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Battle for ISIS's Raqqa stronghold in Syria has begun, says US coalition

In this file photo released May 14, 2015 by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, a member of the Islamic State group's vice police known as "Hisba," right, reads a verdict handed down by an Islamic court sentencing many they accused of adultery to lashing, in Raqqa City, Syria.

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By LOUISA LOVELUCK | The Washington Post | Published: June 6, 2017

BEIRUT — U.S.-backed forces in Syria have begun the long-awaited battle seeking to retake the Islamic State's Syrian de facto capital of Raqqa, the U.S.-led coalition fighting the extremist group said Tuesday.

The groundwork for the offensive has been under way for months as Syrian Kurdish forces tried to cut supply lines to the city in central Syria. But a showdown over the city would be a major test for the U.S.-led coalition, which has waged airstrikes against the Islamic State targets since late 2014.

A similar fight against the Islamic State in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul had led to months of intense urban combat.

Lt. Gen Steve Townsend, the coalition's commanding general, said the twin offensives in Mosul and Raqqa could deal an important blow to Islamic State recruiting.

"It's hard to convince new recruits that ISIS is a winning cause when they just lost their twin 'capitals' in both Iraq and Syria," Townsend told reporters, according to the Reuters news agency.

Townsend also predicted "a lot of hard fighting ahead" even if the Islamic State is driven from the two cities, the militants last major urban strongholds.

The Raqqa fight also poses complications among NATO allies. Neighboring Turkey strongly opposes U.S. aid to the Syrian Kurdish forces, which Turkey views as aligned with separatist Kurds in Turkey.

In Ankara, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said his country leaves open options to use military force if the battle for Raqqa is seen as a threat to Turkey.

Islamic State militants seized the city in January 2014, transforming it into a hub for the group's leadership and its self-described caliphate.

"The Syrian Democratic Forces and their Syrian Arab Coalition partners launched the offensive to unseat ISIS from its so-called "capital" of Raqqa," the coalition said in a statement predicting that the offensive would deliver a "decisive blow" to the Islamic State.

A Kurdish-led force has been edging through Raqqa province for months, cutting supply routes into the city as ahead of a final assault. They reached the northern and eastern gates of the city last week after intense clashes under the cover of U.S.-led airstrikes.

Talal Sillo, a spokesman for the Kurdish-led SDF said Tuesday that the "great battle" had begun. "Morale is high and military readiness to implement the military plan is complete, in coordination with the U.S.-led coalition," he told reporters in northeast Syria.

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