Islamic State leaders fleeing Raqqa: Pentagon

Islamic State fighters in a show of force in the Syrian city of Raqqah, which became their defacto headquarters in the country in 2013. Effectively a safe haven for the group, it is to here that many young volunteers both male and female - including Britons - are lured by online recruiters. (AP)

Leaders of the Islamic State (IS) group are fleeing Raqqa in the face of the onslaught by the majority Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the US Defence Department said on Friday.

“We are starting to see now that a lot of senior ISIS leaders, a lot of their bureaucrats… are beginning the process of leaving Raqqa,” said Pentagon spokesman Navy Captain Jeff Davis on Friday.

“They have definitely taken note of the fact that the end is near in Raqqa,” Davis told reporters, describing a retreat that seems “very organised, orderly.”

The SDF launched the 3rd phase of the Wrath of Euphrates operation on 4 February with the objective of isolating the IS stronghold in Syria and have reached within 5km of the city according to latest reports.

The Pentagon official said roads in the north and west of the city had been blocked by the SDF and in the south by the destruction of bridges, leaving only the road to Deir ez-Zor in the southeast, from which jihadist militants are fleeing.

Plans to take the centre of Raqqa have not yet been announced by the SDF and anti-IS coalition with question marks still remaining over support for the group due to Turkish objections. Turkey views the main component of the SDF, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group Turkey is fighting. The YPG rejects the affiliation, while the US has denied directly assisting the Kurdish group.

Ankara has made its intentions clear on leading the operation to storm Raqqa with the FSA groups it is backing as part of the Euphrates Shield operation, however reports suggest they have not provided the coalition with a substantial plan for the operation. The coalition’s military officials have said support for the SDF will continue.