The Syrian city of Raqqa is blanketed in despair. Residents survive in a wasteland of war-warped buildings and shattered concrete. They sleep exposed to the elements in homes with blown-out walls.
Amid the destruction, abject poverty has taken hold. Once a place of green parks and a thriving middle class, it’s now common to see women and children scavenging Raqqa’s debris-strewn streets for scrap metal to sell. A recent United Nations report finds that more than half of those who have returned don’t have enough to eat.
“This is not liberation,” says Abu Ward, who asks not to use his full name as he feels the city is too unsafe to speak openly. “Liberation” was the word that the Trump administration and its allied fighters used after they defeated ISIS in Raqqa in October 2017.
“It’s destruction. Systematic destruction. This is what people believe — my relatives, my friends, my neighbors. No one can change their minds. How can you expect them to feel free when their lives are destroyed?”
One year after the United States-led coalition of countries and militia fighters drove ISIS from its onetime capital Raqqa, the city remains in ruin. And its people feel they’re left to piece together their lives with little help from the countries that destroyed their city and homes.
“ISIS sleeper cells”
Amid their resentment, insecurity is growing. In the recent two weeks that NPR visited Raqqa, an unnamed militia attacked the local police’s security headquarters, prompting a gunfight, and there were reports of at least two roadside bomb attacks targeting coalition vehicles and the local security forces.
Local officials attribute these operations to “ISIS sleeper cells,” and the militant group has claimed some of the attacks. Aid workers and other independent observers in the area, however, say the assaults may be the latest signs of the local majority-Arabpopulation’s growing anger at the city’s new, Kurdish-led and American-backed administration.
ISIS seized Raqqa in early 2014 and controlled the city for almost four years. After taking the city from them last year, the U.S. said it was committed to “stabilizing” Raqqa as part of its offensive against ISIS. The Syria Transition Assistance Response Team, or START, has been tasked with helping reopen schools, hospitals and other public infrastructure.
“We have a clear mandate to counter ISIS. The military victory may be complete but that doesn’t mean you then just leave,” says a U.S. State Department official working in Syria, who asks not to be named because they are not authorized to talk to the media. “You need to stabilize the area so they don’t return.”
But funding for this U.S.-led stabilization effort is limited and won’t likely achieve the government’s objectives.
Even officials in the U.S.-backed Raqqa Civil Council say the help is negligible compared to the need. “Of course we can’t say the funding is enough because the city is big and needs more,” says Ibrahim Hassan, who heads the Raqqa Civil Council’s reconstruction committee.
Trump freezes funds
So far, START has provided $250 million toward Raqqa’s recovery, largely channeled through U.S. contractors to local nonprofit organizations. But in late March, the White House froze more than $200 million from the budget. Much of that has been replaced with donations from other countries.
According to the State Department official and Raqqa Civil Council members, this money has helped clear street rubble that blocked roads in much of the city. It has funded the removal of some mines and booby traps. It also pays some salaries for teachers and other public service workers.
But in a city, where as many as 80 percent of the buildings have been destroyed, it’s a tiny portion of the work still needed to make the city habitable. While no official studies have been published on the topic, locals involved in the stabilization effort say privately that they believe Raqqa needs billions of dollars.