WASHINGTON - Once considered the Islamic State’s de facto capital, the Syrian city of Raqqa is slowly recovering, nearly two years after its liberation from the terror group.
U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) liberated Raqqa from IS in October 2017. But during the 3-month-long battle, much of the city’s infrastructure was reduced to rubble.
Local officials complain the international coalition to defeat IS, which helped free the city, lost interest in rebuilding Raqqa as the focus has shifted to other areas recently liberated from IS.
“We used to meet second-tier coalition officials – sometimes from the first tier,” said Abdullah Aryan, head of the planning department at the Raqqa Civil Council, which has been largely responsible for reconstruction.
“But now we only get visits by an employee from the French ministry of defense or British ministry of agriculture or an employee responsible for civil society in the U.S. government,” he told VOA.
The lack of funding is forcing local officials to concentrate the limited money on restoring essential services, which will allow more displaced people to return.
For other restoration projects, they rely on low-cost efforts.
“To repair roads and bridges, we had to use primitive methods. We basically brought rubble from elsewhere in the city and used it to backfill destroyed bridges and roads,” Abdullah al-Ali, an engineer with the Raqqa Reconstruction Committee, said.
“We have too little money for anything more than this emergency solution,” al-Ali added.
According to local officials, the battle against IS destroyed nine main bridges over the Euphrates River and nearby irrigation canals. So far only three bridges have been repaired.
City in ruins
Upon returning, Raqqa residents find much of the city still littered with wreckage.
“We found our properties were knocked to the ground,” said Abdulkarim Issa, 41, who returned to Raqqa five months after it was liberated.
Issa pointed to a nearby building, destroyed in fighting, but that recently had been rebuilt. “But the owners of another building were asked to pay 1 billion Syrian pounds (roughly US $2 million) to rebuild it. But they didn’t have that money, so they went to regime-controlled areas,” he told VOA.
The deteriorating local economy makes some returnees question their decision.
“The economic situation is bad,” said Um Hassan, whose children chose not to return to Raqqa, citing a lack of job opportunities.
“The market movement is slow and prices are too high. And there is no electricity,” she added.
Return of extremism?
If some progress isn't made soon in Raqqa, local officials warn, they worry extremism could rise again, here and in other areas liberated from IS.
“War on terror isn’t only military. If we don’t pay attention to agriculture, education and health care in the next 10 years, a new generation of terrorists will rise here,” Aryan, of the Raqqa Civil Council, said.
He said that during four years of IS rule, children, in particular, were educated with the most extremist curriculum.
“We need to act fast and amend the situation before it’s too late,” Aryan said.
The United States last year cut about $230 million in funding for northeast Syria. Washington said other members of the anti-IS coalition, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, should increase financial contributions to the Syrian rebuilding effort.
Despite the cuts, the U.S. remains the largest single national humanitarian donor for the Syrian response, providing nearly $8.1 billion in humanitarian assistance since the start of the crisis for displaced people inside Syria and in the region.
The U.S. has also been a major contributor of mine-clearance efforts in Raqqa and other parts of Syria, where IS and other militant groups have left behind thousands of landmines and other improvised explosives.
From 2013 to 2018, the U.S. contributed more than $81 million to humanitarian mine action efforts in northeast Syria, according to a State Department annual report on U.S. mine removal efforts worldwide.