MANBIJ, Syria — Cities and towns across eastern Syria are overwhelmed by rubble. The militias that fought the Islamic State are digging tunnels to prepare for a possible battle against Turkey. A recent explosion in the city of Raqqa killed nine people.
The routing of the Islamic State from its final piece of territory in Syria last month was hailed as a milestone in the fight against the world’s most fearsome terrorist organization. But the territory it once ruled remains in shambles, insecure and its future uncertain.
Entire communities are destroyed, with little help to rebuild. A range of powers — the Syrian government, Turkey, Russia and militias backed by Iran — hope to fill the void left by the jihadists’ defeat. And the Islamic State isn’t even gone: while the bombings that killed at least 250 people in Sri Lanka last week demonstrated that its ideology continues to echo globally, in Syria thousands of its fighters have merely gone underground to launch attacks and plot their comeback.
“We are talking about a secret organization that is still operating,” said Redur Xelil, a senior official with the Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurdish-led militia that the United States backed to fight the jihadists. “It has a network, means of communication and a central command.”
A Kurdish-led administration is struggling to govern the area, which encompasses roughly the third of Syria east of the Euphrates River. But the United States, which led the military coalition to defeat the Islamic State, has not recognized the local administration and won’t help with reconstruction.
Having won the war, the United States risks losing the peace.
The United States remains the area’s de facto protector, its 2,000 troops presumed to be the only barrier deterring incursions by Russian, Turkish or Syrian government forces.
But the Trump administration’s plans for those troops have fluctuated, from the complete withdrawal the president suddenly announced in December to the current plan of drawing the number down by half and seeing how it goes.
The uncertainty has confused American allies.
“There is no clarity,” said Mr. Xelil, the senior S.D.F. official. “That is the problem with the Americans.”
In recent visits to half a dozen towns and cities across northeastern Syria, we found that the relief residents had over the territorial defeat of the Islamic State had been quickly overshadowed by the tenuous security and paralyzing uncertainty about where the region goes from here.
The Islamic State, Underground
After five years of battle, the Islamic State no longer rules territory the size of Britain, but thousands of its fighters continue to operate in the region, striking when they can.
In recent months, a local military leader in one border town was killed when a bomb stuck to his car blew up. A tribal leader in Raqqa was shot dead in the street. And a gunman shot dead seven guards while they slept near a checkpoint.
Shervan Darwish, a member of the military council now ruling the town of Manbij, presumed the Islamic State was behind most of the attacks, including one in which a suicide bomber rammed his car. But there were enough other enemies — from the Syrian government to rival militias — that he could not be sure.
“They all want to undermine security in this city,” he said. “But we don’t know who did it.”
The United States says it remains committed to the “enduring” defeat of the Islamic State, but it has done little to shape the political future of the jihadists’ former lands. Local councils administer the territory and provide basic services.
The United States has provided aid but has not officially recognized the councils, arguing that its goals are to work for a political solution to the conflict and push Iran out of Syria, not determine local governance. The United States’ local allies say this has left them in political limbo.
More than 70,000 women and children who once lived under the Islamic State now languish in three camps in northern Syria. About 10,000 of them are foreigners whose countries do not want them back, placing the long-term burden of caring for them on the local administration.
It also holds in its prisons 8,000 men accused of being fighters, including 1,000 foreigners, raising fears that prison breaks could help the Islamic State reconstitute itself.
“There are thousands of fighters and their families who are in an area that is not militarily and politically stable,” said Abdulkarim Omar, a local official who has tried with little success to convince governments to repatriate their citizens. “The international community is not carrying out its role.”
Digging in for the Next Battle
Across a swath of territory near the Turkish border, men with shovels, winches and wheelbarrows are digging hundreds of tunnels to prepare for what could be the next big battle. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has threatened to send Turkish troops to oust the militias, which he considers anti-Turkish terrorist groups.
Along main roads leading to Manbij, a large town near the Turkish border, new tunnels large enough for fighters to run through plunge into the earth every few hundred meters. Kobani, a Kurdish-majority town on the Turkish border, has become a virtual gopher mound, with tunnels along its main roads, near its graveyard, in traffic medians and within sight of Turkish border posts.
S.D.F. officials declined to comment on the tunnels, but Mr. Darwish of the Manbij Military Council said they were for defense in the case of future attacks.
“Our last fight was with Daesh,” he said, using another name for the Islamic State. “Our next battle will be with states, so this is part of our defense plan.”
Throughout the war, Turkey watched with alarm as the American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces grew stronger along its border. The leading component of the S.D.F. is a Kurdish militia called the Y.P.G., which is affiliated with the P.K.K., a Kurdish guerrilla movement that has fought a bloody, 30-year insurgency against Turkey and which the United States considers a terrorist organization.
The Syrian government and its Russian backers have vowed to take the territory back, by force if necessary.
Local leaders say they would prefer to reach an accommodation with Syria than fight Turkey, but negotiations have led nowhere, according to Ilham Ahmed, an official involved in the talks.
The local authority’s efforts to chart a political future have been complicated by the United States’ unclear policies, which can be overturned by an unexpected tweet from Mr. Trump.
“A country like America should not be like that,” Ms. Ahmed said. “These statements from the president are a surprise for everyone.”
A Lasting Toll
The years of fighting the Islamic State took a tremendous toll, killing thousands of fighters and an untold number of civilians. Roads and roundabouts are dotted with signs commemorating fallen fighters, some of them billboards bearing dozens of faces.
Inside a rehabilitation hospital in Kobani, physical therapists work with wounded fighters. One, who gave his name as Siwar Kobani, lay strapped to a platform that rotated him into a standing position.
He had been fighting in Raqqa when a blast peppered his back with shrapnel and paralyzed him from the waist down.
“It has been two years and I’m not getting better,” he said.
About 200 people he knew had been killed fighting, but the sacrifice had been worth it, he said.
“If we hadn’t fought them, we wouldn’t have a better future for our children,” he said.
Much of Raqqa, the area’s largest city and once the jihadists’ capital, remains in ruins. Life has returned to the streets, with shops and restaurants reopened and the traffic police shooing away drivers who clog intersections. But the rubble is overwhelming, and countless buildings remain uninhabitable.
In one heavily damaged neighborhood, a real estate agent, Muhammad al-Hamoud, stared from his office at the tableau of destruction. Since he had reopened two weeks earlier, most inquiries had been from former residents seeking to sell destroyed apartments. He had sold two, he said, both heavily damaged, to buyers planning to fix them up.
“There is little demand because the years have been punishing to people — war, destruction and displacement,” he said.
But he was counting on the neighborhood to come back to life, so he had rented the office, tiled the floor and bought chairs where he waits for the clients he is sure will eventually come.
“It’s a start,” he said.
Mustafa Ali contributed reporting.
Orignially published in NYT.