Mohammad Othman watched through a hole in the wall as the last ISIS fighters filed out of the Syrian city of Raqqa in a convoy of trucks and cars.
Exhausted, beaten and bedraggled, like the city itself, their departure marked a symbolic end to the self-declared caliphate — the fall of ISIS’ de facto capital was complete.
The Kurdish and Arab fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces, who ousted ISIS from the city, raised their yellow banners in the central al-Naim square where the militant extremist group’s black flag once flew. They danced on the spot where ISIS held its grisly public executions.
But as Othman looked around at what was left of his hometown, he saw little reason to celebrate.
“I’m so happy that we got rid of ISIS, but the cost was high. My city is now ruined and burned down. I would have preferred if it was liberated in another way,” he said.
Othman was trapped in the city for more than a year when ISIS stopped letting people leave Raqqa. Then, when the SDF began its offensive in June, he was besieged with thousands of others for 80 days, with no food going into the city.
Despite his ordeal, as far as Othman is concerned, this is not a liberation, but another occupation.
“I see that SDF are ISIS dressed in yellow,” he said.
Othman’s view, shared by many Raqqa natives, is indicative of the challenges ahead for the alliance now holding the city: Kurdish and Arab fighters, backed by the US, have to rule over a Sunni Arab city that they destroyed, and a population that views them with suspicion.
Raqqa’s fate after ISIS will be a crucial test both for US policy in Syria and for the ability of different ethnic groups in eastern Syria to coexist after such bitter violence.
Hell on earth
The battle for the city was a humanitarian disaster for civilians. Nearly all of its 270,000 residents were forced out during the four-month-long offensive.
After the defeat of ISIS in Mosul, in neighboring Iraq, Raqqa became the focus of the US-led coalition’s airstrikes. Mostly carried out by US jets, these strikes struck at ISIS targets on the ground to clear the way for SDF fighters, sometimes flattening buildings in densely populated neighborhoods to kill a handful of fighters. Several hundred US special forces troops were present on the ground to assist.
During August, “on average one coalition bomb, missile or artillery round was fired into Raqqa every eight minutes,” according to the monitoring group Airwars. The strikes grew more intense in September and October as the fight heated up. This blitz, combined with the use of human shields by ISIS, turned the city into a death zone for civilians.
At least 1,300 civilians were estimated killed in Raqqa over the past five months as a result of Coalition strikes, Airwars said. Local monitors put the total civilian death toll at over 1,800, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, said around 80 percent of the city is completely destroyed.
Somewhere among the rubble is what used to be Mazen Hassoun’s home. He lived in Raqqa until 2014, when he was forced to flee after ISIS killed his brother. For the past four months, he has watched from afar as the streets he knew were leveled one by one.
“I can’t be happy for such a liberation when I see what happened to my city. Today Raqqa is ruins and rubble, it’s not a city anymore,” he said from Dortmund, Germany, where he now lives.
Hassoun was an activist in the city, reporting on ISIS crimes. He saw one man crucified in one of the city’s main squares.
“It was hell,” he said. “There was no life.”
He was pleased to see ISIS go, but he says many residents of Raqqa are deeply suspicious of the Kurdish fighters who make up the bulk of the SDF. They were taught to fear the Kurds.
“The problem is ISIS told the civilians during the last years bad things about Kurds and told them that the Kurds want to kill you and occupy your city,” he said.
Most civilians who were liberated from the city are now being held in camps run by the SDF. Some who can afford it are paying to get out, but that option is only available to a small number.
Mohamad Khedhr, another Raqqa resident now living in Germany who has friends in one of the facilities, said this was fueling resentment even more.
“Liberators don’t put civilians in camps just like prisons. The SDF preventing people from going back to their village, even after six or seven months and there are no clashes. They don’t let them go back,” he said by phone (listen below).
The SDF did not respond to requests for comment.
The US plan
Until now, US policy in Syria has been narrowly focused on defeating ISIS, without much planning for what comes after.
But US planners saw the capture of Raqqa as a pressing national security issue. Gen. Stephen Townsend warned in October last year that the city had become a center for the planning of attacks against the West.
There was “a sense of urgency” to the mission, he said.
It has relied heavily on the People’s Protection Units (YPG) — a Kurdish militant group that comprises the majority of the Syrian Democratic Forces — to carry out that fight.
The group has been devastatingly effective against ISIS, backed by US tactical and air support. They were so effective, in fact, that they were encouraged to push on outside of traditional Kurdish areas — into Arab areas — despite the tensions it was likely to cause among locals.
The US has angered its NATO ally Turkey by supporting the YPG. Ankara views the organization as a branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which is classified as a terror group. Washington insists it is separate.
Erik De Castro/Reuters
A State Department official, Jonathan Cohen, described the US relationship with the YPG as “temporary, transactional and tactical.”
“We have the YPG because they were the only force on the ground ready to act in the short term. That is where it stops,” he told a panel at the Middle East Institute in Washington earlier this year.
As the SDF was combing the city for any last ISIS holdouts on Thursday, plans were already being made for the difficult next step.
On Thursday, the SDF announced that they would hand over control of the city to a civilian authority, the Raqqa Civil Council, made up of locals. Their most immediate task will be reconstruction.
It remains to be seen how involved the US will be with the rebuilding and administration of Raqqa now that ISIS is gone. SDF officials say it could take years, and they will be slowed by the massive amount of booby traps left behind by ISIS.
There are other challenges ahead, too.
Kheder Khaddour, an expert on eastern Syria at the Carnegie Middle East Center, told The Century Foundation that Raqqa represents “the SDF’s first attempt to manage a large city with complex layers of population.”
“Beyond the Kurdish-Arab mistrust, the challenge will be to find the right social channel to legitimately govern the city,” he added.
Aron Lund, a fellow at The Century Foundation, foresees practical problems, too.
“Ultimately, who holds the guns and the purse strings also holds power. In this case, SDF has all the guns, but the purse string problem is a little bit more complicated,” he said.
“The United States doesn't seem to be interested in full-on nation-building, and support from other quarters … isn't likely to be very reliable.”
That leaves open the prospect of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — or at least his influence — returning to the city, Lund added.
Raqqa was the first provincial capital seized by rebels early in the Syrian civil war. The thought of it returning to government hands would be a crushing blow for many.
Whatever happens, former resident Hassoun said he had no plans to return to his hometown yet.
“There is no future in Syria right now,” he wrote over WhatsApp.
“Maybe this photo will explain everything,” he added, alongside a picture of Kurdish fighters celebrating in the center of Raqqa, under a giant poster of their imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan.
Richard Hall reported from Beirut, Lebanon.