A U.S.-backed Kurdish and Arab force claimed a major victory Tuesday, saying it had taken full control of Raqqa, the Islamic State's former de facto capital, after a four-month-long offensive.
The city gained symbolic value as the headquarters of the Islamic State's supposed caliphate, but by this year it had lost all of its strategic significance. The Islamic State is greatly weakened and is making final stands in cities it once controlled across eastern Syria and northern Iraq.
Raqqa was a war zone for more than four and a half years. It was the first Syrian provincial capital to fall out of government
control, when an al-Qaeda-linked group then known as Jabhat al-Nusra took the city in March 2013. Fighting over the years forced most of the city's population into displacement camps around the country. The Islamic State often showcased its most brutal executions in Raqqa, and American journalist James Foley was beheaded in the mountains south of the city.
But it was the final offensive that left the city utterly destroyed. A relentless campaign of airstrikes carried out by the U.S.-backed coalition killed scores of civilians and militants alike. As they moved in from the north, Syrian government forces, backed by Iran and Russia, moved in from the south. The map above shows how much of an outlier Raqqa was in the current lay of the land.
The city’s infrastructure is in tatters. The citizen journalist group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently told Al Jazeera in late August that the remaining citizens had no access to electricity, water and medical supplies. Food is scarce, and much of the region’s agricultural capacity has been decimated.
“Even if we go back, we will have to bring these tents with us because our houses are destroyed,” Fatima Ali, 29, told the Middle East Eye. Ali, a member of Raqqa's Civil Council, is living in a camp for internally displaced people. Almost every structure in Raqqa is damaged or destroyed, according to those who've fled. Satellite images from McKenzie Intelligence Service show bridges demolished by airstrikes, cutting the city off from the rest of the county.
A World Bank report from January 2017 estimated that Raqqa had been hit by more than 2,000 airstrikes and that nearly 17 percent of the city’s housing units are damaged or destroyed. Since then, the city has been hit by at least 2,500 more strikes.
The Raqqa Civil Council has said it will need at least $10 million a year to restore basic infrastructure. “It could take 10 years to rebuild,” said Ali.
A Turkish journalist in Raqqa on Tuesday tweeted an emotional video showing Raqqa residents leaving neighborhoods they had been trapped in through the long months of bombardment.
Rami Abdulrahman, the founder of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told The Washington Post on Tuesday that his organization estimated 1,130 civilians were killed in Raqqa since June 5. When asked how many he'd attribute to the U.S.-backed coalition, he said, “Most of them.” Islamic State militants also used civilians as human shields and shot those trying to flee.
On Tuesday, a group of dozens of mostly non-Syrian Islamic State fighters held onto one final position in the city's main stadium. Hundreds surrendered over the past weeks after being offered a chance to escape local prosecution.
The majority of Raqqa's prewar population are now either refugees or living elsewhere in Syria. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees released a report this month that said nearly 300,000 had fled Raqqa since April, just before the U.S.-backed offensive began. The United Nations also estimated that only 10,000 to 25,000 civilians remained in the city as of August, although exact figures were impossible to ascertain.
The Kurdish and Arab troops who now control Raqqa are mostly not from there. Amid the destruction, there will be inevitable disputes over who gets what in the rebuilding process. The city also needs to be cleared of countless mines and booby traps. What smattering of the Islamic State is left in the region may still be able to launch attacks.
Restoring order to this traumatized, haunted city will be a near-impossible task.