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After 4-month Battle, U.S.-Backed Forces Appear To Gain Control Of Raqqa


This could be a very important moment in Syria. Raqqa, a city in the northeast of that country, has been the self-declared capital of the Islamic State. This morning, though, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports that U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces have taken that city back from ISIS.

We should say, this has been a four-month battle of intense airstrikes and street-to-street fighting that has forced most of the population to flee and left the city devastated. NPR's Ruth Sherlock has been following this news from Beirut.

Hi, Ruth.


GREENE: So who is running Raqqa? Is ISIS truly out after these battles?

SHERLOCK: Well, the Syrian Democratic Forces have made much progress. They've - they're said to have retaken most of the city as of yesterday night. And as you as can see, the Syrian Observatory are saying that they've taken it all. I've just spoken with Colonel Dillon, who's a spokesman for the U.S. coalition, and he is cautious.

He's saying, you know, we can't declare liberation yet, to use his phrase, because he says ISIS has booby trapped a lot of the area. There will still be ISIS cells running around. But it certainly seems that we are in - very, very, very much in the final stages of this war to push out ISIS in Raqqa.

GREENE: Well, how big a moment is this? I said this is an important moment, but is it? I mean, why has the United States been so focused on taking this city?

SHERLOCK: Well, this is where ISIS' ambitions for a caliphate across Iraq and Syria really began in earnest. So they managed to capture the city during the civil war in Syria in 2014, and then they kind of spread from there, and it's where they started to impose these laws that they hoped would govern the whole caliphate.

And these were really strict regulations on a moderate Sunni Muslim population that weren't used to live like this. Women were suddenly not allowed to leave the house unescorted. They had to remain fully covered. And the punishments for any transgressions were really harsh.

You know, ISIS imposed fear on these people through public executions. I've spoken to residents who say they were forced to watch these executions, and afterwards, ISIS would leave the heads of their victims on stakes in the main square. And it should also be said that this is where intelligence agencies from several countries say ISIS plotted some attacks against countries in Europe. So, you know, it's a really - it's the hub of their rule, if you like, in Syria.

GREENE: You know, I mean, this is an understatement, but the alliances in Syria are so messy and unpredictable. Who is working with whom? Who has the United States been actually working with on the ground to take this city?

SHERLOCK: So the Syrian Democratic Forces are - it's a - basically an umbrella of local militias, and they're a mix of Arab and Kurdish fighters. That is controversial. And for people - some people in Raqqa because although there was a Kurdish population in Raqqa, to have Kurds come in - and they fear that maybe they would want to stay and take this area, even they say they - though they say they don't.

But so, yes, there could be problems in the future. But for the moment, they've proven an effective fighting force. And that's why the U.S. trained and equipped them, and then they acted as their air force. The U.S. has been - and the U.S. coalition has been pounding ISIS positions in Raqqa, and there's just been thousands upon thousands of airstrikes to push them out.

GREENE: And as we mentioned, I mean, so many people have left the city. It's, I mean, been cleared of civilians. What - is there a chance now that civilians can actually go return home?

SHERLOCK: Well, you know, this is the thing. It's a very mixed victory, you know, for people here. The scale of the devastation in Raqqa is just terrible. It's been reduced to rubble. There's been almost no building left untouched, it seems, when you look at the videos. And this used to be a home to some 200,000 people.

Many have fled, and there's been high numbers of civilian casualties - several hundred at least. And, you know, so the U.N. and Amnesty International have actually criticized the U.S.-led coalition and its partners in Russia for not taking the right precautions or enough precautions to protect civilians.

GREENE: NPR's Ruth Sherlock speaking to us from Beirut. Ruth, thanks very much for the time.

SHERLOCK: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.