Top US chief visits Syria ahead of Raqqa push

Top US chief visits Syria ahead of Raqqa push
Head of US Centom Joseph Votel makes surprise visit to Syria, where American military advisors are working with local SDF fighters in preparation to retake Islamic State's self-declared capital Raqqa.
2 min read
22 May, 2016
US special operations forces are training SDF fighters in Syria to combat IS group [AFP]

A top commander of US forces in the Middle East made a secret visit to northern Syria on Saturday, to assess efforts as local forces prepare to fight Islamic State [IS] group in their de facto Syria capital Raqqa.

General Joseph Votel, head of US Central Command [Centcom], met US military advisors working with Syrian fighters and leaders of the Syrian Democratic Forces [SDF], an umbrella group of about 25,000 Kurdish and around 5,000 Arab fighters backed by the US.

Votel's visit comes as the first of 250 US special operations forces arrive in Syria, where the US had around 200 advisors on the ground but no combat units.

"I have responsibility for this mission, and I have responsibility for the people that we put here," Votel said, "So it's imperative for me to come and see what they're dealing with - to share the risk they are dealing with."

US special operations forces are training fighters in Syria to combat IS group as Washington leads a coalition of countries in an air war against the militant group in Iraq and Syria.

The US is training fighters to retake Raqqa, the militant group's self-declared capital.

Qarhaman Hasan, SDF's deputy commander, said he has submitted to the US a list of pressing requirements, including armoured vehicles and heavy weapons, including machine guns, rocket launchers and mortars.

"We are creating an army," Hasan said, and have to rely on smuggling to get weapons, "You can't run an army on smuggling," he added.

The US special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter IS, Brett McGurk, confirmed that Votel's Syria visit comes in preparation for a Raqqa offensive against the militant group.

Residents told to flee Raqqa

IS militants broadcasted announcements late Saturday, that civilians will be allowed to flee the Raqqa to its countryside, after planes thought to belong to the international coalition dropped flyers on the city advising residents to leave. 

The group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, which smuggles information out of the IS territory, said the illustrated flyers scattered over the city Thursday and Friday.

The flyers showed a family fleeing a dark, urban war zone where three IS militants appear to lie dead by the side of the road to a sun-lit, hilly, green countryside scene. 

"The time you have been waiting for has arrived. It is time to depart Raqqa," the flyer said.

Agencies contributed to this report.