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Syrian rebel groups declare Raqqa a ‘military zone’

The announcement could mean that an expected campaign to root out IS could be gathering pace
A boy in Raqqa looks on at a man selling military uniforms and Islamic State gear (AFP)

Raqqa city in northern Syria – often dubbed Islamic State’s ‘capital’ – has been declared a military zone by a collection of opposition groups who have been planning to sweep IS out of the eastern Syrian city for months.

A statement by Abu Issa - leader of the Raqqa Revolutionaries' Brigade – was released on the brigade's official YouTube account on Thursday.

In the address, Abu Issa called on the people of Raqqa to help them in “rescuing” the city, while warning civilians to move away from IS positions.The commander also gave anyone helping IS five days to end associations with the group, or face possible reprisals. 

“We are bearing weapons to liberate you, and to protect you, and we promise to complete that mission,” Abu Issa, known only by his nom de guerre, said in the video. “We will soon announce the zero hour of a mission to free you from oppression. We know that you have waited a long time, as have all Syrians and the rest of the world. It will be a historic battle, first for Raqqa and then for all of Syria.”

The Raqqa Revolutionaries' Brigade, is believed to be stationed less than 50 kilometres from IS’s Syria stronghold. The brigade is an umbrella group of largely Arab Sunni militias who earlier this month officially joined forces with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) to form the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance. The various groups have all vowed to try and retake Raqqa, although they have stayed firmly tight lipped about the timetable for the assault.

"It will happen soon, but how or when, that's military information," a local YPG commander Heval Amude told Middle East Eye earlier this month. "We are preparing our best."

A collection of rebel groups seized Raqqa from the Syrian military in 2013 making it the first provincial capital to fall out of the government’s grip. However, IS quickly managed to root out other groups, including al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate the Nusra Front. The Syrian government, US-led anti-IS coalition planes and now the Russian air force have all periodically bombed areas in or near Raqqa to try to weaken IS’s hold of the city. 

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