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After ISIS Was Driven Out, Syrian City Of Raqqa Remains In Rubble


The United States helped bring down the so-called capital of the Islamic State in Syria this past fall. The battles in and around Raqqa left little more than rubble. Since then, the Trump administration has taken a mixed approach to Syria. They have launched airstrikes after a suspected chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime just after President Trump mused publicly about whether to withdraw U.S. forces entirely. And in Raqqa, the city remains destroyed. And the United States is focused on other priorities. Tamer El-Ghobashy has been writing about the view from Raqqa for The Washington Post, and he joins us now on Skype. Thanks very much for being with us.

TAMER EL-GHOBASHY: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

SIMON: What does the city look like?

EL-GHOBASHY: I have to say, I've covered quite a few battles here in the Middle East - from Gaza to southern Lebanon to various parts of Iraq. And I can easily say, I've never quite seen this level of destruction as we see in Raqqa. There's very, very few parts of the city that are not heavily impacted. When we're talking about Raqqa, I don't think we can say that, you know, it was the Islamic State that led to this level of damage. It's really the firepower that came from the Americans, the British and the French who were striking Raqqa quite frequently during the fight against ISIS. It was about a four-month battle. And during that time, according to Airwars - they did an analysis that showed that the United States launched something like 20,000 munitions on that city.

SIMON: I gather the odor of death permeates everything.

EL-GHOBASHY: It does. It's - you can't go far in Raqqa without getting a whiff of death. There's many, many people still underneath that rubble. And the civil defense, you could think of them as the firefighters in Raqqa. These guys work I think something like 12-hour shifts every single day, just kind of dedicating themselves to trying to get the remains of these people out for people that can be identified. But there's many, many people who just simply can't be identified because of - their remains have sort of corroded into just skeletons. And they certainly don't have the capacity to do DNA testing and other sorts of testing to identify these people. So they bury them in mass graves.

SIMON: Is there anything resembling civilian authority that takes care of reconstruction, water, power, basic necessities, food?

EL-GHOBASHY: The group tasked with that is the Raqqa Civil Council. You could call it a multiethnic body that consists of Arabs and Kurds. But really the leadership of that group is mostly Kurds even though the city is majority Arab. They are indeed tasked with this incredible job of trying to rebuild this city. But we're not even close to talking about rebuilding. We're still talking about stabilization. There is no electricity in the city other than the electricity provided by small generators. The civil council is working, of course, on restoring water. But that's also been slow. You just can't restore electricity and water when you just have this incredible amount of debris everywhere.

SIMON: Are there U.S. personnel visible - around, doing something, helping?

EL-GHOBASHY: Well, the U.S. is in a very precarious situation in northern Syria. Latest figures we know of are about 2,000 special forces troops in that area. There is a small team of State Department personnel there. But, of course, they cannot really move freely in a place like Syria where they're there without the permission of the central government - of course, the Assad regime, which - they don't approve of the U.S. presence there. But, you know, the signal coming from the White House is that this small commitment is in peril. The Trump administration has frozen $200 million that were earmarked for stabilization efforts in northeastern Syria. That's going to present a huge problem to these people. And, of course, the effect of that is you have a large number of people in Raqqa questioning whether the city was better off under ISIS control. At least, they had services. At least, you know, their homes weren't destroyed.

SIMON: The worst of ISIS emerged out of the power vacuum in Iraq after the U.S. pulled back from its surge. Is that a possibility here?

EL-GHOBASHY: There's two things that people in Raqqa are worried about - specifically, you know, the officials that are tasked with now running it. They're afraid that the United States and allies, in not reacting swiftly enough to stabilizing the area, they're creating conditions in which, you know, the insurgency can once again thrive. Playing on people's resentments and anger at their current situation, they could easily find incubators again within that city. The other fear is that if the Assad regime, through its partners - Russia specifically - if they come in and offer services, then, you know, once again this part of Syria is going to come back to the administration in control of the regime.

SIMON: Tamer El-Ghobashy is the Baghdad bureau chief for The Washington Post. Thanks so much for being with us.

EL-GHOBASHY: My pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ACE MANTEZ'S "KANJO (ORIGINAL AFRO MIX)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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