Show Hide image

Six days in Raqqa: inside the battle for Islamic State’s last major stronghold

Suddenly there was a buzzing overhead, followed by two loud explosions. It was an IS drone, dropping grenades.

The first time I crossed into an Islamic State wasteland was in February 2015. Kobane was a northern Syrian city only half in ruins and not completely abandoned, but still the monochrome landscape felt like it belonged to older, greater wars.

Islamic State (IS) had made its last stand in the east of the city, close to the border with Turkey. The craters from the US-led coalition’s air strikes were as deep as the houses they had destroyed. In the cold winter air, blankets and fabric hung stiffly across the streets: screens to protect against snipers. There was so much destruction – 360 degrees of ruin, layer upon layer – that your eye struggled to take it all in. Among the dust and rubble, you searched for signs of life as it was before the final onslaught: a mangled bicycle, a photograph, the boot on a dead militant’s foot.

More than two and a half years later, we still call IS fighters “militants”, but in its wake the group has left a trail of destruction worthy of an army. And as bad as it was, what happened in Kobane was only the beginning. Much worse was to come.

IS had already established a pattern of warfare that would become familiar elsewhere: the tunnels, the snipers, the car and suicide bombs, the civilians used as shields and as bait, and the coalition’s overwhelming air power that would finish off the fighters when ground forces could go no further. Always with IS, there were innovations, smart new tricks to kill or maim, effective enough to hold off its enemy that little bit longer. In Kobane, it was the tunnels. In Mosul, IS’s main base in Iraq, which was liberated in July, it was the use of drones to drop grenades. Now, in Raqqa, which before the war was Syria’s sixth-largest city, it is motion sensors attached to home-made bombs. Each battle contains a surprise. And with each battle, the carnage grows and the rubble mounts.

A soldier of the SDF receives first aid in Raqqa in August, left, and a gun propped up on the front line in the west of the city. Photos: Moruck Umnaber/DPA 

In Raqqa, it appears that the entire city has been sacrificed to the war against IS. The terror group’s last major stronghold – the capital of the so-called caliphate declared by the group’s spokesman, Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, on 29 June 2014, then publicly announced by its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, at the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, Iraq, a few days later – looks from above as if it is being erased from the map. “Raqqa has paid the price for all the world, for Britain, for Germany… Raqqa citizens paid the price with the destruction of their city,” Ismail al-Ali, a local engineer, told me.

He was standing in his white dishdasha and apologised for its worn and dirty condition. Around him was nothing but shattered homes. All were missing windows and doors. Some were missing walls. There was no running water or electricity.

“Buildings, schools, hospitals – all the city is gone. Now children are without education. People are in a very bad situation, they are hungry,” said Ali. “But we need only one thing: the reconstruction of Raqqa.”

But he was not in Raqqa. He was in the nearby town of Tabqa, with thousands of other former Raqqa residents. In the six days I spent inside Raqqa in September, I did not see a single civilian. The only sound was of gunfire and explosions.

***

Most people have already left the ancient city on the banks of the Euphrates River that was once home to as many as half a million people. But some 20,000 are trapped in parts of the city still controlled by IS. Surrounded by mined streets and at risk from sniper fire, few dare to escape.

Raqqa is a no man’s land. Most of its buildings have been destroyed. Across the skyline at night, you barely see a single light. It is a city fit for none – except fighters.

The Western-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were created to destroy IS. They are mainly a Kurdish force, drawn from a socialist militia called the People’s Protection Units, or YPG. In Raqqa, they are joined by Arab tribes from Syria, which the Western coalition say have made a significant difference in the fight against IS.

Abu Abdo is a short, pencil-thin Arab commander. He chews his beard when concentrating, as he peers down at his smartphone. It is a gift from the Americans – and for this lightly armed force, the phone is its deadliest weapon. His men fight in sandals, and few have a formal uniform or body armour. Their weapons are old, Chinese-made AK-47s, the stocks held together with adhesive tape. Abu Abdo’s phone, though, has the power to deliver air strikes.

I stood with him in the cover of a bombed-out shop near the centre of Raqqa. IS still holds about eight square kilo­metres of the city. This is its last holdout, its last stand. Crucially, its snipers control the rooftops.

Around the corner, bleeding from a chest wound, was one of Abu Abdo’s men, a 21-year-old fighter from Manbij, northern Syria, called Nadin Abu Aziz. But Abu Abdo couldn’t get close. When his soldiers approached the injured man, an unseen IS gunman fired off shots. Using the cover of debris and burned-out vehicles, the SDF fighters crept closer to their fallen colleague. There was a buzzing overhead, followed by two loud explosions that filled the street with dust and rattled the shutters of the abandoned shops. It was an IS drone, dropping grenades. The SDF fighters retreated, looking for cover, fearing another attack from IS’s improvised miniature air force.

Abu Abdo returned to his phone. He had identified the building from which the sniper was firing and located it on a map. We waited half an hour, taking cover in the street, while the sniper fired occasional shots. Then a whoosh, and a boom, and the top of the building and the sniper were gone as the air strike hit.

Nadin Abu Aziz was carried from the street by a young fighter who was wearing a blue top and a small silver crucifix around his neck. The injured man was limp, his eyes closed. He was rushed to a field hospital but his comrades knew the truth. He was dead.

The terror and desperation of the last three hours were replaced by numbness. The men crouched down, dazed. They drank water and stared into the distance, their faces shiny with sweat and effort.

The young fighter with the blue top, barely older than a boy, stood dumbstruck, his eyes wide, his mouth open. He reached under his top and kissed his crucifix.

How many days have you had like this? I asked Abu Abdo.

“It’s every day. Yesterday,” he said, pointing to his head, “we were supposed to receive some civilians and one of us was killed, shot in the head. We went to help families and babies. That was yesterday.”

IS fighters had disguised themselves as civilians to lure his men into a trap.

“But we’ll keep going, and we will sacrifice our blood for Raqqawis [the people of Raqqa] and our people inside… because they are having a tough time, a really tough time.”

***

It is not just IS that is causing pain in Raqqa. In August, some 5,775 coalition bombs and shells hit the city, according to the monitoring group Airwars. In comparison, the Western coalition dropped little more than 500 munitions across all of Afghanistan during the same period.

Airwars claims that the bombing resulted in at least 433 likely civilian casualties in Raqqa. That is more than the number killed by Russia, the Syrian regime, or IS.

The coalition disputes the figures and has confirmed only four civilian casualties. It claims to have conducted the most precise bombing campaign in history. As a witness, I can confirm that it does look like Western warplanes often hit their target; the problem is that there are so many targets.

IS, its ranks filled with foreign fighters, has used the Western bombing campaign for propaganda purposes. In one statement, the militants noted that 27 mosques in Raqqa had been destroyed by Western bombs. They did not mention, however, that many of those mosques had been turned into firing positions by their fighters. In one mosque, I saw a deep and wide tunnel that had been used to bring men and weaponry from nearby houses right into the middle of the prayer floor.

During my six days in the city, the pattern was repeated again and again. When SDF fighters were pinned down, artillery or air strikes were called in to eliminate the threat. The lightly armed militia is merely the tip of the spear against IS; the coalition knows that its overwhelming air power is the most effective weapon. So, street by street, house by house, Raqqa is being destroyed.

It was different in the battle for Mosul, IS’s capital in Iraq. There, the well-trained and well-equipped counterterrorism forces of the Iraqi army were able to retake buildings during ground fighting. Most of Mosul, besides its old city, remains intact. Life, which never left the city entirely, has quickly returned.

Mourners at a funeral for five SDF fighters in Kobane in July. Photo: Moruck Umnaber/DPA 

Um Sham and her six children escaped Raqqa two months ago. The end came when a bullet hit her six-year-old daughter, passed through her leg and hit an elder daughter. Both girls survived but the family fled and now lives in the ruins by the Tabqa Dam on the Euphrates River.

Islamic State’s rule was harsh and cruel but Raqqa’s population swelled after it took full control of the city in early 2014, as people sought sanctuary from Syria’s civil war. So did Um Sham blame the West or IS for the destruction?

“They are both as bad as each other, but the worst is Da’esh [IS] – it’s because of them that we have the air strikes. They killed and beheaded in public, and the children have seen this. They drowned people and beat people, and they stoned people. Most of our men were trembling… and then the air strikes came and made it worse,” she said.

Her husband, Khalil al-Khatab, agreed. “Life was hell. It’s a war of shelling, aircraft, artillery and rocket launchers, and endless destruction.” But, he said, they would return to the city as soon as possible.

Despite being weakened, IS launched a surprise counterattack in late September that caused chaos and casualties among the SDF forces in the east of the city. A decision to send the best Arab fighters from Raqqa to Deir ez-Zor must have weakened defences. In Deir ez-Zor, the SDF is fighting against IS, but just as importantly for its Western backers, it is trying to stop the Russian-backed, pro-regime advance. Syria’s civil war is continuing – and when the battle against IS ends, the fight for territory and control across the country will go on. Deir ez-Zor has valuable oilfields, and fighting there will shape the new Syria.

Most of the civilians who are still trapped in Raqqa remain in the centre, where the coalition has been sparing in its bombing campaign. It could be days, even a month, before the SDF has the confidence to move forward in a ground attack.

In Raqqa, as in Mosul before it, IS’s dream of an all-powerful caliphate is dead. In one offensive in the north of the city, I accompanied Kurdish fighters as they attempted to retake its grain silos. Every few hundred metres, there was another IS corpse. After the twelfth body, I stopped counting. I could smell many more rotting in the ruins.

Besides Mosul, IS has also been driven from Ramadi and Fallujah in Iraq and Sirte in Libya. And when Raqqa’s hospital and stadium are taken, the terror group will have lost its important territory in Syria, too. Then the battle will move along the Euphrates valley to Deir ez-Zor and to the towns of Mayadeen and Abu Kamal. IS’s leadership is relatively intact, however, and it can still carry out and inspire attacks on the West. The caliphate may be gone, but the idea of an Islamic state will not be bombed out of existence.

***

One night, after spending the day inside Raqqa, I returned to Kobane. It’s a four-hour drive, but it is safe there now and you can get a good meal and have a warm shower. The ruins I saw two years ago have gone, replaced by fresh cement and paint.

I sat and ate mutton kebabs and watched a floodlit football match. Much of the town has been rebuilt, the homes and shops have been restored, and the Kurds are even replanting trees along the city’s streets.

After the football, I sat and ate ice cream that tasted of burned pistachio and marvelled at how quickly life had returned to Kobane, a place where – for me, at least – the first full horrors of IS were made real. In Raqqa, where the destruction is so much greater, I fear it may take a lot longer.

Quentin Sommerville is the BBC’s Middle East correspondent

This article first appeared in the 12 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How May crumbled