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U.S.-Backed Forces On The Verge Of Pushing ISIS Out Of Raqqa

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And we start with a pivotal moment in the campaign against ISIS. U.S.-backed forces are clearing the last ISIS fighters from the group's de facto capital, Raqqa. That leaves the so-called Islamic State without much of a state to speak of. A year ago, the group controlled a lot of territory in Iraq and Syria. The fight against ISIS has been the focus of U.S. troops in the region, and in a moment, we'll hear what's next for them. But first, NPR's Ruth Sherlock reports on the latest events in Raqqa, where four months of fighting appear to be near an end.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces, the militia backed by the United States, are elated. Videos from Raqqa show them doing donuts with their tanks. They drape flags on a pillar in the destroyed central square of the city. After four months of hard street-to-street combat and many lives lost, they're finally on the verge of pushing ISIS out.

MUSTAFA BALI: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the SDF, said there are still pockets where ISIS is fighting back, and the areas the SDF has taken are laden with booby traps. But the loss of Raqqa is a huge blow to ISIS. Not only have they now lost their de facto capital, but they no longer rule any sizable city in Iraq or Syria.

Raqqa was where they first imposed the harsh laws that would come to define their rule. There were public beheadings. It was also from Raqqa that intelligence agencies say ISIS plotted some of its attacks on countries in Europe. Now the jihadists are on the run. For Mustafa Bali, the SDF spokesman, it's a moment to celebrate.

BALI: (Through interpreter) My joy can't be described when I see the end of the terrorism that has assaulted all Syrians. We are writing a new history for Syria, and we give the world the hope that one can defeat terrorism.

SHERLOCK: ISIS have fled to the desert, but their terrorism is expected to continue. And in Raqqa, the victory has come at an enormous cost. To help the SDF win, the U.S.-led coalition pounded the city with airstrikes. Russia and the Syrian regime also bombed the area. The city is devastated - streets of buildings reduced to rubble. Hundreds of civilians have died in the conflict. Of the some 200,000-strong residents of Raqqa, most have had to flee. I spoke to one activist in the area, Ahmed Shebli, who has family in Raqqa. He says this does not feel like a victory.

AHMED SHEBLI: (Through interpreter) How should I feel as a civilian who loves my people and my country? I feel this is not liberation. This is destruction and the killing of civilians.

SHERLOCK: With ISIS gone, the question of who will rule these areas now looms, and the civil war in Syria still rages. For many Syrians, this feels like just another chapter of a war that has destroyed their lives. Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.