It was the stronghold from where ISIL launched its lightning strike to capture Mosul and from where the group threatened to one day conquer Rome.
More than three and a half years after ISIL took control of the Syrian provincial capital, Raqqa was liberated from the group’s fighters in a dawn offensive on Tuesday, ending its claims to have recreated the caliphate.
Hours after the fall of the notorious Naim square, where ISIL instituted a reign of terror though beheadings and crucifixions, the American-backed Syrian Defence Forces (SDF) took the hospital and sports stadium from the last of its holdouts.
The considerable challenge of mopping up sympathisers and making the destroyed city safe from booby-trappings began before nightfall. “The military operations in Raqqa have ended,” said Talal Silo, an SDF spokesman. “But now there is a search going on to get rid of sleeper cells, in addition to cleaning the city from mines. The situation in Raqqa is under control.”
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Raqqa had been encircled since June by the SDF and the advance backed by the US-led Coalition had been painstakingly resisted by ISIL. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors Syria’s six-year-old civil war, said that 80 per cent of the city had been destroyed in the fighting, and that more than 1,000 civilians had been killed since June, along with at least 2,000 combatants. It reported that more than 150 civilians were killed by ISIL planted landmines in that time while trying to flee the city.
The final stage of the siege only took effect in recent days as convoys were arranged to evacuate local ISIL fighters to other parts of Syrian, leaving foreign fighters to be vanquished in a last stand.
Colonel Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the coalition, said most of the 2,500 fighters left in the city were killed with about 400 surrendering or captured by the SDF.
The SDF is a force of 50,000 made up of battle-hardened Kurdish guerrillas and Arab tribal recruits drawn from across the agricultural regions of eastern Syria. Its yellow flag was finally hoisted to replace the black ISIL banners on Tuesday morning at the hospital and fluttered above walls that were riddled with bullet holes and blackened by fire. Celebrations of the hard won victory were broadcast from Naim square, closing a chapter when the traffic roundabout was known as the circle of hell.
Raqqa was the first place that gave the world a complete glimpse into the society that ISIL would create under its extremist vision. The images from the city include the pictures of hostages, including James Foley and aid worker Alan Henning, being beheaded by Mohammed Emwazi, the notorious Jihadi John. Emwazi met his own fate in 2015 after a drone strike on another Raqqa highway, Clocktower Square.
As late as November 2011, President Bashar Al Assad visited Raqqa to shore up loyalty to the regime from the tribal elders and agricultural merchants that dominated the city on the banks of the Euphrates.
Rebels that swept into the city as regime troops abandoned their positions just over a year later, included the forerunner of ISIL, which established itself in the east of the city.
It quickly drove out rival factions including the Al Qaeda linked Jabhat Al Nusra and stories of the unique nature of ISIL’s control were soon emerging from the city.
One audio diarist sent messages from the city that detailed the sudden introduction of everyday brutality. The shopkeeper’s assistant told how he witnessed a public execution.
“Fighting with the regime. The sentence is beheading. Working with the foreign media. The sentence is beheading,” he said recounting the verdicts being handed down to prisoners. “A man with a sword carried out the beheading.”
Moments later he had his own an encounter with ISIL’s religious police. Fearing the worst, the diarist was instead given a corporal punishment. “Cursing out: loud forty lashes,” he recalled. “I could see in his eyes he took pleasure from this.”
The accounts of the city’s residents were filtered through the group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS). Many of these activists were subsequently killed. Others fled into exile and have sought refugee status. “This was something new that we had never seen, this kind of violence,” Hamza Abdel Aziz al-Hamza, who was a spokesman for the group. “They started cutting heads off, crucifixions. They spread panic everywhere.
“There were edicts against drinking and smoking. Enforced by an all-female morality police called the Khansaa Brigade, women were made to wear the veil and, eventually, black shoes only. They are beaten if their niqab is somehow too revealing, a veil too flimsy, or if they are caught walking on the street alone.”
Like Emwazi, who grew up on the fringes of West London’s posh Notting Hill, hundreds of foreign recruits forsook Western lifestyles to heed the call of Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, the Iraqi who wanted to emulate the Abbasid dynasty.
Social media messages from within Raqqa portrayed an almost colonial foreigners vs local divide. A cadre of fighters’ brides emerged, some brutal enforcers in the Khansaa brigade. “When you are on the street you see them everywhere,” recalled another member of RBSS. “They love fast-food places and internet cafes. They love Nutella and they’ve got cans of Red Bull. Chocolates! Cheesecake! People are poor and see these expensive things! But ISIL wants to keep these Western recruits happy.”
With its footprint reduced to pockets of territory near Deir Ezzor, ISIL has few claims to statehood but the group has switched its tactics to inspiring attacks on the West and waging terror across Iraq and Syria.