Islamic State driven out of its ‘capital’

US-backed alliance captures Raqqa after five-month battle in symbolic blow to ‘caliphate’

Syrian Democratic Forces fighter plants their flag at the centre of Raqqa
(Image credit: Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)

American-backed forces have captured the self-declared capital of Islamic State, Raqqa, a major blow for the militant group as it fights for survival on all sides.

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a US-backed militia of Syrian Kurds and Arabs, confirmed yesterday it had taken control of the northern Syrian city, which has been under IS control for over three years, after months of fierce fighting.

While US Central Command stopped short of declaring total victory yesterday, in a phone call to The New York Times, SDF spokesman Talal Sello said the military operation “is now over”.

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UK-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates 3,250 people were killed in the five-month battle to retake the city.

Earlier yesterday, the SDF claimed it had cleared the last two major IS positions in Raqqa - the municipal stadium and the National Hospital.

Reuters news agency reported that fighters raised the flag of Popular Protection Units, a Kurdish militia that dominates the SDF, inside the stadium and celebrated in the streets and chanted slogans from their vehicles.

Al Jazeera’s Hashem Ahelbarra, reporting from Turkey, said clean-up operations were now underway after the bloody battle.

“Hundreds of SDF fighters, waving yellow flags, are now entering the city of Raqqa. They have killed dozens of fighters. They are deploying more troops in the city to try to clear mines, explosives,” Ahelbarra said.

“Destroyed and depopulated, Raqqa faces an uncertain political future,” says Mariya Petkova for Al Jazeera. The humanitarian Reach initiative estimates less than 1% of Raqqa’s 300,000 pre-war population remains in a city with no electricity or fresh water.

The US and SDF have pledged to hand over the city to civilian rule, “but the shape and political make-up of this civilian entity remain unclear [while] various ethnic, tribal and geopolitical factors will complicate the handover”, says Petkova.

Raqqa became the first major city to fall to IS fighters in early 2014, just months after it was captured from the Syrian government by rebels fighting in the civil war.

Declared the headquarters of a “caliphate”, Raqqa was “transformed by the group, which implemented an extreme interpretation of Islamic law and used beheadings, crucifixions and torture to terrorise residents who opposed its rule”, recalls the BBC.

The defeat of IS in Raqqa “is a symbol of the terror group’s decline”, says CNN. It now controls just a small strip of territory along the Euphrates river in northern Syria - and has no major city in its grip.

The Independent notes that “the city was used as a base for the group to plan attacks abroad” and its fall has prompted the New York Times to suggest IS “is already preparing for a new phase, morphing back into the kind of underground insurgency it started as, taking round among disaffected Sunni populations that were willing to tolerate, if not wholeheartedly embrace, its ultraconservative brand of Islam”.

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