US-backed coalition forces have seized the northern Syrian city of Raqqa from the Islamic State, a major blow to the militant group, which had long used it as the de facto capital of its self-declared caliphate, reports the New York Times.
The apparent rout of the last Islamic State fighters touched off celebrations in Raqqa, where residents had lived under the repressive rule of militants who beheaded people for offenses as minor as smoking. Fighters could be seen cheering and firing celebratory gunfire in the streets, according to residents reached by phone and text message, adds the NYT.
Three months after Iraqi forces retook Iraq’s Mosul, the largest city the jihadist group controlled, the loss of Raqqa will be another nail in the coffin for IS’s brutal experiment in statehood. After IS captured Raqqa in 2014, the city become synonymous with the jihadist group’s worst abuses and was transformed into a planning centre for attacks abroad.
The jihadists also suffered setbacks on Tuesday in the eastern. Syrian region of Deir Ezzor, where Russian-backed forces retook swathes of territory, further reducing a “caliphate” that three years ago was roughly the size of Britain. The United States Central Command stopped short of declaring victory, saying “more than 90 percent of Raqqa is in S.D.F. control,” a reference to the Syrian Democratic Forces, an American-backed militia group made up of Syrian Kurds and Arabs.
Whether final or not, the seemingly inevitable defeat in Raqqa of the Islamic State, carries heavy symbolic weight. At its height in 2014, the group had grand aspirations to double the size of its territory. The Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who once spent time in a prison run by occupying American troops in Iraq, claimed to be the successor to the caliphs, the Islamic emperors who shaped the region in past centuries. He persuaded tens of thousands of Muslims from around the world, some new to the faith or poorly versed in it, to travel to the region to fight. The group seized the ancient ruins of Palmyra in Syria and those of Hatra in Iraq, destroying important historical monuments in the name of its interpretation of Islam. But with the fall of Raqqa, it no longer controls a major city.
Analysts told NYT the Islamic State is already preparing for a new phase, morphing back into the kind of underground insurgency it started as. IS also controls territory in neighbouring regions on the Iraqi side of the border, where they are facing another US-backed offensive.