Raqqa … Changing Hues and Stagnating Future
Enab Baladi’s investigations team
Once a city of “love and poets,” then a “capital of the Islamic caliphate,” and ultimately to a shrine for “national icons” who have nothing to do with the true identity of the city, Raqqa moved from one state to another as the flags that were raised in it changed from one color to another. The city lost thousands of its compatriots and more than two-thirds of its infrastructure to the extent that it has become practically impossible at present to identify its original features.
Perhaps the most difficult stage in the history of the city was when it was under the control of the Islamic State between 2014 and 2017. After being declared by ISIS as its capital, the city has become the favorite destination for extremists around the world and thus a legitimate target for dozens of countries that wish to fight terrorism accumulated in one of the smallest cities of Syria.
Today, after ISIS withdrew from the city, leaving behind them a “large minefield” and yellow flags raised instead of the black ones, Raqqa has become a battleground for world powers to settle their accounts. As for its people, they are still paying the biggest price, both as victims of what ISIS left behind it and as an interest spread in a business deal that the United States is executing through the Syrian Democratic Forces fighters.
The largest military bill in Syria
For three years, Raqqa has been described as a “terrorist” den, unlike what it had previously enjoyed as a great historical position imposed by the site it occupied, and its archaeological features.
The description of the city as “terrorist” is the result of inconsistent years in which various military forces controlled it one after the other, most notably the Islamic State in 2014, but before it the Islamic factions seized the city by the beginning of the Syrian revolution after Assad forces withdrew from it.
The year 2013 was the turning point in the history of the province, as it was completely out of the Syrian regime control, after “Al-Nusra Front,” “the Islamic Front,” “Ahrar al-Sham Brigade,” ” Raqqa Revolutionaries’ Brigade,” “Uwais al-Qarni Brigade, ” and ” The Farouq Brigades” declared they took control of it, and then captured both the governor of Raqqa and the Ba’ath Party’s secretary. It also destroyed the biggest Hafez al-Assad statue and released all prisoners in the Raqqa central prison.
|The province of Raqqa is located on the Euphrates River and it is considered one of the richest agricultural areas in Syria in the past. It is about 160 km from Aleppo to the east and about 200 km from Iraq.
The city has three dams on the Euphrates, the most important of which is the Euphrates dam, which was damaged by the bombing of the international coalition accompanying the SDF battles, in addition to Tabqa Dam, which was previously feeding the city of Raqqa and Aleppo with water and electricity, and finally Baath Dam (Al-Mansoura).
It is strategically located for SDF, in terms of its connection to the areas it controls in the far north-east of Syria, and the areas it has recently controlled as Manbij and the surrounding villages.
However, barely a year passed after they took control of the city and consolidated their influence before the “Islamic State” enters the city in January 2014 from the city of al-Tabqah gate to be the third dominant military party and declare it as its capital.
This coincided with the early stages of its deployment in Iraq and Syria; then the city entered in the most difficult period, as the entry of ISIS was shocking to the opposition factions, which were accused of handing over the city without a fight. Regional countries then started to pay more attention to it.
ISIS’s spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, announced after their victory the establishment of what he considered an “Islamic caliphate.” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was appointed as “Khalifa for Muslims”. Developments then were followed by the opening of the Iraqi-Syrian border under the name of the Islamic state.
A few days after control shifted to ISIS, Assad forces withdrew from the 17th Brigade and the 93rd Brigade north of Raqqa, to the Al-Tabqa military airbase in the western countryside. ISIS tightened its grip even more on the city and immediately started to implement its military, religious and economic policies on the “land of the new Caliphate.”
The ISIS rule lasted nearly three and a half years, during which it relied on spreading its ideas and indoctrinating dozens of fighters from other countries. Its control led to the interruption of communication with other areas and the displacement of thousands of civilians.
During this period, there were repeated images of the executions carried out by ISIS against its civilian opponents or those who violated the measures it imposed to run the region. These images were met with military stalemate on the outskirts of the province, especially on the Assad forces fronts from the south and west to the northern and eastern Aleppo countryside.
This tableau started to shake when the Kurdish forces declared a military operation whose target is the province with air and ground military support from the United States of America in June 2017 and were able to control the cities and large areas in the vicinity until full control of Raqqa on 10 October 2017.
Observers believe that Raqqa moved from one extreme military party to another, especially with the SDF attempt to “spread” its concepts and the doctrine it believes in, concerning the PKK, which was confirmed by the actions carried out following the declaration of control of the city by painting the walls in yellow instead of black, accompanied by the deployment of security barriers in most of its neighborhoods as a step to block the return of civilians living in the camps surrounding the city, according to human rights reports.
Lack of serious efforts to remove the rubble … and “reconstruction” is far-fetched
Four months after the Syrian Democratic Forces took control of Raqqa, the state of the city did not differ much from the time when ISIS departed. The ruins of the buildings have not been removed, and the center of the city has barely recovered its former vitality.
The journalist Ahmed al-Mahmoud, a resident of the city of Raqqa, pointed out that the number of civilians who returned to the city did not exceed 10% of the total population of the original inhabitants of Raqqa.
This percentage may seem high when compared to “lazy” moves with respect to the efforts to remove rubble, restore partially damaged buildings and mine clearance.
According to al-Mahmoud, most of the returnees settled in the outskirts of the city neighborhoods, such as “Mashleb” and “Rumaila” and “Euphrates”, as the percentage of destruction did not exceed 30%, compared to the percentages of destruction which reached 90% in the city center, and al-Mahmoud noted that demining operations in these neighborhoods are proceeding faster than in other areas.
The Al-Kasrat area, west of the city, also witnessed a relative recovery, as it was not subjected to extensive destruction because ISIS withdrew from it without fighting, in addition to being an agricultural and water-rich area, which allowed for increased trade of vegetables and fruit in it.
As for the Raqqa downtown, it is a “ghost town,” according to al-Mahmoud, who confirmed that movement is partially active in the city during the day, while the people move towards the city outskirts by the evening.
“There are a lot of shops which have opened their doors and are portrayed by the media as active and colorful, but they are actually empty, surrounded by devastation”. He also pointed out that this is just part of the “propaganda” led by SDF to indicate that life has returned to Raqqa again.
Those who returned to these neighborhoods are “forced to do so” according to al-Mahmoud, most of whom were previously displaced to the outskirts of Raqqa and lived in tents. They preferred to return to their partially destroyed homes, despite the deterioration of service sectors, with the absence of water sources and the difficulty of securing electricity.
The United Nations expressed its concern about the deterioration of the humanitarian situation in the city of Raqqa, after the departure of the Islamic State, and the spokesman for the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Stephane Dujarric, said last December that the population living in the city suffers from lack of water and food and other assistance.
He added that relief agencies staff could not reach the city and warned of the possibility of the spread of diseases because some of the bodies of the people who fell as a result of the explosion of some IEDs and mines have not been buried yet.
The rubble is still in its place despite “Early Intervention”
The Raqqa Civil Council, established by the Syrian Democratic Forces in March 2017, has been clearing the rubble out of the city and throwing away war waste in cooperation with a number of international organizations.
According to the Raqqa Reconstruction Committee, the Infectious Diseases Hospital, the Obstetrics Hospital, and Tariq ibn Ziyad and Oqba ibn Nafe schools have been secured and cleaned in February. Attention is now paid to vital centers in the city, such as bridges and main sites. The Internal Security Forces supervise the cleaning of the Archaeological Museum and dozens of houses in its vicinity.
As for the rubble clearance, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) started the rubble removal project in the city of Raqqa. The project is managed by the Early Intervention Team, which started working in the city on January 14, after receiving a grant from the USAID for the implementation of the project in stages, in a bid to rehabilitate the city and to benefit the people from services and projects, according to what the team’s project coordinator, Hussam al-Jassem, told Enab Baladi.
Work began in the city of Raqqa, in Sayf al-Dawla, Al-Mansur and February 23 streets, to open roads and transfer rubble to private dumps, to facilitate movement within the city and support stability. According to al-Jassem, the targeted areas include those whose infrastructure has been destroyed, along with similar campaigns in Tabqa and province countryside.
According to al-Jassem, what hinders their work is the immense destruction, which imposes a twofold strategy that consists in dividing the city into sectors and cooperating with other functional service bodies to push the efforts to remove the rubble forward.
The agency seems to concentrate on campaigns launched in Raqqa countryside, while no significant change has been brought to the city, which makes it, according to its inhabitants, “devoid of the most basic constituents of life.”
|Early Intervention Team
The Early Intervention Team, which describes itself as the product of a community initiative, was established in early June 2017. It works to find solutions to the problems of people by monitoring their suffering through sessions with them in the aim of restoring stability to Raqqa.
The team consists of two departments: “CRG”, which meets periodically with Raqqa residents to monitor their needs, and “ERT”, which is an engineering team that studies possible solutions to these needs and seeks to apply them on the ground with the help of administrators from the province.
Poor funding and premature talk about “reconstruction”
With the end of the war against the Islamic State, many questions have been raised about the reconstruction process, the source of materials and equipment used in the operation, and the party that will fund it. Political statements were also issued from Kurdish officials and the International Coalition in this regard.
The international coalition, led by Washington, has shown its willingness to contribute to reconstruction; however, US State Department regional spokesman Nathan Tek said at the end of last year that “after the liberation of the city, a difficult task of restoring stability and reconstruction of the city remains,” and noted that “the reconstruction process in Raqqa will be long-term.”
Following the US State Department’s statements, many of the international promises made in the context of reconstruction were repeated, although they were all limited to promises to finance rubble removal, demining, and reduce environmental risks resulting from hundreds of bodies so far under the rubble of buildings.
For example, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian announced that his country had allocated 15 million euros by the end of last year to implement projects in the food aid, demining, water, health and refugee help sectors.
The Civil Council also talked about efforts to “rebuild under international support” and attempts to mobilize funding from Arab countries (the UAE and Saudi Arabia) and European countries to remove the rubble and secure the city.
However, these promises, of which no part has yet been applied on the ground, are interpreted in the context of political messages and attempts to pressure Turkey and Russia.
According to a research paper entitled “Raqqa after ISIS… An Analytical Interpretation in the Results and Reconstruction”, published by the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, the most common matter between the countries that declared their intention to reconstruct (the European Union, USA, Saudi Arabia) is their participation in the current situation with their tense relations with Turkey which has a special sensitivity to any support provided to the Syrian Democratic Forces.
The Center considered a part of the reconstruction has conveyed an important message to Russia, which alone accounted for most of the reconstruction of the regime-controlled areas, and did not let it alone to impose a formula for a political solution that would necessarily require the agreement of all actors.
At the same time, the Center pointed out that the amount of destruction in Raqqa, which amounted to 80 percent, is not commensurate with the size of the “meager” amounts of money declared by the countries that are supposed to sponsor the operation, and that set the goal of these amounts to mine clearance and the implementation of projects in the food aid, water, healthcare, and to provide help to only refugees.
Mines Implanted everywhere and healthcare is nowhere to be found
After the residents of Raqqa had been suffering for years under the threat of bombardment, the situation did not seem to be better after ISIS withdrew than it had been before. The residents of the “devastated” city found themselves confronted with the problem of war leftovers, the first of which was displacement, while the last of which was not death with mines.
In Raqqa’s residents’ attempt to overcome the suffering of displacement to return to their areas and check out their houses, they had first to pass over the mines and explosive devices, which resulted in hundreds of victims and people with permanent physical disabilities.
Several international calls have called on the residents not to return to Raqqa, and warned them of a humanitarian catastrophe that could kill dozens of people a week. The world’s countries have rushed to pump their money into the reconstruction of the devastated city, including demining operations, of which only a meager achievement has been recorded, with the world neglecting what shall be done in concert with that operation, including the provision of healthcare to people affected and injured by the war leftovers.
“Shocking” numbers of casualties
UN numbers indicate that mines in Raqqa kill between 50 and 70 people a week, numbers that the United Nations has described as shocking, and which warn of a possible bigger danger in case 450 thousand residents continued to return to Raqqa.
At a press conference held by UN Assistant Secretary-General and Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria, Panos Moumtzis, on Wednesday, February, 7th, he said the data indicate the presence of a “huge amount” of unexploded mines. He continued “We have never seen as a big number of unexploded mines as in Raqqa, it is a huge quantity, in every house, every room and every inch of the city.”
He pointed out that the organization cannot prevent residents of Raqqa from returning to their “dangerous” city, they rather must warn them of the leftovers of that war.
Since the Syrian Democratic Forces took control over the city of Raqqa in mid-October, after four months of fighting against ISIS, activists have been documenting the death of civilians by landmine explosions on a daily basis.
The Syrian Democratic Forces called on all countries and humanitarian and international organizations to “participate in the process of the reconstruction of the city and its countryside and help remove the war leftovers and destruction ISIS has left.”
In response, the relief teams of local civil society organizations, which work on mine clearance, have been deployed. However, they often avoid media statements, given the “sensitivity” of the issue.
Enab Baladi has tried to communicate with many of the teams of the humanitarian organizations and the local council of Raqqa. However, they refused to make any statements, and pointed out that the instructions prohibit them to make any statements at the current stage.
Mine victims are left without healthcare
As a reaction to the war leftovers in Raqqa, the World Health Organization (WHO) and Médecins Sans Frontières Organization have set up several medical care points in the villages of Raqqa, Ayn Issa and al-Tabqah that are aimed at providing health services and medical care to mine victims.
However, according to Enab Baladi correspondent, these centers are not enough for the large number of victims, as there is only one center in the town of Ayn Issa of the Médecins Sans Frontières Organization which is witnessing a great congestion to the extent that some patients might be found sleeping on the floor due to lack of places as well as poor provided services, according to victims’ statements to the correspondent.
The specialized centers that are aimed at treating the victims of explosion of mines and improvised explosive devices, which is often followed by the victims’ loss of one or both feet, are absent. So far, there are no specialized centers for amputees, which would provide them with prosthetics or at least follow up their conditions, according the correspondent.
The gap that the international health organizations have not yet been able to fill has led some of the mine victims to resort to private hospitals, which receive large amounts of money for treatment. Some of them might even ask to get paid in dollars.
Since ISIS withdrew from Raqqa in mid-October 2017, 60 thousand citizens have returned to their destroyed areas, while others are still frequently visiting the city to check out their houses and find out what has happened to them as a result of the armed conflict.
UN and human rights organizations calls have increased for the removal of mines and explosive devices in Raqqa, as a first step towards the reconstruction of the city.
“Demining business”… House clearance at $ 100
In light of the human tragedy the residents of Raqqa have been facing to remove the war leftovers, demining in the city has turned into a lucrative business for some expert and non-expert individuals in this filed.
One of Raqqa’s residents told Enab Baladi that he paid $ 100 to a party, which he refused to name, in return for the removal of mines ISIS combatants have left in his house. Another resident confirmed the matter, and pointed out to a lack official authorities’ responsibility regarding this issue.
He added that the local council’s ability to clear the mines is not enough for the huge number of mines which ISIS has left. Things could even go as bad as a mine exploding during the opening of the fridge or opening the door.
The local council in Raqqa receives dozens of requests on a daily basis to clear houses from mines. However, it cannot quickly respond to these requests due to the lack of staff. People often register their names in the council and they get a response after one or two months, according to the correspondent.
Nevertheless, the long time the response takes forces the residents of Raqqa to resort to individuals and unofficial destinations to clear their house from mines for $ 100 per house.
International connivance yields a “mysterious” future
The Syrian Democratic Forces’ control over Raqqa Governorate cannot be considered as a final stage. There are still questions about this governorate’s future till now, despite the fact that ISIS have withdrawn from it six months ago, and that it has been classified within the Federal of North of Syria as a Kanton which is run by self-governance.
The questions are related to the information that has been circulating about the possibility of the Syrian regime entering the governorate as part of some international agreements. This is to be added to the city’s symbolic signification to the people of Upper Mesopotamia who are afraid to return to the city and start living a new life, and who believe in the possibility of renewed military confrontations which might lead to the return of the influence of Assad’s forces to it, as was the case before.
As for how military analysts, contacted by Enab Baladi, the future of the city of Raqqa is still mysterious, especially with the United States’ control over the areas of the east of the Euphrates River and the corresponding US-Russian tension whose signs have started to appear in the eastern countryside of Deir ez-Zor, with military confrontations in which 300 Russian armies were killed, according to a report by Reuters news agency.
Colonel Pilot Hatem al-Rawi considers that the future of Raqqa Governorate is a “purely American decision.” Russia and Iran have no “effective” force in its surroundings, which makes the region under the United States’ disposal.
In an interview with Enab Baladi, al-Rawi pointed out to the international harmony on the Syrian territories which would affect the future of any region. The Turkish side is focusing on of Idlib Governorate and the countryside of Aleppo, which is supported by the US as a transitional state and temporary convergence that at the same time would strengthen its presence in the eastern region of Syria.
According to al-Rawi, the city of Raqqa is of no important value for the Turkish side as much as it represents a “moral value” for Iran and the Russian side. This has been interpreted in the recent Iranian statements which reacted to the threatening discourse by insisting on the need to oust the United States from the city of Raqqa.
The statements coincided with the Syrian regime’ accusation to the Syrian Democratic Forces of being “a new ISIS” which does not differ in its military or civil form ISIS.
According to al-Rawi, there is no justification for the Syrian regime’s return to Raqqa, which will not serve any party. It is unable to make the burden heavier than it really is for his forces, especially since the Governorate’s situation with the presence of the Syrian Democratic Forces has been more stable. This relieves the US which is seeking a new Middle East.
Al-Rawi’s point of view is not different from that of the military analyst Khaled al-Mutlaq, who explained that the city of Raqqa has been included in the US plan of the division of Syria and demographic change, especially after the recent confessions of former spokesman of the Syrian Democratic Forces, Talal Silo, who said that the battle in the Governorate was “fabricated” under an agreement with support from ISIS and the US to totally displace civilians from it, and to fully destroy it to develop its plan again.
Al-Mutlaq believes that the governorate will be a stronghold of the ” desired state of the Kurds” in their plans. The Syrian regime has no interest in taking control over it at least for the foreseeable future, for many reasons, most importantly the lack of human staff, apart from its role in planning the division of Syria.
The statement which US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made after the Syrian Democratic Forces took control over the city, may reflect the US plans, as Tillerson considered that “the restoration of the city of Raqqa has brought the Syrian crisis into a new phase,” which raises the signs of the next phase the governorate will witness.
Referring back to the position of the military side that took control over the governorate, the Syrian Democratic Forces announced in the statement of control that Raqqa would be part of a “decentralized federal” Syria.
The Syrian Democratic Forces also said that they would hand over the administration of the city of Raqqa and its suburbs to the Civil Council of Raqqa and the duties of protecting the security of the city and its countryside to the internal security forces and promised to protect the governorate’s borders against all “external threats”.
In addition, The Syrian Democratic Forces considered that the governorate’ future will be determined by its people within the framework of “a democratic decentralized federal Syria, in which the governorate’s residents would run their own affairs.”
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