The city of Raqqa in northeast Syria, the one-time de facto capital of ISIS, was first captured by ISIS in 2014. Inhabitants who did not manage to flee the city and yet still survived ISIS’s brutal executions of Alawites, Christians and suspected supporters of Bashar al-Assad, lived for three traumatic years under ISIS rule. A distorted normality set in; children attended schools where ISIS ideology was taught, beheadings were a form of public punishment and the old sacred buildings were decimated.
In June 2017, however, the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) supported by a U.S. led coalition (which included the British) launched a campaign to liberate Raqqa following the similar campaign in Mosul. The SDF campaign in Raqqa was aided significantly by the Western Coalition’s air strikes. By October 2017 the liberation of Raqqa was declared complete, and since then very little attention has been paid to the fate of those attempting to return to their former homes.
Raqqa may be rid of ISIS but it is not yet liberated from its troubles. The Coalition’s aerial bombardment destroyed much of the city and most of its civilian infrastructure. According to the UN around 80% of Raqqa was left uninhabitable after the battle, rendering homeless almost all of the 270,000 people who had fled the city to escape the bombardment. It is also estimated that over 3,000 civilians died during the airstrikes. There is an enormous lack of transparency, however, as neither the British nor American government has admitted the true scale of the destruction. For example, despite the UK government carrying out 215 airstrikes in Raqqa it has only ever acknowledged one instance where a civilian was unintentionally killed. A single instance of collateral damage by an RAF reaper drone in Eastern Syria in March 2018. Again, US officials have stated that civilian deaths only occurred during instances where ISIS members used civilians as human shields during the airstrikes.
Despite the Coalition’s insistence that they took great pains to minimise civilian casualties, in June 2018 Amnesty International released a detailed report that gravely challenges these claims. Amnesty argues that the Coalition’s forces did not do enough to minimise harm to civilians. For instance, its research shows that 39 members of a single family in Raqqa were killed during the battle. This is only one of many harrowing stories they obtained after interviewing over 100 of Raqqa’s surviving residents. Today the city is still uninhabitable; almost every building has been damaged and there is no clean water or electricity apart from what local entrepreneurs are able to provide. Unexploded mines and IEDs are also still causing casualties.
The Western Coalition needs to face up to its myriad responsibilities and commit to reconstruction in Raqqa. Firstly, it needs to reduce resentment in the region by acknowledging and apologising for its destructive campaign. At the moment, they are in danger of exacerbating the same alienation from the West that gave birth to extremism in the past. Residents are already questioning whether the ‘liberation’ from ISIS was worth the destruction and loss of life. The West also needs to take an active role in the reconstruction of the city. Getting rid of ISIS was an achievement, but the success risks being reversed if no clear strategy to rebuild the city is put in place. Raqqa is now administrated by a civil council made up of SDF forces. There are growing tensions between the Syrian Kurdish commanders of the SDF and Raqqa’s predominantly Arab residents, particularly since the forces in control are coercing unwilling civilians into the army. Alternative prospects, however, are also undesirable. There is fear that Assad’s forces will take over from the SDF and seek revenge on those they deemed to have conspired with ISIS.
Frustratingly, the UK Government has repeatedly ignored the clear links between its role in wars abroad and increased terror threats, most recently in its updated counter terrorism strategy released in July 2018. Coalition governments are responsible for this humanitarian disaster; they have a duty to acknowledge their role in the destruction of people’s homes and lives. Presently, refugees arriving back to Raqqa have no homes to return to and no means of rebuilding them. The West must provide funding and materials for the shattered city of Raqqa to be rebuilt.