Islamic State beaten in Raqqa
KURDISH and Arab fighters have raised their flag over the last Islamic State stronghold in Raqqa, bringing to an end the four-month siege of the city that was the de facto IS capital and headquarters in Syria.
A small number of IS fighters holding out in the sports stadium were overrun by Syrian Democratic Forces - backed by the devastating air power of the US-led coalition - and fighting had ceased everywhere, an SDF spokesman said.
IS once ruled territories the size of Victoria, but has lost almost all of them and is confined to desert and semi-desert areas where it is likely to have prepared hideouts, arms caches and food supplies. It will seek to remain in existence, using guerrilla and terrorist tactics and hoping to regenerate itself in future.
The capture of Raqqa is the latest in a string of defeats suffered by IS over the past two years which have destroyed the "caliphate” declared by the IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi after the fall of Mosul in 2014.
In the last hours of fighting, the SDF cleared the National Hospital that had been an IS headquarters with 22 militants killed along with three SDF paramilitaries.
Earlier, the Kurdish-led-force had captured Paradise Square where IS carried out executions and punishments, including beheadings after which they would leave the severed heads and bodies of their victims to rot in the sun.
The SDF has raised the red and yellow flag of the Kurdish YPG forces and torn down the black flag of IS wherever it was still flying.
The assault on Raqqa, a city on the Euphrates River with a pre-war population of 300,000, began on June 6 and saw heavy fighting as IS relied on snipers, suicide bombers, mortar teams and specialists in planting IEDs to cause casualties and slow the SDF advance.
IS built a labyrinthine tunnel system underground, enabling its militants to shift position before they could be identified and targeted by coalition airstrikes and artillery fire. As in Mosul, the difficulty in destroying a highly mobile enemy led to a lengthy bombardment and heavy destruction of buildings.
The Save the Children charity says that some 270,000 people who fled Raqqa are in critical need of aid, have no homes to return to and may have to stay in camps for months or years.
Sonia Khush, Save the Children's director for Syria, described conditions in the camps where displaced people from Raqqa are staying as "miserable and families do not have enough food, water or medicine”.
The end of the battle was marked by negotiations under which Syrian members of IS and several hundred civilians were bussed out of the city while foreign fighters remained behind to fight to the end.
IS has now lost all its centres of strength in Iraq and Syria and will hope to survive in the deserts between the two countries.
In Syria, it has not only lost Raqqa, but is losing the districts it still holds in Deir Ezzor, a city further south on the Euphrates where it is under attack by the Syrian army.
IS still has some sources of strength, notably the fact that its leader, al-Baghdadi appears to be alive - going by the latest recording of his voice.
The broad array of states and movements that had been focusing on wiping out IS is breaking up, notably in Iraq where the government recapture of Kirkuk on Monday will sharpen differences between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdish authorities in the Kurdistan Regional Government.
Overall, some of the Kurdish leaders will look for support to the Sunni Arabs.
- Patrick Cockburn, The Independent