RAQQA, Syria – Every three or four days, Fatima Mahmoud hitchhikes 37 miles across a hilly expanse of northeastern Syria to her hometown of Raqqa. She comes to visit her husband’s final resting place, beneath a large mound of concrete that once was their home.
She knows that he is still there because of the unmistakable odor of his corpse.
Mahmoud digs through the rubble with her hands, seeking artifacts of her life with him and anything of value she can sell to pay for food and her temporary shelter elsewhere in the province.
“My city has been liberated, but I can’t live in it,” she said, sobbing.
Six months after U.S.-allied forces backed by U.S. airstrikes evicted ISIS from its self-proclaimed capital, Raqqa is a city sown with rubble, explosives and an uneasy mixture of despair and determination to rebuild.
It is easier to count the buildings that are still standing than the ones that have been reduced to shattered concrete and twisted reinforced steel. Once home to about 400,000 people, many in high-rise apartments, Raqqa has become nearly unrecognizable to those who try to return and navigate its streets. Public squares are hidden underneath debris, and the tallest residential towers are mere rubble.
The city has no running water or electricity, and there aren’t enough public employees to defuse the hundreds of explosives planted by the militants as they desperately clung to the city. People often encounter human remains as they take stock of what’s left of buildings.
The destruction of Raqqa and its slow recovery are contributing to a growing sentiment here that the United States wrecked the city but is unwilling to take responsibility for putting it back together.
The Trump administration has signaled its waning interest in Syria’s future, with the president urging this month that U.S. troops be withdrawn as soon as possible. After U.S.-led airstrikes against Syria last weekend in retaliation for an alleged poison-gas attack, American concerns seem largely limited to the issue of chemical weapons.
In late March, the White House called for a freeze on spending for stabilization in areas of Syria where U.S. forces helped evict ISIS, putting on hold about $200 million pledged for the effort. State Department officials are scrambling to figure out which of their programs in northeastern Syria would be affected, said a senior U.S. official who was not authorized to speak publicly about the issue.
“We continually review and re-evaluate our international assistance,” said Stewart Wight, a State Department spokesperson. “We continue to encourage our international partners to share the burden of providing stabilization assistance in liberated areas of Syria, as many U.S. allies already are.”
Local officials warn that the U.S. objective of ridding Syria of the militants is being undermined by a lack of engagement in how Raqqa is rebuilt and governed, making it possible for another insurgency to emerge. And they caution that local frustration could open the door for the Syrian government to return and fill the void, benefiting President Bashar Assad’s main backers — Russia and Iran — and weakening U.S. influence in the region.
“Was this devastation and death worth it?” asked a 66-year-old man who lost seven family members to airstrikes. “The more I break my back to rebuild, the more I think it wasn’t. We suffered under [ISIS], but we’re suffering more from this American liberation.”
The man, a longtime restaurateur who declined to give his name because he was speaking critically of the city’s new authorities, said he had already sold all the family’s gold and borrowed heavily to rebuild his home and business. As he mixed cement outside the remains of his restaurant, he noted that as long as he kept his beard at the right length and didn’t smoke in public, ISIS militants had left him alone.
As a launchpad for ISIS attacks in the West, Raqqa until recently was practically an obsession for the United States and Europe. Today, the city’s residents and caretakers fear they are being abandoned as the world’s attention shifts.
The U.S.-backed Kurdish authorities who control Raqqa are now focused on an escalating conflict with Turkey along Syria’s northern border. U.S. forces are preoccupied with defeating the remaining pockets of ISIS forces farther to the east along the Iraqi border. And the United Nations and international relief groups have put a priority on addressing the horrific violence in the Damascus suburbs, where the Syrian government has recaptured the long-contested Eastern Ghouta enclave, site of this month’s alleged chemical attack.
U.S. officials involved in stabilization efforts in Raqqa say work to restore basic services and strengthen local government is in motion but faces unique obstacles. Syria’s central government objects to the activities of the Pentagon and State Department in territory beyond the regime’s control, and that presents a host of problems that have slowed the delivery of aid.
Through the U.S. Agency for International Development, Washington has delivered an estimated $60 million across northeastern Syria for stabilization efforts, defined as mine clearance, rubble removal, repair of such essential services as water and electricity systems, and the reopening of schools.
A small group of State Department officials is in Raqqa, but they cannot move easily because of security and diplomatic concerns, officials said. So U.S. Special Forces soldiers act as liaisons between U.S. officials and the Raqqa Civil Council, made up of Syrian Kurds and Arabs.
The most recognizable member of that council has been Omar Alloush, an avuncular man with gray hair and a round face that belie his record as an energetic political operator. He has been a senior council member responsible for coordinating with outside agencies and governments.
Asked in an interview what the United States has done to restore Raqqa since fighting ended in October, Alloush broke off speaking Kurdish and said in English, “Nothing,” underlining the word with his fingers.
“Well, practically nothing,” he said, revising himself.
Alloush complained that U.S. funds were slow to arrive and that projects proposed by USAID, such as repainting curbs, were out of step with local needs.
“I told them, give me pavements first, then we’ll worry about the curbs,” he said. “If we’re not able to convince people in Raqqa that we are helping them, we are in big trouble.”
Alloush warned that the longer the rehabilitation of the city takes, the greater the opening for Assad to return. “The people will choose the person who will fix their house for them,” he said.
Raqqa’s 29-year-old acting mayor, Ahmed Ibrahim, recalled that ISIS “was extremely organized, extremely responsive when it came to governing.”
“This puts us under tremendous pressure,” he added. “We have to do better than them. This is our challenge: How do we convince our public that we are better?”
An independent thinker, Alloush sought in recent months to engage with the Syrian government in addition to his backers at the Pentagon and the State Department. Few figures in northeastern Syria have been as well acquainted with the power politics of the country as he has.
But in a dramatic setback to efforts at reviving Raqqa, Alloush was found shot to death in his home, days after his interview with a Washington Post reporter.
SDF officials are investigating his slaying but have not identified any suspects.
Meanwhile, people like Mahmoud, the widow whose husband’s remains are still buried in the rubble of their home, are feeling alone.
Like many in Raqqa, Mahmoud lived a fairly prosperous life under ISIS occupation as long as she did not run afoul of the group’s rules. Her husband’s auto-trading business provided for the family.
The battle to liberate the city upended that life. Mahmoud and her four adult daughters paid a smuggler $2,000 to help them escape the city. Her husband, Abdelaziz, had promised to follow but was caught by ISIS militants and forced to stay behind.
Mahmoud doesn’t know how she will survive.
“I’ve already sold all my jewelry and my daughters’ jewelry,” she said. “I have nothing. I need help.”