WASHINGTON — Besieged ISIS fighters launched a desperate counterattack, disguised as Syrian Democratic Forces, in the al-Sinaa and al-Mashlab neighborhoods of Raqqa, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The attack was launched by roughly 30 to 40 fighters according to the human rights watchdog observing the Syrian conflict.
Reports out of the battlefield indicate ISIS fighters disguised themselves in the uniforms of the SDF, comprising Kurdish and Arab troops, to launch the counterattack. The tactic may be new in Raqqa, according to Col. Joe Scrocca, a spokesperson for Operation Inherent Resolve.
"The fighters of the organization [ISIS] were wearing the military uniform of the Syria Democratic Forces, and carried out attacks on both neighborhoods located in the eastern section of al-Raqqah city," the report from the Syrian Observatory reads.
"We have seen reports of ISIS wearing military and police uniforms in Mosul. I have not seen reports of this yet in Raqqa," Scrocca said.
The improper use of military uniforms is considered a war crime by the international community, according to Dr. Hurst Hannum, a professor of international law at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Boston. But it is less clear how it applies to civil wars.
The definition of what is "improper is up for grabs," Hannum said. It appears OK if you wear an enemy uniform to infiltrate a unit as long as it doesn’t involve combat, he continued. But expecting ISIS to follow the law of war is ludicrous.
The attack comes as desperate ISIS fighters holed up in the city have been completely encircled by SDF. All the main exits from the embattled city have been sealed by the SDF, according to a spokesperson at the Pentagon.
According to the Syrian Observatory, ISIS fighters managed to captured the al-Sinaa neighborhood after "coalition warplanes failed to repel the attack," the statement reads.
The capture of the neighborhood is a setback for the SDF after having reached the northernmost part of the Rafiqa wall surrounding the Old City of Raqqa on Wednesday. SDF forces are currently preparing to retake the district.
The operation to liberate Raqqa is in its third week. However, tensions over Turkish military maneuvers in the north of Syria threaten the pending liberation of the self-proclaimed capital of ISIS.
Sources with the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, told Military Times the YPG have threatened to delay the Raqqa campaign due to Turkish shelling of YPG positions in the Kurdish-controlled district of Afrin.
Mehmud Berxwedan, the YPG commander in Afrin, echoed those sentiments in an interview with Radio Voice of America’s Kurdish service. A military operation by Turkey against Afrin "would impact everything, specifically the Raqqa campaign," he said. The "Shahba and Afrin [districts] are strategically important for us. Such an attack by Turkey will influence forces that are present in the region," he said.
Officials at Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve told Military Times they have seen no indications the operations will be halted or delayed.
Shervan Derwish, the commander of the Manbij Military Council — a coalition of groups under the SDF that liberated Manbij back in 2016 — told Military Times he has no plans to dispatch or re-deploy his fighters to Afrin because of the Turkish hostilities. The council has fighters participating in the Raqqa offensive.
Nevertheless, Washington appears to be taking the threats seriously. Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy for the coalition to counter ISIS, recently wrapped up a visit to Raqqa and Tabqa, where he spoke to SDF officials. On Friday, he landed in Ankara "for a day of regular coalition consultations with Turkish officials at the foreign and defense ministries on the fight against ISIS, according to an official at the U.S. State Department.
President Trump phoned Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey on Friday. According to a White House readout of the call, the two discussed "numerous subjects, including ways to resolve the ongoing dispute with Qatar."
Erdogan is expected to call Russian President Vladamir Putin this afternoon, according to
, an English language newspaper in Turkey. Russia currently has troops stationed in Afrin district, where Turkey may launch an operation to clear YPG fighters controlling the region.