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ISIS Goes Down in Raqqa: SDF in Full Control of Caliphate's 'Capital'

SDF fighters enter the soccer stadium that was a final stand for ISIS fighters in Raqqa, Syria, on Oct. 17, 2017. (YPG press office)

The Syrian Democratic Forces declared today that Raqqa, the declared capital of the caliphate and a den of ISIS oppression and executions, is fully in their control.

The multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian force began their overall drive to liberate Raqqa last November, clearing vast swathes of territory and the critical Tabqa dam area west of Raqqa before entering the city on June 6 — the 73rd anniversary of D-Day. Led by Kurds, the coalition of fighters included women and men, Arabs, Assyrian Christians, Yazidis, Armenians, Turkmen and Circassians.

SDF spokeswoman Jihan Sheikh Ahmed said an official statement on Raqqa’s liberation would be issued after clearing operations to search for any ISIS leftovers were complete.

“Our forces have started mop-up and sweeping operations considering the probability of ISIS gangs hiding in some locations,” she said. “In addition, mines planted by the gangs need to be defused to make sure that the entire city has been cleared.”

The last stand of ISIS in their onetime stronghold came at a stadium and hospital complex in central Raqqa. ISIS left the hospital ringed with mines, which the SDF has been removing.

ISIS did not have an immediate reaction; their PR output has slowed to a trickle in recent days.

Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon called the Raqqa progress “momentous” via videoconference from Baghdad today.

“We are aware of the reports that ISIS has been defeated in Raqqa. However, clearance operations continue, and we expect our Syrian Democratic Force partners to hit pockets of resistance as the final parts of the city is cleared,” Dillon said.

“Over the past 96 hours, we have seen about 1,300 civilians assisted to safety by the SDF, and just about 3,000 civilians rescued in the last week,” he added. “In the last few days, about 350 fighters surrendered to the SDF in Raqqa, with several confirmed foreign fighters taken into custody after SDF screening.”

The SDF raised their flags at Al-Naim square, a traffic circle that was an infamous site for ISIS’ public executions.

The coalition estimates there are about 6,500 ISIS fighters left in Iraq and Syria, with the flow of foreign recruits down “from about 1,500 fighters a month down to near zero today.”

Sadly, Idris Mohammed, the commander of the Raqqa Internal Security Force responsible for police operations to keep the peace after liberation, was killed Monday when he triggered an IED while walking through the city.

“So that goes to show, you know, the work that must go into, first off, clearing all of these explosives and booby traps and mines that have been left behind by ISIS,” Dillon said. “And the Raqqa Civil Council is also trying to let people know this. In the course of the last month, we know that there have also been about 10 families, while trying to go back to their homes, have also triggered these mines and these explosives.”

The Raqqa Civil Council was established by the SDF before operations began in order to ensure a smooth transition for reestablishing basic services and rebuilding infrastructure.

“The Syrian Democratic Forces have proven, not just in Raqqa but throughout the campaign to defeat ISIS in Syria, to be a very effective and capable partner. They have proven that by defeating ISIS in other places like Manbij and in Tabqa, and now in Raqqa. And they have done so also further on down in the Deir ez-Zor province,” Dillon said. “They have shown, despite not being a military — you know, a traditional military with armor and — like the Iraqi Security Forces, the one thing that they have been able to show is very good leadership. And they have also been able to show that they are willing and committed to this fight.”

“And it has proven that in this Raqqa campaign particularly. They have sacrificed and have lost several of their fighters, both those who have been killed and those who have been wounded, to be able to reclaim Raqqa and to restore some sort of local governance for the local population there.”

While the U.S.-led coalition has provided training and air support as requested, battlefield decisions have been up to SDF commanders. Dillon said the next move to wipe out the rest of ISIS in Syria is, again, up to the SDF.