IS militants 'digging in' around Raqqa to defend 'capital'

IS militants 'digging in' around Raqqa to defend 'capital'
Around Islamic States' self-declared 'capital' Raqqa, activists say militants are panicking in preparation for an assault on its territories by Kurdish-rebel forces after enduring days of heavy bombing.
8 min read
18 November, 2015
Residents in Raqqa are fleeing the city for Turkey [AFP]

Islamic State group militants are stiffening their defences for a possible assault on their de facto capital Raqqa as international airstrikes intensify on the Syrian city in retaliation for the Paris attacks. 

IS fighters are said to be hiding in civilian neighborhoods and preventing anyone from fleeing, activists said.

Activists from Raqqa say the northern Syrian city's estimated 350,000 residents are gripped by fear, rattled by powerful Russian and French airstrikes that shake the city daily. 

They are increasingly worried that they would be trapped with nowhere to go amid signs of a looming ground invasion by US-allied Kurdish and Arab forces in Syria.

For months, those forces have been advancing gradually toward Raqqa with backing from US-led airstrikes, capturing IS-held towns to the north and east of the city.

After IS claimed responsibility for Friday's carnage in Paris that killed at least 129 people, there are calls for even stronger action in Syria.

'Major operation'

Iraqi intelligence officials this week told the Associated Press that the operation was planned in Raqqa, where the attackers were trained specifically for this operation with the intention of sending them to France.

The attacks came soon after IS claimed the downing of a Russian plane in Egypt and deadly suicide bombings in Lebanon and Turkey.

Translation: Syria: Under the bombs. Raqqa empty of its population.

US Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday suggested Raqqa would be the new focus.

"My sense is that everybody understands that with Lebanon's attacks, with what's happened in Egypt, with Ankara, Turkey, with the attacks now in Paris, we have to step up our efforts to hit them at the core where they're planning these things," he said after his meeting with French President Francois Hollande Tuesday.

Turkey's foreign minister on Wednesday said Ankara "has plans" for a joint operation with the United States to end the presence of Islamic State militants along any part of its border with Syria.

Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioglu told the state-run news agency Anatolia that IS militants still had a presence on some of Turkey's border with northern Syria.

"We have certain plans to put an end to the control that IS is still exercising on a zone of our frontier," he said, without specifying on the nature of the plans but saying they would be jointly implemented with the US.

"When these plans are completed, our operations will continue with more and more intensity. You will see this in the days to come," he added.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said in an interview with CNN late Tuesday that "we are entering an operation with the Turks" to shut off 98 kilometres (61 miles) of border still not secure from IS.

Turkey border

     We have certain plans to put an end to the control that IS is still exercising on a zone of our frontier
- Turkish Foreign Minister

Turkish police detained eight suspected members of the IS, state media said Wednesday, adding they were planning to sneak into Europe posing as refugees.

Counter-terror police detained the suspects in Istanbul's Ataturk Airport after they flew in from the Moroccan city of Casablanca on Tuesday, the official Anatolia news agency reported.

The police found a hand-written note on one of the suspects detailing a migration route from Istanbul to Germany via Greece, Serbia and Hungary, including smuggler boats across the Mediterranean Sea, as well as several train and bus journeys.

The eight men told police that they were just tourists who had been planning to spend a few days in Istanbul and had booked rooms at a hotel, but no reservations were found under their names.

There have been fears that IS might use Europe's smuggling routes to impant operatives in countries targetting it with air raids.

Turkish security forces killed one suspected Islamic State (IS) militant seeking to cross into Turkey from Syria and arrested 21 others, the army said Wednesday.

The suspected IS militant killed on Tuesday was part of a group seeking to illegally cross the border neighbouring the Kilis region of southern Turkey, the army said in a statement.

"Twenty-one people, including nine children, were detained," it added, giving no further details or the nationality of those arrested.

The incident comes as Turkey seeks to step up efforts to crack down on IS jihadists crossing its border, amid signs Ankara is taking the security threat posed by the group increasingly seriously.

Turkish security forces on Saturday killed four suspected IS militants near the Syrian border in the southeastern province of Gaziantep, security sources said.

Reports have emerged that IS leaders have also fled Raqqa in anticipation of an assault

Digging in

     To avoid being hit in their bases, the fighters have moved into residential neighbourhoods

But the extremists are digging in to make any potential assault as grueling as possible.

The city, which they have held since early 2014, lies on the Euphrates River at an intersection of major routes from all directions, most through agricultural areas crisscrossed by canals and tributaries of the river.

The closest forces from the US-backed Kurdish-Arab coalition called the Democratic Forces of Syria are 50 kilometres (30 miles) to the north in the town of Ein al-Issa.

Activists say the militants have been stepping up defenses of Raqqa since late October, after the Democratic Forces launched their campaign vowing to retake the city.

Shortly afterward, IS banned people leaving the city and activists said it has stepped up enforcement of the ban in the past few days, leading to fears the group intends to use civilians as human shields in future fighting.

To avoid being hit in their bases, the fighters have moved into residential neighbourhoods in empty homes abandoned by people who fled Raqqa earlier, said an activist from Raqqa.

He spoke on condition he be identified only by the name he uses in his political activism, Khaled, for security reasons.

"There is major fear in the city, especially with Daesh preventing civilians from leaving the city," Khaled said, using the Arabic acronnym for the group.

Khaled, who now lives in Turkey, is in touch with Raqqa residents. Raqqa residents could not be reached because of an IS ban on private internet access across Raqqa.

Among new measures that have been put in place by IS, according to several activists: It has ordered its fighters to move only in alleys and side streets to avoid detection from the air and not to use vehicles at night.

Those measures have intensified after a series of successful hits by the coalition that killed a number of IS leaders, including the Islamic State militant known as "Jihadi John" who appeared in several videos depicting the beheadings of US and Western hostages.

On the roads leading into Raqqa, the extremists have dug extensive tunnels and trenches, said another activist from Raqqa, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of IS retaliation.

Ramadi's Recapture

Kurdish-rebel frontlines against IS [click to enlarge]

Meanwhile in Iraq, IS militants fear an assault on Ramadi by Iraqi government forces.

Troops recently surrounded the Anbar provincial capital, while local leaders have said they will take precautions to keep civilians safe during the offensive to retake the city.

"The fact that there are still families living in Ramadi worries us for two reasons. Firstly, we don't want them to become victims when the offensive is launched," member of Anbar's tribal council Sheikh Mahmoud al-Jamili toldal-Araby al-Jadeed's Arabic service.

"Secondly, their presence could affect the progress of the battle and make it difficult for government troops and tribal forces to shell and attack IS sites close to civilians," Jamili added.

Member of Anbar's provincial council Eid Ammash al-Karbouli said that security forces have factored the presence of locals into the plan to recapture the city.

"We have kept in mind locals and drawn up a plan to secure safe passages for them to exit the city just before the offensive is launched," Karbouli said.

"Security forces have told locals put white flags on their roofs so we can tell them apart from IS locations," the local politician added.

Kurdish-rebel assault

More recently, the militants placed tires filled with fuel on empty barrels around the city, with plans to ignite them in case of an attack to cloud the skies with smoke.

Last week's capture by Kurdish forces of the Iraqi town of Sinjar near the Syrian border cut off one main route connecting Raqqa to IS holdings in Iraq, making movement of fighters and supplies more difficult.

On the Syrian side, fighters of the Democratic Forces have been on offensive for the past two weeks in Hasakah province, northeast of Raqqa. Last week they seized the Syrian town of Hol from IS, further crimping its supply lines.

Those forces are now marching south toward the town of Shaddadeh, an IS stronghold 150 kilometres (90 miles) east across the desert from Raqqa, Kurdish activist Mustafa Bali said.

Once that is taken, they will head east toward Raqqa through the Abdul-Aziz Mountain, as well as from Ein Issa and Soureen to the north and and northwest of Raqqa.

He said liberating Raqqa would be a major blow and "mark the beginning of the end of Daesh in Syria," and he called for greater international support for the Kurdish-Arab coalition.

But a campaign on Raqqa by the under-armed forces would be costly, even with an intensified air campaign, he said.

"I believe it is going to be a major and long war."