FIRE BASE RAQQA, Syria – The calm. When Gen. Joseph Votel emerged from the dank tunnels where ISIS tortured its victims before executing them in the soccer stadium above, he walked somberly back to his convoy of grimy pickup trucks. The leader of U.S. Central Command was struck, he said, by the calm and industriousness of people who have come back to Raqqa to rebuild “some semblance of a normal life.”
But hours later, after a driving, walking, and aerial tour of the city ISIS once called the capital of its caliphate, and meetings with U.S. and local troops in the surrounding region, Votel grew more passionate, pointed, and frustrated.
“I will point out to you [that] the people on the ground in Northern Syria is the United States. But there are others who should be doing some more here, and need to do more. This is a problem,” he said, firmly tapping his fingers into the desk.
“Such as – everybody!”
Votel eased back down. He’s just a soldier, the 4-star said, and he knows there’s probably a lot happening behind the scenes to secure that help. But he believes there is urgent need to capitalize quickly on the military liberation achieved recently and at such cost by U.S. troops and the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF.
“I don’t want to – I’m not trying to damn anyone here,” Votel said, “I’m just saying, this requires more than just the United States; it requires really a very broad international effort.”
It will require a herculean effort to rebuild Raqqa, much less end the war in Syria. The U.S. entered the fray four years ago with a bombing campaign that escalated into a relentless assault. The population of Raqqa dwindled from 200,000 to just 5,000 of the most hardcore ISIS followers and their families, according to one U.S. military officer with multiple tours here. Until just three months ago, the city remained off-limits to outsiders. Today, a few major thoroughfares are clear enough for Votel to be driven in a slow loop within the city. But nearly every side street is pebbled, pockmarked, or impassable. Block after block, entire multi-story apartment buildings lay fallen in pancaked heaps. Kids crawl through them, but U.S. troops won’t enter for fear of booby-traps. ISIS — and its enslaved workers — manufactured bombs on an industrial scale, producing and planting tens of thousands of them.
“I wouldn’t pick anything up that I didn’t put there,” the U.S. military officer says, as we pass entire blocks of rubble upon rubble.“This entire area was completely devoid of people in late October,” he says. “This street wasn’t even drivable.” Aerial bombardments, mortars, rockets, rocket-propelled grenades, all have left the city a pile of broken concrete. Kids picked through bombed-out buildings breaking the concrete off of its rebar, collecting the scrap metal in bags. Shopkeepers peddle colorful clothing and produce. Motorcycle-repair shops seemed busy. And the armed local Raqqa Security Forces, or RSF, occasionally dot intersections. But it looks like hell. There are few windows in Raqqa.