BEIRUT, Oct 19, (Agencies): US-backed militias in Syria have detained senior foreign Islamic State leaders in months of fighting for Raqqa, but it is not yet clear if they will be repatriated after facing trial, a spokesman said on Thursday. “We have foreign emirs … from all around the world,” Talal Silo of the SDF told Reuters. “They were captured in special operations, and some of them turned themselves in to our forces.” The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias, declared victory this week in Raqqa, raising flags over the last Islamic State positions in the city.
The fall of Raqqa marked a potent symbol of the jihadist movement’s collapsing fortunes. Islamic State militants used the city as a planning and operations centre for its warfare in the Middle East and its string of attacks overseas. The United States has said Raqqa served as a hub for attacks abroad. In November 2015, after militants killed more than 130 people in Paris, France said it launched air strikes on Islamic State targets inside Raqqa. Silo declined to say how many high-ranking, foreign Islamic State prisoners were in detention, but said SDF intelligence was interrogating them.
“There are prisons dedicated just for DAESH,” he added, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State. “We don’t put them with the regular prisoners.” “They are being investigated, and will be presented to the courts. We have an independent judicial system that will try them, all of them,” he said. After the trials, it remained unclear if the SDF would hand over the fighters to their countries or whether the foreign states would accept to take them back, he said. “It depends on the situation between us and the (foreign) states,” Silo said. “There may be an agreement … there may be consent to handing them over, and there may not be.” With air strikes and special forces from the USled coalition, the Kurdish-led SDF had been fighting since June inside Raqqa, after months of battles to encircle the city.
Raqqa was the first major city Islamic State seized in early 2014, before its series of rapid victories in Iraq and Syria brought millions of people under the rule of its self-declared caliphate, which passed laws and issued passports and money.
Meanwhile, a Saudi official has visited northern Syria with a US envoy to discuss reconstruction of Raqqa, which Kurdish and Arab militias backed by a US-led coalition, captured from Islamic State on Tuesday, an adviser to the militias said. Saudi Gulf Affairs Minister Thamer al-Sabhan visited the area with Brett McGurk, the US special envoy to the coalition against Islamic State, and met the Raqqa Civil Council said Amed Sido, an adviser to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance.
The Saudi Okaz newspaper also reported on Thursday that Sabhan had visited northern Syria and that Riyadh and Washington had discussed the reconstruction of Raqqa. Saudi Arabia is a member of the US-led international coalition against Islamic State, set up in 2014, but no senior officials from Riyadh are known to have visited areas held by coalition allies in Syria. Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry was not immediately available for comment.
The SDF’s four-month battle against Islamic State in Raqqa, aided by coalition air strikes, left much of the city in ruins and forced much of its population to flee to camps nearby. International charity Mercy Corps said on Thursday that most of the city was uninhabitable. The SDF and its allies set up the Raqqa Civil Council to run the city after the fighting was over.
The international coalition’s 73 members also include European countries, other Arab countries and Turkey. Its work includes supporting stabilisation and restoration of public services to areas taken from Islamic State militants.
The Saudi officials who visited Raqqa to check the area were there to listen to discussions rather than take part, Sido said, adding that they met a reconstruction committee set up by the council. “They promised that they would contribute in construction in Raqqa in the future,” Sido said. Sido is also an SDF coordinator with the coalition. The main priority for the city’s reconstruction now is clearing landmines and bodies, and working on water and electricity projects, Sido said. While no concrete plans were set in motion, Sido continued, “we consider it a first visit, a first step, that could be the beginning of future relations”. US-backed forces who captured Raqqa from the Islamic State group prepared Thursday to hand the Syrian city over to a civilian authority, with some of their fighters already headed to the next battle.
Inside the city, positions that had long been manned by fighters of the Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were abandoned, though some remained in the central Al-Naim square, dancing and ululating as they celebrated their victory. The SDF battled for more than four months, with US-led coalition support, to capture the city that was once the de facto Syrian capital of IS’s self-styled “caliphate”.
They announced the end of combat on Tuesday, though operations to clear explosives and seek out sleeper cells were ongoing. Raqqa’s capture leaves the jihadists with little remaining territory in Syria, most of it in neighbouring Deir Ezzor province, where some SDF fighters were already headed to carry on the campaign. “Some of the forces withdrew, others will remain in the city until we finish the minor combing operations, then the city will be handed over to the civil council,” said SDF commander Rojda Felat.