US-backed forces seize parts of Raqqa from 'Islamic State'

An alliance of Kurdish and Arab forces have made significant gains in their offensive to liberate the Syrian city. Human rights groups have warned of the challenges presented by 160,000 civilians still living in Raqqa.

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on Sunday said it captured a northwestern neighborhood of Raqqa as part of the alliance's offensive to uproot the self-styled "Islamic State" (IS) militant group from its de facto capital in Syria.

Conflicts | 22.05.2017

The SDF "liberated the neighborhood of al-Romaniah on the western front of Raqqa after two days of continued clashes," the Arab-Kurdish alliance said in a statement.

Read more: The Middle East's complex Kurdish landscape

On June 6, the Kurdish-led SDF began its offensive to recapture Raqqa from IS. The alliance has surrounded the city, and launched a multi-pronged assault with the help of aerial support from the US-led coalition against IS

Strategic assault

Al-Romaniah marks the second district captured by the SDF. In the eastern part of Raqqa, the Kurdish-led forces managed to seize control of al-Meshleb.

However, in the northern part of the city, the SDF has witnessed less progress. The military alliance has struggled to capture the Division 17 military base and an adjacent sugar factory. The former Syrian military facility has served as a strategic base of operations for IS.

The SDF formed in 2015 and spent the past seven months preparing for the operation to recapture Raqqa.

Civilians in crossfire

In recent months, thousands of civilians have fled Raqqa in anticipation of the offensive. However, the UN humanitarian office estimates that roughly 160,000 civilians remain in the city.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of on-the-ground informants in Syria, said that the civilian death toll has hit 58 since the battle for Raqqa began on June 6.

Read more: US plan to 'annihilate IS' raises questions over civilian toll, larger strategy

Human rights groups have warned of the potential of high civilian casualties during the assault, calling for the US-led coalition to ensure it would minimize risks for civilians as much as possible.

Unending war

More than 300,000 people have been killed and half the population displaced since the Syrian conflict erupted in 2011, when government forces launched a brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters calling for the release of political prisoners and President Bashar al-Assad to step down.

Since then, the war has developed into a multi-faceted conflict involving global superpowers, non-state actors, regional forces and terrorist groups.

How did Europe's refugee crisis start?

Fleeing war and poverty

In late 2014, with the war in Syria approaching its fourth year and Islamic State making gains in the north of the country, the exodus of Syrians intensified. At the same time, others were fleeing violence and poverty in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia, Niger and Kosovo.

How did Europe's refugee crisis start?

Seeking refuge over the border

Vast numbers of Syrian refugees had been gathering in border-town camps in neighboring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan since 2011. By 2015, with the camps full to bursting and residents often unable to find work or educate their children, more and more people decided to seek asylum further afield.

How did Europe's refugee crisis start?

A long journey on foot

In 2015 an estimated 1.5 million people made their way on foot from Greece towards western Europe via the "Balkan route". The Schengen Agreement, which allows passport-free travel within much of the EU, was called into question as refugees headed towards the wealthier European nations.

How did Europe's refugee crisis start?

Desperate sea crossings

Tens of thousands of refugees were also attempting the perilous journey across the Mediterranean on overcrowded boats. In April 2015, 800 people of various nationalities drowned when a boat traveling from Libya capsized off the Italian coast. This was to be just one of many similar tragedies - by the end of the year, nearly 4,000 refugees were reported to have died attempting the crossing.

How did Europe's refugee crisis start?

Pressure on the borders

Countries along the EU's external border struggled to cope with the sheer number of arrivals. Fences were erected in Hungary, Slovenia, Macedonia and Austria. Asylum laws were tightened and several Schengen area countries introduced temporary border controls.

How did Europe's refugee crisis start?

Closing the open door

Critics of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's "open-door" refugee policy claimed it had made the situation worse by encouraging more people to embark on the dangerous journey to Europe. By September 2016, Germany had also introduced temporary checks on its border with Austria.

How did Europe's refugee crisis start?

Striking a deal with Turkey

In early 2016, the EU and Turkey signed an agreement under which refugees arriving in Greece could be sent back to Turkey. The deal has been criticized by human rights groups and came under new strain following a vote by the European Parliament in November to freeze talks on Turkey's potential accession to the EU.

How did Europe's refugee crisis start?

No end in sight

With anti-immigration sentiment in Europe growing, governments are still struggling to reach a consensus on how to handle the continuing refugee crisis. Attempts to introduce quotas for the distribution of refugees among EU member states have largely failed. Conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere show no signs coming to an end, and the death toll from refugee sea crossings is on the rise.

ls/rc (AFP, AP)