As U.S.-backed forces in Syria inch their way through Raqqa, once the Islamic State’s de facto capital and staunchest stronghold, their battle has become one of grinding attrition, and the toughest they have faced to date.

At times they are fighting house-to-house, battling suicide attacks in narrow streets as they wait to see if the militants will send more bombs among fleeing civilians.

“The battle for Raqqa is completely different to anything we have fought before. ISIS is defending its capital now,” said Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the Kurdish-dominated militia — known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF — that Washington has backed to retake swaths of Syria controlled by the Islamic State.

Previous offensives have ended when the militants retreated, apparently deciding to conserve manpower ahead of more consequential battles. This time, Bali said, there would be no escape.

“Raqqa is completely surrounded,” he said. “They are fighting to the death.”


A U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighter runs in front of a damaged building as he crosses a street on the front line, in Raqqa, Syria, July 27, 2017. (Hussein Malla/AP)


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