Kurdish and Arab fighters have raised their flag over the last Isis stronghold in Raqqa, bringing to an end the four-month siege of the city which has served as the de facto Isis capital and headquarters in Syria. A small number of Isis fighters holding out in the sports stadium were overrun by the Syrian Democratic Forces and fighting has ceased everywhere according to a spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) which is backed by the devastating airpower of the US-led coalition.
The capture of Raqqa, despite the US coalition claiming the SDF will still face pockets of resistance, is the latest in a string of defeats suffered by Isis over the last two years which have destroyed the “Caliphate” declared by the Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi after the fall of Mosul in 2014. Isis once ruled territories the size of Great Britain, but has lost almost all of them and is confined to desert and semi-desert areas where it is likely to have prepared hideouts, arms caches and food supplies. It will seek to remain in being, using guerrilla and terrorist tactics and hoping to regenerate itself in future.
In the last hours of fighting, the SDF cleared the National Hospital, which had operated as an Isis headquarters, where 22 militants were killed along with three SDF paramilitaries. Earlier, the Kurdish-led-force had captured “Paradise Square” where Isis had once carried out executions and punishments, including beheadings after which they would leave the severed heads and bodies of their victims to rot in the sun. The SDF has raised the red and yellow flag of the Kurdish YPG forces and torn down the black flag of Isis whereever it was still flying. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed on Monday that Isis had been completely cleared from the city.
The assault on Raqqa, a city on the Euphrates River with a pre-war population of 300,000, began on 6 June and saw heavy fighting as Isis relied on snipers, suicide bombers, mortar teams and specialists in planting IEDs to cause casualties and slow the SDF advance. Isis built a labyrinthine tunnel system underground, enabling its militants to shift position before they could be identified and targeted by coalition airstrikes and artillery fire. As in Mosul, the difficulty in destroying a highly mobile enemy led to a lengthy bombardment and heavy destruction of buildings.
The Save the Children charity says that some 270,000 people who fled Raqqa are in critical need of aid, have no homes to return to and may have to stay in camps for months or years. Sonia Khush, Save the Children’s director for Syria, described conditions in the camps where displaced people from Raqqa are staying as “miserable and families do not have enough food, water or medicine.”
The end of the battle was marked by negotiations under which Syrian members of Isis and several hundred civilians were bussed out of the city while foreign fighters remained behind to fight to the end. The exodus of Syrian fighters may indicate a fall in the morale of Isis militants, who previously were notorious for refusing to surrender and fighting to the end. It could also mean that Isis has suffered such heavy losses that it is keen not to lose experienced fighters.
There were no air strikes on Raqqa on Monday in a further sign that the battle was over according to the coalition spokesman Colonel Ryan Dillon. He added that “we do know that there are still IEDs and booby traps in and amongst the areas that Isis once held, so the SDF will continue to clear deliberately through areas.”
He later added: “We expect our Syrian Democratic Force partners to hit pockets of resistance as the final parts of the city (are) cleared.”
Isis has now lost all its centres of strength in Iraq and Syria and will hope to survive in the deserts between the two countries. In Syria, it has not only lost Raqqa, but is losing the districts it still holds in Deir Ezzor, a city further south on the Euphrates where it is under attack by the Syrian army. Al Qaeda did manage to stay in Iraq after suffering heavy defeats by the US and local Arab allies from about 2008 to 2011 and then to rise again, taking advantage of Syrian Arab disaffection in Iraq and the Arab Spring uprising in Syria.
Isis still has some sources of strength, notably the fact that its leader, al-Baghdadi appears to be alive going by the latest tape-recording of his voice. The broad array of states and movements that had been focussing on wiping out Isis is breaking up, notably in Iraq where the government recapture of Kirkuk on Monday will sharpen differences between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdish authorities in the Kurdistan Regional Government. Overall, some of the Kurdish leaders will look for support to the Sunni Arabs.
Similarly, in Syria the wars are not over with the victorious Kurds fearing that the US will not continue to give them the same level of support now that Isis is defeated. They are vulnerable to being squeezed by Turkey and by the government in Damascus. New divisions and confrontations might offer opportunities to Isis, though they will no longer be able to catch the world by surprise as they did in 2014.