By John Davison
RAQQA, Syria (Reuters) – U.S.-backed forces now have Islamic State fighters surrounded in central Raqqa, a Syrian Kurdish commander said, but he predicted that driving the militants out could take up to four months.
“We’ve cleared about half of Old Raqqa … and we’re advancing on all axes,” said Haval Gabar, the 25-year-old commander from the Kurdish YPG militia who is directing the assault on the Old City front in Islamic State’s Syrian stronghold.
Units of the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance dominated by the YPG, fully linked up in Raqqa’s southern districts on Tuesday, encircling the militants in the city center which includes the Old City,
“The day before yesterday there was still a small gap,” Gabar said on Wednesday. “Yesterday it was closed. We are now pressing towards Mansour and Rashid districts.”
From his command post, a former Syrian government police headquarters overlooking the Old City walls, Gabar hunched over maps and radioed orders to YPG units 400 meters (yards) ahead in the densely-built city center.
As he spoke, the sound of machine gun fire barked over his walkie-talkie while air strikes staged by the U.S.-led coalition slammed into targets nearby.
The SDF, backed by the air strikes and coalition special forces, have been fighting since June to clear Islamic State from Raqqa city, its de facto Syrian capital. A separate campaign drove the group from its Iraqi stronghold of Mosul last month.
However, the multi-phased Raqqa offensive began already in November, capturing surrounding towns and villages, encircling the city and cutting off Islamic State from the north, east and west.
But the advances are proceeding cautiously, officials say, as Islamic State uses snipers, car bombs and booby traps, and forbids civilians to leave, prolonging the effort to flush the jihadists out.
Initial predictions by the YPG that the Raqqa battle would be over in a matter of weeks were wrong.
“It could take another three to four months to finish Raqqa,” Gabar said. The SDF was advancing steadily, but he added: “They’ve laid many mines, that’s one of the biggest difficulties. As for car bombs, they don’t use them every day, but if our forces are advancing down a street, then they deploy them.”
As he spoke, a huge blast shook the building, and a plume of smoke rose from inside the Old City – a car bomb had been hit by an air strike.
The radio crackled with reports of SDF casualties. A medic working at the command post, who gave her name as…