In March 2013, the northern Syrian city of Raqqa fell under the control of the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS). More than a year later, in June 2014, a similar destiny befell Mosul, Iraq.
ISIL regards both cities as strategic, with Raqqa serving as its de-facto capital and Mosul its biggest population centre in Iraq. Although the two cities differ in size, demography and history, the battle currently raging in Mosul will probably affect civilians living in Raqqa.
“Of course they [the people in Raqqa] are watching. They want ISIL to be defeated [in Mosul], but they also fear this will mean additional ISIL fighters will retreat to Raqqa,” said Hussam Eesa, who currently resides in Europe and is the cofounder of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), a citizen journalism organisation that began as an anti-Assad activist campaign in Raqqa. When ISIL captured Raqqa, RBSS began posting videos and articles documenting their abuses in the city.
In Raqqa, merely following the news has become a dangerous activity since the ISIL takeover. “TVs are banned in homes, and so is the internet. There are only five or six public internet places people can access, which are closely monitored by ISIL,” Eesa stated.
Although internet access is limited in ISIL-controlled territory, Eesa claimed that the group’s Facebook page has seen an increase in traffic recently since the battle for Mosul began, with as many as 30,000 views a day.
Eesa said a major concern among civilians in Raqqa is that, as the offensive continues, ISIL will close all roads connecting it with Mosul – which could have major consequences for its residents’ wellbeing. Although Raqqa residents currently have access to food and water, they only have three to four hours of electricity a day, and the healthcare system is under heavy strain.
and from the sky [Russian air raids].”]
“We have only one hospital left … and it is only for ISIL fighters. Civilians have to be treated at home, and there is severe shortage of medicines. This is becoming an important problem in Raqqa,” Eesa said. Nor is ISIL the only threat that Raqqa faces: “In Raqqa, the danger is on the ground [ISIL] and from the sky [Russian air raids].”
Under ISIL’s totalitarian rule, sharing one’s views and information about what is happening in the city can be a capital offence. Most people who were approached through organisations and NGOs, declined to comment to Al Jazeera.
On condition of anonymity, however, one source, who is originally from Raqqa, said that “the battle of Mosul, putting pressure on ISIL, means more pressure on Raqqa – the two cities are the brain of ISIL. It is very likely that the high cadres [elite forces of ISIL] will be retreating increasingly to Raqqa. This movement will result in added pressure on civilians in the city and on their daily lives.”
According to the source, “the number of suicide bombers and the movement between the two cities will keep increasing while the battle of Mosul rages” – a view he said is shared by many in Raqqa.
Both Eesa and the anonymous source, as civilians, said that they fear the Kurdish fighters who they blame for a number of human rights violations against Arab Syrians living in northern Syria.
An Amnesty International report published last year confirmed these abuses, and an article, published by RBSS in October, claimed that “the Kurdish militias announced that they are imposing compulsory recruitment in Tal Abyad and its suburbs. This was the reason of the displacement of a large number of young people from the area.”
“We take for granted the fact that the local population [in Mosul and in Raqqa] views ISIL as the West does,” said Lorenzo Trombetta, an Italian researcher who has done extensive work on Syria and Lebanon.
“While ISIL certainly is feared and hated for its brutal acts, these acts are not perceived as less fierce than those perpetrated by the bombings of the Iranian-affiliated militia, or of the oppression suffered under the Kurds.” Trombetta, who conducted interviews in the course of his research with civilians, activists, community leaders and businessmen from Raqqa, says that the general perception among the Raqqa population is that the Kurds are “secessionists”.
He pointed out that Raqqa, together with Deir Az Zor, now represents the last relatively secured stronghold for ISIL. “The most plausible scenario for the ongoing battle for Raqqa is that the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces, led by YPG [People’s Protection Unit], exert pressure from Ayn Issa [50km north Raqqa] with the aerial support of the US-led international coalition,” he explained.
In the short- to mid-term, he added, there are no other war fronts that could pose a serious threat to ISIL in Raqqa, as the city enjoys a territorial depth towards the south, east and west, despite a relatively close presence of rival forces close to Tabqa Dam.
Samir Aita, founder of the Syrian Democratic Forum, president of the Circle of Arab Economists and former editor-in-chief of Le Monde Diplomatique’s Arabic edition, said that while Mosul is the economic capital for ISIL, Raqqa is “the first city they conquered and on which they based their state project”.
“As a state, ISIL will only disappear if they will lose control of Raqqa,” he told Al Jazeera. “What will be a determining factor is the way in which Raqqa will be liberated. This will shape the future of Syria.”
Meanwhile, with ISIL’s territory shrinking, Eesa said a number of foreign fighters had contacted RBSS asking for help to leave the group and return to Europe.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced on Sunday that they were launching operation Euphrates Anger to liberate Raqqa. However, as mentioned by RBSS in an article posted in October, “going after ISIL-held Raqqa would mean moving deeper into an explosive mix of regional and international rivalries”.
According to Trombetta, the conditions for Raqqa’s residents will worsen regardless of whether Mosul falls rapidly or not. Even if ISIL were defeated militarily, Trombetta believes, it would not cease to exist as an idea in the minds of some supporters, who may continue to carry out attacks in Syria and Iraq.