After a US-backed coalition of Kurds, Shiite militias and Iraqi forces pushed ISIS out of Mosul earlier this year, a similar coalition of US-backed Arab and Kurdish fighters – supported by US airstrikes – has declared victory over ISIS in Raqqa, reclaiming the terror group’s de facto capital for the first time since ISIS first rose to prominence in 2014.
Victory was effectively assured as of Tuesday as the last remaining fighters surrendered to the allied forces after four months of fighting. The battle saw thousands of ISIS family members flee, and many locals who claimed they’d joined the group but only served in a civilian capacity had earlier surrendered.
The movement’s reported collapse in Raqqa followed a four-month long battle between the extremists and US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of Kurdish and Arab fighters. In the assault’s final days, hundreds of Islamic State militants surrendered to the SDF, leaving a handful of foreign fighters in the city, according to the Washington Post. According to rights groups, much of the city’s infrastructure is destroyed, and some 270,000 civilians remain in camps in surrounding areas.
A Reuters witness said militia fighters celebrated in the streets, chanting slogans from their vehicles. The fighters and commanders clasped their arms round each other, smiling, in a battle-scarred landscape of rubble and ruined buildings at a public square.
Allied fighters are still checking to see if any foreign fighters remain in the city, and are also working to clear landmines. Victory will officially be declared as soon as the mines are finished being cleared, Reuters reported.
“We do still know there are still IEDs and booby traps in and amongst the areas that ISIS once held, so the SDF will continue to clear deliberately through areas,” said Colonel Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the coalition.
The flags in the stadium and others waved in the city streets were of the SDF, its strongest militia the Kurdish YPG, and the YPG’s female counterpart, the YPJ. Fighters hauled down the black flag of Islamic State, the last still flying over the city, from the National Hospital near the stadium.
Locals shared horrifying stories with Reuters after the fighting had finished.
Fatima Hussein, a 58-year-old woman, sitting on a pavement smoking a cigarette said she had emerged from her house after being trapped for months by the fighting. Islamic State had killed her son for helping civilians leave the city, she said.
Fighters managed to push the last remaining bastions of ISIS fighters out of a hospital and a stadium in the city. The stadium and hospital had become the last major positions held by Islamic State after the departure of some of the group’s fighters on Sunday, leaving only foreign jihadists to mount a last stand.
The final SDF assault began on Sunday after a group of Syrian jihadists surrendered after striking a deal with tribal elders, leaving only a group of 300 fighters to defend the last positions.
Many of the ISIS fighters who fought until they were killed or captured were foreigners with no local connection, Reuters said. The stadium and hospital became the last major positions held by Islamic State after the departure of some of its fighters on Sunday, leaving only foreign jihadists to mount a last stand.
ISIS had used its de-facto capital as a center for planning and operations for its warfare in the Middle East and its string of attacks overseas. It also imprisoned Western hostages there before killing them in slickly produced films distributed online.
The SDF’s Sunday advance also brought control over a central city roundabout, where Islamic State once displayed the severed heads of its enemies, and which became one of its last lines of defense as the battle progressed.
The offensive has pushed Islamic State from most of northern Syria, while a rival offensive by the Syrian army, backed by Russia, Iran and Shiite militias, has driven the jihadists from the central desert.
On Tuesday, a military media unit run by Lebanon’s Hezbollah group said the Syrian army on whose side Hezbollah fights had pushed into the last Islamic State districts in Deir al-Zor.
The only populated areas still controlled by the jihadist group in Syria are the towns and villages downstream of Deir al-Zor along the Euphrates valley. They are areas that for the past three years Islamic State ran from Raqqa.