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Raqqa Reacts To Troop Withdrawal


People in Syria are shocked by President Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, especially people in places like Raqqa. It's the big city once held by ISIS still covered in rubble a year after U.S. airstrikes forced ISIS out and demolished a lot of the city in the process. NPR's Ruth Sherlock has been talking with people in Raqqa today, and she joins us on the line. Hi, Ruth.


SHAPIRO: What have you heard from the people in Raqqa who you've spoken with about the U.S. decision to withdraw from Syria?

SHERLOCK: Well, everybody tells us that they're afraid that this is just going to be more instability at a time when, you know, they've been trying to piece their lives back together again after years under ISIS and a brutal offensive to push them out of the city. We spoke to Jamal Saleh about this. He's a rescue worker with Raqqa's emergency services. Here's what he had to say.

JAMAL SALEH: (Through interpreter) We all are, like, shocked by this decision because when they were here everything was OK - safety and, like, the city started again to rebuild and people will come back again to the city. But now when they said they will leave, it was, like, shock. Not only for us. For all people inside.

SHERLOCK: Keep in mind, the city is still almost totally destroyed. This rescue worker, Jamal, and his colleagues have been recovering bodies of people who died in the U.S.-led offensive to oust ISIS more than a year ago, and they're still doing that. After that offensive, the U.S. promised to rebuild key infrastructure.

They said they were going to at least put back together schools and hospitals. But the thing is that, for the most part, that hasn't happened. And although there's been some funding, it's just nothing compared to what's needed. These emergency services are a crucial part of the city. They're funded by the U.S., and now they say that their salaries are being cut and they don't know how long they're even going to be employed for.

SHAPIRO: Who's actually running the city at this point?

SHERLOCK: Well, it's normally the Raqqa Civil Council. They're a mix of people from Raqqa and Kurds that took the territory back from ISIS with the help of the U.S., and they've been working under American backing. They've liaised with American troops and the State Department people about the needs of the city. But the thing is that without these troops in this area, no one knows how long this situation can stay stable.

Lots of people tell us that they're worried that a vacuum of power means that other people are going to try to move in and take this area. One option is that the Syrian regime might try to take the city back or that there's going to be a civil war between Arabs and Kurds here.

SHAPIRO: And then is ISIS still a factor? I mean, President Trump says the group has been defeated and driven out of Raqqa. Is there a risk of it coming back if the U.S. pulls out?

SHERLOCK: So on paper, they've lost a huge amount of territory, but there's still an offensive going on in the east of the country. And some people worry that even in these so-called liberated areas, like Raqqa, there might be sleeper cells or that there are enough people who support them to bring them back, especially if there's a vacuum of power in these areas.

We talked to some students about this from a local school in Raqqa. It's a pretty unusual place because the students actually set the school up for themselves. There's very few high schools in Raqqa, and they wanted an education. So they went out and got adults who they thought could teach them and brought them in to help.

My NPR colleague Lama al-Arian and I were talking with a student, Batul, and she told us her biggest fear about what could happen after the U.S. withdrawal is that they're displaced, that they have to move from their homes. During the ISIS offensive, the anti-ISIS offensive, a lot of them had to flee. They say now they're just trying to get their lives back together. They don't want to have to escape again.

SHAPIRO: Did anybody you spoke with in Raqqa today express hope for the future?

SHERLOCK: It does not feel like a hopeful place. You know, there are some Christians in Raqqa, and usually the city is celebrating Christmas today. Even last year, just after the U.S. offensive had finished to push ISIS out, some had gathered around this destroyed church, and there are videos of a man dressed as Santa Claus giving out sweets to children.

Today we saw none of that. People seemed to be just trying to manage as best they can, but they're so beaten down. The city is still destroyed. They don't know what the future holds. And they feel ever less hopeful. One sculptor we spoke to said that with everything that's going on, they feel that their hearts are turning into stone.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Ruth Sherlock reporting from northeastern Syria. Thanks, Ruth.

SHERLOCK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.