The US-backed Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) are slowly tightening the noose around the Islamic State (IS) enclave of Raqqa. While forward elements are already getting a foothold in the city’s east side, other SDF units are busy securing the areas surrounding the city.

There are reports of US Special Operations troops being with the SDF rebels but only in an advisory capacity and not engaging in close-quarters combat but by staying with the SDF’s command elements as they begin the battle for the IS “capital” of Raqqa.

SDF said they captured al-Romaniya neighbourhood west of Raqqa city early on Monday.

Al-Romaniya is the third neighbourhood of Raqqa city to be captured by the SDF since the launch of the fifth phase of the Raqqa offensive last week.

The SDF, a group of Kurdish and Arab fighters, are currently battling ISIL for control of Sinaaya and Hetin neighbourhoods east and west of Raqqa city, the press release said.

ISIL captured Raqqa from rebel groups in 2014 and has since used it as their home base.

The US-led coalition said 3,000 to 4,000 ISIL fighters are thought to be holed up in Raqqa city, in which about 160,000 civilians remain, according to the UN.

The SDF forces have captured several neighbourhoods in Raqqa city since Tuesday, including the eastern neighbourhood of Mashlab.

Backed by US- coalition air strikes, the SDF began a major offensive on Tuesday to seize the city.

Ahmad, a Tabqa-based activist who would only give his first name, told Al Jazeera that civilians are expecting ISIL to retreat or surrender in a matter of days.

“People are barely surviving inside Raqqa. ISIL basically told residents if they want to leave, they can leave but without taking any of their belongings.

“If the Kurds take Raqqa, displaced people can go back to their homes. We are literally left with just three options: the Syrian government, ISIL or the Kurds. We choose the Kurds,” he said.

Many of those leaving Raqqa are heading north in search of safety towards Ain Issa, Manbij, Mahmoudli and Tal Abyad, all within a 120km radius of the northern Syrian city.

Some, however, have headed for ‘the Berm’– the border area between southern Syria and Jordan, almost 700km away, where humanitarian assistance is almost non-existent, Doctor’s Without Borders (MSF) said in a report released on June 9.

The coalition airstrikes have reportedly killed a number of civilians, who are caught between the Islamist State fighters and the SDF’s mainly Kurdish troops. Thus far, the numbers have been low but as the fighting moves into the neighborhoods of Raqqa, the number of civilian deaths is sure to rise, a thorny subject for the US-backed coalition.

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Photos courtesy Reuters