Iran-backed militias wreaking havoc on Raqqa countryside— locals demanding “liberation”

Shi'ite militias in Iraq, near the Syria border strip – 2015 (AP)

Shi'ite militias in Iraq, near the Syria border strip – 2015 (AP)

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Raqqa- Hussam al-Omar

In the southeastern suburbs of Raqqa governorate, held by the Syrian regime, “control belongs to Shiite militias,” said former teacher Muhammad al-Hamadan.

Al-Hamadn, 40, told Enab Baladi that “it was sectarianism and criminality” that forced him to abandon his city Maadan to Raqqa in 2018.

The Syrian regime forces, Iranian, and Shiite militias took control of Maadan city and other towns and villages in the southern countryside of Raqqa in late 2017. They captured these areas from the Islamic State (IS).

The battles between the two sides were “quick!” At the same time, the combat “was extremely terrifying, and left many victims,” people displaced from the southeastern countryside described the hostilities which ended with the Syrian regime predominance over the entire area, as far as Raqqa city.

Al-Hamadan recalled the ferocity of the bombing and the scorched-earth policy the regime forces and allied militias used to advance even though IS fighters made a “hasty” retreat to the areas they controlled at the time in Raqqa, Deir Ezzor and the Badia (desert).

Fleeing death to death

Combat over the southeastern countryside of Raqqa forced horrified civilians to cross the Euphrates River in search of safety on the opposite bank, controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Many died drowning in the river. Still, they took the chance, preferring that to living at the mercy of regime forces.

The countryside of Raqqa is divided into two control areas, under the SDF and regime forces, connected by the al-Akirshi crossing, located nearly 20 km southeast of Raqqa.

The military influence is also demarcated by smuggling points across the Euphrates River, which divide territories in the eastern countryside of Raqqa.

Shepherds and locals in the southern countryside of Raqqa were targets for several “massacres.” Dozens were killed over the past three years, with the blame often pointed at Iranian militias and regime forces.

Fearing the same fate, Hassan al-Khder, 30, and three of his brothers decided to leave their hometown Sabkha and headed to Raqqa, once regime forces captured the area.

Al-Khder said that young men are the key target to violations, adding that regime-held areas in Raqqa’s countryside are almost empty of younger men.

The Syrian regime “too often” accuses IS of committing youth-aimed crimes and violations, unlike the population which holds Iranian and Shiite militias accountable.

On 17 April, residents of the al-Khamisiya village in the southeastern countryside of Raqqa found bodies of dead shepherds. The victims were killed and their livestock robbed, Eye of the Euphrates local news site reported, describing the incident as another of the recurrent livestock theft murders perpetrated by Iranian militias.

In addition to recurrent murders, the southern countryside of Raqqa suffers from royalties. Militias have been imposing such taxes not only on residents but also on people entering and leaving the area towards SDF-held territories in Raqqa.

Private cars and passenger vehicles have to pay militias royalties ranging from 1000 to 50,000 Syrian pounds (SYP-16.5 USD). Drivers have to pay larger sums when cars are loaded with goods or vegetables.

Al-Hamdan described the residents’ situation in the militia-controlled areas as “miserable.” He added that infrastructure is completely decimated, and services are non-existent, not to mention recurrent arrests, violations, and crimes against civilians.

As for regime officials’ visits to the area, Muhammad dismissed these as “an elusive display of power” because the actual and strongest authority is the Iranian militias.

Let SDF govern the area

On the condition of anonymity, a sheik of one of the tribes in the SDF-run southern countryside of Raqqa told Enab Baladi that the Arab tribes in the regime-held countryside of Raqqa demanded the “liberation” of the region, annexing it to the Autonomous Administration’s areas, and ending the regime’s and Iranian militias’ rule there.

The sheik confirmed that his counterparts in regime-held areas have sent several messages through intermediaries to the SDF and the US-led coalition. The messages explained the situation in the Raqqa suburbs under the control of the regime, citing recurrent violations.

The sheik said that the coalition still had not responded, adding that the coalition and the SDF are both responsible for saving civilians from daily abuses and violations.

Eliminate militias, regardless of the means

Enab Baladi interviewed a group of Maadan city’s residents who fled their homes when the Syrian regime recaptured the area. They confirmed that their relatives who are still in Maadan and other areas hope that the regime’s influence will end in any way due to the sectarian abuses they are exposed to.

Arab tribes had previously taken to media and called on the SDF to annex regime-held areas in Raqqa’s countryside.

On 4 September 2020, a dignitary of the al-Ali clan, Ramadan al-Rahal, spoke to Hawar news agency. He said that he had received appeals from the people in the southeastern countryside of Raqqa, demanding power be taken from the regime’s hand and granted to the SDF and the US-led coalition after they have been “traumatized” by Iranian militias.

Al-Rahal attributed these appeals to the many violations against civilians perpetrated by Iranian militias, which are acting as the absolute power in the regime-held areas in the countryside of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor.

In an interview with North Press Agency, on 23 February 2020, the sheik of the Sabkha tribe, Muhammad Turki al-Sawaan, appleade to the SDF to intervene and find a consensual security solution with regime forces to protect innocent residents from recurring “systematic killings” in the al-Sabkha desert, southeast of the city of Raqqa.

Al-Sawaan said that it is unlikely that the Syrian regime is ignorant of the identity of the perpetrators of these massacres, which have grown systematically recurrent.

In addition to killings and violations, villages and cities in regime-held Raqqa’s countryside are witnessing continuous arrest drives on the pretext of searching for potential IS affiliates— particularly given the rise in IS activities over past months, for IS fighters have been targeting regime forces and their allied militias— or people evading mandatory military service.

Syrian regime forces and Iranian militias control several areas in the countryside of Raqqa, such as Rasafa town, south of  Mansoura city, 30 km west of Raqqa, as well as the cities of Maadan, al-Sabkha and their villages in the southeastern countryside. Regime forces also signed understandings with the SDF as to share control over the countryside of Ain Issa town and the surroundings of the M4 international highway.

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