrying Islamic State fighters and their families from reaching Dair Alzour under a deal cut with the Syrian government and its Hezbollah militia allies that had allowed them to exit a besieged enclave on the Lebanon-Syria border.

A Syrian monitoring group, Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, said militants who surrendered in the city were taken to a nearby prison.

A statement released by the Raqqah Civil Council on Sunday said that there were no “foreign mercenaries” among those allowed to leave, adding that non-Syrian militants “could not be forgiven.”

“Those who surrendered are Syrians, and their number, along with their families, is only 275 people,” the statement said.

A video shared on social media showed Raqqah tribal leaders delivering a statement lauding the exit deal before dozens of ragged-looking men — presumably Islamic State fighters — some of whom were leaning on crutches.

Times staff writer Zavis reported from Beirut and special correspondent Bulos from Amman, Jordan.

alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

Twitter: @alexzavis

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