Raqqa, a city that recently had a population of 300,000, is finished. The UN says it is 80 percent uninhabitable after the past five months of fighting. Is there even a point in trying to rebuild it?
Varying public postmortems are being conducted by the great powers. Russia, itself no stranger to levelling entire urban areas including much of Aleppo, accused the anti-Daesh coalition of bombing “Raqqa off the face of the earth,” comparing the coalition attacks to those on Dresden during the Second World War.
In the US corner, the coalition commander Lieutenant-General Stephen J. Townsend vigorously denounced such charges, claiming that “there has never been a more precise air campaign in the history of armed conflict.” Somewhat bizarrely, he said: “The coalition’s goal is always for zero human casualties.”
Civil society monitoring groups attracted the ire of Gen. Townsend. In his crosshairs was Airwars, a non-profit group that tracks the war against Daesh and civilian fatalities. They claim the anti-Daesh coalition has killed 2,000 civilians in Raqqa since March. The coalition has acknowledged five.
Airwars maintains that they checked details with US Centcom and complain that “they are attacking the messenger rather than dealing with the allegations.” Airwars and others maintain that the US military should be conducting thorough investigations into the allegations rather than dismissing them before determining the facts.
Gen. Townsend’s denials also do not square with the goal outlined by his boss, the US Defense Secretary James Mattis, who made clear in May that the goal had shifted from “attrition” to “annihilation.” He said: “Our intention is that the foreign fighters do not survive the fight to return home to North Africa, to Europe, to America, to Asia, to Africa. We’re not going to allow them to do so.” More recently a British Foreign Office Minister, Rory Stewart, was clear that “we have to be serious about the fact these people are a serious danger to us, and unfortunately the only way of dealing with them will be, in almost every case, to kill them.”
Does this matter? Daesh is an appalling organization that has terrorized those under its rule and bombed innocents abroad. Few are going to mourn the death of fighters who have been so brutal. But this has not been a surgical operation, a neat incision to remove the cancer, but rather an all-out crushing of the host.
Who now will be safer? On the plus side, Daesh is expelled from Mosul and Raqqa. Russia claims Daesh controls less than 5 percent of Syria. One brutal regime that killed, tortured, kidnapped and oppressed is over. But is the threat gone? By whom, and how, Raqqa is ruled from now on is far from clear.
The rubble of Raqqa is a potent symbol of US military firepower — but Washington needs a Syria and Iraq strategy that will build, not just destroy.
Triumphalist American rhetoric claims, as Vice-President Mike Pence did, that Raqqa has been liberated. It has been liberated by being levelled, and has also been liberated of its people, of its universities, its hospitals, its bridges and its water and sewerage systems.
Daesh attracted a great deal of support not just for ideological reasons but frequently grievance. Genius-level IQ is not required to guess how the 300,000 citizens of Raqqa feel now; certainly not love for Daesh, but nor for the US and its allies, let alone the regime, Russia or Iran.
The Trump administration has obsessed narrowly with annihilating Daesh. The lens is massively short-sighted. Day-after planning is woefully insufficient, with no plans for reconstruction or even the appetite to fund it. The US will assume no responsibility for the infrastructure it has pummeled, so international donors will be called upon to assist.
What does the Trump administration imagine will happen now? Syrians whose cities have been bombed to rubble are hardly about to unfurl US flags. Indeed, the suspicion is that Raqqa will soon fall into the hands of Syrian regime forces currently parked just a few kilometers away. Russia will not lose a second in highlighting this American failure, with a convenient case of amnesia over their own reckless bombing campaigns.
One hopes to be wrong, but simply levelling Syrian and Iraqi cities is not a strategy, and a series of major Daesh attacks on US and coalition targets is close to inevitable. Moreover, in focusing solely on Daesh, the US is giving Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, the former Jabhat Al-Nusra, a free ride. This Al Qaeda-linked group is arguably a far more potent long-term threat to US interests than Daesh. To have an anti-Daesh strategy, Washington needs a Syria and an Iraq strategy – and one that will build, not just destroy.
• Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. Twitter: @Doylech