The Syrian government’s secret cells in al-Raqqa

Syrian displaced residents of the besieged rebel-held town of Moadamiyet al-Sham, in the suburbs of the capital Damascus, wait at a checkpoint to return to their homes on March 2, 2014, after rebels and the Syrian regime reached a local truce. (Photo: AFP/STR)

By: Firas al-Hakkar

Published Monday, March 3, 2014

Over the past month, the official Syrian flag – as opposed to the rebel flag – has been hoisted more than once in the rebel-controlled governorate of al-Raqqa in northern Syria. Nearly one year ago, militants from al-Qaeda-linked group al-Nusra Front took down the Syrian flag, and declared al-Raqqa a “liberated” city. Today, there are signs on the horizon that the government intends to make a comeback in al-Raqqa.

When he heard knocks on the door early last month, Maamoun did not expect to find Syrian army officers and conscripts seeking refuge in his home that night. They stayed with him for a few days, after escaping from a prison run by the Islamic movement of Ahrar al-Sham during the fighting with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Speaking to Al-Akhbar, Maamoun recounted how he sought to find a way to get the officers and soldiers, who numbered around 15, out of the “Islamic State of al-Raqqa.” He said, “It was a gamble, and certain death awaited us had we been discovered.”

He continued, “I thought about using burkas, but it wasn’t a good idea after recent attacks against ISIS checkpoints in the city had involved people disguised in burkas. It was better to transport them in a truck outside the governorate’s boundaries.”

The truck was filled with bags of used garments, which the officers and soldiers hid under. The truck was able to cross all the checkpoints without being searched thanks to Maamoun’s acquaintances and because the driver was known to the militants manning them. The truck eventually arrived to Syrian army checkpoints, and the soldiers made it back to their homes unharmed.

Cells of the Syrian Flag

Maamoun, until recently, was one of the rebels who benefited from the fall of al-Raqqa and the war. He reaped a lot of spoils without staining his hands with the blood of Syrians, “just their money.” Now he is a national hero, and keeps in his phone’s address book the numbers of many senior Syrian army officers, including officers in the Syrian Republican Guard.

Together with around thirty other young men, he founded cells called Cells of the Syrian Flag, which undertake secret non-violent activities “with a zero margin of error,” according to Maamoun. Maamoun said, “We raised the Syrian flag over the Housing and Development Agency building, the grain silos, and the sugar mill in coordination with the leadership of the 17th Division, and also over the minarets of Uys al-Qarni shrine near the headquarters of al-Nusra Front and al-Muntaser Billah Brigade, and in al-Shammas Square in the center of the city.”

Graffiti also spread in various parts of the city, with messages affirming that the Syrian government would soon liberate the city. Maamoun’s group has also been coordinating with a faction known as the Syrian Arab Army Supporters in al-Raqqa.

The Syrian Arab Army Supporters Brigade

In Damascus, a boot camp was established for the Syrian Arab Army Supporters, mainly consisting of volunteers from Raqqa numbering around 450. Most of the volunteers are members of loyalist youth groups, which have been active throughout the crisis in the city, in addition to members of the National Defense Forces who fled to Damascus and Latakia after al-Raqqa fell to the rebels.

Jassem al-Ali spends his time between Marja Square in downtown Damascus and his home in Nahr Aisha in the capital’s countryside. He agreed to talk to Al-Akhbar after his training, to share what he called “optimistic stories.” He said, “The training has been continuing for months; we will enter al-Raqqa very soon. Countless youths have been flocking to the training camp since the city fell.”

The Syrian government has rented homes for its supporters from al-Raqqa in the Dummar projects, Sahnaya, and Nahr Aisha, and for others, hotel rooms in the city. Salaries paid to members of the brigades go as high up as 25 thousand Syrian pounds a month, roughly $170 US dollars.

Liberation scenarios

Any large-scale fighting in the city of al-Raqqa will mean its destruction. With its small residential neighborhoods, the city will not be able to survive war for more than ten hours, while reconstruction would take years to finish.

This is the opinion of al-Raqqa lawyer and former MP Ismail Hajjo, who has been helping al-Raqqa residents who fled the city. Hajjo, who is also a member in the political bureau of the Syrian communist party, said that al-Raqqa is not a priority for the Syrian army at present since it is engaged in more important battles for the time being.

However, the suffering of civilians in al-Raqqa for almost a year now requires intervention to put an end to it. For this reason, according to Hajjo, “there are two scenarios in place for retaking the city of al-Raqqa: First, the Syrian army would intervene and storm the city, which has a high cost that al-Raqqa and its people cannot bear. Or second: Take advantage of the awakened patriotism and the work of patriots in al-Raqqa, and begin coordination between them and the Syrian army so that the city can be retaken by its people with minimal losses.”

Pre-emptive strike

Meanwhile, opposition forces that have been pushed back by ISIS are now regrouping, with the formation of the so-called National Interim Commission in the al-Raqqa Governorate, on the back of growing loyalist activity in the city, and a feeling that ISIS could suddenly lose control of al-Raqqa. The commission, which was formed a few days ago, declared in a statement that it is comprised of “civilians, combatants, and revolutionary forces,” with their goal being uniting all factions of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) under the name of al-Raqqa Revolutionaries Brigade.

The commission consists of representatives of the Kurdish National Council, Kurdish independents in al-Raqqa, Turkmen factions in the governorate, youths supportive of the rebels, and the local council in the governorate of al-Raqqa. The commission pledged to liberate al-Raqqa from “tyrannical forces” and establish a judicial body to look into violations against civilians, a civil police force to keep the order, and a fund for financial support, in addition to administrative bodies to run the governorate after “liberation.”

The “military wing” of the commission has already started operating on the ground, attacking patrols and militants affiliated to ISIS throughout al-Raqqa.

In the meantime, ISIS has begun its own preparations for a possible confrontation with its opponents in the Syrian opposition. ISIS has brought in reinforcements from the Aleppo countryside, and bolstered its checkpoints along the governorate entrances, especially after the assassination of one of its military commanders - Abu Bakr al-Tunisi - outside the Hospital of Modern Medicine.

A race may be afoot between various forces vying for control of al-Raqqa. Either the Syrian government will retake control of all centers of all Syrian governorates, or al-Raqqa will fall again into the hands of those who first took it from the Syrian army, which are the factions that are today enemies of ISIS. The latter, however, who are holed up in the city of Raqqa and its surrounding countryside, might find it unacceptable to abandon one of its last remaining strongholds following its successive defeats in the countryside of Aleppo and in Deir al-Zour.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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