Andrea DiCenzo for BuzzFeed News

RAQQA, Syria — The Trump administration has dramatically increased US military and political involvement in northern Syria, providing air and ground support to local forces camped out in abandoned buildings on the outskirts of Raqqa as they seek to oust ISIS from the capital of its self-declared caliphate.

Under President Donald Trump, the US-led coalition has developed closer coordination with a collection of militias and tribes called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), directing air and ground assaults. Senior State Department and USAID officials have visited Raqqa’s outskirts to coordinate efforts to help displaced civilians and secure the city’s future once ISIS is driven out. US officials have also carved out a semipermanent diplomatic presence close to the northern Syrian city of Kobane.

US and other Western security officials grill captured ISIS fighters, most of them held at a prison near Kobane, to glean intelligence on the jihadis, their future plans, and their ties to other fighters in the Middle East and the West, according to SDF fighters and Kurdish intelligence officials, as well as a former US military official. The efforts have made Trump popular among many of Syria’s autonomy-minded Kurds, with some praising him as a patron of their project to build a self-ruled enclave.

The ground war, launched late last year with skirmishes on the outskirts of Raqqa before reaching the city in early June, has become a grueling street battle, with tens of thousands of Syrian militiamen approaching from the east, west, and south. Each day, the SDF — a multiethnic, multireligious collection force mostly led by Kurdish commanders — struggles to force its way into the city, while US-led coalition planes circle overhead and laser-guided howitzer artillery guns manned by Marines stand ready. The SDF is strongly under the sway of the YPG, a Syrian offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a fact that creates huge tensions with the US’s NATO partner Turkey and may precipitate a raft of political problems once ISIS is defeated. But for now the SDF’s fighters are Washington’s best allies in northern Syria, risking their lives under extreme conditions in the slow, brutal effort to take Raqqa.

ISIS has controlled Raqqa for more than three years, building a network of tunnels, secret passages, and fortified positions. Field commanders say the fight isn’t just house to house, it’s often room to room. There is Raqqa, and then a second Raqqa hidden underground and in the cracks, said one commander who described a 14-hour battle just to get to the second floor of a building after taking control of the first floor. Unlike Iraqi troops operating in the recently liberated city of Mosul, few if any of the SDF fighters have body armor.

“In the city, you know what’s in front of you, but you don’t know what’s behind you.”

BuzzFeed News spent more than a week alongside the SDF in and around the city, speaking with Syrian military commanders and local and US officials, along with escaping civilians looking wearily forward to rebuilding their lives amid the rubble.

One of the field commanders is a man who goes by the nom de guerre Ali Shir, a 32-year-old Kurd from Kobane who joined the fight against ISIS when the Kurdish city was besieged in 2014. Before the siege he sold jeans at the market — now he commands 40 men. Sporting a thick mustache, and in traditional baggy Kurdish pants, Shir said he has no wife or children, and that until the war is over it’s better that way. He’s well aware of the dangers he and his men face. “When we were in the countryside it was easier,” said Shir before a recent offensive, sitting cross-legged with his men in a four-story construction site just beyond the city’s western front line that was being used by his forces as a temporary headquarters. “But in the city, you know what’s in front of you, but you don’t know what’s behind you.”

SDF fighters on the front line in western Raqqa.

Andrea DiCenzo for BuzzFeed News

On a recent night Shir led his men, on foot, to cross the western perimeter deeper into ISIS-controlled Raqqa. Huddled in groups of seven, they took up positions in the cover of darkness. At dawn they moved, taking control of a small group of buildings across a road that had served as a front line. They crossed into contested territory without incident and spent the morning trying to clear buildings of mines. Equipment was improvised. They tossed gunpowder wrapped tightly in masking tape into buildings, to set off any booby traps left behind by ISIS. To clear roadways, they stuffed gunpowder into empty cigarette boxes and wrapped them with electrical wire, stringing them into chains and laying them out onto the streets before setting them off.

In the early afternoon, an ISIS fighter driving an explosives-laden car began hurtling toward them. There was momentary panic, but the men opened fire on the vehicle with everything they had, finally causing it to explode.

After clearing a building of mines, they radioed the grid coordinates to a makeshift tactical operations center a mile away from the front line run by a young Kurdish fighter whose nom de guerre is Rostam Halab. He brought a scientist’s precision to his job of managing the efforts of several battalion-sized units, marking the cleared buildings in yellow on a map on his Samsung tablet. Just a few years ago Halab had been a university student looking forward to the staid life of an engineer in Syria; now, at 26, he is working hand-in-hand with the US to fight ISIS.

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Borzou Daragahi reports from Raqqa

Andrea DiCenzo for BuzzFeed News

“The building we want to take now is filled with bombs,” Shir told Halab over a walkie-talkie kept charged by a pack of batteries bundled together with masking tape.
“Do you think you can clear it?” Halab asked.
“No,” Shir replied. “All the building is mined. All of it.”

Halab said: “If you can take your very fastest guy, give him some dynamite, have him light it, throw it in there, and get out of there as fast he can.”

And then sniper fire came suddenly, pinning Shir’s men down.
Muzzle flashes could be seen from the sniper’s position inside the city. But there was nothing Shir or his men could do — at this point, retreating would be just as dangerous as advancing. So they did what they have to whenever ISIS manages to outmaneuver them in Raqqa: call for a US airstrike. They radioed in the coordinates of the sniper’s position to Halab, who passed them on to his SDF superiors. They sent the coordinates to their American counterparts, who relayed fresh orders to the US warplanes that swirl above the city 24 hours a day.
Within minutes, a series of rockets slammed into the building. The explosions could be heard for miles and sent a cloud of smoke spreading across the sky over the city. That was the end of the sniper fire, at least for the day.

Shir and his men moved to take full control of the small cluster of buildings they had in their sights. They were elated, hanging out of the windows of apartment buildings and posing for selfies. Even their typically reserved leader was in a celebratory mood.

But even with US-led air support and artillery, it had taken nearly 13 hours to advance about 150 yards across the front, and that after days of strikes on the quarter. There was still a mile and a half to go to reach Raqqa city center.

Fighters from the SDF wait until night fall to start their next offensive in Raqqa.

Andrea DiCenzo for BuzzFeed News

US involvement in the war against ISIS has changed markedly since Trump and his coalition of generals came to power. During the first years of the war against ISIS in northern Syria, under former president Barack Obama, the US kept a hands-off approach to the conflict, trying to limit its involvement. A US-led coalition aircraft might spot an ISIS position or vehicle and open fire, and fighters would move in afterwards if they were nearby. But now, under Trump, there is far closer coordination, in part because the US is less concerned about upsetting NATO partner Turkey by getting too close with Syria’s Kurds. When the SDF fighters get into trouble or need help to pave the way, they call in US airstrikes and artillery fire. And when the US forces see an opportunity to strike, they do so, before alerting Syrian fighters on the ground to move in. Acting in part on the recommendations of the outgoing Obama administration, the US has also expanded the flow of weapons and ammunition to the SDF.

The Trump administration has delegated more authority to military commanders on the ground, giving them considerable leeway to act quickly against ISIS positions. “Over the last six months, we have dramatically accelerated this campaign,” US Special Envoy Brett McGurk told reporters on Friday, discussing the war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. “About six months ago, ISIS was planning major attacks in Raqqa. They were planning major attacks against the United States, against our partners, and they were doing it in Raqqa using infrastructure of a major city. Today in Raqqa, ISIS is fighting for every last block, and trying to defend blocks that they are about to lose. They are fighting for their own survival.”

The US and its Western coalition partners, especially the UK and France, have also become increasingly visible stakeholders in the war effort. In recent weeks, McGurk had visited northern Syria, meeting with local officials. Later came Alan Dwyer, a USAID disaster relief specialist, who appeared in Ain al-Issa, north of Raqqa. He arrived in a convoy of unmarked armored SUVs and a security detail made up of silent, muscular Americans in wraparound sunglasses. Dwyer met with local officials and representatives of the few Western aid organizations discreetly working to clear explosive ordinance and provide humanitarian help to Syrians displaced by the war. He was followed days later by the British army's Maj. Gen. Rupert Jones, who appeared before TV cameras after a lengthy meeting with Raqqa military and political leaders.

A US military vehicle in Ain al-Issa, north of Raqqa.

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BuzzFeed News witnessed coalition vehicles — ranging from the mine-resistant, ambush-protected armored vehicles now used by US personnel in the Middle East, to military trucks carrying ammunition, Land Rovers driven by intelligence officers, and the Austrian-made Pandur armored vehicles favored by Delta Force — scouring the countryside on a daily basis, although officials and soldiers alike usually decline to speak when approached by the smattering of Western journalists in northern Syria.

US Army Col. Ryan Dillon, speaking to reporters, said the fighting in Raqqa “continues to be intense as fanatical ISIS dead-enders and foreign terrorist fighters left to die use the dense urban environment to try to cling to territory.” More than 80% of ISIS attacks against the SDF come from hidden improvised bombs.

Despite this, Western officials present a relatively upbeat picture of how the battle is going. “The Syrian Democratic Forces are making excellent progress fighting their way into Raqqa,” Jones, deputy commander of the US-led coalition effort in northern Syria, told reporters during a press conference on July 23 in Ain al-Issa, a town north of Raqqa that serves as the staging ground for the offensive. “The fight in Raqqa is no tougher than we expected. It’s every bit as tough as we expected.”

US officials estimate that it will take up to two months before Raqqa is cleared of ISIS and the crucial effort to restore life to the city can begin, even as fighters continue to chase the militants to the cities of Mayadin, Deir Azzour, and Abu Kamel, where the group’s leaders are believed to be holding up.

The US has so far been reluctant to let the world know too much about what it is doing on the ground in Syria. Unlike in Iraq or Afghanistan, Washington has no official invitation from Syria’s government in Damascus, and stopped disclosing numbers of deployed troops months ago. But there are believed to be around 2,000 US Army Rangers and Marines, along with Special Forces personnel, in Syria, and the Pentagon’s 2018 budget includes $500 million to train and equip Syrian forces fighting ISIS. With greater involvement comes greater responsibility. The US runs the risk of being blamed if the conflict spirals out of control — and the worst may be yet to come.

Civilians who escaped Raqqa wait to be taken to a camp for displaced people.

Andrea DiCenzo for BuzzFeed News

Shir likes to point out that the men he leads hail from across Syria’s mosaic of religions and people: Arabs, Kurds, Turkomans, and Christians. “They are like one family, like brothers,” he said, “and when they fight they fight as one man.”

That diversity may be key to the future success of the Raqqa operation, and is central to the US effort to present the Kurdish-led SDF as something more than a front for the aspirations of Syria’s autonomy-minded Kurds.

In an effort to build up goodwill among Raqqa’s residents — and win hearts and minds — the US-led coalition has been imploring the SDF to treat civilians well and encouraging locals to trust the Syrian forces. While a radio station run by ISIS warns listeners that they cannot be true Muslims if they do not obey the word of God, the SDF’s Voice of Raqqa broadcasts public service announcements assuring civilians the SDF will protect them, between Arab pop songs.

But the most important assistance both the US and the SDF are providing to civilians may be in helping getting life to back to normal as quickly as possible. Though McGurk insisted on Friday that the US wouldn't get involved in “nation-building,” he acknowledged Washington’s role in guiding Raqqa toward stability once ISIS is gone. Unlike in Iraq’s Anbar province, where civilians were kept out of territories liberated from ISIS for months, ordinary people are returning to their lives as soon as they can. Families sometimes go home within days of ISIS’s withdrawal, with tiny roadside shacks reopening to sell bottled water, canned food, cleaning supplies, milk cartons, and candy bars.

Civilians who make it out of Raqqa’s ruins are directed to fields just inside SDF-controlled territory. On a sweltering day in July, hundreds of people showed up on a patch of farmland within the network of canals just to the west of Raqqa. SDF fighters, rather than aid groups, were the first to arrive with help, handing out water to families. Some fighters gave out money supplied by a wealthy Arab tribe called the Abu Hadid, which has allied with the SDF. “Every time we see refugees, we give out money,” said one SDF fighter, as a group of children gathered around him to collect Syrian 200-pound notes, now worth around 40 cents. Many of the displaced families said they had been paying smuggler after smuggler to escape ISIS-controlled territory and were broke by the time they finally got out of the city.

“They are not trained well and are not even adults. Some of them are 18 years old … They are sacrificing too much.”

Fadi Ramadan and his family were among a group of Raqqa neighbors who had moved nearly 10 times since Syria’s troubles began in 2011, each time losing money to smugglers as well as household goods he was forced to leave behind. They finally decided it was time to abandon Raqqa in June, after listening for days to the bombing and the sounds of anti-aircraft guns. The power had long gone out, and they were melting in the heat. Families usually emerge when they run out of water or bread, but Ramadan, a 36-year-old minivan driver, knew that their money was running out, and that they would need at least a few hundred dollars to pay the smugglers to get them out. They bundled up whatever possessions they could in shopping bags and stuffed them into his van.

Ramadan and his family knew their escape would be risky, but staying put was untenable. Many of the male relatives had already been locked up in ISIS prisons or flogged for minor infractions, like being late for Friday prayers. They dreaded what ISIS might to do to them as the group retreated from the city or came under increasing military pressure. “We left in the middle of the night, when the coalition planes had stopped bombing,” he recalled. “The smuggler took us to a point and just said, 'Drive forward until you get to the SDF checkpoint.'”

Members of the Raqqa Internal Security Force at a graduation ceremony.

Andrea DiCenzo for BuzzFeed News

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