US-Backed Forces Capture Raqqa From ISIS – New York Times
BEIRUT, Lebanon — American-backed forces said on Tuesday that they had seized the northern Syrian city of Raqqa from the Islamic State, a major blow to the militant group, which had long used the city as the de facto capital of its self-declared caliphate.
The apparent rout of the last Islamic State fighters touched off celebrations in Raqqa, where residents had lived under the repressive rule of militants who beheaded people for offenses as minor as smoking. Fighters could be seen cheering and firing celebratory gunfire in the streets, according to residents reached by phone and text message.
The United States Central Command stopped short of declaring victory, saying that, “more than 90 percent of Raqqa is in S.D.F. control,” referring to the Syrian Democratic Forces, an American-backed militia group made up of Syrian Kurds and Arabs. A White House spokesman, Michael Anton, said, “We are still trying to confirm the truth here.”
But officers with the Syrian Democratic Forces were emphatic in phone interviews and public statements that they had finally wrested control of the city from the militants after a monthslong campaign. “The military operation is over,” said Talal Salo, a commander reached by phone at the group’s headquarters in the city of Hasaka.
He added that all remaining Islamic State fighters had either been killed or had surrendered to a tribal council. Dozens of foreign fighters were found dead in the national hospital in Raqqa after a last-ditch battle there, he said, an account confirmed by a member of the Syrian Democratic Forces who said he had seen at least 22 bodies at the scene.
Whether final or not, the seemingly inevitable defeat in Raqqa of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, carries heavy symbolic weight. At its height in 2014, the group controlled Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, as well as Raqqa and large stretches of land on both sides of the border, and it had grand aspirations to double the size of its territory.
The Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who once spent time in a prison run by occupying American troops in Iraq, claimed to be the successor to the caliphs, the Islamic emperors who shaped the region in past centuries. He persuaded tens of thousands of Muslims, some new to the faith or poorly versed in it, to travel to the region from all over the world to fight.
The group seized the ancient ruins of Palmyra in Syria and those of Hatra in Iraq, destroying some of their most important historical monuments in the name of its interpretation of Islam. But with the fall of Raqqa, it no longer controls a major city.
Analysts say the Islamic State is already preparing for a new phase, morphing back into the kind of underground insurgency it started with, taking root among disaffected Sunni populations that were willing to tolerate, if not wholeheartedly embrace, its ultraconservative brand of Islam. And while many Arabs quickly soured on the group because of its brutal crackdowns and unfulfilled promises, their underlying political disaffection has not been addressed.
Another major concern, now that Islamic State-held territory is reduced, is what to do with the foreigners who had joined the fight and might return home to plan attacks there.
Some foreign fighters from Arab, European and Central Asian countries are gathering in smaller towns in Syria’s desert area and no longer plan to fight alongside Syrians, who they have decided are untrustworthy, according to one such fighter who gave his name as Yehya and who recently gave several interviews by phone and text.
The fall of Raqqa also threatens to inflame relations between Kurds and Arabs, who have been fighting the Islamic State in an uneasy alliance with the United States-led coalition against an enemy that is rapidly melting away. Most immediately, they may be at odds over the future governance of Raqqa.
Similar tensions were on display in Kirkuk, Iraq, on Monday after Iraqi government forces drove out Iraqi Kurdish forces to the cheers of Turkmen and Arabs in the ethnically mixed city.
The battle against the Islamic State has also led to touchy de facto partnerships internationally, with the United States, Russia and Iran all fighting the Islamic State in sometimes competing efforts, vying for influence.
Currently, the Syrian government and its allies, Iran and Russia, are steadily driving the Islamic State from Deir al-Zour to the south, and a crucial question is whether the government will ultimately seek to retake full control there.
The victory in Raqqa came at a heavy cost. Much of the city has been devastated by American-led airstrikes that killed more than 1,000 civilians, according to tallies by local activists and international monitors. About 270,000 residents have been displaced by the fighting, and thousands of homes have been destroyed.
Dr. Mohammad Ahmed Saleh, a resident of the city now working in a hospital in Tall al-Abayad nearby, said he was eager to get home but was bracing for the worst.
“I’m expecting to see a new Hiroshima,” he said by telephone, taking a break from treating a newly arrived contingent of 19 wounded people from Raqqa, a mix of civilians and fighters for the Islamic State. “I’m trying to be mentally prepared when I go. I’ll be lucky if I see one of my house’s walls still standing.”
Many former residents said they had no plans to go back. “Today, I decided to start a new life,” said Wadha Huwaidi, who fled Raqqa a few months ago. “I’m sad, of course, but I had nothing left there. My house was destroyed, my children, my husband all collapsed. There’s nothing left that makes me feel I want to go back.”
It is unclear what happened to the last several hundred Islamic State fighters who had been holed up in Raqqa. There had been conflicting reports about whether foreign fighters among them would be allowed to evacuate on buses in a surrender deal.
Last week, the United States-led coalition said there would be no negotiated withdrawal of Islamic State fighters, just the evacuation of civilians, if necessary, to keep them out of the crossfire. But in previous battles, in Hawija and Tal Afar, surrendering fighters were allowed to board buses to Islamic State-held territory.
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