The people of Raqqa continue to go to work every morning and life carries on almost as normal on the city’s streets despite the heavy burden of life under ISIS and the constant presence of fighter jets in the sky.
In “secret” conversations behind closed doors, the people of Raqqa express their fear of what and who is coming next after the defeat of ISIS in light of the continued fighting in the city’s northern outskirts.
Victims Silently Buried
“We are between a rock and a hard place and we can’t even scream or protest”, says Hussein, a 49 year-old resident of the Rumayla neighborhood of Raqqa. He tells Enab Baladi, “Residents are being silently murdered! We are not allowed to speak out, taking pictures is prohibited and we are forced to keep our mouths shut while the killing goes on, everyone is complicit and the victims are being silently buried.”
He adds that ISIS is raging a violent propaganda war against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), attacking them in their Friday sermons and inciting people against them. They even threaten those who disobey them with death and end the sermon with the sentence “Victory is near and the state will remain”.
Hussein continues, “Our sky belongs to the Russians and the Coalition now, and our land belongs to the Kurds and to ISIS.” He adds that news of the SDF drawing closer to Raqqa brings fear and uncertainty, which is “drawn all over the faces of the residents of this tortured city.”
Open-ended Battles as Residents Await Their Fate
Ali, another of Raqqa’s residents who lives in the Sikkat al-Qitar neighborhood, thinks that the actions of the “Kurdish forces” and the civilian casualties caused by Coalition airstrikes help the Islamic State tp spread its propaganda against both these sides, “While the Islamic State are trying to use the images of massacres and victims of the international coalition to gain sympathy from the people, some accuse Arab Syrians of supporting ISIS, which makes things even worse.”
Many people in Raqqa wonder why there are no voices condemning the massacres and ruthless conduct of the forces attacking Raqqa. Ali asks, “Why is everybody fixated only on defeating ISIS and ignoring the innocent people who live under its rule?”
The arrival of refugees from many places in Iraq and Syria has made the residents of Raqqa even more afraid, given the awful stories the refugees bring of barbaric acts by the “Popular Mobilization Forces” in Iraq and the SDF in Syria against residents of the territories they have retaken from ISIS. These forces are accused of killing and forcibly displacing hundreds and trying to change the demographic make-up of the villages they have taken in the northern countryside of Raqqa.
The young resident believes that the forces are mainly composed of Kurds, with an insignificant number of Arabs who only serve a political purpose,, “Decision-making power is in the hands of the Kurds, who are the mediators with the western alliance, headed by the United States.” In his view, adding more Arabs to the forces “will not change the balance of power.”
The SDF have launched the second stage of Operation “Euphrates Rage”, which aims to recapture Raqqa by 10 December of this year with air support from the international coalition. The SDF is a coalition of many Kurdish, Arab and Assyrian factions, most notably the People’s Protection Units, belonging to the Kurdish Democratic Union.
The SDF recently announced that many Arabic factions had joined its ranks, such as the the “Military Council of Deir ez-Zor”, the “al-Nukhba Forces” affiliated with the “al-Ghad al-Suri” movement founded by the former head of the National Council, Ahmed al-Jerba, and “Thuwwar al-Raqqa”.
Fear of another “Al-Hasakah”
Media activist Bakr Taha, aged 23, told Enab Baladi that the SDF’s actions are very suspicious and that everyone is wondering what the real percentage of Arabs in these forces is, why they were eliminated from the first phase of Operation “Euphrates Rage” and why they are now being allowed to join in the second phase? People are asking who the proposed leaders are, their roles, and where their true loyalties lie. Taha tells us that these questions are on the lips of everyone in Raqqa and that they fear another “al-Hasakah” and another canton being created by the “Autonomous Administration”, managed by them as they like.
According to Taha, politicians and military leaders see negative signs, citing Ghareeb Hisso’s statement that, “The liberated territories will join the autonomous areas spontaneously”.
Where Are They Taking Us?
“What do we have left? What will become of us? What does the world expect us to do while we watch our families being killed?”, asked 69 year-old Maryam who lives in the al-Edekhar area. “Everyone has our blood on their hands”, Maryam told Enab Baladi.
Maryam lives in a small house and makes her living by selling secondhand clothes. Although she openly admits that she hates ISIS and does not want them to continue in power, she also says that “there are few options”. She adds, “The first few days of the liberation of Raqqa were the happiest days of my life but now all that has changed.”
Maryam is not the only one who is worried. Many residents of the Arab parts of Raqqa share the same fears. Hamed, a young man who has been living in the town of Tell-Abyad for two years after fleeing his town, is among them. He told Enab Baladi, “The Kurdish forces are no better than ISIS in spite of all the media promotion the get. They imprison children and women, they kill people, exile them and even recruit children. What they do is organized crime! Our only place of refuge is the grave, maybe it is better for us than this wretched life.”
The region’s residents do not believe that the SDF defeating ISIS would bring an end to conflict. On the contrary, it would be “the beginning of a new war”. Although some think it highly unlikely that ISIS could emerge as the victor, others believe that the “Kurdish forces cannot last in a region in which Arabs are the majority and continue to assert their presence, despite being marginalized for now”