Fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces look toward the town of Tabqa in April. (Syrian Democratic Forces/Associated Press)
Opinion writer

The Islamic State’s headquarters in this city at the western gateway to Raqqa has been crushed like a sandcastle by American bombs. At a dam complex on the Euphrates River where the Islamic State was torturing prisoners and hurling alleged homosexuals from a giant concrete tower, all that’s left of the extremists are militant slogans scrawled on the wall and a pile of trash.

It’s far too soon to say that life is returning to normal here after liberation, but much of the horror is over. Mines and improvised explosive devices were cleared here last week. Young children flash V-for-victory signs. Islamic beards have nearly disappeared. The most visible people sporting full beards on Thursday were American Special Operations forces who accompanied visiting U.S. special envoy Brett McGurk.

The city is strewn with rubble, and Ahmad al-Ahmad, the co-president of the newly formed Tabqa Civil Council, described it as a “city of ghosts,” with perhaps 40 percent of its buildings damaged. The electricity, water-distribution and school systems have been largely destroyed. Young boys who were indoctrinated at Islamic State training camps are trying to find their balance in a new world where beheadings and the chanting of Islamist slogans are over.

To look at people’s wary faces, uncertain but with a trace of hope in their eyes, it’s like they’re waking up from a nightmare. The newly formed town council is meeting, created by the Kurdish-led military force that cleared the town, and it seems to be getting cooperation from local Arabs. A new internal security force is policing the streets and occasionally pops off warning fire. At a warehouse near the town center, the first shipment of American food arrived on Wednesday; sacks of flour and rice are stacked on pallets, ready for distribution, and much more is coming in the next week, says veteran U.S. relief coordinator Al Dwyer.

A boisterous group of young Syrian men is gathered outside a tire and vehicle-parts shop across from the warehouse. American military advisers aren’t sure at first that it’s safe to talk with them, but the men press eagerly toward two visiting reporters. Abdul-Qadr Khalil, 22, dressed in a bright blue-nylon jacket, speaks for the group. He complains that there’s not enough food, water, gas or bread, and there are no jobs. But he dismisses the idea that the Islamic State will ever take hold here again.

“No, never!” says Khalil, and the young men around him nod in unison. “It will be impossible to live if they come back. They will kill all of us.”

Nothing is permanent in this shattered country, but there are tipping points when the momentum shifts, and this seems to be one. As the battle for Raqqa begins in earnest, this city offers a preview of what’s ahead:

● ●The black balloon of the Islamic State caliphate is deflating quickly in Syria, as in Iraq. There may be up to a year of hard fighting left, but the surprise for U.S. officials is that the battle in eastern Syria is going faster and better than expected. In a symbol of that advance, Kurdish commanders gave McGurk the ring of an Islamic State emir who once used it to seal orders to kill Tabqa’s inhabitants. The emir blew himself up when he was surrounded in May, leaving behind the ring and its now-empty claim of authority.

● The confrontation with Syria and Russia that led to the shoot-down of a Syrian fighter jet just south of here two weeks ago seems to have eased, at least for now. Despite the Russians’ public protests, they quietly agreed last weekend on a roughly 80-mile “deconfliction” line that stretches from a few miles west of here to a village on the Euphrates called Karama. That line appears to be holding, and it’s a promising sign that broader U.S.-Russian cooperation in Syria may be possible.

● The Kurdish-led militia known as the Syrian Democratic Forces has shown it can defeat the Islamic State, so long as it’s backed by U.S. air power. The Tabqa battle in May was perhaps the most ambitious and daring operation of the war so far. Five hundred SDF soldiers were airlifted across Lake Assad in V-22 Osprey aircraft in a raid that caught Islamic State forces by surprise. The SDF suffered about 100 killed and more than 300 wounded in the bloody operation, but it worked, and in this part of the world, success breeds success. Arab refugees are now streaming toward the Kurdish-led SDF, rather than away, and 8,200 U.S.-trained Arab forces are joining the front lines.

Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, who commands U.S. and coalition forces in Syria and Iraq, explains in an interview that the Kurdish military leadership here is “the thickener, the hardener you put on the glue to make it hold.”

McGurk repeats at every meeting with local officials that the United States’ ability to fix Syria is limited. America can help defeat the Islamic State, and it can provide quick stabilization support to repair water, electricity and other infrastructure. But it can’t do everything.

This sense of what’s achievable for the United States in Syria with its limited commitment, and what isn’t, is probably the biggest takeaway from our visit here. The United States seems to have found a way, in its almost accidental alliance with the Syrian Kurds, to drive the Islamic State from eastern Syria and stabilize this part of the country. But U.S. officials frankly admit they don’t have the resources or a clear strategy to repair Syria as a whole. The rubric seems to be: Do what you can with the forces available, and don’t promise more than you can deliver.

“This is not a work of beauty. This is pragmatism,” says Maj. Gen. Rupert Jones, the British deputy commander of coalition forces in Iraq and Syria who accompanied McGurk here. The United States and its partners are supplying potent Special Operations forces for training and air support. But the Syrian Kurds and their Arab allies are doing the fighting and the dying on the ground, and for better or worse, it’s their vision of governance that will take hold as the Islamic State falls.

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