On Tuesday the 17th October the US-backed Syrian Defence League (SDF) recaptured Raqqa from IS forces. The recapture of the so-called IS ‘capital’ was an arduous battle which has taken place over the last four months.
In January 2014 the so-called IS had taken complete control of Raqqa, a Syrian city located 160km east of Aleppo. By June 2017 it had remained the only major Syrian city fully under IS control. During this time, Raqqa became the presumed centre of operations for the IS ‘caliphate’. Within the city, the al-Naim roundabout – dubbed ‘Hell Square’ – was the centre of unspeakable acts of torture and violence perpetrated by IS fighters that were carried out to terrorise residents who opposed its rule.
The assault on Raqqa was a slow process as buildings were heavily fortified and booby-trapped. SDF forces were not equipped to deal with the traps without risking the lives of many of their own soldiers. According to the BBC, the SDF would often have to call US-led coalition airstrikes on buildings only to ‘kill a single fighter’. On October 15th, the SDF announced their final push to recapture the last 10% of the city located near ‘Hell square’. During the last 2 days of the battle there were 75 coalition-led air strikes, retaliated by IS car bombs. These air strikes, while making slow progress in prying the IS’s grip on Raqqa, have amounted to a severe civilian death toll of 1130 with hundreds more missing and buried under rubble.
The stadium and hospital were believed to be the last strongholds of the IS fighters. Around 300 extremists were thought to be residing in these buildings. A deal was negotiated by the Raqqa Civil Council and local Arab tribal elders to quicken the resolution to the fighting. The Syrian jihadists and their families were evacuated from the stadium and hospital along with civilians and fled the city in the night.
On Tuesday October 17th SDF forces finally recaptured the last areas of the city. The black flags of the IS were torn down and replaced and operations are underway to clear the city from the rest of the land mines and sleeper cells.
While the city has been recaptured, celebrations are tentative. It has been estimated that half the city has been destroyed and 80% is uninhabitable according to the UN. The city is now just remnants of buildings, the grey rubble punctuated only by occasional coloured flags. The battle for Raqqa is no longer a battle against the IS; it has now become a humanitarian crisis with thousands in ‘critical need of aid and camps’ according to Save the Children. It will take many years to rebuild the city and re-home its residents.