ISIS claimed responsibility on Friday for an attack on U.S.-backed forces near Raqqa, the militant group’s de-facto capital in Syria. The attack took place on Thursday as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters—advanced into an ISIS stronghold in the Homs province. ISIS claimed that two armored vehicles were destroyed and 53 members of the SDF were killed in the attack, though an SDF spokeswoman, Nisreen Abdullah, said their estimate was exaggerated. Telling reporters that ISIS was “facing collapse” in Raqqa, Abdullah argued that the militant group had inflated the death toll in order to “boost the morale of its fighters.”
While ISIS continues to wage attacks against SDF fighters in the region, it has been steadily losing control of Raqqa following the launch of a U.S.-backed military campaign in 2016. On June 6, the SDF announced the start of an offensive to overtake Raqqa city, with troops attacking from the north, east, and west. By Wednesday, the SDF said they had captured 40 percent of Raqqa and that ISIS militants had begun to retreat. “We don’t see any significant counterattacks,” Dirk Smith, a deputy commander of the U.S.-led coalition, told USA Today on Wednesday.
Thursday’s attack, though deadly, signifies a minor act of retaliation amid a larger struggle for ISIS to regain its footing in Raqqa, where it has maintained control since 2014. According to Rami Abdurrahman, the head of the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, militants staged the attack by riding in on motorcycles and then retreating safely to their base. Dozens of people—both SDF fighters and civilians—were kidnapped and killed, he said. Still, many analysts and U.S. officials claim that ISIS has been forced into a state of panic and disarray.
In recent months, U.S.-backed forces in Raqqa have ramped up airstrikes against ISIS militants. From June 6 to June 13, the U.S. coalition conducted 187 airstrikes in the region, The Military Times reports. On Tuesday, the U.S. Central Command reported that coalition forces had conducted another 24 strikes that day, destroying 14 militant units. This advancement has been made possible, in part, by the Trump administration’s decision to arm and train members of the SDF’s primary Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
With this strong military presence, however, comes a rise in civilian casualties and internationally displaced persons. Because the coalition has adopted a scorched earth policy, nearly all of Raqqa’s important buildings have been destroyed and around 160,000 civilians have been forced to flee their homes. Last month, UN war-crimes investigators described a “staggering loss of civilian life” in the city, where at least 300 people have been killed since March. In all likelihood, this is a conservative estimate: The U.K.-based monitor Airwars claims that more than 600 civilians have been killed by coalition strikes alone.