ISIS reinforces its Syrian stronghold of Raqqa as Kurds get closer

Story highlights

ISIS moves a convoy of nearly 100 military vehicles packed with arms, ammunition and fighters to the city, observers say

They are preparing for a possible assault by Kurdish forces

Raqqa serves as the de-facto capital for the self-named Islamic State

CNN  — 

ISIS is reportedly digging trenches and calling on reinforcements to prepare for a possible assault by Kurdish forces on their stronghold of Raqqa in northern Syria, activists and a Kurdish official told CNN on Wednesday.

ISIS moved a convoy of nearly 100 military vehicles packed with arms, ammunition and fighters from the eastern countryside of Raqqa to one of the terror group’s bases within the city, Rami Abdurahman, the director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told CNN on Wednesday. The observatory is a London-based monitoring group.

Fortification of the group’s de-facto capital in Syria comes just a day after Kurdish YPG forces backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes wrested control of the town of Ain Isa, the observatory reported. The tactical victory puts ISIS’ formidable rivals just 55 kilometers (about 34 miles) away from the city of Raqqa.

“Fighters are still clearing homes and streets of booby-traps and mines. There are some clashes from ISIS pockets on the outskirts of the town, but Ain Isa and the surrounding villages are free of the ISIS terrorists,” said Ismet Sheik Hassan, the Kurdish Defense Minister of Kobani where many of the YPG fighters originate.

South of the clashes, one activist group reported Raqqa’s Kurdish minority was ordered to evacuate the city or face detention, said Abu Ibrahim al-Raqawi, the head of Raqqah is Being Slaughtered Silently, from the Turkey-Syria border.

“ISIS is afraid the Kurds will lend their support to the YPG, and some may be sleeper cells, so an order was issued. All Kurds must report to an ISIS office within 72 hours,” al-Raqawi said based on reporting from activists inside Raqqa. “They are forced to hand over the keys to their homes and leave the city.”

Abdurahman raised questions about that report and tells CNN some inside the city denied the claim. A Kurdish media activist, Mahmoud Bali, snapped photos on Wednesday of Kurdish families packed into the back of pickups with nothing but a canvas bag fleeing Raqqa.

“Yes there is a willingness to enter Raqqa because we want to cleanse all of Syria. We want to get rid of all of ISIS. We have sworn anywhere that there is ISIS, we must get rid of them for the sake of a free, democratic and plural Syria,” Hassan says.

Observers: Kurds might not be ready to attack yet

Activists and observers say the Kurdish YPG is not ready to launch an attack on the predominately Arab city of Raqqa, where the militia may face an onslaught by thousands of well-trained and equipped ISIS fighters. The ethnic minority might also face resistance from the residents of the predominately Arab city, which views the militia as an outside fighting force.

“We are serious about our goal to get rid of ISIS, and we want to work with the Free Syria Army. We are willing to provide any support, and we are responding to the calls of the people,” Hassan said, pointing to the partnership of Arab rebel forces such as the Raqqa Revolutionaries’ Brigade as a sign of cooperation.

“Many people are preparing to flee if a battle breaks out between the YPG and ISIS. Residents are particularly afraid that Kurds will retaliate for Kobani,” al-Raqawi says in reference to the Kurdish border city left in utter devastation after more than a 100 days of fighting between ISIS and YPG.

Sunni activists accuse the Kurdish militia of violations in territories under their control, including arbitrary arrests and summary execution, according to al-Raqawi. In a report last year, Human Rights Watch documented cases of abduction, murder and abuse in detention in the minority’s enclaves.

“The people are afraid of the YPG, and they are afraid of ISIS. They feel like this war has torn the fabric of society in Raqqa,” al-Raqawi says.

“Unfortunately, it is a war of militias and the civilians are paying the price.”