On October 17, 2017, the city of Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (know as ISIS or the Islamic State), finally fell to the Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) after a four-month battle. The siege of Raqqa marks the end of a yearlong campaign, which has resulted in devastating losses for the self-proclaimed caliphate, by the S.D.F., a primarily Kurdish military force based in the autonomous region of Rojava. The S.D.F. has worked in tandem with the American-led coalition of Operation Inherent Resolve, which provided weapons, training, and crucial air support to the group.
The Islamic State has existed in one form or another since 1999 but rose to global prominence in January 2014 after quickly claiming large swaths of land in Iraq and Syria, areas already destabilized by more than a decade of conflict. Since then, the Islamic State has faced fierce opposition on all fronts, including government forces in Iraq and Syria, a U.S.-led NATO coalition, the Iran Revolutionary Guard, the Russian army, and even other extremist organizations such as Al-Qaeda. NATO coalition airstrikes began in late 2014, and the Islamic State has slowly lost ground, now controlling only a third of the territory it had two years ago.
The S.D.F. arrived at Raqqa in June 2017, shortly before the Islamic State’s other stronghold of Mosul fell to Iraqi forces. After encircling the city and cutting off the Islamic State’s supply lines, the S.D.F. launched a brutal attack on the heart of the city, where fighting soon became door-to-door. Ground combat and coalition airstrikes devastated the city. The battle continued for months, but by late September, the presence of the Islamic State in its capital had been reduced to small pockets scattered throughout the city. On October 17, the extremists’ final bastion fell, and the S.D.F. declared the complete liberation of Raqqa from the Islamic State for the first time since 2013.
Raqqa was vital to the Islamic State in several ways. Its central location in Syria and proximity to the Euphrates River affords it a dominant tactical and logistical position, without which the Islamic State may struggle to coordinate military action. Additionally, for a group that relies very heavily on propaganda, shock tactics, and media presence, the loss of their capital so soon after losing the stronghold of Mosul is a major ideological defeat for the Islamic State. However, the city’s most significant asset to the extremist organization was economic.
The Islamic State differs from other jihadist groups in that it has a powerful source of internal revenue—the massive oil fields seized from the Iraqi and Syrian governments. By selling crude oil and refined fuel to traders and other rebel groups, the Islamic State receives a steady supply of income. The largest of these oil fields is in Deir ez-Zor, less than 100 miles southeast of Raqqa. The fall of Raqqa poses an imminent threat to the Islamic State’s most important oil field. Moreover, Raqqa was a major center of oil refining, limiting the Islamic State’s ability to produce refined goods such as fuel will be crippled.
While the liberation of Raqqa was a crushing blow to the Islamic State, both militarily and ideologically, much work remains, and many civilians paid the ultimate price. According to the United Nations, over 80% of the city is now uninhabitable due to the devastating fighting. Airwars, a journalistic transparency project focused on the Islamic State, has stated that over 1,800 civilians lost their lives during the four-month siege, including 1,300 from coalition airstrikes. With the Islamic State defeated on their home turf, the struggle to free the peoples of Iraq and Syria from the tyranny of the Islamic State is looking more likely.