Raqqa city on lockdown as US-backed forces clash with local Arab faction

AMMAN: The American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces clashed with a formerly aligned Arab rebel faction in Raqqa city for a second consecutive day on Monday in security operations reportedly targeting “terror” cells in the former Islamic State capital.

The open-ended Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) operations—launched at dawn on Sunday, alongside a curfew restricting the movement of Raqqa’s estimated 138,000 residents—are “aimed at terror sites and groups that aim to destabilize the security and stability in the city,” SDF spokesperson Mustafa Bali said in a statement provided to Syria Direct.

But former SDF ally Liwa Thuwwar a-Raqqa, an Arab faction based in Raqqa city and its countryside, said in a statement shared via the group’s Twitter account on Sunday morning that the US-backed forces had surrounded its headquarters in the city with fighters and heavily armed vehicles in an act of “treacherous aggression.”

Since Sunday, the SDF has arrested approximately 200 Liwa Thuwwar a-Raqqa fighters and the faction’s leader, one commander with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG)—which dominates the SDF—told Syria Direct on Monday, requesting anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press.

“The orders were clear to arrest anyone affiliated with the opposition mercenaries and Daesh,” he said, referring to rebel groups and the Islamic State. The commander said four SDF fighters were killed in clashes with Liwa Thuwwar a-Raqqa on Sunday. Syria Direct could not independently confirm the commander’s account.

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Raqqa city on Sunday. Photo courtesy of the SDF via Whatsapp.

Clashes continued inside Raqqa city on Monday as Liwa Thuwwar a-Raqqa accused the SDF of targeting one of its bases with sniper fire and “trying to advance using a number of bulldozers and medium weaponry.”

At the same time, a number of Raqqa neighborhoods remained “completely besieged” and under curfew, a local journalist inside the city told Syria Direct. He requested anonymity, fearing arrest by the SDF.

The SDF and Liwa Thuwwar a-Raqqa have clashed intermittently in Raqqa city since this past April.

The fighting coincides with rising tensions between the SDF and residents of the majority-Arab city. Civilian protests in recent months have called for an end to both the SDF’s presence and mandatory conscription policies in Raqqa.  

But while SDF spokesperson Mustafa Bali acknowledged recent protests against the group’s presence as a cause of “suspicion and turbulence within the city,” he said terrorism is the focus of ongoing operations in Raqqa.

In addition to the arrest of “many terrorists,” Bali said, the SDF has “confiscated large amounts of weapons and ammunition and obtained a lot of documents confirming the responsibility of many parties for the bombing and terrorist attacks that targeted Raqqa city in the past period.”

A string of bomb attacks targeted US-backed forces in Raqqa province this month, including a roadside blast that reportedly killed five SDF military police officers in the provincial capital on June 17.

On Friday—two days before the latest security operations began—the Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for an attack in the northern Raqqa countryside. It was the first such claim since the US-backed SDF expelled the militant group from the area in October 2017.

This week’s Raqqa operations are not the first time the SDF has reportedly clashed with former allies. Violent clashes broke out in May between the SDF and the majority-Arab a-Nukhba Forces in Deir e-Zor province after SDF fighters allegedly opened fire on a commander’s home when he refused to hand over weapons, a spokesman for the rebel faction told Syria Direct.

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting.

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He moved to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman.

Avery Edelman

Avery Edelman graduated from Tufts University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in Arabic and International Relations.