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U.S.-Backed Forces Launch Offensive Against ISIS In Raqqa, Syria

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The Syrian city of Raqqa is the de facto capital for the Islamic State. More important, it's where ISIS plans attacks against the U.S. and other Western targets. Syrian Kurdish and Arab forces along with American advisers launched an attack today to take that city back. Here to tell us about that operation and what could come next is NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Hello.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Kelly.

MCEVERS: So this was a long time coming. Tell us more about these forces and what their objective is.

BOWMAN: Well, Kelly, you have a mix of Arab and Kurdish forces, many thousands of them. And they've been encircling Raqqa for months now. You're right. It's been going on for quite some time. And now they're just entering the city itself. Now, ISIS has had more than two years to build up their defenses, everything from ditches and barricades, creating car and truck bombs, and they're setting up snipers in buildings.

So this is going to be a very tough fight. The top American officer in charge of this operation, Lieutenant General Steve Townsend, said the fight for Raqqa will be, quote, "long and difficult." People I talked with at the Pentagon said this could last for months.

MCEVERS: How many American troops are involved, and what's their actual role?

BOWMAN: Well, we don't have a sense of how many. What we do know is there are hundreds of American troops inside Syria mostly training these Arab and Kurdish forces. We do expect to see some special operators, Green Berets, Navy SEALs and others close to the front lines with these forces. And also, there's a Marine artillery unit, a few hundred Marines north of Raqqa. They will help local forces by shelling ISIS locations.

MCEVERS: There have been a lot of civilians killed in the fight against ISIS, particularly in Mosul, Iraq. What steps are the Americans and their allies taking to try and to protect people?

BOWMAN: Well, the civilian casualties have been a huge problem partly because there are hundreds of thousands of civilians inside these cities, some being held as hostages. And we've seen hundreds of civilian casualties, maybe thousands in both Syria and Iraq from U.S. coalition airstrikes. In the case of Raqqa, local forces have encouraged civilians to leave, but that could be difficult because the U.S.-led coalition has bombed all the bridges, and ISIS has confiscated boats used to smuggle people across the river. And activists say the coalition has mistakenly bombed families coming across in boats.

Now, in this ISIS fight, it's both hard to stay, hard to leave. In Mosul, they were told to hunker down, the civilians. And a lot of them - a number of them have been bombed mistakenly by the U.S.

MCEVERS: And of course there's the question of what happens to them if they do leave. Who's there to take care of them on the other side?

BOWMAN: Exactly.

MCEVERS: Now that this attack on Raqqa is happening, does this mean that the end of the war against ISIS is in sight? And if so, how soon could that be?

BOWMAN: There's no end in sight at all. Even after Raqqa falls, U.S. officials say they have to clear an area south of Raqqa along the Iraq border. It's some 150 miles. And the trouble is you have Syrian regime forces there as well. So the question is, how does the U.S. deal with the Syrians. You know, the answer, they're saying, is to work with the Russians to what they call de-conflict military operations with the Russian ally Syria. Now, this was laid out a few weeks ago by the Pentagon's top officer, General Joe Dunford. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE DUNFORD: We have a proposal that we're working on with the Russians right now. I won't share the details. But my sense is that the Russians are as enthusiastic as we are to de-conflict the operations and ensure that we can continue to take the campaign to ISIS and ensure the safety of our personnel.

BOWMAN: So not only are you fighting ISIS. You have to work around the Syrian forces south of the city. That's going to be another problem. So again, it's a tough fight against ISIS, but the complex political situation is coming forward as well.

MCEVERS: NPR's Tom Bowman, thank you so much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.