U.S.-backed Syrian forces have prevailed over ISIS in Raqqa. After a grueling four-month battle, they captured the terrorist group’s de facto capital on Tuesday, dealing a critical blow to the fast-collapsing “caliphate.”
Brig. Gen. Talal Sello, of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), announced that fighting in the city was finally over after the militia put down ISIS’ last stand in the city’s stadium, which the terror group had used as a prison and arms depot.
“Everything is finished in Raqqa. Our forces have taken full control of Raqqa,” Sello told AFP.
Fighters from the SDF, an alliance of Syrian Kurdish and Arab militias, raised a flag inside the stadium Tuesday, and victorious fighters could be seen celebrating in the streets, Reuters reported.
Sello said Tuesday that SDF fighters were sweeping the city for mines and sleeper cells of jihadis, and a formal declaration of the city’s liberation from three years of ISIS rule was expected soon.
“We do know there are still IEDs and booby traps in and among the areas that ISIS once held, so the SDF will continue to clear deliberately through areas,” said Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition.
The final push on the stadium came after the SDF neutralized ISIS’ other remaining holdout in Raqqa, the city’s hospital, earlier Tuesday. Mustafa Bali, an SDF spokesman, said 22 ISIS fighters were killed in that battle. It followed a deal brokered with tribal elders Sunday that allowed Syrian jihadis to leave the city, leaving a few hundred ISIS militants, many of them foreign fighters, making their last stand.
Raqqa, which had a pre-war population of more than 200,000, was the first major city captured by the Islamic State group and the de facto capital of its so-called caliphate. The city was the setting for numerous atrocities under ISIS’ brutal rule – gays were thrown from rooftops, locals and Western hostages beheaded, and alleged thieves had their hands amputated. Terror attacks in Europe and elsewhere were plotted from the city.
The offensive to retake it involved SDF forces, backed by airstrikes and special forces from the U.S.-led coalition, gradually encircling Raqqa, before launching an assault on the old city in June.
While the threat of ISIS is by no means eliminated – it continues to command the support of violent extremists and sympathizers around the world — the liberation of Raqqa, three months after ISIS lost control of Mosul, leaves the physical “caliphate” significantly weakened.
Following a string of territorial losses this year, ISIS fighters have been squeezed into small pockets of territory on the Iraq-Syria border, and towns in Iraq’s western Anbar province. In Syria, the group is concentrated in Deir Ezzor province in the southeast, where the group is coming under heavy pressure from Syrian government forces supported by Russian airpower and Iranian-backed militias.