Fighters in Raqqa prepare for civilian handover
Fighters in Raqqa prepare for civilian handover
Inside the city, positions that had long been manned by fighters of the Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were abandoned, though some remained in the central Al-Naim square, dancing and ululating as they celebrated their victory.
The SDF battled for more than four months, with US-led coalition support, to capture the city that was once the de facto Syrian capital of Daesh self-styled “caliphate.”
They announced the end of combat on Tuesday, though operations to clear explosives and seek out sleeper cells were ongoing.
Raqqa’s capture leaves the terrorists with little remaining territory in Syria, most of it in neighboring Deir Ezzor province, where some SDF fighters were already headed to continue the campaign.
“Some of the forces withdrew, others will remain in the city until we finish the minor combing operations, then the city will be handed over to the civil council,” said SDF commander Rojda Felat.
“After the end of military operations, a large part of the forces have moved out of Raqqa to other areas, including Deir Ezzor,” added Mustefa Bali, spokesman for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the main component of the SDF.
SDF spokesman Talal Sello said two days of mopping-up operations had so far uncovered no additional Daesh fighters, but that interrogations of those who were captured or surrendered during the battle were ongoing.
“SDF intelligence is investigating them, including a number of foreigners,” he said.
Responsibility for the city, which lies in ruins and empty of civilians, will be assumed by the Raqqa Civil Council, a body of local officials formed six months ago.
The official handover is expected to come as early as Friday, but the body has already spent months working on reconstruction plans.
They will inherit responsibility for a ghost town that lacks basic services and infrastructure.
On the city’s streets on Thursday, blankets that had been hung in front of windows to shield residents from the view of snipers fluttered in the wind, but there was no movement otherwise.
A few scrawny cats and dogs picked their way over the rubble that is strewn across the city, up to 80 percent of which was described as uninhabitable by the UN last month.
In Al-Naim square, fighters of the Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), the female branch of the YPG, gathered to hold a press conference celebrating their contribution to the city’s capture.
Some of the battle’s commanders were female, a point of pride for Kurdish forces, particularly given IS’s infamous oppression of women.
“Raqqa was liberated by the will of free women,” the YPJ said in a statement.
SDF flags now cover Al-Naim, where Daesh once displayed the severed heads of their enemies.
In the center of the square, a large yellow flag has been raised, featuring a photograph of jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan.
Ocalan heads the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey, where it is considered a “terrorist” group.
He is idolized by many in the YPG, which Ankara says is the Syrian branch of the PKK.
Daesh captured Raqqa in 2014, and under its rule the city became infamous for gruesome abuses and as a planning center for attacks abroad.
Its loss deals a major blow to the jihadists’ dreams of statehood, and comes after their July defeat in Iraq’s second city Mosul, their other major urban stronghold.
In Syria, they are now confined largely to Deir Ezzor province, where they are under attack by both the SDF and Russian-backed regime forces.
In Iraq, they hold only a small stretch of the Euphrates valley adjoining the Syrian border, a far cry from their peak in 2014, when their “caliphate” was approximately the size of Britain.
One year after Daesh defeat, Syria’s Raqqa still in fear
- While the nightmare of militant rule may be gone, most of the city still lies in ruins
- ‘The war has worn us out. Us and our children. It has destroyed our future’
RAQQA, Syria: A year after a US-backed alliance of Syrian fighters drove the Daesh group from the northern city of Raqqa, traumatized civilians still live in fear of near-daily bombings.
“Every day we wake up to the sound of an explosion,” said resident Khaled Al-Darwish.
“We’re scared to send our children to school ... there’s no security,” he added.
The militants’ brutal rule in Raqqa was brought to an end in October 2017 after a months-long ground offensive by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces supported by air strikes from a US-led coalition.
But despite manning roadblocks at every street corner, the SDF and the city’s newly created Internal Security Forces are struggling to stem infiltration by Daesh sleeper cells.
At Raqqa’s entrance, soldiers verify drivers’ identity papers and carefully sift through lorry cargoes.
Inside the city, there are regular foot patrols and armored vehicles sit at strategic points.
Women wearing the niqab are asked to show their faces to female security members before entering public buildings.
“If there wasn’t fear about a return of Daesh, there wouldn’t be this increased military presence,” said Darwish, a father of two, speaking near the infamous Paradise Square.
It was here that Daesh carried out decapitations and other brutal punishments, earning the intersection a new name — “the roundabout of hell.”
While the nightmare of militant rule may be gone, most of the city still lies in ruins and there are near daily attacks on checkpoints and military vehicles, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Although a series of stinging defeats have cut Daesh’s so-called caliphate down to desert hideouts, the militants still manage to hit beyond the patches of ground they overtly control.
Some Raqqa residents say the city’s new security forces lack the expertise to cope.
“We are exhausted. Every day we don’t know if we will die in a bomb explosion or if we will go home safe and sound,” said Abu Younes, sitting in his supermarket near a roundabout not far from Paradise Square.
“There is no security — (the new security forces) on the roadblocks are not qualified and there is a lot of negligence,” he complained.
“There are faults that enable Daesh to infiltrate the city easily and carry out attacks.”
But despite the continued attacks, a semblance of normal life has returned to the city.
Shops have reopened and traffic has returned to major roads — albeit choked by the impromptu checkpoints.
In a public garden, children climb up a multi-colored slide and onto dilapidated swings as their mothers sit on nearby benches carefully keeping watch.
They are set amidst an apocalyptic backdrop of twisted metal and splayed balconies — the remnants of buildings torn apart by US-led coalition air raids.
Nearby, Ahmed Al-Mohammed pauses as he listens to music on his phone. Like others, he does not hide his disquiet.
“We’re scared because of the presence of Daesh members in the city,” the 28-year-old said.
“The security forces need to tighten their grip.”
Ahmed Khalaf, who commands Raqqa’s Internal Security Forces, defended the work of his men and claimed successes against the militants.
He said patrols are highly organized and that a “joint operation cell” had recently been established with coalition forces to monitor the city’s security.
“Recently we arrested four (militants) — it was a cell that took part in attacks that terrorized the city,” said Khalaf, sporting plain green fatigues.
“We are continuing our investigation to uncover the other cells,” he added.
“Daesh’s goal is to destroy the country and to not let anyone live in safety,” he said.
Security and stability are what Najla Al-Ahmed wants most for her children.
“The nightmare of Daesh follows us everywhere — whenever we try to rest, explosions start up again,” said the 36-year-old, as she shopped with her young ones.
“The war has worn us out. Us and our children. It has destroyed our future,” she said.