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US-backed Syrian fighters reach gates of IS capital of Raqqa

BEIRUT — US-backed fighters on Tuesday reached the northern entrance of the Syrian city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State group, amid intense clashes and airstrikes on Raqqa’s northern and eastern edges, opposition activists said.

The latest push by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces brings them to about 2 miles from the city, where a long and deadly battle is expected in the coming weeks, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The latest push comes as airstrikes have intensified in recent days. US-backed fighters have pushed in toward the city, getting closer from all sides. The Kurdish fighters have captured dozens of towns and villages since November, when the group began an operation to eventually surround and capture Raqqa.


The fighters have Raqqa blocked from the north, west, and east. The extremists still have an exit from the south, even though the US-led coalition destroyed southern two bridges over the Euphrates River.

The Observatory said Kurdish fighters captured gas and water facilities on the northern edge of Raqqa. The group posted a video showing Islamic State black flags still flying over the northern entrance of Raqqa with one giant banner reading ‘‘the northern sector thanks you for your visit. The Islamic State.’’

The activist-operated Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently said that the US-led coalition targeted areas of fighting north of the city near a major Islamic State base known as Division 17.

The Sound and Picture Organization, which documents Islamic State violations, said Kurdish fighters approached the Mashlab neighborhood east of Raqqa.

Earlier Tuesday, Syria’s state media and the Observatory said at least 13 civilians were killed when Islamic State militants shelled government-held neighborhoods in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour.

The official state news agency SANA says the shelling hit the neighborhoods of al-Joura and Qussour late on Monday. Islamic State has controlled parts of Deir el-Zour since 2015, leaving more than 90,000 people under siege in the government-held areas.


The Observatory said the shelling took place shortly before sundown as residents were preparing to break their dawn-to-sunset fast during the holy month of Ramadan. The Observatory put the death toll at 14.

As the US-led coalition ratcheted up military operations in Syria, the legacy of an Iraqi train-and-equip program — though it has had some success — is also marked by allegations of abuse and $1 billion in unaccounted for weapons — highlighting the perils of empowering local forces in the fight against the Islamic State.

Weapons, training, and airstrikes provided by the coalition have propelled ground forces in both Iraq and Syria, allowing Iraq’s military, Iraqi Kurdish fighters and Syrian Kurdish fighters to retake 21,235 square miles of territory from the extremists in the nearly three-year long fight.

However, many in both Iraq and Syria are concerned about how the forces made powerful by the coalition will leverage their influence and arms once the Islamic State group has been vanquished.

The Trump administration’s decision earlier this month to provide Syria’s Kurds with more advanced weapons has sparked concerns among the various players in Syria’s complicated battlefield. US officials have said new weapons to be supplied would include heavy machine guns, ammunition, mortars, and possibly TOW anti-tank missiles.

Coalition spokesman Colonel John Dorrian said the weapons will not be reclaimed after the specific missions are completed but the United States will ‘‘carefully monitor’’ where and how they are used. ‘‘Every single one’’ of the weapons will be accounted for and the military will ‘‘assure they are pointed at’’ Islamic State fighters, he said.