SPECIAL REPORT: In Shattered Raqqa, Top US General Calls for the World’s Help

In his first visit to Raqqa since it's October liberation, Gen. Joseph Votel tours former ISIS torture chambers. Votel called on the international community to help rebuild, despite lacking permission from the Assad regime, Monday, January 21, 2018.

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In his first visit to Raqqa since it's October liberation, Gen. Joseph Votel tours former ISIS torture chambers. Votel called on the international community to help rebuild, despite lacking permission from the Assad regime, Monday, January 21, 2018.

Votel assures SDF fighters the U.S. will remain committed to them, but bringing this Syrian city back to life will take more than the troops who liberated it can give.

FIRE BASE RAQQA, Syria – The calm. When Gen. Joseph Votel emerged from the dank tunnels where ISIS tortured its victims before executing them in the soccer stadium above, he walked somberly back to his convoy of grimy pickup trucks. The leader of U.S. Central Command was struck, he said, by the calm and industriousness of people who have come back to Raqqa to rebuild “some semblance of a normal life.”

But hours later, after a driving, walking, and aerial tour of the city ISIS once called the capital of its caliphate, and meetings with U.S. and local troops in the surrounding region, Votel grew more passionate, pointed, and frustrated.

“I will point out to you [that] the people on the ground in Northern Syria is the United States. But there are others who should be doing some more here, and need to do more. This is a problem,” he said, firmly tapping his fingers into the desk.

Such as?

“Such as – everybody!”

Votel eased back down. He’s just a soldier, the 4-star said, and he knows there’s probably a lot happening behind the scenes to secure that help. But he believes there is urgent need to capitalize quickly on the military liberation achieved recently and at such cost by U.S. troops and the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF.

“I don’t want to – I’m not trying to damn anyone here,” Votel said, “I’m just saying, this requires more than just the United States; it requires really a very broad international effort.”

It will require a herculean effort to rebuild Raqqa, much less end the war in Syria. The U.S. entered the fray four years ago with a bombing campaign that escalated into a relentless assault. The population of Raqqa dwindled from 200,000 to just 5,000 of the most hardcore ISIS followers and their families, according to one U.S. military officer with multiple tours here. Until just three months ago, the city remained off-limits to outsiders. Today, a few major thoroughfares are clear enough for Votel to be driven in a slow loop within the city. But nearly every side street is pebbled, pockmarked, or impassable. Block after block, entire multi-story apartment buildings lay fallen in pancaked heaps. Kids crawl through them, but U.S. troops won’t enter for fear of booby-traps. ISIS — and its enslaved workers — manufactured bombs on an industrial scale, producing and planting tens of thousands of them.

“I wouldn’t pick anything up that I didn’t put there,” the U.S. military officer says, as we pass entire blocks of rubble upon rubble.

“This entire area was completely devoid of people in late October,” he says. “This street wasn’t even drivable.” Aerial bombardments, mortars, rockets, rocket-propelled grenades, all have left the city a pile of broken concrete. Kids picked through bombed-out buildings breaking the concrete off of its rebar, collecting the scrap metal in bags. Shopkeepers peddle colorful clothing and produce. Motorcycle-repair shops seemed busy. And the armed local Raqqa Security Forces, or RSF, occasionally dot intersections. But it looks like hell. There are few windows in Raqqa.

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“The devastation is pretty – it’s pretty bad,” said Votel, who is the general in charge of U.S. troops from Syria to Afghanistan. He said the levelled city reminded him a bit of West Mosul, Iraq, when coalition forces entered last year. It will take years to clean up and rebuild, but the assault was required, he said.

“It’s war, the ugliness, I mean — you saw it today first-hand, the ugliness of this whole business right here,” Votel said. “If people think we can just solve these problems by just shooting out of a drone or something like that, you just saw why you can’t do it that way.”

“In many cases, these are hardcore fighters and they have to be rooted out, and you saw the cost of what that looks like, today,” he said. “This is ugly business, but it’s necessary business, and we’re going to address this.”

In his latest trip to Syria — this was his first into Raqqa — Votel lands right at a key transition point for the U.S.-led coalition’s war on ISIS. Trump administration officials have begun a public relations campaign to explain why the U.S. will remain in Syria for some time, if not yet how, what it will cost, or what it will look like.

“As a military officer, I think it really is a reminder that even though the fighting is done in Raqqa, the area has been liberated, that our coalition campaign is not over, there,” Votel said, describing the need to “consolidate” the military’s gains. U.S. and SDF forces took back most of ISIS-held territory here, killing thousands of enemy fighters and decimating its organization. Roughly 650 SDF fighters were killed and thousands wounded liberating Raqqa, Votel said. But his military objective is not yet in hand. “We’re moving into, frankly what I regard as the more challenging and more difficult part of the campaign”: stability operations, he said.

TSgt. Dana Flamer / U.S. Central Command

The U.S. wants to restore basic services, like running water and electricity, so Raqqawis can return home. U.S. officials want to avoid major “nation-building” reconstruction and infrastructure projects of the kind seen in previous wars. As U.S. Agency for International Development officials put it, they don’t want to build dams, they just want to get the water up and running again. Indeed, the U.S. doesn’t need to do as much in Syria, where an educated, skilled workforce can handle much of the work themselves. And there is little appetite in Washington for taking charge of yet another war-torn country’s post-war life. In the past week, Secretary of State Tillerson said as much in a speech at Stanford. U.S. officials in Syria and on Sunday in Iraq repeated the stabilization selling point to reporters traveling with Votel.

“It’s also about removing the conditions that that lead to things like insurgency, that lead to instability. So, from a military standpoint we’re very keen to make sure that the follow-through in our operations is completed as effectively as the military operation,” Votel said.

The biggest obstacle to that end concerns questions of international law. The U.S. is here through no invitation from the Assad regime. Military commanders punted all questions about the legality of their operations to administration lawyers. But they recognized it is one reason the Americans feel they’re out here alone. Votel knows it’s a problem.

“Part of the reason why we have difficulty in this part of Syria — in Syria — is that we do not have the support, we do not have a centralized government that can orchestrate this, or can give permission for this. It’s my understanding the United Nations and many of the organizations will not come in here unless they do have the permission of the centralized government, and they don’t have that,” he said. Nor did anyone address Assad’s backers: Russia.

In other words, Raqqa may not get the international aid Votel wants until Assad asks for it, or until Assad has left power via a Geneva peace process few see coming anytime soon, and one the White House has shown few signs of prioritizing.

Assuring the Kurds

No group is as worried about America’s commitment to Syria than the Syrian Democratic Forces who took and now control Raqqa and a large swath of Syria. As Votel walked the city, Turkey continued its open assault on the SDF in the city of Afrin to the northwest. The SDF is made of Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmens, but the Kurds have pleaded most loudly to the international community for their support and protection from Turkish forces. Votel said the assault remains a “significant concern,” especially because it might siphon attention from the coalition’s primary ISIS-focused mission.  

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“What we advise and what we caution is restraint and patience on all sides here to allow diplomacy to work, here, to try to resolve this,” Votel said. The SDF leaders he spoke with did not make any demands on Turkey to him. But Defense One asked what his message is to those SDF who wonder whether their American partners will stick by them — or abandon them over geopolitics. Votel’s message to the SDF:

“The United States and the coalition are here. We’ve been here for a long time right beside them in the fight against ISIS. That’s our common fight. That is something we’re committed to seeing through to completion, and that includes the thing we’ve talked about here, the stabilization and, hopefully, creating the conditions where a peace process under the auspices of the United Nations and Geneva can take place. As so we remain – we remain very, very committed to that.”

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USAID Administrator Mark Green accompanied Votel, making him the senior-most civilian in the Trump administration to visit the country. Green said the U.S. recognizes the importance of Syria and pointed to Tillerson’s speech about extending the U.S. presence, but said it should not be open-ended.

“We all recognize there has to be some kind of a political solution. We recognize that. What that all entails, what that looks like is not clear at this point.”

In Baghdad on Sunday, other senior U.S. military officials said they will continue to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the SDF. “At a significant cost, they continue to rid the world of ISIS,” said Maj. Gen. James Jarrard, who leads Special Operations Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve. “What did Secretary Tillerson say the other day? What has Sec. Mattis said? We are going to be with them until we get a political solution in Geneva.”

“We should look at what have they done,” said Lt. Gen. Paul Funk, the commanding general of Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve. “They’re still focused on defeating Daesh. They still are. And they’re doing a tremendous job.”

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