The military battle for Raqqa city appears to be over. The Syria Democratic Forces (SDF), with support from the US-led coalition, seized the Raqqa National Hospital, one of the last bastions of the Islamic State (ISIS) in the city earlier today. Coalition leaders will most likely herald a defining victory against terrorism.
ISIS may have suffered a blow, but for Raqqa and its inhabitants, their ordeal is not over. Because these same coalition leaders don’t really have an effective post-ISIS plan.
As the battle smoke over the Raqqa National Hospital clears, weighty questions linger: who will get the hospital running again? Who will rebuild it, pay its doctors, maintain its equipment? What about the surrounding schools, roads, and bakeries, that have been destroyed? The maxim that “war is easy, peace is hard” is particularly true in the war against ISIS, where too little thought has been given to the day after.
The situation of the Raqqa hospital is a window into the calamity facing Raqqa today. I visited the hospital over many days in April 2013. A month earlier, armed opposition groups that did not include ISIS at the time had overrun the government’s forces in the city and controlled the area around the hospital. When I visited, the hospital was still running but it was already suffering. The government had stopped paying salaries, and the hospital lacked essential staff to keep the hospital running. At the time, only 25 of the 112 doctors who once worked in the hospital remained and 15 of 28 dialysis machines were out of service. Days before I visited, the generator powering oxygen tanks in the hospital failed, causing four infants to die in the early-childcare ward.
Already in 2013, the question of who would run the hospital was a matter of great contention. Armed groups in Raqqa wanted control, and had dispatched some of their members to the hospital. Some doctors and local administrators were resisting and pushed to maintain a civilian administration. One of the doctors had even moved into the hospital as he feared that if he went home, the armed groups would not allow him back. I did not realize it then, but the tension between the armed groups and local civilians over control of the hospital foreshadowed the broader showdown among the different components of the Syrian uprising that would take place months later and that ended with ISIS taking control of Raqqa.
The challenge to get the city running again is even more formidable today. Over its four years of control, ISIS has torn much of the social fabric of the area and emptied it of its doctors, nurses and teachers. The US-led coalition has added to this calamity with a bombing campaign that appears to have prioritized defeating ISIS over the need to sufficiently protect the inhabitants or the city’s infrastructure.
Now that ISIS has basically been defeated in Raqqa city, the absence of a real strategy for the day after by the US-led coalition or their local partners, the SDF, is increasingly apparent. Of course, the coalition rejects such a characterization. In late June, the US special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, Brett McGurk, was in Syria on the outskirts of Raqqa city to “consult with local partners on the campaign to defeat ISIS and post-liberation governance issues.” The official readout spoke about the role of the coalition in “supporting actors that are working to establish basic security, re-establish essential services, and restore local economies to stabilize communities.” At a subsequent briefing on August 4, McGurk emphasized that the United States is committed to the stabilization of Raqqa areas – which he described as including rubble removal, demining and “basic electricity” – but not what he termed reconstruction: “don’t look to the United States to fit [sic] the bill for long-term reconstruction. This is an international problem.”
I happened to be on the ground in Raqqa province at the same time as McGurk and found that even “stabilization” efforts were lacking. Locals who lived in areas around Raqqa city that had already been retaken from ISIS complained about lack of electricity, water and medical treatment. If you needed medical care, you had to drive almost three hours to Kobane. Compared with the cost and sophistication of the war effort, the post-war reconstruction and stabilization was underfunded and frankly amateurish.
In Tabqa, a town near Raqqa that McGurk visited, I met a father whose 12-year old daughter died while lined up at a bakery that was bombed by the US-led coalition. When I met the father, two-months after the town had been retaken from ISIS, his daughter’s body was still under the rubble because local authorities had told him that there was no machinery to remove the rubble. The father had tried everything to extract her body, including digging with his own hands. He could not understand how the mighty coalition that could track ISIS members down to their cell phones was not be able to spare a basic digging machine to extract his daughter and other victims from under the rubble.
Some US forces eventually came through his neighborhood, and he assumed they had finally come to offer to help remove the rubble. It turned out instead that they were there to collect information on foreign ISIS fighters who may have lived in his neighborhood. When he asked them about assistance to pull his daughter’s body out, they politely answered that it was not their responsibility.
When I raised the issue of reconstruction and assistance with some European diplomats from countries involved in the coalition I was mostly met with blank stares and even emptier rhetoric. One justification they presented is that Turkey does not want to allow aid through its border to these areas because it considers the People’s Protection Units (YPG) — the largest contingent in the SDF that consists mostly of Kurds — to be a terrorist group. While Turkey has indeed closed its border to SDF-held areas, the diplomats could not explain how the coalition managed to transfer military equipment to the SDF but was unable to find ways to get the assistance needed to get hospitals and other basic amenities running.
The truth is that Western countries want to fight ISIS, especially foreign fighters, that may present risks to their own societies in the future. But what happens to the civilians that get crushed in the process, seems to be no one’s responsibility. They are, to use McGurk’s term, an “international problem.” Which brings us back to the initial question. Now that the Raqqa National Hospital has been retaken from ISIS, who will be responsible for rebuilding it?