WASHINGTON/AYN ISSA, SYRIA —
As the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces continue their advance against the Islamic State (IS) in its stronghold Raqqa, the U.S.-led coalition is increasing assistance for a civilian council established to govern the city after its recapture from IS.
British Maj. Gen. Rupert Jones, deputy commander of the U.S.-led global coalition against IS, on Sunday met with members of Raqqa Civilian Council to ensure the council will be able to run the city affairs after the IS defeat.
"The liberation of Raqqa, as with the liberation of Mosul, is not the end. It's actually the start of the process. The real healing starts once the fight is over. The people of Raqqa have been through an extraordinarily trauma under [IS] occupation, and that's what I've discussed with the civil council today," Jones said during a press conference after the meeting in Ayn Issa, a town around 45 kilometers (30 miles) north of Raqqa.
He said the coalition was prepared to work with the interim council to secure gains made in Raqqa, adding that the council has done "great work" in recent weeks to assist displaced residents.
Formed in April
Raqqa Civilian Council was formed by the U.S.-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on April 18, several weeks before their major operation in the IS de facto capital. It consists of roughly 120 members who are mostly from the Arab tribes of Raqqa, but Kurds and Turkmen also have representation.
The meeting of the U.S.-led coalition commander comes as the SDF, supported by the U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, have made several gains in their ongoing battle against IS in Raqqa.
Wahbi Romi, a journalist from Raqqa, told VOA that the SDF forces on Monday advanced against IS in southeast of the city as heavy clashes continued. She said IS fighters used suicide bombers and snipers to slow SDF.
"IS mines are another hurdle for SDF," Romi said. "In strategic places like Raqqa's Old City, where clashes have continued for over twenty days, the SDF is struggling to clean up thousands of mines that IS has planted."
She said hundreds of residents are forced to flee to Kurdish-controlled towns in northern Syria as intense battles and airstrikes in the city have caused great damage to the city.
According to the anti-IS monitoring group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, about 70,000 civilians are still trapped inside the city. "Their current living conditions are a real humanitarian disaster due to severe food, water, and medical shortages," according to the group.
Raqqa Civilian Council members say they need more assistance to address the challenges facing the residents.
To address those challenges, a delegation from the U.S., consisting of members of the State Department, engineers and civil society organization representatives, also visited the council last Tuesday.
Members of the delegation told VOA they discussed support for the council to address the humanitarian needs and the rehabilitation of Raqqa's infrastructure after IS.
H. Murphey "Murf" McCloy Jr., a retired senior adviser for State Department's Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement who attended the meeting, told VOA the meeting mainly focused on discussions about demining the city and rebuilding bridges and roads, as well as the electrical grid. He said similar efforts are in place in other Syrian areas recaptured from IS.
"We have got people working here in the Raqqa area, Ayn Issa, Tabqa Dam, as well as the Tabqa town, and Manbij," he said.
Menan Seydo, a Kurdish member of Raqqa Civilian Council, told VOA the council members pleaded for more support in reviving agriculture and education infrastructure.
"We asked for assistance in all capacities, but especially in the areas related to irrigation system, agriculture and rebuilding schools," Seydo said.
Growing support for the council is sensitive for some residents of the city and Turkey that are concerned about the extent of Kurdish influence on Raqqa's future. Kurdish militants of People's Protection Unit (YPG), who are the largest contingent of the SDF but considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, say the council is an independent representative of the city.
A similar council to rule the city was also established by the Syrian opposition group the Free Syrian Army in 2013. But that council dismantled quickly and its members fled into exile when Islamist groups, including the then al-Qaida-backed al-Nusra Front, controlled the city.
Brett McGurk, U.S. Special Presidential Envoy to the Global Coalition, revealed earlier this month that the current council is "interim" and that the council has committed to hold elections by May 2018 to choose a new council "to ensure that the people of Raqqa can choose their own leaders."
"This interim council will receive support from the United States to enable immediate stabilization," McGurk said. "It is committed to welcoming back exiles, including members of the former council that temporarily governed Raqqa in 2013, and we encourage these exiles to return to Syria."
Mutlu Civiroglu of VOA Kurdish Service contributed to this report from Washington.