U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) declared the liberation of Raqqa on Wednesday. A U.S. military spokesperson said more than 90 percent of Raqqa is cleared so far. The defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Raqqa is a significant victory for the international community and local groups in Syria.
As the U.S.-led coalition’s initial goal was defeating ISIS, this is a major step in the territorial defeat of the extremist group, and should force the U.S. to plan for next steps. For Syrians, the defeat of ISIS will allow residents to return to the city and start to rebuild, a daunting task given the amount of destruction.
An operation that began November 2016 saw increased air strikes on the remainder of the city, which contained a few hundred ISIS militants and 8,000 civilians.
The U.N. estimates that around 270,000 people had fled Raqqa to other towns in the governorate, as well as Aleppo, Idlib, Deir Ezzor and to the Syrian-Jordanian border, many going through active battle fronts and landmines.
The battle for Raqqa has been brutal, with major destruction and loss of life. No services are currently functioning in the city, and it is all but demolished under the U.S.-led coalition’s heavy airstrikes, which the Trump administration had given a free hand to “accelerate” the operation.
What does it mean for ISIS?
The fall of Raqqa is a major defeat for ISIS, both symbolically and territorially, but it is not a complete defeat of the group, and the symbolic loss of ISIS’ de facto capital should not be overplayed. Any observer, including ISIS itself, knows that ISIS has been steadily losing territory over the past couple years, after its initial rapid spread in 2014.
Knowing that, ISIS has been evolving its tactics, focusing more on traditional insurgency methods, inflicting heavy losses on its attackers and gaining local sympathy by goading its attackers to use more destructive weapons and hurt civilians.
The battle ended with the SDF reaching a deal with the remaining 275 ISIS militants, allowing them to withdraw in return for them releasing the civilians they held.
However, ISIS had also withdrawn troops earlier from Raqqa, leaving only a handful of militants behind, and even this skeleton force was able to hold out for some time against the superior numbers and firepower of the SDF and its international backers. Going forward, ISIS will no doubt try to drag out the fight.
Where does it go from here?
ISIS will regroup and hide out to assess the post-conflict strategy of the U.S., Russia and the regime. In the immediate future, the U.S.-led coalition and SDF will likely see a few more major battles against ISIS, particularly around Deir Ezzor in the southeast. However, ISIS will also use the mountains and desert to disperse its forces and carry out one-off attacks.
ISIS forces are now fragmented and will seek areas with less security, weak governance and that are harder to secure. ISIS may not need to retreat far; much of the two countries remains unstable. The fragmented nature of Syria in particular, with no one group controlling or having the military capabilities to control the country, gives ISIS plenty of hide-out options.
ISIS continues to play on local grievances to find people sympathetic to its cause, including those oppressed by the Assad regime and victims of sectarian or ethnic tensions. Regarding the latter, the SDF, though nominally a multi-ethnic force, is known to be dominated by its Kurdish elements, which have strong ties to the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Though Raqqa is predominately Arab, Kurdish forces proceeded to set up PKK flags upon a roundabout the Islamic State used to execute people along with a giant poster of Abdallah Ocalan, the leader and founder of the PKK, deemed a terrorist organization by Turkey and the United States.
A statement by the YPG/YPJ, the Kurdish militias in the SDF, dedicated the victory to their leader. These acts, as well as reports of Kurdish forces displacing Arabs and controlling the distribution of aid in other areas, upset Arabs and give ISIS a useful recruiting tool.
That said, the priority for local Arabs seems to be rebuilding, and for the present, they seem to be willing to work with their current circumstances.
A more fragmented ISIS has been evolving for years now, prior to the Raqqa battle. It relies on insurgency style tactics of sniper attacks, mobile fighting units and suicide and concealed bombs. As ISIS continues to lose territory, it will have to rely on these methods to survive.
Not being able to control territory, though, means that it can no longer oppress local populations. Additionally, it will likely try to preserve its leadership and strengthen its networks in Syria and Iraq as well as other areas where it has an opening due to poor governance and lack of security.
Key areas in the Middle East that exhibit those characteristics include Yemen, Libya and the Sinai in Egypt.
After this victory and watching the overall rapid defeat of ISIS, the United States should be asking itself what its next steps are. Particularly, how long will it stay in Syria? What can and should it do to keep ISIS from regaining territory? And, what is the exit strategy?
Currently, though, the U.S. does not seem to have a policy for ISIS post-Raqqa or Deir Ezzor. The administration’s decisions throughout this year have largely been tactical, building on the original Obama-era mission of defeating ISIS, but not developing a strategy that fits that objective in the context of what is happening in Syria and Iraq.
Without a clear policy, the U.S. risks getting bogged down in Syria with no endgame.
Hossam Abouzahr is a deputy director at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center. Reema Hibrawi is an editor at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center.