US-backed Syrian force cuts supply line between ISIL cities

Fighters of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces seize section of motorway between Raqqa and Deir Ezzor.

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BEIRUT // US-backed Syrian fighters on Monday cut off ISIL’s main link between its self-declared capital of Raqqa in northern Syria and the eastern city of Deir Ezzor, which it partially controls.

A spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syria Democratic Forces said that it was still too early to impose a siege on Raqqa because ISIL still controlled areas west and south of the city.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said SDF fighters cut the road linking the two cities in the area of Jazra near Raqqa early on Monday.

It is now difficult for people to leave and enter Raqqa with the new territory captured east of the city and after last month’s air strikes by the US-led coalition that destroyed two main bridges across the Euphrates river on the southern edge of Raqqa, the Britain-based monitoring group said.

The SDF launched an offensive to retake Raqqa in November and is supported by coalition air strikes and a deployment of about 500 US special forces operators who the Pentagon says are acting as advisers. It began a third phase of the operation last month, with the aim of capturing villages and towns east of Raqqa, while its fighters are now stationed eight kilometres north of the Euphrates river city

But despite the fresh blockade on the Raqqa-Deir Ezzor road, ISIL still controls large swaths of ground south of Raqqa and the extremists should be able to use smaller roads and paths through open desert to move between the cities.

With, ISIL coming under increasing pressure in Raqqa, the extremists have imposed an “Afghan-style” dress code on men in the city to help its fighters blend into the civilian population, a monitor and activists said.

“For more than two weeks, Afghan-style clothing ... has been imposed by Daesh,” Abu Mohamed, an activist with the Raqa is Being Slaughtered Silently group, said on Monday. “Anyone who does not comply faces prison and a fine.”

The rule “is an attempt to make it harder for airplanes and the Kurdish forces ... to distinguish between civilians and Daesh members”, he said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the rule was imposed “so that informants giving coordinates to the US-led coalition will not be able to distinguish between civilians and fighters”.

Abu Mohamed said there was a “state of alert” in Raqqa, with new checkpoints springing up and ISIL arresting anyone who describes the situation as dire.

“Prices are skyrocketing and there is no electricity or water,” he said.

The Observatory also said civilians and the families of ISIL fighters were attempting to flee into Raqqa province from neighbouring Aleppo, where ISIL is under assault in the east.

“Thousands of families in recent days have tried to reach the administrative borders of Raqqa province, along with around 120 families of fighters and commanders of ISIL,” the monitor said.

It said ISIL was preventing civilians from entering the province “but granted families of its fighters” a document allowing “passage to Raqqa city by boat as ground transportation is now impossible because the bridges across the Euphrates have been destroyed”.

* Associated Press and Agence France-Presse