BEIRUT — A Kurdish-led Syrian force backed by the U.S. expects to advance on the Islamic State group's de facto capital of Raqqa in northern Syria this summer, a commander said Friday, following a decision by the Trump administration to supply the force with heavier weapons.
The Syrian Democratic Forces have been buoyed by this week's capture of the key town of Tabqa and its nearby dam. The advance left no significant ISIS-held urban settlements between SDF lines and Raqqa, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) to the east.
An SDF commander, identified only as Abdelqader, declined to specify dates at a news conference, citing tactical reasons. He said the battle for Raqqa would begin once the group receives the weapons from the U.S. military, adding that he expects the fighters to storm the city in the coming weeks.
The announcement to equip the SDF with weapons was a snub to Turkey, which doesn't want the Syrian Kurdish-led force to take Raqqa and has offered its own troops instead. Ankara is also enraged by U.S. plans to arm the Syrian Kurds, who they consider terrorists.
But the SDF made clear it is capable enough with the forces and support it already has.
"We do not want any other forces to participate with us," said Abdelqader.
"They can solve their problems in their own country," he said, in reference to Turkey.
The SDF also announced it would hand over the town to civilian administrators.
Earlier this week, the Trump administration said it would arm the Kurdish elements of the SDF. Ankara said the plan was "unacceptable" and a threat to its national security.
Turkey says the fighters are an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has promised to convince Trump to reverse his administration's decision in a meeting between the two leaders at the White House next week.
Also Friday, a Pentagon spokesman, Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, said that although the U.S. has no indication of structural problems with the Tabqa dam, it is sending a "dam assessment team" to assess its condition "and ensure it continues operating." He said he had no details about the team's makeup.
Davis said that about 70 ISIS fighters "conceded to SDF terms, which included dismantling improvised explosive devices around the dam, surrendering all of its heavy weapons and forcing the withdrawal of all remaining fighters from Tabqa," he said, "The SDF accepted IS's surrender of the city to protect innocent civilians and to protect the Tabqa dam infrastructure."
He added that the U.S.-led coalition "tracked fleeing fighters and targeted those that could be safely hit without harming civilians."
Regarding the U.S. decision to arm Kurdish elements of the SDF, Davis said the arming has not yet begun. He also said that once it starts it will not be publicly acknowledged by the U.S.
Meanwhile, more than 1,200 residents and opposition fighters trapped in the Syrian capital Damascus left their neighborhoods for rebel-held Idlib province Friday as part of a deal to return the last neighborhoods of the capital to government control.
Syrian state media said 718 fighters and 528 others were bussed out of the Barzeh and Tishreen neighborhoods in the second round of departures from the area since it came under government siege last month.
A member of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), made up of an alliance of Arab and Kurdish fighters, looks on in the town of Tabqa, about 55 kilometres (35 miles) west of Raqa city, on April 30, 2017, as they advance in their battle for the Islamic State group's stronghold.
Photo Credit: Delil Souleiman/AFP via Getty Images
Tens of thousands of people living in besieged areas around Damascus, Homs and Aleppo — Syria's largest city — have surrendered under similar agreements in recent months, agreeing to relocate in what critics have said amounts to forced displacement.
The evacuations are taking place at the same time as United Nations-mediated talks between the government and the opposition, though the U.N. does not endorse the population transfers. Delegates are set to meet again in Geneva next week.
President Bashar Assad indicated in an interview on Belarus ONT television aired Thursday that the government would not take the summit seriously.
He said the talks are "merely a meeting for the media" and "there is nothing substantial in all the Geneva meetings. Not even one per million. It is null."
Also Friday, Syria's state-run news agency, SANA, reported that three journalists were wounded while covering a government offensive against the Islamic State group in the central province of Homs.
SANA said a cameraman and a reporter for Iran's Arabic-language Al-Alam TV, as well as a cameraman for Lebanon's Al-Manar TV of the militant Hezbollah group, were wounded in the Shoumariyeh Mountains east of Homs city. Syrian troops have been on the offensive in the country's center and north against IS.
In northern Syria, members of the Islamic State group attacked the road linking the city of Aleppo, the country's largest city, with the rest of the country that is controlled by the government including the capital Damascus.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, that monitors the conflict through a network of on-the-ground activists, said the attack occurred early Friday south of the town of Khanaser leaving five troops, including a major, dead. The IS-linked Aamaq news agency said the attack killed nine troops and left a Russian T-72 tank destroyed.
ISIS had attacked the road in the past and on several occasions cut it for hours.
Associated Press writer Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.