America's hunt for ISIS left Raqqa in ruins. Who is supposed to rebuild it?
By TAMER EL-GHOBASHY | The Washington Post | Published: April 20, 2018
RAQQA, Syria — Every three or four days, Fatima Mahmoud hitchhikes 37 miles across a hilly expanse of northeastern Syria to her home town of Raqqa. She comes to visit her husband's final resting place, beneath a large mound of concrete that once was their home.
She knows he is still there because of the unmistakable odor of his corpse.
Mahmoud digs through the rubble with her hands, seeking artifacts of her life with him and anything of value she can sell to pay for food and her temporary shelter elsewhere in the province.
"My city has been liberated, but I can't live in it," she said, her face collapsing into sobs.
Six months after U.S.-allied forces backed by American airstrikes evicted the Islamic State from its self-proclaimed capital, Raqqa is a city sown with rubble, explosives and an uneasy mixture of despair and determination to rebuild.
It is easier to count the buildings that are still standing than the ones that have been reduced to shattered concrete and twisted reinforced steel. Once home to about 400,000 people, many in high-rise apartments, Raqqa has become nearly unrecognizable to those who try to return and navigate its streets. Public squares are hidden underneath debris, and the tallest residential towers are mere rubble.
The city has no running water or electricity, and there aren't enough public employees to defuse the hundreds of explosives planted by the militants as they desperately clung to the city. People often encounter human remains as they take stock of what's left of homes and businesses.
The destruction of Raqqa and its slow recovery are contributing to a growing sentiment here that the United States wrecked the city but is unwilling to take responsibility for putting it back together.
The Trump administration has signaled its waning interest in Syria's future, with the president urging this month that U.S. troops be withdrawn as soon as possible. After U.S.-led airstrikes against Syria last weekend in retaliation for an alleged poison-gas attack, American concerns seem largely limited to the issue of chemical weapons.
In late March, the White House called for a freeze on spending for stabilization in areas of Syria where American forces helped evict the Islamic State, putting on hold about $200 million pledged for the effort. State Department officials are scrambling to figure out which of their programs in northeastern Syria would be affected, said a senior American official who was not authorized to speak publicly about the issue.
"We continually review and reevaluate our international assistance," said Stewart Wight, a State Department spokesperson. "We continue to encourage our international partners to share the burden of providing stabilization assistance in liberated areas of Syria, as many U.S. allies already are."
Local officials warn that the U.S. objective of ridding Syria of the militants is being undermined by a lack of engagement in how Raqqa is rebuilt and governed, making it possible for another insurgency to emerge. And they caution that local frustration could open the door for the Syrian government to return and fill the void, benefiting President Bashar Assad's main backers — Russia and Iran — and weakening American influence in the region.
"Was this devastation and death worth it?" asked a 66-year-old man who lost seven family members to airstrikes. "The more I break my back to rebuild, the more I think it wasn't. We suffered under [the Islamic State], but we're suffering more from this American liberation."
The man, a longtime restaurateur who declined to give his name because he was speaking critically of the city's new authorities, said he had already sold all the family's gold and borrowed heavily to rebuild his home and business. As he mixed cement outside the remains of his restaurant, he noted that as long as he kept his beard at the right length and didn't smoke in public, Islamic State militants had left him alone.
As a launchpad for Islamic State attacks in the West, Raqqa until recently was practically an obsession for the United States and Europe. Today, the city's residents and caretakers fear they are being abandoned as the world's attention shifts.
The U.S.-backed Kurdish authorities who control Raqqa are now focused on an escalating conflict with Turkey along Syria's northern border. U.S. forces are preoccupied with defeating the remaining pockets of Islamic State forces farther to the east along the Iraqi border. And the United Nations and international relief groups have put a priority on addressing the horrific violence in the suburbs of Damascus, where the Syrian government has recaptured the long-contested Eastern Ghouta enclave, site of this month's alleged chemical attack.
U.S. officials involved in stabilization efforts in Raqqa say work to restore basic services and strengthen local government is in motion but faces unique obstacles. Syria's central government objects to the activities of the Pentagon and State Department in territory beyond the regime's control, and that presents a host of problems that have slowed the delivery of aid.
Much of the responsibility for Raqqa now falls to its 29-year-old acting mayor, Ahmed Ibrahim.
The Islamic State, he recalled, "was extremely organized, extremely responsive when it came to governing. This puts us under tremendous pressure. We have to do better than them. This is our challenge: How do we convince our public that we are better?"
Dressed in a checkered, hooded lumberjack shirt that emphasized his youth, Ibrahim reflected on that task in his third-floor office in the former postal headquarters, which serves as a makeshift city hall. The large windows give him a panoramic view of the nearly wholesale destruction of the city.
"There is a huge risk of failing," he said.
Intense urban combat
U.S. commanders have described the battle for Raqqa last year as some of the most intense urban combat since World War II.
Unlike in the earlier assault on Mosul, the Islamic State's premier city in Iraq, U.S. forces in Syria were not fighting in support of allied government troops. Instead, the U.S. military set up the Syrian Democratic Forces as a proxy ground force. The 50,000-strong SDF was led by Syrian-Kurdish commanders atop a rank-and-file force of Arabs from northeastern Syria.
With mostly U.S. air power overhead and U.S. Special Operations troops embedded on the ground, the SDF launched the ground campaign in June. It took until October for the city to be cleared of militants.
According to Airwars, an independent research group that tracks American and Russian airstrikes in Syria, U.S. aircraft and artillery bombarded Raqqa with an estimated 20,000 munitions during the five-month operation - more than in Afghanistan during all of last year and more on average per month than in Mosul, a much larger city whose capture took nearly twice as long.
The U.S. military has been investigating dozens of claims of civilian casualties in Raqqa that were caused by airstrikes and artillery fire and so far has confirmed 24 deaths. An Airwars analysis puts the number closer to 1,400.
The Pentagon has repeatedly said that the Islamic State purposely put civilians in the line of fire and often tried to draw American fire on heavily populated areas, resulting in unintended civilian casualties.
Raqqa's civil defense unit, a team of 37 firefighters and other first responders, has recovered more than 300 bodies since the end of the campaign, the vast majority of which they believe to be noncombatants. There are currently 6,000 open reports of human remains in rubble.
"People want to settle back into their neighborhoods and begin to rebuild," said Yasser al-Khamis, the civil defense chief. "But everywhere we go, people are reporting more and more bodies."
'That's all we have for now'
On a recent afternoon at their bullet-pocked headquarters, Khamis and his team were visited by bushy-bearded U.S. Special Forces soldiers. About 10 of them spilled out of several armored Toyota Land Cruisers wearing tactical vests with rifles slung over their shoulders. They had come to deliver good news: They would be providing two brand-new ambulances in a couple of days.
Khamis's men were unimpressed. They told the Americans they didn't need ambulances; they needed firetrucks, heavy construction equipment to move rubble, and power tools to pry bodies out of the contorted wreckage.
A Special Forces soldier with a "Make Army Baseball Great Again" cap said he understood the challenges, but added that they had only six ambulances to distribute across a large swath of Syria that the United States is essentially administering, reaching from Raqqa in the north to Deir al-Zour in the south.
"That's all we have for now. I'm sorry," he told the rescuers. "We're doing our best, and we thank you for the important work you do."
As he spoke, a small pickup truck arrived hauling a dozen white body bags containing freshly recovered remains of airstrike victims. As family members gathered to try to identify their kin, the Special Forces soldiers got into their vehicles and left hastily.
The al-Issa brothers glared at the American convoy. They had just looked into two body bags, identifying their father, Hussein, 66, and mother, Jamila, 55, by shards of distinctive clothing stuck to the nearly skeletal remains.
One of the brothers launched into an angry commentary about American airstrikes.
Amar al-Issa, 36, told him to shut up, that it wasn't the time for politics.
The bodies had been retrieved from the wreckage of their apartment, destroyed in an Aug. 15 airstrike. Another brother, Mohammed, 20, was still missing in the rubble. Their sister Nahla, 21, was thrown into the street by the blast and died immediately, Amar said.
"Daesh had a financial office on the ground floor and my family lived above it," Amar said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. "I don't know why the Americans needed a bomb to hit a financial office."
Slow rehabilitation efforts
Through the U.S. Agency for International Development, Washington has delivered an estimated $60 million across northeastern Syria for stabilization efforts, defined as mine clearance, rubble removal, repair of essential services such as water and electricity systems, and the reopening of schools.
A small group of State Department officials is in Raqqa, but they cannot move easily because of security and diplomatic concerns, officials said. So U.S. Special Forces soldiers act as liaisons between U.S. officials and the Raqqa Civil Council, made up of Syrian Kurds and Arabs.
The most recognizable member of that council has been Omar Alloush, an avuncular man with gray hair and a round face that belie his record as an energetic political operator. He has been a senior council member responsible for coordinating with outside agencies and governments.
Asked in an interview what the United States has done to restore Raqqa since fighting ended in October, Alloush broke off speaking Kurdish and said in English, "Nothing," underlining the word with his fingers.
"Well, practically nothing," he said, revising himself.
Alloush complained that American funds were slow to arrive and that projects proposed by USAID, such as repainting curbs, were out of step with local needs.
"I told them, give me pavements first, then we'll worry about the curbs," he said. "If we're not able to convince people in Raqqa that we are helping them, we are in big trouble."
Alloush warned that the longer the rehabilitation of the city takes, the greater the opening for Assad to return. "The people will choose the person that will fix their house for them," he said.
Few figures in northeastern Syria have been as well acquainted with the power politics of the country. An independent thinker, Alloush sought in recent months to engage with the Syrian government in addition to his backers at the Pentagon and the State Department.
But in a dramatic setback to efforts at reviving Raqqa, Alloush was found shot to death in his home, days after his interview with a Post reporter.
SDF officials are investigating his slaying but have not identified any suspects.
'I need help'
Mohammed Obeid has 16 heavy construction vehicles at his disposal to clear streets of detritus and eventually begin repairing water networks and electricity and sewage lines. A field director of the Early Recovery Team, a private group of Syrians funded by USAID, Obeid said the work had moved at a quick pace in the immediate aftermath of the battle.
But lately, he said, the efforts have slowed because he must submit proposals to USAID for each project and wait for approval.
The White House suspension of stabilization aid will have an immediate impact on operations to clear mines and explosives, the senior U.S. official said. De-mining buildings and streets is considered essential before other services can be restored and is particularly costly. "If that stops, a lot of other stuff stops," the official said.
Melissa Dalton, a Syria expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies who accompanied American military and diplomatic officials on a trip to Raqqa in January, said the Islamic State or a similar militant group could take advantage if conditions do not improve.
"Any sort of goodwill on the part of the local people of Raqqa for the SDF and more broadly the U.S. and its allies in clearing ISIS out of these areas could dwindle over the next few months if there isn't a translation into real change," she said, using an acronym for the Islamic State.
There is also a danger that the Kurdish authorities who took control of Raqqa with U.S. backing may not be fully engaged in the mammoth task of rebuilding the largely Arab city. As Jaafar Ahmed, a senior Kurdish military police official, explained, the Kurds' top priority at the moment is not Raqqa but rather resisting the push by Turkey and allied Syrian militias to oust Kurdish forces from northern border areas.
People like Mahmoud, the widow whose husband's remains are still buried in the rubble of their home, are in the meantime feeling alone.
Like many in Raqqa, Mahmoud lived a fairly prosperous life under Islamic State occupation as long as she did not run afoul of the group's rules. Her husband's auto-trading business provided for the family.
The battle to liberate the city upended that life. Mahmoud and her four adult daughters paid a smuggler $2,000 to help them escape the city. Her husband, Abdelaziz, had promised to follow but was caught by Islamic State militants and forced to stay behind.
Mahmoud doesn't know how she will survive.
"I've already sold all my jewelry and my daughters' jewelry," she said. "I have nothing. I need help."
A boy watches as members of Raqqa's civil defense force place a decomposed body in a bag.
ALICE MARTINS/THE WASHINGTON POST