The road to Raqqa, once the de facto Syrian capital of Islamic State, looks surprisingly pastoral. As we approached the city across the plain north of the Euphrates we had to stop the car several times: the road was barred by flocks of sheep. It seemed an encouraging sign of returning normality. But local people explained that shepherds were bringing their flocks to graze here for less happy reasons. Before 2011 this was well-irrigated crop-growing land, but now, after six years of war, the irrigation channels are dry or contain only stagnant water: nobody is maintaining them and there is no electricity to pump water from the Euphrates. Giant grain silos stand just off the road but they have been abandoned or damaged by bombs or shells.
The further we drove into Raqqa, the worse the destruction became: most of the few buildings that are still intact have been taken over as command posts by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurdish-Arab army that with the support of US-led airpower captured Raqqa after a four-month siege last October. There are equal numbers of Arabs and Kurds in the SDF, but the commanders we met were all Kurds. Some of the surviving residents of Raqqa, which before the war had a population of 300,000, are returning, but the streets were mostly empty. Behind one SDF guard post an elderly woman was sorting through the debris of a bombed-out building, looking for scraps of metal and plastic to sell. One of her sons had been killed by a mine, she said, and she needed money to buy food for his wife and daughter. All the buildings in the city centre have been destroyed or damaged beyond repair: some took a direct hit from a bomb or a shell; others still stand but have been gutted by bomb blasts and look uninhabitable.