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 increase its territory and cement its rule.
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.
With the fall of Raqqa, the Islamic State has lost the two most important cities of its self-declared caliphate in three months. It was pushed out of Mosul in July, and now holds only a fraction of the territory it once controlled.
Analysts say the group is already preparing for a new phase, morphing back into the kind of underground insurgency it started as, when it took 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.
Another major concern, now that Islamic State-held territory is reduced, is how countries in Europe, in the Middle East and around the world will handle the foreigners who joined the group in places like Syria and might return home and plan attacks there.
A victory in Raqqa has come 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. In earlier years, many were killed by Russian and Syrian government strikes. About 270,000 residents have been displaced by the fighting, and thousands of homes have been destroyed.
Hassan Mohammad Ali, a member of a civilian council backed by the United States and the Syrian Democratic Forces that is supposed to be responsible for rebuilding the city, said last week that reconstruction would be a challenge.
“The city is in ruins; it needs time,” he said. “And it needs prospects that are beyond ours, our energy.” Just providing bread to areas retaken from the Islamic State was stretching the council’s capacity, he said.
Dr. Mohammad Ahmed Saleh, a resident of the city who now works in a hospital in Tal al-Abyad, 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.”
For months, Islamic State commanders and fighters have been withdrawing from Raqqa and moving southeast into the neighboring province of Deir al-Zour. They have clustered in neighborhoods in the provincial capital, which is also called Deir al-Zour, as well as in the town of Mayadeen and in a town on the border with Iraq called al-Bukamal. Hundreds of Islamic State fighters had decamped from Raqqa to Mayadeen in recent months, taking heavy equipment with them.
But over the weekend, Syrian government forces, backed by their Russian and Iranian allies, took Mayadeen and continued their advance into the provincial capital, leaving the Islamic State with the border town as the only urban area entirely under its control in Syria. Beyond that, Islamic State fighters are scattered in a large area of the Syrian desert, outside population centers.
It is unclear what happened to the last several hundred Islamic State fighters holed up in Raqqa. There were 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. Witnesses in Raqqa said that several busloads of Islamic State fighters, both Syrians and foreigners, had been allowed to board buses to Deir al-Zour.
The fall of Raqqa 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 governing 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 group in sometimes competing efforts, vying for influence.
Deir al-Zour, home to most of Syria’s modest oil reserves, continues to be a flash point for possible tensions between the two rival coalitions fighting the Islamic State: Russia, Iran and the Syrian government on one side, and the United States and the Syrian Democratic Forces on the other.
Both sides want to increase their influence over the region as their proxies race one another to take Islamic State areas straddling Syria and Iraq. The Syrian government and its allies, Iran and Russia, are steadily driving the Islamic State from Deir al-Zour, and a crucial question is whether the government will ultimately seek to retake full control of Raqqa as well.