By Christina Xu
On Tuesday, the Kurdish-led and American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) seized Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State caliphate since 2014. On Friday, US-backed militias declared “total liberation” of the Syrian city after 130 days of battle between Syrian factions and the extremist group. The SDF’s push to retake the city began in early June and was supported by coalition airstrikes. Large sections of Syria had already been reclaimed by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s regime with the support of the Russian and Iranian militaries.
The victory was of great symbolic importance; ISIS, which distinguishes itself by its willingness and capacity to govern, used Raqqa as the headquarters for the group’s bureaucracy and as a central hub for planning overseas terror attacks. The group planned the November 2015 attack on Paris, which marked the beginning of a string of attacks in European cities. Raqqa was also the site of imprisonment of many Western hostages before their decapitation for ISIS propaganda videos. ISIS’s loss of Raqqa follows a slew of defeats to Iraqi and Syrian forces that have reclaimed territory and geographically cornered the group; the group now only controls a small strip of land in northern Syria along the Euphrates River.
According to Syrian Democratic Forces spokesman, Talal Silo, control of the city will be handed over to civilian leaders after the completion of cleaning operations; the SDF would be charged with protecting the city. For the time being, residents, many of whom are living in crowded refugee camps, are being told to stay away from Raqqa until landmines and booby traps are removed. Removal of explosives could take months, though, as ISIS extensively mines territory it leaves behind.
While it is unclear what will happen next, it is unlikely that peace will simply continue under the governance of the SDF’s primarily secular Kurdish fighters. Local and international powers have not yet determined how recaptured regions will be governed, and the SDF’s proposal for Raqqa to join a Kurdish-dominated federalist project was rejected by al-Assad. Outside of Syria, moreover, the capacity of the Islamic State to effectively expand its foreign networks remains uncertain. Raqqa’s fall provides a crucial break for Syria, a country besieged by war for the past six years; however, it may also push the extremist group to aggressively expand its foreign presence—between 2013 and 2016 its external operations wing undertook more than 180 attacks in almost 20 foreign nations. Though the loss of Raqqa poses a major logistical roadblock for the IS caliphate, the fight against ISIS is far from finished.