An international monitoring group and Kurdish media are reporting that Syrian Kurdish-led forces are closing in on the city of Raqqa, the self-declared capital of the Islamic State (IS) militant group in Syria.
The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights on May 13 said the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) advanced to 4 kilometers from the northeast of the city in a multipronged offensive amid strong resistance from IS fighters.
The reported advance comes a day after SDF commanders said they would launch their assault on Raqqa, the last large IS stronghold in Syria, by early summer.
Kurdish activist Mustafa Bali said the latest SDF gains are part of an effort to encircle Raqqa but that the actual assault on the city is likely to come later.
The taking of Raqqa, should it happen, would mark a significant victory for the U.S.-backed coalition, greatly reducing the area controlled by the militant group that has been accused of atrocities in the region and for terror attacks elsewhere.
IS fighters captured wide swathes of territory in 2014 in Syria and Iraq but are being pushed back on multiple fronts -- in Raqqa and in Mosul in Iraq.
Syrian is embroiled in a civil war that has killed more than 300,000 people since the government cracked down on antigovernment protesters in March 2011.
The United States and Turkey have supported differing rebel groups, while Russia and Iran back President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
The IS fighters later joined the war and are opposed by the other forces.
Another activist group, Raqqa Being Slaughtered Silently, said public markets in Raqqa had been closed and that militants ordered merchants to leave the main vegetable market for the next few days, without providing details.
The move comes after U.S. President Donald Trump gave his authorization to equip the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, the SDF’s most powerful element, to help in the Raqqa assault.
The U.S. decision has infuriated Turkey, which considers the YPG a terrorist group