TABQA, Syria — The young man unburdened himself about the dark years of living under the Islamic State as a crowd of curious onlookers gathered in front of a weathered storefront in the town marketplace.
The militants, said the man, a 22-year-old named Abdul Qadir Khalil, killed many residents, doled out precious jobs and severely limited travel to and from the city. “When they left, our situation was much better mentally,” Mr. Khalil said. “If things were fixed, our society would be better and we would come to our normal life.”
He ticked off a list of the things Tabqa needs: electricity, water, fuel and a sizable bakery. Then, laughing about his new freedom to openly denounce the militants, he said, “If they ever come back, they will slaughter all of us.”
Life is slowly returning to the streets of Tabqa, a city of about 100,000 strategically positioned just 30 miles west of Raqqa, the capital of the self-proclaimed caliphate of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
Women are well represented on the town’s new governing council, and small children greet visitors with a “V” sign for victory.
But nearly two months after the Islamic State was driven off by the American-led coalition fighting the militants, the needs are even more vast than Mr. Khalil suggested, with no functioning hospitals or schools, not even the heavy equipment needed to uncover the dead.
In that respect, Tabqa stands as a laboratory for testing the Trump administration’s policy of empowering commanders in Syria to make battlefield decisions to defeat the militants while relying on a small team of State Department officials and Army civil affairs units to cement the uneasy peace that follows — all without getting into the business of nation-building.
It is also a dry run for the impending capture of Raqqa, a larger, far more densely populated and better defended city.
“Tabqa is the most immediate post-ISIS town where we could really get our feet on the ground,” said Brett H. McGurk, President Trump’s special envoy to the coalition.
The United States’ strategy in Syria is to wage the ground campaign against the Islamic State through local forces in order to maintain a small American footprint. But even that requires the deployment of American advisers, plus artillery, satellite-guided rockets, Apache attack helicopters and Army Rangers — some 1,000 troops in all. The American presence comes as Iran and the Shiite militias it backs, as well as the Syrian government and Russia, are maneuvering to control territory in eastern Syria after Raqqa is taken.
The visit to Tabqa on Thursday was a first opportunity for Mr. McGurk, a small group of senior coalition officials and the Western news media to get a look at the newly liberated city, still struggling to recover from the physical and psychological scars of nearly three years of harsh control by the militants.
“Basically, what you’ve got here is hundreds, if not thousands, of bodies in the rubble, which is causing a lot of flies, the flies are biting kids, the kids are getting infected,” said Al Dwyer, a senior official with the United States Agency for International Development, as American Special Operations forces drove to Tabqa in armored S.U.V.s. “Lot of rats. Smells. This is keeping people from coming back in.”
The Tabqa operation was proposed in mid-March to Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the commander of the American-led task force that is battling the Islamic State, by the top commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the combination of Syrian Kurds and Arab fighters who would provide the ground troops for the battle. It was approved without a single White House meeting.
Just one week later, hundreds of Arab and Kurdish fighters, including many who had never flown before, were airlifted on American helicopters and Osprey planes to the southern banks of Lake Assad, across from Tabqa. Barges ferried their vehicles across the azure water while another group of Syrian fighters to the east hopped from island to island as they zipped along the Euphrates on American fast boats.
In the fierce battle that ensued, about 100 Kurdish and Arab fighters were killed and perhaps 10 times as many militants. One of the final confrontations occurred inside the 200-foot-tall Tabqa Dam, which used to supply 20 percent of Syria’s electricity.
To try to save the dam, Syrian fighters cut a deal granting about 70 militants safe passage out of town. But the Islamic State did its best to sabotage the complex anyway: The aging red turbines were blown up while the control panels were sprayed with bullets.
Syrian engineers have been trying to get one or two turbines running by cannibalizing parts from the wreckage. But with no Soviet-era parts on hand, nobody seems to think that the structure will be generating power in the months ahead, and the hazards of working in and around the dam are still significant: Last week, one newly trained Syrian demining expert was killed when he triggered an improvised explosive device.
But the question foremost in the minds of Tabqa’s residents is how they are going to return their lives to some semblance of normal. “There is no electricity, no food, no bread, and we need fuel for our trucks,” said Khalid Mohammed Ali Tata, 54. “Also, there are no jobs.”
International politics has added to the challenge. The Syrian government stopped paying teacher and other government salaries several months ago, depriving many residents of the ability to buy what limited food is available.
The assumption is that the salaries will eventually start to flow again, if only so President Bashar al-Assad’s government can demonstrate its nominal control of the region. But Syrian forces are blocked from coming closer to the town by a new “deconfliction line” that was negotiated by American and Russian generals, and it is not clear how quickly the authorities in Damascus might start the payments.
Turkey, annoyed by the United States’ decision to train and arm a Kurdish militia it has claimed is linked to the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, has sealed its borders, including for the most basic humanitarian assistance. The United Nations is active in Syria but has yet to begin any relief efforts in Tabqa, and it has mounted only one effort outside of the areas squarely controlled by the Assad government.
That leaves the United States to serve as a stopgap for the most immediate needs. Nearly 50 tons of flour, paid for by the Pentagon, were trucked in from Iraq to an American-funded warehouse on Wednesday. Another large shipment of American food aid — enough for 30,000 people for 30 days — will be divided among several towns and camps for displaced people in the Raqqa area, including Tabqa.
The United States is also sending in heavy equipment to move debris and is funding demining efforts.
And the American-led coalition is vetting and training forces to hold Tabqa, Raqqa and other nearby areas after they are retaken. They are being put through a two-week training course and will be responsible for maintaining public safety, tracking down any Islamic State fighters in hiding, preventing revenge killings and generally keeping order.
The problems run far deeper than that, and it is not clear who, if anyone, will rebuild the town’s collapsed and damaged buildings or fix the turbines inside the dam. But citing the lessons of Iraq, the Trump administration is staying away from nation-building, whether it involves picking local leaders or undertaking major reconstruction programs.
“We are not going to get beauty; it’s about pragmatism,” said Maj. Gen. Rupert Jones of the British Army, the deputy commander of the coalition force. “If they have put their troops in harm’s way, then it’s got to be their design.”
But not all of the town’s requests are being heeded. Shortly after driving over the dam, one coalition soldier pointed out a building where the Islamic State indoctrinated children as “cubs of the caliphate,” the militants’ version of the Cub Scouts.
As Mr. McGurk, the president’s special envoy, was meeting with the new Tabqa Civil Council, a leader of the body made an impassioned plea for help deprogramming the town’s children, who have not attended normal schools since the Islamic State took control of the area.
“A fundamental problem in our society is that ISIS’ ideology has been implanted in little kids’ brains, which means it will carry on in the future,” said Ahmad al-Ahmad, the co-president of the council. “We need psychological assistance for the kids in school and to teach them the real way of living.”
The Americans said that they were ready to provide desks and chalkboards, but that the Tabqa council should direct requests to the United Nations International Children’s Fund, when the United Nations finally reaches the town.
Even as they are trying to help Tabqa, American officials are trying to mobilize more international support for what they anticipate will be a far more demanding situation in Raqqa. Experts have already identified 400 potential “stabilization sites” in the city that may need to be repaired and cleared of mines and other explosives, like water treatment and electrical power plants, grain storage silos and other crucial parts of the city’s infrastructure.
“Tabqa is a dry run,” Mr. McGurk said. “There is a lot of work ahead.”