The U.S. government’s aid chief, Mark Green, made an unannounced visit to Raqqa in Syria on Monday, the most senior U.S. civilian official from the Trump administration to visit the war-struck northern city months after it was retaken from Islamic State.
Green was accompanied by the head of the U.S. Central Command General Joseph Votel, as the United States ramps up efforts to stabilize areas where Islamic State has been driven out by American-backed Kurdish militia.
Lessons from Libya and Iraq showed that stabilizing liberated areas was crucial to preventing them from falling back into the hands of militants.
“We’re at the point where people really do want to go home so this is the moment to seize,” Green, Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), said in a phone interview with Reuters after his seven-hour visit to Raqqa and the Ain Issa camp for people displaced by fighting.
As he drove through the densely built-up city, Green said he was struck by the devastation to buildings and roads, caused by U.S-led coalition air strikes and militia firing from homes.
“The devastation goes back as far as you can see,” Green said. “It is almost beyond description how deep the damage is.”
Green said he also visited a soccer stadium where the locker rooms had been turned into torture chambers for Islamic State.
“You can see a makeshift metal bed where they laid their torture victims right on the bed. It was just gruesome, gruesome,” he added.
But he said despite the destruction there were also signs of hope with vendors selling fruit on the sidewalks, families walking together, and people trying to clear rubble.
“Despite all of the destruction and all of the damage you still see signs of the human spirit … and it gives you so much hope,” he added.
Green’s visit comes days after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson signaled an open-ended military presence in Syria as part of a broader strategy to prevent Islamic State’s resurgence and pave the way for an eventual departure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and to curtail Iran’s influence.
U.S. forces in Syria have already faced direct threats from Syrian and Iranian-backed forces, leading to the shoot-down of Iranian drones and a Syrian jet last year.
In the meantime, Turkey opened a new front in Syria at the weekend launching airstrikes against U.S.-backed Kurdish militia in Afrin province.
Green said the civilian mission was not to rebuild areas but to help civilians return home by clearing roadside bombs, removing rubble, and restoring water and electricity.
“The mission for us is stabilization not reconstruction,” Green emphasized. “Our part of it is restoring essential services and there is a lot of work to do,” he added.
Green said he would be traveling to Europe within days to press allies to help with stabilization efforts.