Syria war: Raqqa free, devastated and empty

Syria war: Raqqa free, devastated and empty

Syria war: Raqqa free, devastated and empty

Updated 18 October 2017, 20:50 AEDT

There is celebration in the Syrian city of Raqqa, where the Islamic State group has now lost its last stronghold.

The Islamic State group has now lost its last stronghold in Raqqa, once the de-facto capital of its so called caliphate.

In the final battle for a stadium complex and hospital, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) says it killed 22 foreign IS fighters.

The US-led coalition supporting the SDF with critical air strikes says it can only confirm that 90 per cent of the city is under their control and as many as 100 IS fighters may remain. The SDF is still looking for sleeper cells and booby traps.

But this is a signal moment.

Raqqa's town square was once the scene of IS military parades, public executions and beheadings, exaggerating their power and spreading fear across the globe.

Those days are gone.

Footage from the scene today shows jubilant US-backed militiamen from the Syrian Democratic Forces, riding on an armoured vehicle as it spins around in celebration in the square.

Behind the celebration, the background reveals just how much this victory has cost.

Buildings are shattered, the ground littered with pulverised concrete and debris.

Footage circulated on the weekend showed civilians allowed to leave the shrinking pocket of IS control sobbing in grief and relief after four months living under siege and bombardment.

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict using a network of activists in Syria, says 3,200 people have been killed in the battle for Raqqa and more than 1,000 of these were civilians.

However, the US-led coalition acknowledges killing only 735 civilians in the whole three-year campaign in Iraq and Syria combined.

It says it's investigating another 350 cases, many of them in Raqqa.

Raqqa became extremist stronghold

Raqqa was unknown to most of the world until the early days of the Syrian civil war. It became the first large Syrian city to come under rebel control in March of 2013 when a mixed bag of militias, some moderate rebels as well as Islamist and jihadists, took control.

It wasn't long before the IS group routed the others and took charge, sending battle-hardened men from its birthplace in Iraq to establish what was quickly revealed to be a brutal regime.

They enforced a Saudi-style sharia law and gruesome punishments: public stoning and executions and the infamous beheadings.

Raqqa is where the most notorious Australian IS member, Khaled Sharrouf, set up house with his family and fellow jihadist Mohammed Elomar, keeping a group of Yazidi slave girls until they escaped in 2014.

And Raqqa is where IS showed off its claim to be a true state, showcasing its administration of courts and the local hospital via propaganda produced by foreign recruits including Melbourne doctor Tareq Kamleh.

IS occupied territory, had a monopoly on violence in its borders, raised taxes, enforced its laws and its fighters began to refer to their organisations simply as, 'The State'.

But it could not withstand the combination of lethal airstrikes and a persistent ground force.

As the SDF raised its flag over Raqqa stadium, the US-led Coalition marked its own milestone: its third anniversary (while the US and others began bombing from June 2014 the Combined Joint Task Force, Operation Inherent Resolve, wasn't formalised until October 17 of that year).

The coalition says in that time it has trained more than 12,000 fighters in Syria and 119,000 fighters in Iraq.

Between 1,200 and 1,500 were killed in Iraq, just in the battle for Mosul between October last year and July this year and the SDF has lost approximately 1,100 fighters in Syria.

It says it has conducted more that 26,000 strikes in around 54,000 engagements.

As IS is rolled back, other issues come to the fore

All that killing, dying and bombing underlines an important point: the local forces on their own could not do it without US help and a singular focus on beating IS.

Now that the extremists are being rolled back, other disputes are coming to the fore, like the Kurdish push for independence in Iraq and the Iraqi Government's move to regain control of the oil rich city of Kirkuk.

In Raqqa, it is not clear how long local Arabs will continue to cooperate with the Syrian Kurds who dominate the SDF, or whether the Syrian Government will continue to tolerate the SDF, negotiate or fight to regain control of the large swathe of Syria now under its control.

And IS is not yet beaten. It still controls part of the city of Dier Ezzour, a string of towns along the Euphrates river, and across the border into Iraq.

For most of the war the Syrian Government has ignored IS and, backed by Iran and Russia, crushed the rest of the opposition in key cities.

But it is now racing down the Euphrates river to control that corridor to the Iraqi border.

IS grew in beleaguered societies beset by a fatal combination of tyranny and weak governance, poverty, radicalism, historic grievance and international meddling.

Those societies have been changed irrevocably by the experience.

And the governments of Iraq and Syria are both now arguably stronger than they were at the peak of IS power.

But neither is stronger than they were before conflict engulfed them and they both remain profoundly vulnerable to more violence and more extremism.