Whether final or not, the seemingly inevitable defeat in Raqqa of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, carries heavy symbolic weight. At its height in 2014, the group controlled Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, as well as Raqqa and large stretches of land on both sides of the border, and it had grand aspirations to double the size of its territory.
The Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who once spent time in a prison run by occupying American troops in Iraq, claimed to be the successor to the caliphs, the Islamic emperors who shaped the region in past centuries. He persuaded tens of thousands of Muslims from around the world, some new to the faith or poorly versed in it, to travel to the region to fight.
The group seized the ancient ruins of Palmyra in Syria and those of Hatra in Iraq, destroying important historical monuments in the name of its interpretation of Islam. But with the fall of Raqqa, it no longer controls a major city.
Analysts say the Islamic State is already preparing for a new phase, morphing back into the kind of underground insurgency it started as, taking root among disaffected Sunni populations that were willing to tolerate, if not wholeheartedly embrace, its ultraconservative brand of Islam. And while many Arabs quickly soured on the group because of its brutal crackdowns and unfulfilled promises, their underlying political disaffection has not been addressed.
Some foreign fighters from Arab, European and Central Asian countries are gathering in smaller towns in Syria’s desert area and no longer plan to fight alongside Syrians, who they have decided are untrustworthy, according to one such fighter who gave his name as Yehya and who recently gave several interviews by phone and text.
The victory in Raqqa came at a heavy cost. Much of the city has been devastated by American-led airstrikes that killed more than 1,000 civilians, according to tallies by local activists and international monitors. About 270,000 residents have been displaced by the fighting, and thousands of homes have been destroyed.
Dr. Mohammad Ahmed Saleh, a resident of the city now working in a hospital in Tall al-Abayad, said he was eager to return home but was bracing for the worst.
“I’m expecting to see a new Hiroshima,” he said by telephone, taking a break from treating a newly arrived contingent of 19 wounded people from Raqqa, a mix of civilians and fighters for the Islamic State. “I’m trying to be mentally prepared when I go. I’ll be lucky if I see one of my house’s walls still standing.”
Many former residents said they had no plans to go back. “Today, I decided to start a new life,” said Wadha Huwaidi, who fled Raqqa a few months ago. “I’m sad, of course, but I had nothing left there. My house was destroyed, my children, my husband all collapsed. There’s nothing left that makes me feel I want to go back.”
It is unclear what happened to the last several hundred Islamic State fighters who had been holed up in Raqqa. There had been conflicting reports about whether foreign fighters among them would be allowed to evacuate on buses in a surrender deal.
Last week, the United States-led coalition said there would be no negotiated withdrawal of Islamic State fighters, just the evacuation of civilians, if necessary, to keep them out of the crossfire. But in previous battles, in Hawija and Tal Afar, surrendering fighters were allowed to board buses to Islamic State-held territory.
The fall of Raqqa also threatens to inflame relations between Kurds and Arabs, who have been fighting the Islamic State in an uneasy alliance with the United States-led coalition, but against an enemy that is rapidly melting away. Most immediately, they may be at odds over the future governance of Raqqa.
The battle against the Islamic State has also led to touchy de facto partnerships internationally, with the United States, Russia and Iran all fighting the Islamic State in sometimes competing efforts, vying for influence.
The Syrian government and its allies, Iran and Russia, are steadily driving the Islamic State from Deir al-Zour to the south, and a crucial question is whether the government will ultimately seek to retake full control there.