Raqqa’s fall: A journey into the heart of Isis’s failed caliphate

Raqqa lies in ruins, the last Isis fighters bussed out in an evacuation deal to regroup in the desert. Our reporter found a city that may never recover and a war that is far from over

Monday 30 October 2017 19:09
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Raqqa's fall: A journey into the heart of Isis’ failed caliphate

It takes a very long time to get to Raqqa. The only way to travel to the northern Syrian city is to beg the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq for permission to cross the border.

If you succeed, there’s a small tributary of the Tigris that forms a natural checkpoint between the two countries and the river is crossed by scrambling down its banks to a small blue boat.

After that, it’s a two-day drive west on bad roads. The desert countryside turns green, then sandy, then green again as the city gets closer.

Children splash around in the irrigation channels on the banks of the Euphrates in the over 40 degree heat. More than one truck driver stops to fill up a bottle, even though it isn’t safe to drink, because there are hardly any other water sources left.

As Raqqa’s skyline draws closer, the most noticeable thing about Isis’s ‘capital’ is how quiet it is.

Even the US coalition war planes fly so high they aren’t always audible before the thud of impact and a huge cloud of smoke that darkens the sky.

The grey rubble dust – layers and layers of it – is still almost the only thing that stirs in the deserted streets.

Raqqa was for the most part a quiet countryside town before Syria’s war broke out. Now, it’s infamous around the world as the heart of Isis’s so-called caliphate.

The town’s pre-war population of 700,000 people has borne witness to every stage of the civil war. First there were peaceful protests that began against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during the Arab Spring in 2011. Then, fighting between the government and rebels.

In 2014 Isis took over, and Raqqa’s inhabitants suffered under their brutal rule. During the battle, they were herded from neighbourhood to neighbourhood and into strategic buildings such as the sports stadium and national hospital to protect the jihadists from air strikes.

Until last week, that is. After four months of heavy fighting, the Arab and Kurdish militias of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have put up their flags all over the city, driving their tanks around al Naim square in the city centre the same way Isis did after conquering Raqqa more than three years ago.

While a small handful of militants insisted on fighting to the death, the last three or four hundred agreed to an evacuation deal designed to let civilians escape the city safely. The SDF jeered and called them cowards as they left in pick-up trucks to retreat into the desert.

Journalists were not allowed on the front line during the operation, and many questions remain as to how it was brokered.

The scars left by the occupation and battle are still everywhere. The jihadists’ black logo is still emblazoned across many buildings. The domes of mosques have caved in from mortar strikes, their windows blown out.

A science college in an eastern neighbourhood is utterly decimated inside, the chairs and desks propped up against the front entrance as barricades. In one classroom, a huge 10m deep tunnel was Isis’s means of escape.

Ripped coverings, which were stretched across houses and streets to shield the jihadists’ movements from coalition planes and drones, flutter in the wind.

There are still makeshift Isis barricades of concrete across major roads.

But there are no people.

The children of Mosul: Iraqi youngsters left psychologically damaged by ISIS war

In Mosul, Isis’s Iraqi capital, life never really left the city even during the fighting, and normality is flourishing there once more as schools and businesses reopen. Music, banned by the jihadists, can be heard again. People are rebuilding their lives.

But an estimated 80 per cent of Raqqa has been destroyed. It is so heavily mined by Isis it is not safe to step off the road in most neighbourhoods; the militants have been known to leave improvised explosive devices to slow the advance of their enemies, and to inflict the maximum amount of pain and death on innocent people too.

Civilian houses are often booby-trapped. Door handles, shoes, even children’s toys have been used to kill in the past.

One day while the fighting was still going on, a Kurdish fighter of the SDF pointed out a new black Mercedes that had pulled up outside a house. He called it in to a commander over his walkie talkie, panic audible in his voice. He was afraid it was a new Isis car bomb deep inside supposedly liberated territory.

When two men in their sixties came out of the front door, the tension dissipated.

“We’d just come to check our house,” they explained, happy to find it still standing. One of them held up a niqab his wife had left behind when they fled a few weeks ago. It wasn’t clear if they realised how lucky they were the house wasn’t booby-trapped.

Later, they waved as they drove out of Raqqa heading for the internally displaced persons camp where their families were staying. They used a side of the road also not cleared of mines.

In six days in and around the city, those two men were the only civilians The Independent came across.

Raqqa is a shell of a place. It’s so empty it doesn’t feel like a real city: despite the dangers, it often felt like walking around some sort of dystopian theme park.

The only people calling the city home at the moment are the fighters who have liberated it – which poses its own problems.

The flags of varying Kurdish units are now everywhere in this Arab majority town. YPG, or Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units graffiti tags adorn the walls of almost every building.

“Resistance is life” is spray painted onto the side of a mosque in English, which must be the work of an international volunteer.

The civilians being helped by the SDF at checkpoints all said they were grateful for the assistance. But those languages, and the huge presence of non-Arab fighters not originally from the city, will not necessarily be welcome for long.

With the fall of Isis Syria is moving into a new chapter of war. Now the jihadists are on the back foot, at some point in the near future President Assad will turn his attention back to reclaiming Raqqa.

As with every development in Syria’s complex conflict, it is not clear what will happen next. But more fighting between regime troops and Kurdish forces could be on the horizon – especially if the SDF doesn’t hand over control of Raqqa, which lies an hour south of the self-declared autonomous Kurdish region.

Rebuilding is another complicated problem. The UN and most Western countries, which sanction the Syrian government, have said time and time again that no reconstruction funds will be released before a political process to end the war and hold democratic elections has begun. Damascus’s backers in Russia and Iran lack the money for the enormous task of saving Raqqa’s homes and infrastructure.

In the interim, however, Raqqawis remain displaced and desperate. Hardly any of their houses are fit for purpose, there is no running water and clearing all the mines could take years.

The weather is changing, and leaders at Ain Issa, the main IDP camp for those who have fled, warn they need blankets, warm clothes and heaters before winter sets in.

The world rejoiced at the failure of the Islamic state project. But at the mercy of global powers and in the midst of a war that is far from over, Raqqa may never recover.

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