| NEAR TABQA DAM, Syria
NEAR TABQA DAM, Syria A U.S.-backed offensive to capture the Syrian city of Raqqa from Islamic State will last a number of months, the operation's commander said, a longer timeframe than previously signalled by the Kurdish YPG militia that is at the heart of the campaign.
Rojda Felat spoke to Reuters near the Taqba Dam some 40 km (25 miles) west of Raqqa, a major focus of the "Euphrates Wrath" campaign by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that groups the YPG and allied Arab militia fighters. A member of the YPG, Felat is one of around 1,000 women taking part in the campaign.
She said SDF operations to seize the dam had been complicated by Islamic State booby traps and threats to destroy it, and alternative plans had been drawn up to take it. She said it should be captured in the next few days.
The SDF has been waging a multi-phased offensive since November to isolate Raqqa, the jihadists' main urban base in Syria, with backing from the U.S.-led coalition. Felat said coalition support had been "much better" in the latest phase.
She also indicated the start date for the final assault on Raqqa may slip slightly from a previously declared target of early April, saying "in general the attack on the city will start in April, if not at the start of the month then in the middle of it".
"I believe that it will last for a number of months, because it requires us to completely control Tabqa firstly, and to organise the campaign plans very well, and to get civilians out of the city," she said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based organisation that reports on the war, believes around 200,000 people are living in Raqqa.
The overall commander of the YPG told Reuters earlier this month he expected the campaign to capture Raqqa to take a period of weeks, a timeframe he reiterated this week when he said it should not take more than one month.
The escalating assault on Raqqa overlaps with a U.S.-backed campaign to drive Islamic State from the Iraqi city of Mosul. The twin assaults threaten to deal two major blows to Islamic State and its self-declared "caliphate" in Iraq and Syria.
The YPG's role in the Raqqa campaign has angered neighbouring Turkey which views the group as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has been waging a three-decade insurgency on Turkish soil.
The coalition has yet to say when or how the final assault on Raqqa will begin even as the SDF edge closer to the city.
SDF forces captured the northern entrance to the Tabqa Dam last week, but have not advanced further since then. Engineers were brought to the site earlier this week to open damaged spillways to relieve built-up water pressure.
Felat, who lost 20 members of her family when Islamic State carried out a suicide attack at a wedding in 2016, said the jihadists had threatened to blow up the dam if the SDF did not halt the assault.
"Alternative plans" had been drawn up to take the dam, she added. "There were fears of the dam's destruction because our fighters found a large number of mines, so our forces withdrew from the body of the dam to safeguard its integrity."
She added: "If the weather conditions are helpful and our military plans are good, we will take (the dam) in two or three days."
DEFENDING "MY PEOPLE"
The SDF captured the Tabqa airbase from Islamic State last week after carrying out an airborne landing with the U.S.-led coalition in an area on the southern banks of the Euphrates River - the first SDF operation of its kind.
The SDF has been advancing on Raqqa city from the north, east and west. The city is bordered to the south by the Euphrates River.
"Regarding the coalition, they are providing air and ground support in this campaign, and the help is better than in the previous occasions, offering weapons that we did not have before," she said.
"They are offering support such as using heavy and medium weapons, anti-armour weapons and artillery. They are positioned behind our frontline forces, 2 or 3 km away," she said.
"There is also a joint intelligence operations room between us and the coalition where we exchange information and coordinate together concerning the operation to liberate Raqqa."
The SDF says it will hand control of Raqqa to a mostly Arab civilian council once it is captured, in line with the city's demography. Felat said Islamic State had used far fewer suicide bombers and car bombs in the latest battles, a sign of its weakened state.
Felat had been a student of literature before the Syrian conflict began in 2011. She had always dreamed of going to military college, and joined the YPG, or the People's Protection Units, once it was formed.
"I joined the YPG out of desire as a women to defend my people and to defend my existence as a woman," she said.
(Writing by Tom Perry in Beirut; Editing by Toby Davis)