IS loses emblematic Syria stronghold Raqa

Published October 18, 2017
Raqa: A Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) commander waves her groups flag at the iconic Al-Naim square  on Tuesday.—AFP
Raqa: A Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) commander waves her groups flag at the iconic Al-Naim square on Tuesday.—AFP

RAQA: US-backed forces took full control of Raqa from the militant Islamic State (IS) group on Tuesday, defeating the last IS holdouts in the de facto Syrian capital of their now-shattered “caliphate”.

The victory caps a battle of more than four months for Raqa, and hammers another nail in the coffin of the IS’s experiment in statehood, which has collapsed in the face of offensives in Syria and Iraq.

Inside Raqa, overjoyed fighters from the Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces celebrated and raised their yellow flag in the city’s Al-Naim traffic circle, which became known as “Hell Roundabout” after IS used it for gruesome public executions.

Raqa had become a byword for atrocities carried out by the IS militants and it was from the city that IS organised devastating attacks it has claimed abroad like the Paris massacres in 2015 or August’s attacks in Barcelona.

“Hell Roundabout is now Al-Naim Roundabout again,” the fighters in Raqa cheered, surrounded by crushed buildings and charred cars damaged in the ferocious battle for the city.

Rojda Felat, the SDF’s commander for its Raqa operation, flashed a wide grin as she waved a huge yellow flag emblazoned with the militia’s name, her rifle hanging from her shoulder. “God willing, joy will return to the whole city,” said fighter Sevger Himo, his eyes gleaming.

The defeat of IS in Raqa was a victory “the whole world was waiting for,” said Omar Alloush, a member of the Raqa Civil Council formed to run the city after its liberation.

Raqa has been devastated by fighting and emptied of civilians, with the last few thousand departing under a deal implemented over the weekend.

For Umm Abdullah, a Raqa native who fled the city three years ago, news of its capture was overwhelming. “I can’t describe my happiness,” the 44-year-old told AFP in the town of Kobane, 100 kilometres north of Raqa.

“When my sister told me it had been freed, she started to cry, and then I started to cry. Thank God, thank God.”

The SDF broke into Raqa in June, after months of fighting to surround the city, and on Tuesday flushed the last few hundred IS fighters from their remaining positions in the main hospital and the municipal stadium.

“Everything is finished in Raqa, our forces have taken full control of Raqa,” the alliance’s spokesman Talal Sello told AFP. He said the SDF was combing the city for any remaining fighters who had not surrendered or been killed.

“The military operations in Raqa have finished, but there are clearing operations now under way to uncover any sleeper cells there might be and remove mines,” he said.

The announcement came just days after the SDF launched the final phase of its operation to retake the city.

There had been fears that the force, backed by the US-led coalition battling IS in Syria and Iraq, could get bogged down in a protracted battle for the last 10 per cent of the city. But on Tuesday they captured the hospital and stadium in quick succession, effectively ending IS’s more than three-year presence in the city.

IS lost 87pc of territory seized in 2014

The US-led coalition backing the operation made no statement on the city’s capture, but announced that IS had lost 87pc of the territory it seized in 2014. “ISIS is losing in every way,” coalition spokesman Colonel Ryan Dillon added in a tweet, using an alternate acronym for the group. “We’ve devastated their networks and eliminated leaders at all levels.”

Published in Dawn, October 18th, 2017

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