After three long years of ISIS rule in Raqqa, the U.S.-backed alliance of Syrian fighters have taken back control of the city.
Although there are still pockets of resistance in the city, officials have said that the "major military operations" have ended. 90% of the city has been clear.
"Major military operations in Raqqa are finished but they are now clearing the city of sleeper cells -- if they exist -- and mines," said Talal Salo, spokesman for the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, to CNN. "The SDF have taken casualties in the past hours and we expect there will still be pockets of ISIS fighters in the coming days.”
In early 2014, the Islamic State (IS or ISIS) took over Raqqa and made the city its headquarters. Thousands of jihadists migrated to the city at the IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s request.
“At the height of its power in 2014, Islamic State ruled a contiguous territory the size of Belgium in Iraq and Syria, with satellites of control from Nigeria to Afghanistan. With the fall of Raqqa, however, that empire is now largely destroyed and the cities Islamic State occupied have been reduced to rubble under the weight of American-led airstrikes and its own explosives,” writes the Wall Street Journal. “But the group leaves in its wake a generation of radicalized youths and an internet network that still recruits new jihadists and proselytizes an extremist ideology that won’t die despite the best American efforts to kill it. Islamic State has continued to claim responsibility for deadly terror attacks around the world in a bid to project power.”
Four months ago, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces led by the Kurdish started an aggressive plan of attack. After months of the special forces battling it out on the ground and with the help of strategic airstrikes from the U.S., the majority of ISIS has been pushed out of the city.
IS has been steadily losing territory. Three months ago, the terrorist group lost control of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq.
Earlier this week, SDF fighters posted celebratory photos of themselves with flags in popular areas of the city, like “Paradise Square,” where ISIS used to commit violent public executions.
The last black IS flag was at the city hospital. The notorious stadium is expected to still have IS mines. Moustapha Bali, a spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces, said suicide bombers may be still hiding in the city.
There was only one U.S. airstrike in Syria on Monday, but this was far from Raqqa. Since the U.S. got involved in early June, there have been 3,829 airstrikes, according to Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS,) a network of citizen journalists who remained in the city during the battle.
RBSS also reported that there were 90 suicide bombings, 1,873 victims and that 450,000 people have been displaced.
While SDF fighters rejoiced over the liberating the city, RBSS is far from celebrating.
"We don't consider it a liberation because SDF has committed many human rights violations against civilians. Most of Raqqa people, including us, were looking forward to the day that ISIS would be defeated, but not in this scenario, having a new leadership that committed many human rights violations,” said Abdalaziz Alhamza, co-founder of RBSS to CNN.
Alhamza also points out that this isn’t the end of ISIS. "They might disappear from Syria and Iraq but they will appear somewhere else," said Alhamza.
Nonetheless, it’s time for the city of Raqqa to rebuild.
Hassan Mohammad Ali, a member of a civilian council backed by the U.S. and the Syrian Democratic Forces, will be in charge of the efforts to reestablish the city, He knows this won’t happen overnight.
“The city is in ruins; it needs time,” said Mohammad Ali. “And it needs prospects that are beyond ours, our energy.”
So what will the next move be by the U.S.?
The State Department said that the U.S. and the coalition will focus switch gears to rebuild the city, like what is happening in Mosul.
"Eventually, we would get to the point where we would start to remove some of the rubble, get to the point where we would get the electricity going once again, providing clean water -- the same types of things that the U.S. and coalition partners were able to do in Mosul," said Heather Nauert, the State Department spokesperson.
Editor's note: I've always questioned our reasoning for being involved in Syria, we don't really have any national interests there. But it appears we have made progress in an area true to our agenda, at least for the moment.