Residents of ISIL’s de facto capital are closely following the campaign to capture Mosul.
Gaziantep, Turkey – It has been more than a year and a half since the operation to retake Raqqa from the ISIL group was launched, but the offensive on the city still has not begun.
In fact, there seems to be a great deal of confusion internationally about whether the battle for Raqqa will be launched soon or not.
On Friday, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said that the operation to capture the city from ISIL will start within days. On Saturday, Russian defence ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov said that the United States is unlikely to launch an offensive soon and called Le Drian’s words “rosy slogans”.
Earlier last week, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the United States’ closest ally in Syria, announced that it will launch the battle for Raqqa within two weeks. On Sunday, the SDF said that they captured the Tabqa airbase, 45km west of Raqqa. Media reports have also suggested that the US is likely to wait until after Turkey’s referendum, scheduled for April 16, to launch the offensive.
For the past two months, US allies have waited impatiently for an outline of Washington’s strategy to capture the city from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant ( ISIL, also known as ISIS).
Defeating ISIL was claimed to be President Donald Trump’s top foreign policy priority shortly after his inauguration. Capturing Raqqa has come to be viewed as the high point of his administration’s strategy to take on the group. However, instead of proceeding with a plan that the Obama administration had prepared, Trump’s team dismissed it and in late January asked the Pentagon to submit a new one.
The Pentagon’s proposal turned out to be very much in line with Obama’s plan: to rely on the SDF.
Turkey, a key US ally, has decried Washington’s intentions, considering one of the SDF’s main constituents – the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) – a “terrorist” organisation. Alternately, Ankara has proposed using the lose formation of Syrian rebel factions under the umbrella of its Euphrates Shield operation to launch the offensive on Raqqa. The Euphrates Shield forces advanced as far as Al Bab, west of Raqqa, but their progress has been blocked by Syria’s regime forces.
Another scenario suggested that the Turkish-backed rebel groups enter into Syria through Tal Abyad, currently under SDF control and most likely will be fiercely opposed by the YPG. According to a third proposal, a Syrian Kurdish force – Peshmerga, trained by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) that is sympathetic to Ankara, would join the fight against ISIL in Syria and potentially the battle for Raqqa. This has also been rejected both by its Syrian Peshmerga commanders and by the YPG, which is hostile to the KRG.
Turkey’s main argument for its participation has been that Raqqa needs to be liberated by an Arab-majority force, but the Kurdish-dominated SDF, it argues, is not and, therefore, will not be able to govern the city afterwards.
Arab nations participating in the US-led international anti-ISIL coalition, such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan, have hinted at their participation – presenting a possible alternative – but no concrete proposals have been put forward.
Russia, too, has expressed its interest in participating in the battle, with defence ministry spokesman Konashenkov saying that “all forces fighting terrorism” must unite in order to capture Raqqa.
Russia has recently increased its support for the SDF, announcing the establishment of a military base in the Kurdish canton of Afrin. If Russia participates, the role of regime forces and Iran-backed militias is unclear, but they have tried to reach Raqqa from the southeast in the past.
We are not against the expulsion of ISIL from Raqqa, but we reject the crimes the international coalition and its allies have committed against the civilians.
Despite the Trump administration’s reluctance to make a final decision, the Pentagon has continued to rely on the ground on the SDF, which the Obama administration armed after it was created in October 2015 specifically to fight ISIL in Syria and capture Raqqa.
Backed by US and French forces, the SDF have steadily advanced towards Raqqa. Although Trump is yet to deliver on his campaign trail promise to defeat ISIL “quickly and effectively”, his vow to “bomb the sh** out of” ISIL has been very much fulfilled.
In the past few weeks, the anti-ISIL coalition has stepped up its air strikes on Syria and Iraq, dropping more than 1,000 munitions in the span of a week between February 17 and 24.
The intensified bombing in Iraq’s Mosul has led to almost 4,000 civilian deaths since mid-February, according to Anadolu agency. United States Central Command (CENTCOM) has said it is investigating the deaths of 200 civilians in Mosul of the past week. In addition, there have also been reports that ISIL has been executing civilians trying to flee the coalition’s advance.
In Raqqa province, in a span of three days, US-led coalition air strikes likely killed some 140 civilians.
Activists from Raqqa have told Al Jazeera that they expect carnage similar to Mosul’s to take place in the city itself when the offensive starts. “We are not against the expulsion of ISIL from Raqqa, but we reject the crimes the international coalition and its allies have committed against the civilians,” Omar al-Hawidi, a Syrian activist and journalist from Raqqa told Al Jazeera.
Before Raqqa made the headlines as ISIL’s capital and fell in the crosshairs of US foreign policy and regional players’ ambitions, its residents had a quiet provincial life.
With the River Euphrates cutting through the province, Raqqa was once known as the bread basket of Syria. In the years prior to the popular uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in March 2011, a severe drought hit its agriculture, drying up some of its arable land and forcing hundreds of thousands of its residents to leave for the big cities in the west.
Whatever agriculture survived the drought, and mismanagement by local authorities has now been very much destroyed by the fighting and ISIL’s war practice of mining farm fields.
Over the years, local grievances grew as the Damascus elites perceived the eastern provinces as backwards and abandoned them economically. After the first protests of the Syrian revolution broke out in mid-March 2011, Raqqa youth were quick to organise a march of their own against Assad’s regime. Their first protest was muffled by a more numerous counter-protest, organised by the much more powerful pro-regime forces within the city.
Throughout the following months, protests persisted, but by and large, the regime retained control over the city. So sure was Assad of his grip on the city that, in November 2011, he visited Raqqa and joined Eid al-Adha prayers in al-Nour Mosque, alongside Syria’s Grand Mufti Ahmad Hassoun.
But in late 2012 and early 2013, the regime lost control over major parts of the province and, by early March of that year, a joint rebel force consisting of Ahrar al-Sham, al-Nusra Front and the Free Syrian Army entered Raqqa. The city was declared the first liberated provincial capital on March 4, 2013. To celebrate the occasion, local residents gathered to topple a statue of Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, in al-Itafaiya Square.
In the following months, as Raqqa lived through its revolutionary moment, civil society and revolutionary groups flourished. Activists, journalists and revolutionary-minded youth from all over Syria flocked to the city.
“Raqqa used to be a model for us, for the rest of the liberated parts of Syria,” says Syrian activist Lubna, 27, who asked that only her first name be used for security reasons. “When Raqqa was liberated, there was not a single organisation that did not start operations in the city.”
The city had its own local council, which took over the provision of basic services, and its own media centre producing videos documenting various political, social and military developments in the city.
In those first few months, Lubna says, civilians were in charge of everything in the city: from cleaning the streets to distributing bread to poor families. Women and men volunteers were taking active part in various initiatives, organising workshops, seminars, lectures, exhibitions and of course regular demonstrations in support of the revolution.
Local youth even founded a human rights discussion group. Lubna herself led a workshop on peace negotiation for women.
When more extreme elements of the armed groups present in the city started exerting pressure on the civil society groups, arresting activists and imposing arbitrary rules, the people resisted fiercely. As al-Nusra Front started arresting local people, protests against them broke out.
Eventually, a larger number of al-Nusra fighters pledged allegiance to ISIL, which Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced in a recording released in April 2013, effectively asking al-Nusra to disband and join its ranks. Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, al-Nusra’s leader, had rejected the announcement, but the ranks of his supporters gradually shrank in favour of ISIL.
By the summer of the same year, Raqqa residents were already using al-Nusra and ISIL interchangeably. Demonstrations were held in front of ISIL’s headquarters to demand the release of arrested and kidnapped civilians and protest assassinations of civilians and FSA members.
ISIL’s grip on the city gradually tightened. Ahmad Aba Zeid, a Syrian researcher, says that ISIL managed to consolidate its power over Raqqa because in the beginning Ahrar al-Sham, and what was left of al-Nusra, refused to fight it, seeing its followers as fellow Muslim fighters.
By January 2014, after defeating al-Nusra Front and the FSA, ISIL took complete control of the city. It killed many FSA fighters and executed more than 100 Ahrar al-Sham followers, according to Aba Zeid.
The majority of activists and civil society members who survived arrests and assassinations fled the city. There was no one to tell the world about ISIL’s “slaughter”, except for a small group of activists who founded the Facebook page ” Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently“. For three years, the page has documented not only numerous crimes and killings that ISIL committed in the city, but it has also started posting information on the growing number of victims of the US-led coalition air strikes.
Raqqa residents now await with fear the approaching offensive, says Nejm Al-Din Al-Nejm, a Syrian activist and journalist. His family is still in the city and he says he does not have the money to pay smugglers ($1,600 per person) to get them out.
Smuggling became much more dangerous after ISIL stopped all movement out of the city and announced that anyone trying to leave is facing execution, says Nejm. Residents are only allowed to flee southeast towards Deir Az Zor, which is still under ISIL control.
What is left of the city’s population, according to Hawidi, is about 200,000 people, including internally displaced people from other governorates. Raqqa’s residents are currently facing not only the threats of coalition bombings and arbitrary violence by ISIL, but also, possibly soon, hunger.
The SDF has cut off almost all major roads to the city and food supplies are no longer reaching it, Hawidi says. Inflation is skyrocketing as a result. The majority of doctors have fled and private clinics have closed down. The only working hospital is controlled by ISIL and treatment there is expensive, according to Hawidi. Medicine for people with diabetes or heart problems is hard to come by.
For months now, ISIL has been preparing for the offensive on Raqqa. According to Nejm, the top leadership of the organisation has left the city, along with some of its foreign fighters and the notorious Al Khansaa Brigade, an all-women’s morality police unit. The battle for the city has been left to ISIL’s Syrian recruits.
After the coalition destroyed all bridges across the Euphrates, ISIL started digging trenches across the city and putting barricades. According to Najm, it has even demanded shop owners to pay for some of the expenses of barricading the city.
“They are preparing for urban guerilla fighting,” he says.
It is this type of warfare at which ISIL excels, according to Can Kasapoglu, a Turkish military analyst. “They are notoriously [good at] sniper operations, IEDs, anti-tank missiles and this kind of tactical game-changers. And there’s no shortage of both ammunition and weapons for them,” he explains. He says that there is also a risk of ISIL using chemical weapons during the battle, as they have done before.
If a wider coalition is involved in the battle, there will be huge coordination challenges, Kasapoglu foresees. Identification of friend or foe will be an issue, he says. That surfaced as a problem between Russia and Turkey during the operation to capture Al Bab from ISIL, when a Russian fighter jet bombed Turkish positions, killing three Turkish soldiers.
“Raqqa will be Armageddon for ISIL,” says Kasapoglu, adding that ISIL fighters will have a much higher motivation to fight and resist the offensive. But will capturing Raqqa, ISIL’s capital, indeed, be the end of ISIL? According to Ammar Kahf, executive director of Istanbul-based Syrian think-tank Omran, the answer is no.
“ISIL will remain there […] Their elements will still roam around. They are basically not going to have a state and a fixed piece of land,” he says. In his opinion, unless there is an effective transition of power and a legitimate government in place, ISIL will continue to exist.
“The elements that are causing this instability and vacuum which create the reasons for ISIL to exist, this vacuum is still there. Unless those reasons are [removed], ISIL will continue to have a recruiting card,” says Kahf.
But for now, it seems the US and its allies are focused on defeating ISIL “quickly” and are brushing aside the issues that gave rise to it in the first place. It is also clear that they do not really have a long-term plan for participating in reconstruction efforts. “As a coalition, we are not in the business of nation-building or reconstruction,” US State Department Secretary Rex Tillerson recently said.
For the people of Raqqa, who seem excluded from the considerations of the international coalition, the only hope now is that whoever launches the offensive on their city will be able to tell friend from foe and spare their lives.