Life af­ter the Is­lamic State

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - da­vidig­natius@wash­

Ttabqa, syria he Is­lamic State’s head­quar­ters in this city at the west­ern gate­way to Raqqa has been crushed like a sand­cas­tle by Amer­i­can bombs. At a dam com­plex on the Euphrates River where the Is­lamic State was tor­tur­ing pris­on­ers and hurl­ing al­leged ho­mo­sex­u­als from a giant con­crete tower, all that’s left of the ex­trem­ists are mil­i­tant slo­gans scrawled on the wall and a pile of trash.

It’s far too soon to say that life is re­turn­ing to nor­mal here af­ter lib­er­a­tion, but much of the hor­ror is over. Mines and im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vices were cleared here last week. Young chil­dren flash V-for-vic­tory signs. Is­lamic beards have nearly dis­ap­peared. The most vis­i­ble peo­ple sport­ing full beards on Thurs­day were Amer­i­can Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions forces who ac­com­pa­nied vis­it­ing U.S. spe­cial en­voy Brett McGurk.

The city is strewn with rub­ble, and Ah­mad al-Ah­mad, the co-pres­i­dent of the newly formed Tabqa Civil Coun­cil, de­scribed it as a “city of ghosts,” with per­haps 40 per­cent of its build­ings dam­aged. The elec­tric­ity, wa­ter-dis­tri­bu­tion and school sys­tems have been largely de­stroyed. Young boys who were in­doc­tri­nated at Is­lamic State train­ing camps are try­ing to find their bal­ance in a new world where be­head­ings and the chant­ing of Is­lamist slo­gans are over.

To look at peo­ple’s wary faces, un­cer­tain but with a trace of hope in their eyes, it’s like they’re wak­ing up from a night­mare. The newly formed town coun­cil is meet­ing, cre­ated by the Kur­dish-led mil­i­tary force that cleared the town, and it seems to be get­ting co­op­er­a­tion from lo­cal Arabs. A new in­ter­nal se­cu­rity force is polic­ing the streets and oc­ca­sion­ally pops off warn­ing fire. At a ware­house near the town cen­ter, the first ship­ment of Amer­i­can food ar­rived on Wed­nes­day; sacks of flour and rice are stacked on pal­lets, ready for dis­tri­bu­tion, and much more is com­ing in the next week, says vet­eran U.S. re­lief co­or­di­na­tor Al Dwyer.

A bois­ter­ous group of young Syr­ian men is gath­ered out­side a tire and ve­hi­cle-parts shop across from the ware­house. Amer­i­can mil­i­tary ad­vis­ers aren’t sure at first that it’s safe to talk with them, but the men press ea­gerly to­ward two vis­it­ing re­porters. Ab­dul-Qadr Khalil, 22, dressed in a bright blue-ny­lon jacket, speaks for the group. He com­plains that there’s not enough food, wa­ter, gas or bread, and there are no jobs. But he dismisses the idea that the Is­lamic State will ever take hold here again.

“No, never!” says Khalil, and the young men around him nod in uni­son. “It will be im­pos­si­ble to live if they come back. They will kill all of us.”

Noth­ing is per­ma­nent in this shat­tered coun­try, but there are tip­ping points when the mo­men­tum shifts, and this seems to be one. As the bat­tle for Raqqa be­gins in earnest, this city of­fers a pre­view of what’s ahead:

The black bal­loon of the Is­lamic State caliphate is de­flat­ing quickly in Syria, as in Iraq. There may be up to a year of hard fight­ing left, but the sur­prise for U.S. of­fi­cials is that the bat­tle in eastern Syria is go­ing faster and bet­ter than ex­pected. In a sym­bol of that ad­vance, Kur­dish com­man­ders gave McGurk the ring of an Is­lamic State emir who once used it to seal or­ders to kill Tabqa’s in­hab­i­tants. The emir blew him­self up when he was sur­rounded in May, leav­ing be­hind the ring and its nowempty claim of au­thor­ity.

The con­fronta­tion with Syria and Rus­sia that led to the shoot-down of a Syr­ian fighter jet just south of here two weeks ago seems to have eased, at least for now. De­spite the Rus­sians’ public protests, they qui­etly agreed last week­end on a roughly 80-mile “de­con­flic­tion” line that stretches from a few miles west of here to a vil­lage on the Euphrates called Karama. That line ap­pears to be hold­ing, and it’s a promis­ing sign that broader U.S.-Rus­sian co­op­er­a­tion in Syria may be pos­si­ble.

The Kur­dish-led mili­tia known as the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces has shown it can de­feat the Is­lamic State, so long as it’s backed by U.S. air power. The Tabqa bat­tle in May was per­haps the most am­bi­tious and dar­ing op­er­a­tion of the war so far. Five hun­dred SDF sol­diers were air­lifted across Lake As­sad in V-22 Os­prey air­craft in a raid that caught Is­lamic State forces by sur­prise. The SDF suf­fered about 100 killed and more than 300 wounded in the bloody op­er­a­tion, but it worked, and in this part of the world, suc­cess breeds suc­cess. Arab refugees are now streaming to­ward the Kur­dish-led SDF, rather than away, and 8,200 U.S.-trained Arab forces are join­ing the front lines.

Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, who com­mands U.S. and coali­tion forces in Syria and Iraq, ex­plains in an in­ter­view that the Kur­dish mil­i­tary lead­er­ship here is “the thick­ener, the hard­ener you put on the glue to make it hold.”

McGurk re­peats at ev­ery meet­ing with lo­cal of­fi­cials that the United States’ abil­ity to fix Syria is lim­ited. Amer­ica can help de­feat the Is­lamic State, and it can pro­vide quick sta­bi­liza­tion sup­port to re­pair wa­ter, elec­tric­ity and other in­fra­struc­ture. But it can’t do ev­ery­thing.

This sense of what’s achiev­able for the United States in Syria with its lim­ited com­mit­ment, and what isn’t, is prob­a­bly the big­gest take­away from our visit here. The United States seems to have found a way, in its al­most ac­ci­den­tal al­liance with the Syr­ian Kurds, to drive the Is­lamic State from eastern Syria and sta­bi­lize this part of the coun­try. But U.S. of­fi­cials frankly ad­mit they don’t have the re­sources or a clear strat­egy to re­pair Syria as a whole. The rubric seems to be: Do what you can with the forces avail­able, and don’t prom­ise more than you can de­liver.

“This is not a work of beauty. This is prag­ma­tism,” says Maj. Gen. Ru­pert Jones, the Bri­tish deputy com­man­der of coali­tion forces in Iraq and Syria who ac­com­pa­nied McGurk here. The United States and its part­ners are sup­ply­ing po­tent Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions forces for train­ing and air sup­port. But the Syr­ian Kurds and their Arab al­lies are do­ing the fight­ing and the dy­ing on the ground, and for bet­ter or worse, it’s their vi­sion of gov­er­nance that will take hold as the Is­lamic State falls.


Fighters from the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces look to­ward the town of Tabqa in April.

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