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What The U.S. Presence Is Doing In Raqqa Despite Wishes Of Syrian Government


The Trump administration has made clear in recent weeks that it intends to maintain a U.S. presence in Syria. That's despite the fact that the government of Syria doesn't seem to want that. This would be in the area of Raqqa, where U.S. and local forces forced ISIS out last year in a battle that took months. Much of the city is now in ruins. And NPR's Michele Kelemen was there today with a senior U.S. official. She's on the line from Kuwait to tell us about her trip. Hi, Michele.


KELLY: Who did you go into Syria with, and what did you see in Raqqa?

KELEMEN: Well, we went with the CENTCOM commander Joseph Votel and also the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Mark Green. You know, it was an extraordinary visit. We took a drive right through central Raqqa, got out and walked around the soccer stadium. That's where ISIS reportedly executed Syrians. We even went down into the basement area where ISIS had held people prisoner and tortured people. Mark Green said that it was a reminder of the depth of their evil, what we were seeing there. Let's take a listen to how he describes the whole drive through the town as he saw it.

MARK GREEN: So as you drive around, you see block after block that's been completely destroyed and devastated. You see rubble everywhere. You see twisted metal. You see streets that are blocked. And yet you see signs of human spirit.

KELEMEN: And by that, Mary Louise, he meant that you're starting to see some signs of life. Some shops are open. Some people are rebuilding. There are trucks that are moving rubble away. In fact, one of the special forces officers who was showing me around said things have changed a lot in recent weeks, though it looked pretty devastating to me as a first-timer there.

KELLY: And that stadium - we heard so much about that during the fall of Raqqa. I mean, what does it look like now? Is it cleaned up? Is it quiet?

KELEMEN: Very quiet, but you know, nothing is there. It's been totally destroyed. And as you go down into the basement, there's rubble everywhere, and all you see are kind of some empty rooms and empty beds that - Votel said that that's where they were electrocuting people.

KELLY: And you mentioned you went in with Votel, the commander of Central Command - so the military officer overseeing what the U.S. is doing there - which prompts me to ask, what is the U.S. doing there? The U.S. says it's not doing nation building, so what's it doing?

KELEMEN: They don't call it nation building anymore. That's for sure. They say that it's stabilization. The main thing they want to do is clear out landmines - ISIS left thousands of them in the city - and get basic services back on track like water and electricity so that people can move back to their homes if they have them. They're looking at smaller things.

I mean, Votel said that this is - cleaning up the rubble is a massive job that could take years. What they're doing is focusing on the things that they can do. There are about 2,000 U.S. troops - at least that's the official count - that are in northern Syria. And USAID and the State Department have a small team of experts who are overseeing some of these projects - anywhere from 10 to 17 people on a given day in northern Syria.

KELLY: Meanwhile, the U.S. has got a couple of dozen aid workers and a whole lot of U.S. troops who are there. Do we know how long they might stay there?

KELEMEN: Well, that's one of the problems - is trying to figure that out because they say that their focus really is on making sure ISIS doesn't reemerge. But we had Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently lay out a much more ambitious agenda, talking about resolving the broader conflict, getting Bashar al-Assad out of the way and containing Iran's influence in Syria.

KELLY: Thank you, Michele.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

KELLY: That's our diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen talking about her trip today into the Syrian city of Raqqa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.