Raqqa, the Islamic State's capital city, has fallen.
The battle began in July, when a Kurdish-led militia backed by the United States attacked from the north and west. Reporting on the battle at the time, I witnessed intense combat in searing summer temperatures. In a city reduced to a jumble of busted concrete, the holdout garrison of ISIS fighters, some 4,000 of them, resisted the siege with suicide car bombs, booby-traps, tunnels, snipers and remote-controlled drones, but today, four months after the battle began, more than 90 percent of Raqqa has been cleared, according to U.S. Army Colonel Ryan Dillon, spokesman for the American-led anti-ISIS coalition. Videos posted on social media today showed Kurdish fighters cheering in the ruined streets, waving yellow and green flags and popping off celebratory shots.
The outcome is an unequivocal geostrategic victory for the United States; ISIS now controls no major cities, and its remnants are in retreat. But Donald Trump, the commander-in-chief of the U.S. military – not to mention the biggest braggart ever to inhabit the White House – has yet to make a formal statement. His only public comment on the subject came in a brief interview on Tuesday morning, when right-wing radio host Chris Plante lobbed him a softball on the subject. "ISIS is being crushed," Plante said. "Was that about a change in the rules of engagement?"
"It had to do with rules of engagement," Trump responded. "I totally changed our military." Referring to the Obama administration he said, "We weren't fighting to win, we were fighting to be politically correct."
That Trump would try to take credit isn't surprising, but in reality, the liberation of Raqqa is the result of a three-year-old military offensive in Iraq and Syria that Trump ridiculed on the campaign trail, but quietly continued once in office because he couldn't come up with something better.
When Syria's civil war began in 2011, Obama's CIA supported the largely Sunni Arab uprising against the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. As the war dragged on, Obama's priority shifted from toppling the regime to stamping out ISIS. In September 2014, Obama ordered the first overt attacks in Syria – a round of airstrikes on ISIS to protect the Kurds, a non-Arab minority the jihadists were massacring as apostates. Once backed by U.S. air power, Kurdish militias began rolling back ISIS's territorial gains, and formed the basis for an ethnically diverse coalition, the Syrian Democratic Forces, dedicated to fighting ISIS in the name of democracy and human rights. Still, the Obama administration was slow to supply them with military hardware. The problem was Turkey, a NATO ally just north of Syria whose government is adamant about preventing the Kurds from gaining an independent territory in the region. The Obama Administration ultimately chose to defy Turkey, approving the Pentagon's request to give the SDF the heavy weapons and armored vehicles and artillery needed to take Raqqa.
Meanwhile, Obama quietly deployed American troops to northern Syria. The first were elite commandos who covertly advised the Kurds on battlefield tactics. Over time the American contingent grew to include personnel from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. By the time Obama left office, about a dozen US military bases had been established on Syrian soil. This stealth invasion had no basis in domestic or international law; Congress never authorized the president to use military force in Syria under Article I of the Constitution, nor was force approved by the United Nations Security Council. But the Kurds were grateful for the international assistance. Reporting in Syria in November 2016, I saw American commandos standing on the very front line, discussing the best angle from which to assault a farming village on the other side of a canal, the next stop on the road to Raqqa. One of Obama's last decisions in office was to approve the deployment of 400 Marine Corps artillerymen, bringing the American headcount up to about a thousand troops.
While all of this was going on, Trump was on the campaign trail, raving that Obama was "the founder of ISIS." He said, "I know more about ISIS than the generals," and denigrated their ongoing anti-ISIS campaign, then centered on the battle for Mosul, an operation that Trump called "a total disaster." He said that if he were elected, he would scrap the Obama policy and give the Pentagon thirty days to come up with a new plan. On January 17, 2017, the outgoing Obama Administration turned over to the Trump transition team their written playbook for ramping up the ongoing offensive and taking Raqqa. Trump rejected it out of hand. Speaking to the Washington Post, a Trump official said the plan was "poor staff work," with "huge gaps." On the ground in Syria, the SDF's offensive came to a halt.
The Trump Administration's shady ties to the Turkish government may have had something to do with the decision. Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn failed to disclose a payment of $500,000 he received from a Turkish businessmen close to the government of Turkey, which made Flynn a Turkish agent under US laws that regulate foreign lobbying. There is a Trump Towers in Istanbul, and after Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan won near-dictatorial powers in a crooked referendum that was criticized by all major western heads of state, Trump called to congratulate him. Later, after Turkish warplanes brazenly bombed the SDF, killing dozens and nearly hitting a group of U.S. soldiers who were based nearby, Trump said and did nothing, even as much of the military and State Department were apoplectic.
As promised, Trump gave his generals thirty days to come up with a new plan. On February 27th, Secretary of Defense James Mattis submitted his proposal. The details are classified, and it's not known what Trump thought of it. On March 22nd, Mattis testified to Congress that the Pentagon was still working on a revised version. In the end, nothing came of it – Trump had already quietly signed an order allowing the Obama plan to proceed with no apparent modifications.
Convoys of flatbed trailers loaded with armored vehicles and heavy machineguns and mortar systems rolled into Syria from northern Iraq, accompanied by U.S. Marines and cheered by Kurds gathered on the roadsides. The offensive shifted into gear again. By July, the Kurds had the center of Raqqa in a 360-degree chokehold. Mosul took nearly a year to liberate, but the street fighting in Raqqa lasted a comparatively short four months. Yesterday, victorious Kurdish soldiers posted selfies after capturing the infamous Paradise Square, where ISIS once lashed people for trivial offenses, chopped off their hands and feet, stoned women to death and displayed decapitated heads on spikes. This morning, an SDF spokeswoman said ISIS had been driven from their final foothold, the national hospital and an adjacent stadium.
For Trump to attribute the victory to the changes he made to the rules of engagement is ludicrous. He did roll back protocols implemented by the two previous administrations to reduce civilian deaths in military operations, but that had no effect on the outcome in Raqqa, where American soldiers did not participate in direct combat. Col. Dillon told me that U.S. troops in Raqqa are there to "advise, assist and accompany" the SDF: "They're not supposed to be the ones kicking down doors." During my time inside Raqqa, I never saw the Americans fire a shot.
What won the battle, more than anything else, was the bravery and competence of the SDF under the leadership of the Kurds, who are not just another sectarian faction but a revolutionary movement committed to grassroots democracy and egalitarian ideals. They greatly benefited from American weapons, air support, artillery and special operations advisors – all pieces that were in place before Trump took office, and he only grudgingly allowed them to continue, after he and his generals failed to come up with any better ideas.
The SDF has been fighting ISIS for years and has made tremendous sacrifices to achieve the American objective of taking Raqqa. At a blood-splattered first aid station on the outskirts of the city, I saw one SDF fighter after another limp in with shrapnel cuts and gunshot wounds. On a Raqqa sidewalk, in 115-degree heat, I saw a Kurdish fighter die from a mortar blast to the face. At the martyrs' cemetery in Kobane, I saw throngs of grieving family members sobbing and clutching the dirt as they buried fifteen young people who had been killed in the first days of the Raqqa battle; hundreds more would follow them to the grave. For Trump not even to pay lip service to their sacrifices is boorish, unpresidential and completely lacking in class. Asked why ISIS didn't surrender before, his answer was all too predictable: "Because you didn't have Trump as your president."