In a highly symbolic victory against Islamic State (ISIS) last week, the US military helped liberate the group’s de facto capital of Raqqa after a four-month battle. Once a thriving Syrian city of more than 200,000 people, however, Raqqa today has been reduced to rubble while most residents have fled. Land mines laid by ISIS and a lack of basic services have kept many people from returning.
Now the United States and its allies are asking: Can Raqqa be restored, perhaps even made into a symbol of peace in the Middle East?
Over the past year, other cities in Syria and Iraq have been retaken from ISIS. But Raqqa stands out because it was the first big city taken by the group in 2014. Its tragic plight also represents a basic issue for the region: Terrorists arise in places with a political and social vacuum. In Raqqa’s case, the vacuum was the result of a civil war in Syria between pro-democracy forces and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad since 2011.
The city is now in the hands of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-Arab coalition. The US, Britain, Saudi Arabia, and many other countries are considering ways to stabilize Raqqa and raise money for its reconstruction. Yet finding the money may be the easy part.
To save Raqqa from both terrorists and the Assad regime, the SDF and its newly established Raqqa Civil Council must quickly establish a broad and democratic government. Residents will return if they know there is a system in place that can peacefully resolve ethnic and religious rivalries. Wars may be won by the force of arms but peace can only be kept by the force of ideals, such as freedom, respect, and equality.
The US has struggled in Afghanistan and Iraq to help establish stable, democratic government. And it has totally failed at that task in Libya. A liberated Raqqa, however, offers an opportunity to learn from past mistakes and create a model in a region beset by religious violence.
ISIS may be largely defeated as a fighting group. But its ideas of intolerance must still be countered by living examples of reconciliation between people.