Al-Raqqa: over a decade of the Syrian revolution

Children playing on the downed statue of Hafez al-Assad, the former president and father of the current head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, al-Raqqa governorate in eastern Syria - 13 March 2013 (Reuters)

Children playing on the downed statue of Hafez al-Assad, the former president and father of the current head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, al-Raqqa governorate in eastern Syria - 13 March 2013 (Reuters)


Al-Raqqa – Hussam al-Omar

“They accused us of being regime shabiha (thugs) and of being cowards, besides other baseless accusations, but al-Raqqa people proved their affiliation to the revolution, early after it started.”

With these words, Khaled al-Hussein, a forty-year-old teacher, talked about his city of al-Raqqa, which was called the “Capital of Liberation” during the Syrian revolution. 

The city of al-Raqqa and its inhabitants were criticized by other Syrians for joining the revolution “late,” al-Hussein said, adding that this is untrue and such a belief could be attributed to the region’s marginalization at that time.

In March 2011, al-Raqqa witnessed its first popular protests against the Syrian regime, and like all protestors in Syrian governorates, the demonstrators in al-Raqqa were suppressed by the regime. However, what marked the situation in al-Raqqa was the fact that it was the first city to come under the opposition factions’ control.

Syrian regime attempts to win al-Raqqa’s support after years of marginalization

Despite the social and political upheavals that occurred in al-Raqqa over the past ten years, al-Hussein decided not to leave to be a witness to this major turning point in his city’s history.

The National Defense Forces (NDF), a militia affiliated with the Syrian regime, had the primary authority over al-Raqqa before the opposition factions controlled it. The NDF elements held the grip on all life aspects in al-Raqqa, al-Hussein said. They controlled the bakeries, fuel stations, and the city markets, besides imposing royalties on people. They demanded royalties openly from anyone passing through their checkpoints inside and on the peripheries of the city.

Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian regime’s president, made his first visit to al-Raqqa city east of the Euphrates River to hold the eid prayer in November 2011. Through the visit, al-Assad attempted to influence al-Raqqa’s people to win their support. However, al-Assad’s endeavors were futile because his forces used all kinds of violence to deter civilians from protesting against poor living conditions and security forces cruelty.

Al-Raqqa’s population constitutes of clans mainly. Its largest tribe al-Afadla is divided into several clans living in the Euphrates Valley. Other tribes include al-Bushaban, al-Wulda, al-Sabkha, al-Buassaf, among others. The clan structure of al-Raqqa brought its people together against the Syrian regime’s practices of killing and arresting protesters. 

The topple of Hubal

On 4 March 2013, the Syrian opposition factions and other Islamic groups took control of al-Raqqa, after attacking 22 checkpoints and a security branch at the same time while offering the Syrian regime’s elements two days to leave their positions before the attack.

The “most beautiful” moments following the announcement of the city’s “liberation” was the toppling of the statue of the former president, Hafez al-Assad, which was erected in the middle of the Governorate Square, thirty-year-old Mustafa al-Najm told Enab Baladi and described the status’ fall as the topple of Hubal, the pre-Islamic deity.  

The first days of the opposition factions’ control raised concerns on the part of al-Raqqa’s people, al-Najm told Enab Baladi. He added the mosques’ minarets Takbir phrases, ordered by the factions’ commanders and the calls to people to resume their normal lives, gave people some assurance.  

The Syrian regime forces maintained a limited presence in some areas of al-Raqqa, the largest of which was the 17th Infantry Division headquarters north of the city, the 93rd Armoured Brigade near Ayn Issa, and the al-Tabqa military airbase.

Al-Raqqa: capital of IS’ caliphate

Al-Raqqa became the center of attention after it emerged from the Syrian regime’s control. The “liberated” city became overwhelmed with Islamic advocacy flyers and centers, as well as video recordings promising the return of the caliphate on the same path of prophets to reintroduce the Islamic sharia law, al-Najm said.

After losing battles against Syrian opposition factions in Idlib and Aleppo countryside, the majority of what was known as the “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)” headed to al-Raqqa in July 2013.

It was not long before the fighters of what became known as the Islamic State (IS) were able to defeat the factions in the city, which withdrew in early 2014 towards eastern and northern Aleppo countryside areas. 

Ali al-Mushref, a former fighter in the al-Raqqa Revolutionaries Brigade, told Enab Baladi that the rebels “tried in vain to resist IS fighters,” who were fierce and in large numbers, not to mention the military supplies they gained from other governorates, from which their groups were withdrawing.

IS groups gained full control over al-Raqqa after taking possession of the 17th Infantry Division, the 93rd Armoured Brigade, and the al-Tabqa military airbase from the regime forces and announced the formation of the Islamic State in al-Raqqa through an audio recording for one of the IS commanders. Soon after, IS removed all traces of the Syrian revolution, such as flags and institutions, and targeted opposition fighters and activists under the pretext of “apostasy.”

IS’ rule in al-Raqqa

The people of al-Raqqa who lived under the control of IS and experienced its intimidation methods described IS’ ruling period as a “dark era.” They said that the most trivial infringement of IS’ rules, such as late prayers, western-styled haircuts, dress code violations, or the appearance of a woman’s eyes or part of her hands, would have caused its doer imprisonment in the Hisbah (a prison by IS for accountability of moral violations).

“IS called us the ‘commoners’ and made us feel like strangers in our own city, where we were born and had lived. The IS jihadists had the upper hand, and we were helplessly subservient,” al-Najm said, describing the situation of al-Raqqa residents who lived under the control of IS, which had foreign elements of tens of nationalities. 

IS received considerable universal attention because of its cruelty and violence, especially after the Yazidis massacre and the beheading of foreign prisoners. IS’ propaganda campaigns were crucial in attracting supporters and immigrants from western countries, whose leaders joined efforts to counter IS through forming the International Coalition Forces (ICF). The coalition included 80 countries, led by the United States. 

IS’ assault on Ayn al-Arab (Kobani) was the first nail in its coffin. ICF carried out airstrikes that forced the IS fighters’ withdrawal from Ayn al-Arab and shifted the international community’s focus to the Kurdish Forces who fought IS, as an ally on the ground in fighting IS, al-Mushref said.

In 2015, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) was established as part of the campaign to fight IS. The SDF engaged in direct combat with the IS groups, who previously fought the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the core of the SDF.

Despite their sufferings under the IS rule, the people of al-Raqqa feared the return of the regime to their city, particularly after it advanced near the southern administrative borders of the governorate on al-Rusafa village in the southwestern countryside of al-Raqqa. The residents waited in silence for the liberation of their city by the SDF. 

On 6 November 2016, the SDF launched the Wrath of Euphrates Operation, and within six months, the SDF gained control over several towns and villages surrounding the city of al-Raqqa and recovered large areas of them to its control before launching a direct attack on the isolated city on 6 June 2017.

IS militants faced 30,000 elements from the SDF, who were aided by the ICF airstrikes. IS imposed more restrictions on civilians after the military losses it witnessed, thirty-five-year-old Yassin Ibrahim from Kasret Faraj village in the southern countryside of al-Raqqa told Enab Baladi.

Post-IS al-Raqqa

SDF took control of al-Raqqa in late 2017, after 166 days of street battles against the IS fighters. The battles left thousands of civilians killed and caused 90% partial destruction and 60% total destruction to the city’s neighborhoods.

According to Ibrahim, the SDF is the “lesser of two evils” compared to IS or the Syrian regime. Still, the people of al-Raqqa yearn to the first days of liberation from the Syrian regime. “Those were the best days of al-Raqqa,” Ibrahim added.  

Al-Raqqa became the capital of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES). It contains the Executive Council’s headquarters, the Legislative Council, and the Syria Democratic Council, as well as other institutions that are the central pillars of the organizational and civil structure of SDF.

Local residents from al-Raqqa told Enab Baladi that the AANES and the SDF managed to reestablish some aspects of civilian life that were absent from al-Raqqa in recent years. They maintained a somehow civil state status despite some downsides within the AANES’ institutions, which have been accused of corruption and are still working to remove the rubble and secure infrastructure services, the locals added.

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