A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces, backed by U.S. special forces, walks on a building near Raqqa’s stadium Monday, as they cleared the last positions on the frontline in the fight against ISIS.

Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images

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Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images

U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are in the process of kicking ISIS out of Raqqa, its claimed capital where the group has terrorized civilians and plotted attacks against targets involving the U.S. and its allies. ISIS fighters are now reportedly bottled up in a stadium complex in the city.

Celebrations began to break out among the SDF in Raqqa on Tuesday, as the end of the four-month offensive seemed near. But a spokesman with the force tells NPR’s Ruth Sherlock that fighting could continue as ISIS fighters hold out in booby-trapped buildings.

Made up of Arab and Kurdish fighters, the SDF began their push to take Raqqa in early June. They were backed by airstrikes from both the U.S.-led coalition and Russia — strikes that have been blamed for causing civilian deaths as they sought ISIS targets.

From Beirut, Ruth reports:

“Raqqa is where ISIS first imposed the strict laws that it hoped would one day govern a caliphate that took land across Iraq and Syria. After they took the city in 2014, women were not allowed out in public alone. Young men — even children — were trained to fight. Non-Muslims were persecuted. Those who broke laws were executed publicly.

“….But the imminent victory comes at a huge costs. The fight on the ground, and air strikes by the U.S. and Russia have left Raqqa all but destroyed. Many civilians have been killed. Most of the population fled, and now they don’t know if they’ll have a home when they return.”

What could be the final push to rid Raqqa of ISIS fighters comes days after a convoy of vehicles left the city, under a deal that was set up by the Raqqa Civil Council and local Arab tribal elders. That exodus prompted concern that ISIS fighters might slip through the front lines of the fight; the U.S. Operation Inherent Resolve said that anyone leaving Raqqa under the arrangement would be subject to search and screening by Syrian Democratic Forces.

“Daesh terrorists have been hiding behind women and children for three years, and we are against any arrangement that lets them continue to do so,” said Coalition Director of Operations Brig. Gen. Jonathan Braga.

In Raqqa, the U.S. and its allies are liberating a city that will require years to recover from the violence and destruction its seen. And after taking it, the fight against ISIS moves elsewhere.

Here’s how NPR’s Tom Bowman described what could be a lengthy military process when the offensive began this summer:

“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.”

On another front in the war against ISIS, the U.S. carried out a strike on two training camps in Yemen, in a move that the U.S. Central Command said will disrupt the extremist group’s ability to train new fighters.

The strike hit the relatively remote Al Bayda Governorate, an arid inland region where Centcom says “ISIS used the camps to train militants to conduct terror attacks using AK-47s, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and endurance training.”

Centcom added that U.S. forces have been working “in coordination with the government of Yemen” to carry out counterterrorism operations there.

– The Raqqah Civil Council, in conjunction with local Arab tribal elders, is taking a special interest in protecting civilians and preventing a significant humanitarian crisis as the fall of Daesh’s so-called capital draws nearer.

The Raqqah Civil Council is leading discussions to determine the best way to enable civilians trapped by Daesh to exit the city, where some are being held as human shields by the terrorists. Those departing Raqqah who are found to have fought for Daesh will be turned over to local authorities to face justice.

“We have a responsibility to defeat Daesh while preserving civilian life to the greatest extent possible,” said Coalition Director of Operations Brig. Gen. Jonathan Braga. “Make no mistake: a lot of hard fighting remains and we are committed to the lasting defeat of Daesh.”

The arrangement is designed to minimize civilian casualties and purportedly excludes foreign Daesh terrorists as people trapped in the city continue to flee the impending fall of Daesh’s so-called capital.

People departing Raqqah under the arrangement are subject to search and screening by Syrian Democratic Forces.

The Coalition was not involved in the discussions that led to the arrangement, but believes it will save innocent lives and allow Syrian Democratic Forces and the Coalition to focus on defeating Daesh terrorists in Raqqah with less risk of civilian casualties.

“We do not condone any arrangement that allows Daesh terrorists to escape Raqqah without facing justice, only to resurface somewhere else.
We remain concerned about the thousands of civilians in Raqqah who remain subject to Daesh cruelty,” said Coalition Director of Operations Brig. Gen. Jonathan Braga. “Daesh terrorists have been hiding behind women and children for three years, and we are against any arrangement that lets them continue to do so.”

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