Raqqa/Tel Tamr, Syria – The road that cuts through Raqqa’s northern flank is lined with signs of war. On either side, what once were small pastel-hued tower blocks lay flattened like concrete pancakes, others lean precariously to one side.
June marked the second anniversary of the start of the four-month operation to retake ISIL’s self-proclaimed capital. The offensive saw the displacement of 120,000 civilians, according to UN estimates. Today, about 200,000 Raqqawis are thought to have returned, according to Amnesty International.
Still, it is easy to mistake Raqqa for a ghost town were it not for a handful of residents walking the street and fresh laundry hung out to dry on hazardous balconies.
For more than three years, the US-led coalition targeted ISIL positions with more than 4,450 air raids, coupled with four months of urban fighting in what then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis described as a “war of annihilation”.
This is the bleak aftermath of one of the most vicious urban battles of recent years, most of which were won through airpower.
From behind the tinted window of his white pick-up truck, commander Aram Hanna of the US-backed Syrian fighters known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), looks at the devastated city.
“The destruction in Raqqa is not acceptable,” he says.
From student to commander
Aram spent four months battling ISIL inside the city and was among the men and women responsible for calling in the US-coalition air raids.
Tasked with sending out the GPS coordinates of ISIL targets to the coalition’s Field Operations Room in northern Syria, Aram was the first and crucial link in what the US army described as a meticulous chain of events.
Sometimes armed with just a tablet, the young commander would scurry behind enemy lines to retrieve ISIL’s exact position.
“You’re so close to the area, [sometimes] I was surrounded by them, they didn’t know I was there,” the 26-year-old recalls.
“We sent a description [to the operations room] with the [GPS] coordinates. [We told them] if there is a sniper, a shooting [between ISIL and SDF], or a place for weapons.”
During that time, an estimated 80 percent of the city’s buildings were destroyed, according to a UN Interagency Mission Report.
Those that were not flattened by coalition air power or ISIL’s indiscriminate use of IEDs, were severely damaged. Including the city’s silo – its massive stature a cruel reminder of the area’s heyday as Syria’s breadbasket.
Aram points towards the imposing building: “Daesh [ISIL] snipers were waiting for us on top of that silo,” he says. “But we didn’t call for air strikes if they were not really needed. Especially with snipers, we can’t hit a building for one sniper.”
“We didn’t use our air strikes for nothing … maybe others did that,” he says, alluding to the different factions that form the SDF. “I think the feeling of hating ISIL was controlling some groups there. If someone killed my brother, I would never think twice about whether I’m killing ISIL or not.”
Aram belongs to the Syriac Military Council (MFS), a Christian militia within the SDF. He sports a scruffy beard that he has not had time to shave – his job is all-consuming. Now that ISIL has reverted to sleeper cells, the threat is omnipresent.
In just a few years, the young commander from the southwestern Hasakah region went from being an English literature student in Deir Az Zor, about 450km northeast of Damascus, to becoming the coalition’s eyes and ears on the ground. Aram’s story ties together a generation of young Syrians who saw themselves forced to give up their studies to take up arms.
‘I hope the world doesn’t forget’
At just 20 years old, Nisha Gawrie of the Bethnahrain Women’s Protection Forces – the MFS’s female counterpart – was tasked with the same role. To do this, Nisha gave up her law studies for two years.
“It was a big responsibility for me – any wrong coordinates could hit the positions of our SDF forces or innocent civilians,” Nisha, now 22, said. “Raqqa was so difficult … I hope that the world doesn’t forget what we’ve done.”
While paving the way for Raqqa’s liberation, Nisha’s role would also garner widespread criticism of herself and her fellow fighters. An investigation by Amnesty International and Airwars, released in April, put the civilian death toll at 1,600 during the Raqqa offensive. The coalition has admitted responsibility for killing 159 civilians.
Once Aram had identified a target and mapped its coordinates on a tablet provided by the coalition, he would radio in the position and describe the threat to his fellow SDF and coalition members in the operations room in northern Syria.
They, in turn, sent out overhead surveillance to verify the information.
“If there are children and women, if you’re not sure the building is empty of civilians, you can’t go on,” said one SDF member who worked hand in hand with the coalition forces inside the operations room.
But overhead surveillance doesn’t show who is in the basement of a building, explains Justin Bronk, a research fellow in airpower and technology at the London-based think tank RUSI. “The bomb will probably bring down the building on the basement.”
According to Amnesty International, four families – at least 32 civilians, including 20 children – were killed in this way on September 25, 2017, after taking shelter in the basement of a building that was later targeted by the coalition.
The SDF member, who spoke to Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, spent four months in the operations room receiving GPS coordinates and calling in air raids with US forces.
It was a 24-hour job, he recalled: “You eat sporadically, under the sun. If you’re lucky, you get three or four hours of sleep in a row, if you’re not, you’re up for 48 hours … I knew it was a huge responsibility, but I was able to handle it well, physically and psychologically.”
Years of military experience and an already existing relationship with the coalition made him a prime candidate for the role.
“You need to have a sense of civil responsibility and a lot of humanity. It can’t be someone who doesn’t give a s*** about humanity. You have to have respect for human life, as well as the vegetation and animals,” he says.
His men and women operated under the rules of the Geneva Conventions, he explains. “I’m sure there have been civilian casualties, but accidental ones. We blocked air strikes many times when we knew there were 10 [ISIL fighters] inside a building and then one woman showed up”.
His demeanour is stoic, but he speaks passionately about the role played by fighters in bringing the so-called caliphate to an end.”Those fighters were there to save civilians, not to kill them”.
Consequences of war
One such fighter was Aram, who in 2017 led his men by foot for almost 200km, from Hasakah to ISIL’s self-proclaimed capital city.
Last month, he retraced those steps by car, pointing towards the fields he and his units ate in, the ditches they slept in, the homes where they took refuge and the civilians they successfully liberated.
He waves at them, some wave back. He says one day he would like to visit the homes he slept in and apologise to the families for eating their food.
“In Raqqa, the most important thing was to protect the civilians from clashes,” he says. He and his fellow fighters distributed pamphlets informing civilians of the safest evacuation routes and how to get to them. “Then we secured them in a safe location and we provided medicine and food,” he tells Al Jazeera.
Though adamant that his fight was just, the consequences of war weigh heavily on Aram. “In the end, it’s war and the civilians suffer. [They] will always suffer in different ways – economically, educationally”.
Like other Syrian men and women, he sacrificed his dreams to fight ISIL, a decision that changed his life.
“It was my dream to be an English teacher, having a family, raising children,” he says. “I dream that someday I’ll have children and I will tell them my stories. The things that I have lived – even the fighting, the killing, the war”.