|Welcome to our weekly summary of Syria Deeply’s top coverage of the crisis in Syria.
The Battle For Raqqa Begins: After much anticipation, the battle for Raqqa, the former de facto capital of the so-called Islamic State group, began on Tuesday morning.
The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) officially launched a highly anticipated offensive, advancing toward Raqqa from three sides, Reuters reported. On Saturday, the SDF began a pincer operation against opposite flanks of Raqqa, advancing into the northwestern al-Romania district after seizing the far eastern al-Mishlab district and half of the western al-Sabahia district.
The anti-ISIS activist group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently and so-called Islamic State (ISIS) media outlet Aamaq distributed photos purporting to show U.S.-led coalition forces using white phosphorus on densely populated civilian areas of Raqqa. A U.S. official confirmed to the New York Times that U.S. forces fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria have access to the substance but said “ it was not being used against personnel.”
Syrian government airstrikes reportedly targeted ISIS positions and armored vehicles in the western Raqqa countryside, along a highway linking the ISIS stronghold to Aleppo on Thursday. Earlier in the week, pro-government forces reached the border of Raqqa province and secured their position on the western bank of the Euphrates.
Fierce Fighting In Daraa: Fighting has intensified in the southern city of Daraa, with some of the most intense aerial bombardments over the weekend.
On Monday, Reuters reported that pro-government reinforcements have been deployed to the city, including Iran-backed Lebanese Hezbollah and Shiite Iraqi militias. Major Issam al Rayes, a spokesman of the so-called Southern Front grouping of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), told Reuters that “the regime has brought large columns of troops from the elite 4th Armoured Division,” a key Syrian army unit.
“Everything indicates the regime is preparing for a large-scale military campaign in Daraa in which they plan to encircle the city and reach the Jordanian border,” Rayes said.
The activist-run Nabaa Media outlet in Daraa accused the government of using “napalm-like” weapons on the city, according to the Associated Press.
Since fighting in Daraa escalated in February, some 20,000 residents have fled the opposition-controlled areas of the city, Nabaa contributor Mohammad Abazeid told AP.
Iran-U.S. Tensions: Iran-backed Iraqi forces reached Iraq’s border with Syria over the weekend, encircling U.S.-backed forces roughly 31 miles (50km) northeast of the Tanf base, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Russia confirmed the claim, which, if true, would prevent U.S.-backed forces fighting ISIS from advancing along the Euphrates River in eastern Syria to the ISIS-held areas of Bou Kamal and Deir Ezzor, the Associated Press reported.
On Thursday, an American F-15 fighter jet shot down a drone that U.S. officials claim was connected to Iran or Iran-backed Lebanese Hezbollah and was used to target U.S.-backed fighters near the Tanf base. U.S. Army Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the coalition fighting ISIS, said though the drone’s weapon did not detonate, the coalition considered it a direct threat and not a “warning shot.”