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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 June 2018

Ravaged by war, Raqqa remains a shell of a once-vibrant city

The fractured country is still a warzone, even after driving out ISIS

Destroyed neighbourhood in central Raqqa / David Pratt for The National
Destroyed neighbourhood in central Raqqa / David Pratt for The National

Before it was ravaged by war, Raqqa, the capital of the Syrian province bearing the same name, was a vibrant city of 400,000 people. It changed hands three times in the course of a war that has now claimed half a million lives and reduced 10 times as many Syrians to the status of refugees, driven out of their homeland. The site of one of the earliest rebel victories against Bashar Al Assad’s regime, Raqqa rapidly yielded to the advancing troops of ISIS, who anointed the city the capital of its so-called caliphate, before a four-month long siege in October 2017 by US-backed Kurdish forces drove them out.

The last of these battles was apocalyptic: almost every building in the city was reduced to rubble. Today, as The National reports, Raqqa epitomises the extraordinary challenges of post-ISIS Syria, a fractured land that is still a warzone. ISIS has been defeated but the fear of its re-emergence continues to haunt the people who have trickled back into Raqqa. Even if ISIS were stamped out, the city’s mostly Arab population has other existential threats to worry about: the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, their de facto rulers, are embroiled in conflict with Turkey on Syria's northern border while Mr Al Assad is coiled in the wings, waiting for an opportunity to reassert his regime’s authority there. As the recent battle for Yarmouk – decimated by the regime’s barrel bombs – demonstrated yet again, ordinary Syrians and their property are viewed as expendable by Mr Al Assad. His sole obsession is territory and in his push for absolute control, he is as unsparing as ISIS. Few will regard the flag planted by his government in Yarmouk as a symbol of their liberation. To most, it heralds the continuation in a different guise of the savagery which they endured over the past years under the rule of militants.

Given the absence of a global will to effect political change in Syria, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that the worst is far from over for the people of Raqqa. Currently, there is no effective administration to speak of. Its people live in isolation, constantly on alert for threats while the most rudimentary communication requires them to travel for hours through perilous territory to Ain Assa, the seat that passes for government. Raqqa been reduced to a primitive state where death lingers in the air and the only signs of modernity are the weapons wielded by the Kurdish fighters stationed there. Rebuilding it will take years and require a financial commitment that no party – especially in a time of war – is likely to make. Raqqa in its current state will be a shattered reliquary of the Syrian civil war for the foreseeable future. The tragedy is that even that might not remain by the time Mr Al Assad is done with it.