More than one year after its recapture from Islamic State (IS) militants, Raqqa, the former de facto capital of the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate, is still struggling to recover from a war that devastated all aspects of normal life. Efforts are underway, though, to rebuild the city’s major bridges.
Raqqa was liberated from the terror group by U.S.-backed forces in October 2017.
During the 3-month-long battle, the city’s infrastructure was mostly destroyed, including dozens of bridges vital for traffic and transportation of goods.
Reconstruction efforts are focusing on one major bridge over the Euphrates River, which will reduce traffic congestion by more than 50 percent, experts said.
“The project is expected to be completed on Jan. 1, 2019,” Abdulrahman Hasan, an engineer who oversees the reconstruction progress of al-Hukoumiya Bridge, told VOA.
“Hopefully by then the bridge will be safe for pedestrians and traffic. It will carry loads up to 4 tons,” he added.
?Boats and makeshift bridges
Raqqa residents hope that other bridges also will be rebuilt soon. But for now, they rely on boats and makeshift bridges to cross the river and channels.
“Most people go to the other side of the city through the river,” Mohammed Saho, a Raqqa resident, told VOA as he was preparing to get on a small boat with other passengers. “But crossing the Euphrates with these old boats is very risky. A lot of people have drowned in the past few months.”
He added that “transportation fees are expensive, especially since most people don’t work so they can’t afford these fares.”
Local officials say the damage that has been done to the bridges is so severe that it will take a long time to rebuild them.
“Repairing the bridges is actually beyond the capabilities of our council,” said Abdullah al-Aryan of the Raqqa Civil Council, the civilian body that is now responsible for running the city.
“There are about 37 bridges across the city over channels and two big ones over the Euphrates River,” Aryan told VOA.
While rebuilding bridges is seen as an important step, it is not the only obstacle hindering Raqqa’s recovery, according to experts.
“Nearly 80 percent of Raqqa’s infrastructure was destroyed during the liberation battle,” said Jowan Hemo, a Syrian economist who closely follows the stabilization process in the city.
“It could be possible to implement projects, such as rebuilding residential houses, hospitals and schools, in a relatively short period. It would be a lot harder to take on bigger projects such as the power sector,” Hemo said.
The United States in August announced that it was cutting about $230 million in stabilization funding to northeast Syria, saying it would instead rely on financial contributions from countries such as Saudi Arabia, UAE and other members of the anti-ISIS global coalition.
But despite those cuts, the U.S. remains one of the main donors in the recovery of Raqqa. U.S. stabilization efforts have helped 150,000 Raqqa residents return to their homes, U.S. officials say.
Mahmoud A., a program coordinator at the Early Recovery Team, U.S.-funded organization that operates in Raqqa, said his group hasn’t been affected by the U.S. funding cuts, “although many local organizations panicked when the announcement was first made.
“Our projects are still ongoing in many parts of Raqqa. We have three main priorities at the moment, which include purifying drinking water, repairing the sewage system, and improving the environment for the education system to recover,” he told VOA.
As the war on IS dwindles, the focus in Raqqa and elsewhere should be on long-term stabilization efforts, U.S. officials say.
“We talked about transitioning to a new phase, really focusing on the stabilization and sustainment effort,” Brett McGurk, U.S. special envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, told reporters in October during an annual meeting in Washington on countering violent extremism.
In November, the Syria Recovery Trust Fund (SRTF), a multidonor initiative that includes the U.S. and several European, Asian and Middle Eastern countries, approved a $3 million project as part of its stabilization efforts in Raqqa.
“The assistance will benefit beneficiaries in Raqqa Governorate, complementing ongoing SRTF support to farmers in the same area,” the SRTF said in a statement.
“The intervention will benefit 2,000 households in the targeted area, increasing health and WASH services to the civilians recovering from the destruction caused during the conflict with Daesh,” the group added, using an Arabic acronym for IS.