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The Fight For Raqqa


The fight for Raqqa, the self-declared capital of the Islamic State, is in its final stages. The Western-backed Syrian democratic forces supported by U.S. air power now control most of the city. The BBC's Quentin Sommerville recently returned from the front lines there, and he described a city in ruins. Here's what he saw on his way in.

QUENTIN SOMMERVILLE: So you see the usual things. You see cars of people coming out, adding for counts with all of their belongings, all of their families. But here is the interesting thing. None of them are coming from Raqqa. They were all coming from Deir ez-Zor, further to the south. So that was a bit of a mystery. Why weren't people coming from Raqqa. But when we got to the city, we discovered because nobody was there. In six days inside Raqqa, we didn't see a single civilian.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You didn't see a single civilian. Do you know where the civilians have gone?

SOMMERVILLE: Many of them have fled the city. And the reason they fled the city is because of the destruction. But also, we think there might be as many as 10 to 20,000 people that are trapped in IS territory. And IS have done something that they haven't really done in other cities. They've done it to a much greater extent Raqqa. They've laid a lot mines. There are minefields that people have to cross if they're escaping IS territory. And not just that - also, they have the Western Coalition artillery strikes, the mortar strikes and the air strikes and the drone strikes to contend with as well.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What does the city look like? How much destruction is there?

SOMMERVILLE: The destruction is unparalleled. The first time I wandered into the aftermath of the Islamic State territory was Kobani a couple of years ago, and that was pretty bad. The only half of that town - it's just a town - had been flattened. That's not the case in Raqqa. We traveled extensively through the city. We didn't go to all of the city. And I can say that there was hardly a building that was untouched by the violence. The emptiness and the loneliness of that city is overwhelming.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And how much of Raqqa does the Islamic State still control?

SOMMERVILLE: We think they've good about 8 square kilometers in the middle of the town. It's not a lot. We think there are maybe two or 300 fighters there. But they have this exponential power that they can hold off - hold far more ground than you would expect with just very, very few fighters. Their snipers are incredibly good. We were out on a fence with some of the Kurdish forces, and they had two armored bulldozers - well, one armored and and one regular bulldozer. Bulldozers are critical in this kind of warfare because they cleared the streets of rubble, but also they create the fences so that Islamic State truck bombs can't sneak up on you because they've created a big bomb. The Islamic State sniper was able to shoot the valves on the tire of one of the armored bulldozers and, thereby, incapacitated it. It had to be sent back to the garage as a result of that. They are incredibly accurate. I knew that from Iraq. I saw that they'd aim for the seam in armored plating on Humvees so that they knew it was the weak spot and that they knew that their munitions could penetrate that. But I've never seen anybody shoot off a valve on a tire from perhaps 400, 500, 600 meters away.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What you saw there seems to suggest that it's only a matter of time before the Islamic State is defeated in Raqqa. I'm curious why you think they're still fighting if there are so few of them.

SOMMERVILLE: It's their last stand. That's what they're there to do. They believe that their sacrifice is worth it. They believe that they will be rewarded in the afterlife. And they've nowhere to go. They can't escape Raqqa. There's no exit path as there has been in some other Syrian cities which have fallen. So they will stand there, and they will die there. In fact, one of the fighters told one Raqqa resident that we had spoken to - he said, we will only leave here when we have turned it into Kobani, that town on the Syrian-Turkish border which was destroyed. You will only leave, they said to the locals, when the last of us is dead.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: If Raqqa is taken, wholly taken - it is inside Syria. Syria is in the middle - in the midst of a brutal civil war. I mean, what happens next?

SOMMERVILLE: Even after Raqqa has been bombed and even after they've been removed from Raqqa, we know that they've already moved to some areas further south. That's where they'll be more difficult to reach. Nevertheless, it will be a great moment in the battle against the Islamic State for the Coalition when they take Raqqa. That was of incredible importance to the Islamic State, and it's slipping very fast from their grasp.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The BBC's Quentin Sommerville has recently returned from Raqqa. Thank you so very much for joining us.

SOMMERVILLE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.