In April 2018, I drove into Raqqa, Syria, for the first time since reporting eight months earlier on the fight that liberated the city from the Islamic State, known as ISIS. By April, Raqqa resonated not with mortar rounds but with drilling and the rattle of generators as the city’s residents unearthed the remains of their homes from the rubble that had engulfed them. A town once inhabited by ghosts now slowly shook itself back to life, through sheer force of will and intestinal fortitude.
As I drove into the city, I found one sight particularly befuddling. There on a street full of crushed buildings was a black, proudly hanging sign, behind which a young man sat in front of dozens of glass bottles: a perfume shop, the only storefront open on its street. Who, in all the world, would open a perfume shop in a city that had just emerged from under the black curtain of war and ISIS rule? A place that needed construction companies and grocery shops and pharmacies, to be sure—but perfume?
Some months later, the young perfume entrepreneur would tell me his story of destruction and revival. It was one I had heard over multiple visits, from dozens of Raqqa citizens resuscitating their city: a tailor who now owns a pajama shop, a teacher rebuilding her school, and a hairdresser who now owns her own salon in the city center. Raqqa is stepping forward, its citizens told me, coming back to life slowly, in spite of great fragility and enormous obstacles. Young people who have not given up on their city or their society are leading this revival. And young women are at its center.
From my five visits to northeast Syria since August of 2017, I have concluded that U.S. policy in northeast Syria is working. A modest investment of U.S. tax dollars has allowed a fragile stability to hold in a place that once served as the capital of extremism. ISIS has
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