Updated October 15
The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces launched a final assault to capture the remaining Islamic State-held areas of Raqqa on Sunday, October 15, after some ISIS fighters were evacuated from the city overnight and others surrendered.
The final battle, named for Manbij Military Council leader Adnan Abu Amjad who was killed in late August, began after the evacuation of civilians and of Syrian ISIS members and their families, an SDF statement said.
On Saturday, Coalition spokesperson Colonel Ryan Dillon said: “We still expect difficult fighting in the days ahead and will not set a time for when we think [ISIS] will be completely defeated in Raqqa.”
Raqqa activists reported clashes between the SDF and ISIS had restarted after several relatively quiet days that also saw fewer Coalition airstrikes.
— Raqqa24 (@24Raqqa) October 15, 2017
ISIS evacuate Raqqa
There are conflicting accounts of both the evacuation and surrender of ISIS fighters. It is unclear if these terms are used interchangeably.
SDF spokesperson Mostafa Bali told Reuters on Sunday that a group is ISIS fighters left the city overnight, part of a surrender or evacuate deal brokered by Raqqa Arab tribal elders and Raqqa Civil Council that was negotiated over several days.
“The operation has finished and the battle continues,” Bali said. “Last night, the final batch of fighters [who agreed to leave] left the city.”
On Saturday, the tribal elders said an agreement was reached to allow local ISIS fighters to leave and the tribes would ensure their exit. They said the deal was designed to reduce civilian casualties prevent the further destruction of the city. The elders said they would protect those taken as human shields, reiterating that they “will ensure the lives of those who will be removed.”
However, Bali said the ISIS fighters refused to release civilians after they left the city as was agreed, and took the civilians with them to guarantee their own safety.
SDF spokesperson Colonel Talal Silo told AFP: “More than 3,000 civilians left on Saturday night as part of a deal and went to areas controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces.”
“Raqqa is now empty of civilians who had been taken as human shields,” he added.
“If there are any civilians remaining they would be the families of those foreigners. The civilians exited completely,” Silo said.
“Only 250 to 300 foreign terrorists who refused the deal and decided to stay and fight until the end remain in the city, and relatives of some members are with them,” he added.
Bali said no foreign fighters had left the city, but Raqqa Civil Council member Omar Alloush said some foreign fighters had indeed left Raqqa alongside Syrian ISIS militants.
“A portion of the foreigners have left,” Alloush told AFP.
Alloush’s statement was later refuted by Laila Mustafa, co-chair of Raqqa Civil Council, who said that no foreign fighters had left the city, Reuters reported.
Raqqa activists Raqqa24 said in Sunday that five buses left Raqqa overnight, carrying local and foreign fighters.
— Raqqa24 (@24Raqqa) October 15, 2017
On Saturday, Alloush told AFP that the evacuated ISIS fighters may go to Deir Ezzor province.
Also on Saturday, a Coalition press release said that the deal was to evacuate civilians from the city, saying: “The Coalition was not involved in the discussions that led to the arrangement, but believes it will save innocent lives.”
On Sunday, Coalition spokesperson Colonel Ryan Dillon said: “We may not always fully agree with our partners at times. But we have to respect their solutions.”
Syrian ISIS fighters surrender
SDF spokesperson Cihan Shekh Ahmed released a statement about the ISIS fighters who surrendered which said that 275 militants and their families were brought to the headquarters of Tabqa Civil Council where they met Raqqa and Tabqa tribal elders. The fighters will remain in SDF custody.
The YPG released video of the events:
— Rojava Defense Units (@DefenseUnits) October 15, 2017
Earlier, Raqqa Civil Council said 275 Syrian ISIS militants and their families surrendered to the SDF under the Raqqa tribes deal. If after interrogation it is assessed that they did not take part in killings, they will be released under guarantees from the tribes, as has become common in northern Syria recently. The council said foreign fighters will not be forgiven.
On Saturday, journalist Wladimir Van Wilgenburg reported that the tribes were trying to convince ISIS militants to surrender, but that many wanted to leave the city instead.
The SDF said the tribes’ deal “succeed in evacuating civilians who were still in the city and the surrender of 275 local mercenaries and their families,” the Associated Press reported.
SDF spokesperson Talal Silo told Reuters that 275 Syrian ISIS fighters had left Raqqa..
AFP reported Silo as saying that 275 Syrian IS fighters and family members were with SDF fighters.
Laila Mustafa, co-chair of Raqqa Civil Council, the 275 who had left included both fighters and their families, Reuters reported.
On Saturday, Coalition spokesperson Colonel Ryan Dillon told Reuters that around 100 ISIS fighters had surrendered in the previous 24 hours and were “removed from the city.”