The situation on the ground points to the battle in Raqqa coming to a close.
Since beginning in June, the battle for the Islamic State’s capital has made slow and steady progress, with US-backed Syrian troops fighting alongside Kurds and Christian militia.
By late July, coalition troops had cleared nearly half of the city and reported signs of a general retreat of ISIS fighters. In the latest reports from the field say that about 100 fighters from the Islamic State group have surrendered over the past three days. A spokesperson from the YPG militia, the main Syrian Kurdish group fighting in the city stated that “all jihadists might be gone as soon as Saturday or Sunday.”
The question on the table right now is clear- what should be done once the city has been fully cleared of ISIS militants?
According to US officials, the plan would be for a Civil Council to govern the city after the jihadists are driven out. The first challenge on their plate would likely be the movement of the thousands of civilians that have been trapped in the city over the past several months since the fighting began. Ensuring safe passage for these people will not be easy. Many will likely begin looking for areas to rebuild homes amongst the currently devastated city. Others will probably hope to relocate entirely, in which case ensuring their safety from ISIS fighters that have retreated into the countryside will be difficult if not impossible.
Looking onto the closure of the ISIS era in Raqqa, it will be incumbent on all the coalition members to figure out the terms of the peace. This is where conflicts may arise.
As far as the Kurds are concerned, the ethnic group that has been the single greatest bearer of the fight against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria, a negotiated settlement with jihadists seems to be off the table. This is also the stance of US personnel involved in the fighting.
It will remain to be seen if Syrian government troops, officially the only legitimate authority in the region, will abide by this position or alternatively accept some sort of negotiated peace with the IS in the hopes of ending the fighting as quickly as possible.
To be sure, the last shots have not been fired in Raqqa. The coalition estimates that around 400 ISIS fighters remain in the city, encircled in a small area by Kurdish troops. These seem to be the feared “die-hard” core of militants that observers have feared since the outset of the battle, jihadists that would rather fight to the death than surrender. Such a hold-out could protract the fighting longer than the optimistic projections of coalition spokesman.
In any case, the downward turn for the Islamic State in Raqqa, its proclaimed capital of the “Global Caliphate,” is a major blow to the group’s prestige. With any luck, this may translate into a significant diminishing of the ISIS’s recruiting power, and, more importantly, its power as a rallying symbol for jihadist sympathizers to execute attacks in West.