Understanding the Contemporary Middle East: The Fall of Raqqa

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On January 13, 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) expropriated the Syrian city of Raqqa. The organization would maintain effective control of the city for a further two and a half years. This era was marked by numerous atrocities including ethnic cleansing, public executions, and torture of the civilian population belonging to this once influential city. This ISIL stronghold quickly became a priority target for opposing forces as the city provided numerous tactical, defensive and strategic advantages.

Raqqa was liberated on October 17, 2017 via a two-pronged offensive by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the elite US Navy SEALS special operations force from the Naval Special Warfare Command. Coalition forces also provided an immense and effective aerial bombardment of the city which contributed to the successful dismantling of ISIL control of Raqqa. The liberation of Raqqa could prove to be a decisive blow to ISIL, potentially symbolizing the end of an era of dominance for this notorious militant organization. This article seeks to assess the impact that this event will have in the ongoing conflict with the ISIL forces.

In recent months, there has been a substantive decrease in the territory controlled by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Another decisive victory was the liberation of the Iraqi city of Mosul on July 9th, 2017. When combined with the fall of Raqqa, these defeats are particularly damaging for ISIL as large cities provide resources such as financial assets, weapons and other logistical hardware needed to perpetuate a war effort. Having lost significant combat power during the fight in these cities, it appears that ISIL is unlikely to ever restore its influence in the immediate region and beyond levels not seen since 2014. It is reasonable to conclude that ISIL will now have greater difficulty exercising effective control in Syria since Raqqa was considered the de facto capital of this proto-state. However, there are a myriad of other factors that suggest that ISIL will still retain some capacity to engage in armed conflict for the foreseeable future.

The decentralized structure of this Islamic militant group makes it difficult to ascertain how damaging the loss of Raqqa will be for the organization. There are numerous ISIL cells capable of operating independently without centralized leadership, which suggests that conflict will continue to occur to some degree. Additionally, ISIL control over territory in both Syria and Iraq allows for the unimpeded movement of combatants across international borders. While opposing forces are combating ISIL in both countries, it may be difficult to coordinate attacks that will prevent forces from travelling freely between Syria and Iraq. This could potentially allow hostilities in both countries to remain unabated.

Dr. Jacob Shapiro of Princeton University has been following the development of ISIL for several years and recently offered his insights during an interview with the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Shapiro posits that major cities in Iraq will see an increase in attacks by the militant group. “In order to keep its remaining personnel motivated,” he explains, “the group needs to remain active.” Shapiro proceeds to describe what he referred to as “episodic terrorist attacks” being the response used by ISIL during former military defeats. Shapiro’s position allows us to infer that ISIL will not be able to gain territory as it did in 2014, but will most likely continue to be a persistent threat in the region until the organization can be permanently dismantled.

With respect to the city of Raqqa, there are several points of interest and concern. Prior to ISIL occupation, Raqqa was a flourishing metropolis with a population of approximately 300,000 people. Today, less than 1% of these individuals still reside within the confines of the city, and it is uncertain if any of these refugees will be returning to Raqqa as the majority of the city has been completely destroyed during combat. While ISIL may be a diminishing threat on a global scale, the ideology lives on, and the organization still has the capabilities to displace thousands of people and destroy some of the most important historical cities in the Levant.