Isis defeated in its Syrian ‘capital’ Raqqa, say US-backed forces

Kurdish and Arab alliance to declare victory after four-month battle with Islamic State

Fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces evacuate a civilian from a stadium after Raqqa was liberated from Islamic State militants in Syria on Tuesday. Photograph: Erik De Castro/Reuters

Fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces evacuate a civilian from a stadium after Raqqa was liberated from Islamic State militants in Syria on Tuesday. Photograph: Erik De Castro/Reuters

 

US-backed forces in Syria on Tuesday said they had captured the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa, de facto capital of the jihadi group’s self-declared caliphate, after a four-month battle.

Leaders of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-led alliance of fighters, said they had taken military control of Raqqa, but had yet to clear the city of pockets of militants and landmines. Islamic State, also known as Isis, extensively mines territory it leaves behind, a tactic that causes further destruction and loss of life long after its grip on an area is removed.

“The terrorists have been completely finished in the city,” said General Talal Sello, a spokesman for the SDF. “We are now sweeping, looking for any hidden cells that may still be hiding out.”

The fall of Raqqa is a symbolic blow for Isis and follows defeats the jihadi group has suffered to both Iraqi and Syrian forces that have wrested back territory and pushed the militants into a final pocket in Syria’s oil-rich east along the Iraqi border.

Western intelligence officials say Raqqa was a centre for operational planning of foreign operations, notably the 2015 attacks in Paris that killed 130 people and marked the beginning of a wave of attacks on European capitals. The city in northern Syria was also the place where many western hostages were imprisoned, before being beheaded in a series of propaganda videos Isis released after the US-led international coalition started launching air strikes against the group three years ago.

An estimated 300 to 400 jihadi fighters, many of them foreigners, had either surrendered or been killed after SDF forces retook Raqqa’s sports stadium and national hospital, the group’s last foothold. SDF fighters took down the last black Isis flag flying over the city at the hospital yesterday, and burnt militants’ weapons and documents found in the stadium, Reuters reported.

Civil war chaos

Isis used the chaos triggered by the Syrian civil war to seize swaths of territory in the country after it swept across Iraq and Syria in 2014.

Backed by coalition air strikes and supported by US special forces embedded with its fighters, the SDF has reclaimed a huge expanse of Syria in recent months. But that could become politically problematic as local and international powers try to reach an agreement on how recaptured regions should be governed in the future.

The SDF wants Raqqa and other areas it has seized to join a Kurdish-dominated federalist project. But that is rejected by Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, whose regime has been fighting a six-year war against rebels seeking to overthrow him.

Regime forces, backed by Russian and Iranian military support, have also recently regained control of large parts of the country from both Syrian rebels and Isis.

Turkey, which has supported Syrian rebels but also co-ordinated with Iran and Russia in a bid to broker peace talks between Syria’s warring parties, also opposes the SDF’s efforts to hold on to territory. Ankara considers the Syrian Kurds as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ party, which has fought a more than three-decade insurgency against Turkey.

With the governance of Raqqa undecided, the nearly 1m people who called it home and were displaced in the fighting will return to a city nearly 80 per cent destroyed, according to some estimates, and little in the way of aid to stabilise and rebuild the area.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017