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Raqqa: From Ancient Capital to ISIS Stronghold | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A man walks past a mosque that was damaged by airstrikes in Raqqa, eastern Syria in 2014. (Reuters)

London – Raqqa was liberated on Tuesday from the grasp of the ISIS terrorist group that had turned the ancient city into its stronghold and a symbol of its atrocities.

The city has been inhabited for hundreds of years, and its peak, it enjoyed a golden age under the early Islamic empire of the Abbasids.

In 722, Caliph al-Mansour ordered the construction of the city of al-Rafiqa, which lies near Raqqa. The two cities eventually were merged into one.

In 796, the powerful caliph Haroun al-Rashid transferred his capital there from Baghdad because of its strategic location at a crossroads between Byzantium, Damascus and Iraq. It sits 90 kilometers (55 miles) south of the Turkish border and about halfway between Syria’s second city Aleppo and the Iraqi frontier.

He ordered major works and Raqqa was soon dotted with grand palaces and mosques.

Although the caliph’s court returned to Baghdad in 809, Raqqa remained a major administrative center for the western part of the empire.

But in 1258, the city was largely destroyed by the Mongol invasion.

Before the Syrian civil war, Raqqa prospered from agriculture in the fertile valley and benefited from nearby hydroelectric dams generating power for much of the country.

On March 4, 2013, two years after Syria’s war broke out, Raqqa was the first provincial capital to fall to rebels. The seized control of the military intelligence headquarters, one of the most notorious regime detention centers in the entire province, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. They also destroyed a statue of late leader Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current regime head, Bashar.

Clashes however soon erupted in 2014 between ISIS and opposition fighters, including the al-Nusra Front. They culminated in ISIS seizing complete control of Raqqa in January of that same year.

In June 2014, ISIS declared its infamous “caliphate” across swathes of Syria and Iraq.

In August 2014, ISIS enjoyed complete control of Raqqa province after seized the Tabaqa airport from the regime. It then went on to impose its laws in Raqqa through intimidation and terror. It resorted to mass executions, beheadings, rape, ethnic cleansing and stoning to impose its extremist ideology on others.

Raqqa has long been coveted by multiple parties to the Syrian conflict, including the regime, Russia, Turkey and the US-led coalition set up in 2014 to tackle IS.

On November 5, 2016, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) launched a major offensive dubbed “Wrath of the Euphrates” to seize the city.

As the SDF closed in on the city, thousands of Raqa residents were smuggled out to territory captured by the US-backed force.

After taking swathes of the surrounding province, including the key town of Tabqa and the adjacent dam, the SDF sealed off the approaches to Raqqa from the north, east and west.

In early July, SDF forces penetrated the heavily fortified heart of the city for the first time but continued to face tough resistance from the extremists.

On September 1, the SDF successfully captured the entire historic district, bringing it closer than ever to ISIS’ bastion’s well-defended and densely populated heart.

By late September, they had taken control of 90 percent of the city, cornering the extremists in Raqqa’s stadium, a few surrounding buildings and a major hospital.

On October 17, an SDF spokesman told AFP that the group’s fighters had “taken full control of Raqqa” from ISIS.