Morale high among anti-IS fighters marching on Raqa


Ain Issa (Syria) (AFP)

For Shawakh Gharib, it's time to take revenge. With the start of the offensive to conquer Raqa, the Syrian fighter believes his dream of going home will soon come true.

Gharib, 25, fled Raqa in 2014 when fighters of the Islamic State group arrived, but on Sunday he was upbeat at the prospect of returning.

"I'm very happy, very happy. All my comrades are from Raqa. I cannot describe my joy," he tells AFP.

"We want to take these positions back from the oppressors. They say they come in the name of Islam but do not know Islam. God willing, we will be victorious."

His face bearded and head wrapped in a black scarf, Gharib is speaking near Ain Issa, an operations centre for the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) Kurdish-Arab alliance.

He is just one of the 30,000 men and women, Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens, engaged in operation "Wrath of the Euphrates".

SDF forces are advancing against the de facto IS capital in Syria on three fronts, from Ain Issa and Tal Abyad to the north, and from the village of Makman to the east.

"The US forces are supporting us. Thank God, we have everything we need. We have weapons, PKC machine guns, artillery, everything is ready and our morale is high," Gharib adds.

From a mound of earth in the rocky desert landscape, SDF fighters and nearly two dozen Western soldiers watch IS positions a few kilometres (miles) away to determine targets for coalition air strikes.

The rumble of aircraft engines overhead is constant.

In the distance, black smoke rises. One of the fighters says it was probably an IS car bomb that was hit.

- Four car bombers -

Near an all-terrain vehicle piled with equipment, four soldiers are busy, one with American markings on his helmet.

Another soldier in black glasses who is holding a drone speaks French.

"Everything is going well," he tells AFP.

The SDF asks the AFP journalists not to approach the other soldiers because they are "guests".

Returning from the front line, fighters bearing rocket-propelled grenade launchers and light weapons drink tea as they take a break.

Women fighters in military fatigues chat among themselves.

"There are a lot of clashes, and in particular they (IS) are sending car bombs. So far they sent four," says Diljin Kobani, a local commander with the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) a backbone of the SDF alliance.

She says two were destroyed, a third blew himself up and the last was hit and retreated.

"For the world Raqa has a great importance, and that is why the coalition forces help and support us in this campaign," Kobani adds.

"They help us with their air force coordinating on the ground, with reconnaissance aircraft and strikes on the positions of IS elements. Their support is outstanding."

Mosul in Iraq and Raqa in Syria are the last two major cities still controlled by IS, which has lost much of the territory it conquered in 2014 in both countries.

Talal Sello, a spokesman for the SDF based in the northeastern city of Hasakeh, told AFP earlier on Sunday by telephone that forces would first seize areas around Raqa before moving on the city itself.