MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
We're going down to three places in Syria that explain just how tough it will be to bring peace there even after the defeat of ISIS. The Islamic State does still hold some small pockets, but is largely routed. And different countries are vying for control of the land ISIS left behind with U.S. troops, Kurdish forces and the Turkish military all in the mix. NPR's Tom Bowman just spent four days in northeastern Syria with the U.S. military, and he takes us on this journey through three towns. He starts outside Shaddadi.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Kurdish).
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: The Kurdish soldiers stand watch at this outpost. Most carry simple assault rifles. A few hold heavy machine guns. They stand behind a barricade, just a semicircle of sandbags and hardened earth.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Through interpreter) This is the front line.
BOWMAN: This is the front line? Can we go up the stairs and look?
Even the stairs to this lookout are made of dirt, like some prehistoric fortress on a vast, open plain in eastern Syria. General Hassan commands these Kurdish forces who are fighting the Islamic State. He's a short, squat man with salt-and-pepper hair. And he points out where the enemy is located in the empty distance.
HASSAN: (Through interpreter) That's village farm. That's a place for ISIS.
BOWMAN: So about 2 miles, 3 miles away?
HASSAN: (Through interpreter) Three or 4 kilometers.
BOWMAN: You can barely pick out a couple of mud huts on the horizon.
HASSAN: (Through interpreter) After these hills there's many village. They are controlled all by ISIS.
BOWMAN: But Hassan has a problem - some of his troops are leaving to fight Turkish forces who are attacking Kurds in northwest Syria. And to the south, he's had to send some of his reserve forces to shore up the line against pro-Syrian regime militias.
HASSAN: (Through interpreter) Yes, that's worry me because these two forces, if I have availability under my control, I will defeat ISIS more.
BOWMAN: Even though some of the Kurdish fighters are straying, Major General Jamie Jarrard isn't worried. He leads the American special operations forces here and says ISIS is on the ropes.
MAJ GEN JAMIE JARRARD: What we characterize this currently as is a little bit of a transient area. There's no significant terrain. There's no significant urban area that they can - that they desire to hold on to permanently. And this is not where they wanted to be.
BOWMAN: Where ISIS wanted to be is a hundred miles west of here along the Euphrates River in the city of Raqqa. It was their de facto capital for three years until they were defeated in October. They're no longer a threat, but today Raqqa is little more than a pile of rubble with traffic. Think of those black-and-white photos from World War II of Hamburg and Dresden after they were flattened by Allied airstrikes. Driving along, every so often there's movement in the debris - a man shoveling plaster, children filling buckets at a water station.
ABU BASR: (Speaking Kurdish).
BOWMAN: Abu Basr commands the local security forces here. He recalls what life was like under ISIS. Mostly people spent the years in their homes, he says, rarely going outside.
BASR: (Through interpreter) We couldn't leave the house. And if we had to, we'd check ourselves first and see if there was something ISIS wouldn't like because if they saw something they didn't like, they would immediately have put us in jail - immediately.
BOWMAN: His own son was detained by ISIS for a month. His crime - smoking a cigarette. More serious crimes like helping Kurdish forces meant execution, often beheading next to a nearby clock tower. Abu Basr says those memories will linger.
BASR: (Through interpreter) They showed us what terrorism is. They took revenge for anything. There was no justice here, no fairness. They would simply grab the person, place them in a crowded area, take their revenge.
BOWMAN: Now the focus is on rebuilding. The U.S. military says it could take at least another year until this part of Syria is stabilized. The immediate job is removing the thousands of explosive booby traps ISIS laid before they retreated from Raqqa. They're everywhere - in front doors, chairs, cooking pots. Local residents are told not to return home until their houses can be screened for bombs. But many return home anyway, so there are some three dozen casualties each week.
CHRISTINA: The vast majority are adult men, but we do see some women and probably 10 percent kids.
BOWMAN: That's Christina, a surgeon with the U.S. Special Operations Forces who can only use her first name for security reasons.
CHRISTINA: Whoever you talk to, everyone is kind of touched by this. Like, all their brothers have been killed or, you know, their father has been killed.
BOWMAN: Amid all the devastation in Raqqa is an oasis - the Royal Restaurant. It's a small storefront that sells sandwiches. The owner, Muhammad Jabara, stayed open during the Islamic State caliphate. He wears a black leather coat and has a weary look.
Were you nervous when the ISIS fighters came in here and asked for food?
MUHAMMAD JABARA: (Through interpreter) Once you see an ISIS, you want to make sure just do whatever they want, make them just leave your place as soon as possible so you don't get in trouble.
BOWMAN: Farther north is the city of Manbij. It seems like it's in full recovery. It was liberated from ISIS 16 months ago. There's a bustling market, plenty of fruits and vegetables, clothing, gold jewelry, even a man selling perfume and cologne. He sold to ISIS. Their favorite - a cologne called El Misk.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Through interpreter) It's very Arabian. It's Eastern type of cologne. It's just for men. It stays very long.
BOWMAN: But in this bustling city, there are still reminders of ISIS brutality - a man with his right hand gone, the stump covered in green fabric. ISIS fighters accused him of a theft he says he didn't commit. He was held 20 days, dangling by his arms, flogged a hundred times. But he says he's lucky.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Foreign language spoken).
BOWMAN: "Yes, and thanks to God my head was not cut off."
ISIS is gone, but now there's a new problem. The U.S. is backing Kurdish fighters here, but Turkey sees them as terrorists linked to militants in Turkey. And so Turkey and their local allies are attacking them just a few miles from here. The U.S. wants Turkey to stop so the focus can remain on defeating ISIS. And American officers say they're here to stay. No one will say how long.
And there are signs of hope inside a classroom at a girls' high school, a building once used by ISIS as a prison. The two dozen girls are smiling and joking when the visitors appear. They wear colorful pink and purple and red hijabs that were banned by ISIS, which only allowed the color black. They didn't attend school under ISIS. Now some practice their English.
UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: That is very happy and exciting to back to school in this year. There isn't any worry because we are now in the peaceful.
BOWMAN: Peaceful - at least for now. Tom Bowman, NPR News, northeast Syria.
(SOUNDBITE OF IF THESE TREES COULD TALK'S "THE GIVING TREE")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.