U.S. President Donald Trump has issued a statement praising the Syrian Democratic Forces for recapturing the city of Raqqa from ISIS control.
Trump wrote in a statement Saturday that the defeat of ISIS, or Islamic State, in the group's self-proclaimed capital city represents a "critical breakthrough" in the worldwide campaign to eliminate the terrorist organization.
"With the liberation of ISIS's capital and the vast majority of its territory," the statement reads, "the end of the ISIS caliphate is in sight."
Trump said in the statement the next move is to "transition into a new phase in which we will support local security forces, de-escalate violence across Syria, and advance the conditions for lasting peace."
While the recapture Tuesday of Raqqa is a significant blow to the Islamic State terror group, images emerging from the city show the enormous cost exacted after four months of grueling battle to oust IS militants, with most of the buildings reduced to rubble, and tens of thousands of its residents displaced.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported more than 3,200 civilians lost their lives during the battle for Raqqa.
Speaking to reporters in Washington this week during a teleconference briefing from Baghdad, Colonel Ryan Dillon, a spokesperson for the U.S.-led coalition, said forces on the ground are taking every necessary measure to protect civilians.
“In Raqqa and the rest of Syria, our focus remains on reducing risk to civilians while continuing to pursue and defeat ISIS terrorists at every opportunity as they retreat to their remaining held areas in the Middle Euphrates River Valley,” Dillon said, using an acronym for the militant group.
Displaced Raqqa residents are demanding to be allowed to return home after the expulsion of the IS militants.
But SDF authorities in Raqqa told VOA a quick return is difficult due to the extent of damage from months of conflict.
Meanwhile, aid groups warned that help is urgently needed for people as they prepare for the winter in refugee camps.
Raqqa after liberation
Syrian Democratic Forces say the city is still far from safe because of IS-planted mines and fears that some IS fighters might be hiding among civilians.
“SDF now is clearing the freed neighborhoods from explosive devices and land mines, which is the most important step at this stage. This might last for a few months,” Jihan Sheikh Ahmad, a spokesperson for SDF, told VOA.
Raqqa Civilian Council, supported by the U.S. and established by SDF last April to govern Raqqa, is expected to move into the city.
Brett McGurk, the U.S. special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter IS, visited Raqqa Civilian Council on Wednesday in Ain Issa, a town in northeast of Syria and pledged necessary U.S. support.
IS enforced strict and brutal laws on civilians in Raqqa. The militants carried out public executions, held slave markets to sell abducted Yazidi women and children, and used civilians trapped inside the city as human shield to inhibit airstrikes against the group.
The city’s Al Naeem traffic circle, once cherished as a crowded public gathering place, has become a symbol of IS fear and terror as the group used it for carrying out public executions.
“This neighborhood used to be called Heaven. But its name was changed to Hell after IS, because it was used to execute and behead people,” Ismail Khalil, a Syrian Democratic Forces media organizer, told VOA.
SDF officials say it is hard for life to quickly return to normalcy after years of brutal rule by IS, but they remain optimistic for a new start.
“I grew up in a diverse neighborhood in Raqqa. My neighbors were Arabs, Assyrians, Kurds, Christians and Yazidis. We lived together as Syrians,” SDF spokesperson Ahmad recalled. She hopes that IS atrocities will be followed by a brighter future for all Syrian citizens.