BEIRUT – A U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish force expects to push on and capture the Islamic State group’s (I.S.) de facto capital of Raqqa in northern Syria this summer, a commander said Friday.
The Syrian Democratic Forces have been buoyed by this week’s capture of the key town of Tabqa and its nearby dam. The advance left no significant I.S.-held urban settlements between SDF lines and Raqqa, about 25 miles to the east.
An SDF commander, identified only as Abdelqader, declined to specify dates at a news conference, citing tactical reasons. He said the battle for Raqqa would begin once the group receives heavy weapons from the U.S. military.
The announcement was a snub to Turkey, which doesn’t want the Syrian Kurdish-led force to take Raqqa and has offered its own troops instead. Ankara is also enraged by U.S. plans to arm the Syrian Kurds, who they consider terrorists.
But the SDF made clear it is capable enough with the forces and support it already has.
“We do not want any other forces to participate with us,” said Abdelqader.
“They can solve their problems in their country,” he said, in reference to Turkey.
Earlier this week, the Trump administration announced it would arm the Kurdish elements of the SDF. Ankara said the plan was “unacceptable” and a threat to its national security.
Turkey says the fighters are an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has promised to convince Trump to reverse his administration’s decision in a meeting between the two leaders at the White House next week.
Also at the news conference inside Tabqa on Friday, the SDF announced it would hand over the administration of the town to civilian administrators.
Meanwhile, more than 1,200 residents and opposition fighters trapped in the Syrian capital Damascus left their neighborhoods for rebel-held Idlib province Friday as part of a deal to return the last neighborhoods of the capital to government control.
Syrian state media said 718 fighters and 528 others were bussed out of the Barzeh and Tishreen neighborhoods in the second round of departures from the area since it came under government siege last month.
Tens of thousands of people living in besieged areas around Damascus, Homs and Aleppo — Syria’s largest city — have surrendered under similar agreements in recent months, agreeing to relocate in what critics have said amounts to forced displacement.
The evacuations are taking place at the same time as United Nations-mediated talks between the government and the opposition, though the U.N. does not endorse the rearrangement. Delegates are set to meet again in Geneva next week.
President Bashar Assad indicated in an interview on Belarus ONT television aired Thursday that the government would not take the summit seriously.
He said the talks are “merely a meeting for the media” and “there is nothing substantial in all the Geneva meetings. Not even one per million. It is null.”