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Raqqa after three years of “Islamic State’s expulsion”

An IS tunnel in a school in Raqqa - 2018 (Hawar News Agency (ANHA) )

An IS tunnel in a school in Raqqa - 2018 (Hawar News Agency (ANHA) )

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Raqqa – Hussam al-Omar

Syria’s northern city of Raqqa was referred to as “The Ghost City” three years ago; many of its residents, including Taher al-Salem, were forced to flee their homes as fighting escalated past years. The city was showered with bombs and missiles during 166 days of fighting. 

The conflict over the eastern bank of the Euphrates continued to drag on; as of 2014. First of all, the Syrian opposition groups and Islamic factions took control of the city in March 2013 until the so-called Islamic State (IS) takeover of Raqqa at the end of the same year. In October 2017, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), along with the US-led Global Coalition to Defeat Daesh/IS, ousted the IS from Raqqa, the IS de-facto capital in Syria. 

Taher al-Salem told Enab Baladi that the severe destruction inflicted upon his hometown made him unable to recognize its neighborhoods and streets. He added that the lanes of Raqqa were filled with burned-out vehicles, and buildings were flooded with dust and large chunks of debris. Landmines have been laid widespread. “ I was preventing my kids from playing outside. We were cautious in all our movements. We had heard hundreds of stories about people who lost their lives or were injured by the mines that cause significant concern among the returnees.”

Given the high level of destruction and danger, al-Salem’s family re-thought displacement to the western countryside as an option, but al-Salem (aged 30) preferred to stay in Raqqa. He indicated that “Most of the destruction scenes disappeared, with only little destruction left, but things are going pretty well or different immediately after Raqqa was liberated.”

Euphrates Volcano and Wrath of the Euphrates… destroyed everything 

 while factions of the Syrian opposition and Kurdish factions announced the establishment of a joint operations room called ” Euphrates volcano.”

At the end of 2014, after the “brutality” of the IS group shocked the whole world, especially with the publication of a series of videos showing executions of foreign hostages, the US-led Global Coalition was formed to defeat the IS in both Syria and Iraq. Adding to that, certain factions of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) announced the establishment of a joint operations room/coalition, called the “Euphrates Volcano.”

The newly formed coalition of factions consisted of the al-Tawhid Brigade (the eastern sector), the Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa (Raqqa Revolutionaries’ Brigades), the Jihad in the Path of God Brigade, the Northern Sun Battalion, the Brigade of the Trustees of Raqqa, and Saraya Jarablus, the Retribution Army, the Kurdish Front, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, and the Kurdish Women’s Protection Units.

The entry of the allied forces into the cities of Ain Issa and Tell Abyad in mid-2015 was a starting point for cracking down on the IS group in Raqqa and its countryside.

In October of that year, the formation of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) was announced; the SDF gathered new factions, such as the “Syriac Military Council,” ” the Syriac Security Office (commonly known as the Sutoro Police,” with the “People’s Protection Units” remaining in the lead. The Raqqa campaign, codenamed Operation Wrath of Euphrates, was launched on 6 November 2016.

Within six months, the attacking forces managed to retake control of the towns and villages surrounding Raqqa, before the start of the direct attack on the isolated city on 6 June 2017.

After that, the battles turned into a street warfare pattern and direct fighting between the IS and 30,000 SDF fighters, with air cover from the Global Coalition.”

Thousands of dead and missing, including fighters and civilians, lost their lives due to the intense bombardment after IS forces prevented the city’s residents from fleeing and placed mines in the streets and buildings.

The US-led coalition forces conducted nearly 6039 airstrikes during its offensive to expel the IS fighters between June and November 2017. The number of deaths resulting from airstrikes is not yet determined by retrieving more than six thousand bodies from mass graves scattered throughout the city. This was preceded by the declaration of the “SDF” Raqqa “empty” of the IS forces on 17 October 2017.

Besides, six months into its establishment, the headquarter of the Civil Council of Raqqa was transferred from Ain Issa to the city of Raqqa to begin the phase of removing the rubble.

Three years to remove rubble and mines

Throughout the city, the “Internal Security” forces and the “Demining Mine Engineering” division of the Kurdish-led “Autonomous Administration,” the civilian side of the “SDF,” counted 8,000 mines.

 Mines pose a serious threat, hindering the safe return of the residents to their homes. In addition to that, people are afraid of human violations committed by the SDF, and the active IS cells. 

Furthermore, 40 percent of Raqqa’s 151,000 homes are destroyed completely, while the rest of the buildings are partially destroyed, leading to the population’s slow return.

At that time, the SDF played on the tribal chord, worked to win over some Arab tribes and their sheiks, and tried to promote the relatively new “Autonomous Administration’s” project on the Syrian society. The SDF succeeded in attracting many of the people of Raqqa who joined its ranks and its security services.

The Civil Raqq Council estimated that the number of Raqqa’s population amounts to more than 400,000. Al-Salem believes that the administrative institutions are no longer suffering from “the lack of experience, ” leading to their work’s progress. The institutions’ work in providing the residents with their needs has become better, not to mention that dozens of humanitarian organizations offer food baskets and healthcare services, which the SDF cannot provide to populations, as highlighted by al-Salem. 

A technician in the Technical Services Department of the Raqqa Civil Council, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he does not have the permission to be interviewed with media outlets, told Enab Baladi the work of removing the effects of destruction and battles began as soon as the members of the institutions entered Raqqa. However, the city is still waiting for “more international support” to complete the restoration work required to turn Raqqa  into a “new city built on the ruins.”

“The Technical Services Department” removes one thousand cubic meters of rubble weight daily, and an amount of 25 thousand per month, which allowed the opening of secondary and main roads inside the city and its outskirts. Raqqa has also used conflict rubble by filling the “Balikh” River banks and digging up some roads, building ferry stations, and repairing bridges. The restoration rate has reached 60 percent, the most important of which is the old bridge linking the city of Raqqa with its southern countryside and the Raqqa-Aleppo road.

The number of requests for a permit to rebuild semi-completely destroyed homes in the city reached 1,722, according to municipal statistics in Raqqa.

“Similar to Mongol destruction” of infrastructure

Hussein Gawish, a history teacher, in an interview with Enab Baladi, described what his city lived through, saying that he did not imagine seeing the “destruction of the Mongols” who invaded the Levant in the 13th century before his eyes.

What saddened Hussein Gawish the most is the “destruction of schools,” most of which are still awaiting restoration, after 90 schools have been completely restored, while only 210 out of 394 schools have been partially restored in the city, comprising a total of 119 thousand students.

Raqqa today needs a lot of restoration. The forty-year-old teacher stressed that even though Raqqa’s municipality indicated that it spent about billions of US dollars on the city’s rehabilitation, the reality on the ground does not match the financial figures they talked about.

The economic situation “is not at the required level,” while the residents are “tired” of postponing their requests, as Gawish puts it, indicating that “many” of the city’s neighborhoods do not have access to electricity, and some of them lack water, 

Meanwhile, the SDF has tended to “inculcate its ideas” within the educational curricula, under the pretext of torpedoing the “extremist” ideology imposed by the IS group.

The electricity grid was completely destroyed following the battles. With the gradual return of electric power, 40 percent of residential neighborhoods are still unserved.

As for the health sector in Raqqa, the “Health Committee” in the “Raqqa Civil Council” talks about regaining the city’s much medical expertise that left after the IS’s takeover. Al-Hilal, in addition to six private hospitals. It opened 27 health centers and dispensaries distributed over the city’s neighborhoods and villages.

Raqqa includes three public hospitals: “National Hospital,” “Maternity, Childcare,  obstetrics, and Gynecology Hospital,” “Hilal Hospital and “Crescent” Hospital, in addition to six private hospitals. It opened 27 health centers and dispensaries distributed over the city’s neighborhoods and villages.

The residents of Raqqa are working hard to revive their city again, yet, they are encountered with endless security problems. After the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) advanced in Operation Peace Spring in October 2019, the SDF signed an agreement with the Syrian regime under Russian auspices stipulating the Syrian regime forces’ deployment on the front lines with the TAF  and its allied factions.

The Kurdish-led forces announce from time to time the arrest of  “IS cells” or “pro-Syrian regime cells” “trying to destabilize” the city. Sometimes the residents of Raqqa accuse some of the SDF fighters of corruption and oppression.

 

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