Beirut: Raqqa will be part of a decentralised federal Syria now the city has been freed from Daesh, the US-backed militias that captured it said on Friday, tying its future to Kurdish-led plans to set up autonomous regions in the north.
The Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said the people of the majority Arab city and surrounding province would decide their own future “within the framework of a decentralised, federal democratic Syria”.
“We pledge to protect the frontiers of the province against all external threats,” the SDF said in a statement read out by its spokesman in central Raqqa, which was finally captured on Tuesday after four months of battles.
Kurdish-led authorities in other parts of northern Syria are already moving ahead with plans to establish the federal system in areas they control, kicking off a three-phase election process last month in Kurdish majority regions.
The plans for autonomous zones in northern Syria have encountered broad opposition from the United States, neighbouring Turkey, and the Syrian government in Damascus.
The SDF, which is dominated by the Kurdish YPG militia, says it intends to hand control of Raqqa to a civil council and police force set up under its auspices with support from the US-led coalition against Daesh.
President Bashar Al Assad, who is regaining territory with Iranian and Russian military support, has repeatedly said the Syrian state will recover control over the entire country, which has been fractured by six years of conflict.
At a press conference held inside the city on Friday, the SDF formally handed over administration of the devastated northern city to a council made up of local officials and tribal leaders and a 3,000-strong US-trained police force tasked with governance and security.
In a highly symbolic move, the press conference was held inside the city’s sports stadium which Daesh terrorists had turned into an arms depot and a huge prison where they incarcerated and tortured their opponents.
“Our victory is one against terrorism, and the liberation of Raqqa marks the latest chapter in the fight against terrorists in Syria,” said Talal Sillo, a spokesman and senior SDF commander.
Standing before a backdrop of shattered and collapsed buildings, Sillo appealed to the international community and aid organisations to assist with the city’s reconstruction.
The UN and aid organisations estimate about 80 per cent of the city is destroyed or uninhabitable.
Associated Press drone footage from Raqqa showed the extent of devastation caused by weeks of fighting between Kurdish-led forces and Daesh and thousands of bombs dropped by the US-led coalition.
Footage from Thursday shows the bombed-out shells of buildings and heaps of concrete slabs lay piled on streets littered with destroyed cars.
Entire neighbourhoods are seen turned to rubble, with little sign of civilian life.
The video showed entire blocks in the city as uninhabitable with knocked-out walls and blown-out windows and doors, while some buildings had several stories turned to piles of debris. The stadium that was used as an arms depot and prison by the extremists appears to have suffered less damage compared with surrounding buildings.
“We call upon all countries and peace-loving forces and all humanitarian organisations to participate in rebuilding the city and villages around it and help in removing the scars of war that were inflicted by Daesh,” Sillo said.
Sillo said 655 local and international fighters lost their lives fighting Daesh during the four-month battle for Raqqa.
He added that residents will be allowed to start returning to the city once the mines and explosives are removed.
In other cities that the terrorists lost earlier, experts worked for weeks to remove booby traps and explosives that kept maiming and killing people long after Daesh left.
Long before the ground offensive by the Syrian Democratic Forces began in Raqqa in early June, warplanes pounded the city for months.
The US-backed Kurdish-led SDF announced Tuesday they have driven Daesh militants out of the city after weeks of fighting.
The fall of Raqqa marks a major defeat for Daesh, which has seen its territories steadily shrink since last year.
Daesh took over Raqqa, located on the Euphrates River, in January 2014, and transformed it into the epicentre of its brutal rule.