The French defense minister says the Western-backed coalition in Syria is ready to launch its final push to drive Islamic State (IS) militants from their de facto capital in Raqqa.
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian on March 24 said Raqqa was "surrounded" and that the "battle will begin in the coming days."
"This will be a very hard battle, but essential," he told French TV.
IS fighters are being pressed on two fronts -- in Raqqa and in Mosul, their last stronghold in Iraq, as U.S.-backed government troops battle to complete their liberation of the country’s second-largest city.
The six-year civil war in Syria, which has killed an estimated 300,000 people and displaced millions more, has involved an array of global and regional players.
Russia and Iran back the government of President Bashar al-Assad, while Turkey and the U.S.-led coalition support rebels fighting the government.
IS fighters are being opposed by both the Syrian government forces and the Turkish- and U.S.-led rebel troops.
The militants are clinging to their final strongholds after having seized large portions of northern Iraq and Syria in an offensive in 2014.
The group has been accused of numerous atrocities, and has claimed responsibility for major terrorist attacks in Europe and elsewhere.
A spokesman for the U.S.-backed Kurdish-Arab alliance, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), was more cautious about setting a timetable for the final push on Raqqa.
The SDF is leading the move against the IS in Raqqa and has been attempting to encircle the city for months.
"The operation to besiege Raqqa will take several weeks, and that will then lead to the official launch of the operation," Talal Sello told AFP.
Another spokesman said the liberation of Raqqa could still take "several months."
An official said alliance forces had moved close to the strategically important Tabqa Dam near Raqqa and the adjacent town of Tabqa and its airport.
U.S. Apache helicopters have provided air support and helped airlift fighters in the battle for the dam, officials said.
Some 700 U.S. military advisers, Marines, and Rangers have entered Syria to support fighters battling IS militants.