The Mysterious Fall of Raqqa, Syria’s Kandahar
By: Firas al-Hakkar
Published Friday, November 8, 2013
The Euphrates overflows with blood, and the crows caw over the corpses that the Syrian city of Raqqa sacrifices every day to the princes of death in the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and al-Nusra Front, ever since the two al-Qaeda affiliates turned the city into the first official province of their Islamic emirate. The tyranny that people rose up against has now returned, more morbid than before. Today, Raqqa is Syria’s answer to Kandahar – the birthplace of the Taliban.
The opposition Syrian National Coalition has no presence in Raqqa. All mainstream opposition forces left the city months ago because of clashes between the various brigades of the armed opposition. Raqqa is today without a state, and its people grapple with death every day, with no hope in sight for a normal life.
Eight months have passed since the armed opposition brigades and al-Nusra Front entered Raqqa, at dawn on 2 March 2013. Since the armed opposition offensive, only three Syrian army bases in the entire governorate have survived: the 17th division, stationed around 1 km north of Raqqa; Tabaqa military airport, 50 km west of the city, along the Raqqa-Aleppo expressway; and the 93rd brigade, stationed 55 km from Raqqa near the town of Ain Issa.
Mystery has shrouded the manner in which Raqqa fell, as there have been indications the city did not fall militarily. While there was no formidable Syrian army deployment in the city, which had been surrounded on four sides by checkpoints, it is not logical that the city fell in a matter of hours.
The Syrian regime force manning the eastern checkpoint pulled out on the morning of the attack, handing over the city’s eastern entrance – and the entire eastern district – to the fighters of the Muntasir Billah Brigade and al-Nusra. The officers of the Syrian military police and the Hajana – the border guard – were even seen moving their equipment, without any harassment from the opposition fighters, from the center of the city to the headquarters of the 17th division, before the opposition brigades advanced and took over the Hajana’s vacated barracks.
To many, what happened was suspicious. The truth about what happened is known only to a handful, including Raqqa Governor Major General Hassan Jalali and local Baath chapter Secretary General Suleiman Suleiman, who were both captured by al-Nusra two days after the offensive. Their location remains unknown, but it is rumored that they are being held inside the Euphrates Dam that al-Nusra now uses as a base.
The head of the state security branch in the area, Brigadier General Khaled al-Halabi, also reportedly holds important information about Raqqa’s fall. Halabi disappeared without a trace, save for rumors that he is currently lying low in Mount Lebanon.
All local branches of the state’s security services withdrew from their headquarters in the city into the 17th division base, with the exception of officers from the military and political security agencies, who reportedly fought to the end. Some of them were killed and mutilated, with their corpses paraded around the city, while others surrendered with tribal-brokered guarantees of protection. However, they were subsequently taken to detention camps run by al-Nusra and Liwaa al-Tawhid after an ambush. They are currently being detained in the city of Tabaqa, awaiting a prisoner swap deal with the regime.
Aqaba, an activist, recounted to Al-Akhbar how the corpses were mutilated. He said, “What I saw was horrific. They killed Abu Jassem, a military security officer. He refused to surrender and killed many of the jihadis before they overran his position. They threw his body from the roof of the building, and his head was completely smashed. They then put him in a car and paraded his corpse in the city before they threw it with his comrades’ bodies near a dumpster, preventing anyone from burying them. A few days later, the bodies were buried in secret.”
A Protracted Siege
Many long months passed with the opposition brigades besieging the 17th division base north of Raqqa, which is now supplied by airdrops. The brigades participating in the siege include the Raqaa Rebels Brigade; Ahrar al-Sham; Muntasir Billah Brigade; and the Islamic Front for Unity and Liberation. Recently, some battalions from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) also joined the siege.
Hassan Issa, a high school student, had joined one of the armed battalions. He gave an account of how he took part in the raid against the 17th division base. He said, “It was not easy. I joined the battalion led by my cousin. We stormed the defenses of the 17th division and initially made substantial progress. It was like a dream. I did not realize what happened until the shells started raining down on us. The rifle I was carrying was useless. Many of the fighters in the vanguard were killed.”
Issa continued, “There have been arguments over the spoils, starting with the small cars and heavy government vehicles, and ending with influence over neighborhoods.” Hassan did not want to die fighting, so he left the “jihad” and returned to school.
The residents of Raqqa believe that the 17th division, with all its soldiers and hardware, should not need all this time to fall. Some reckon that the siege is not serious and that it is only meant to save the militants’ face. The latter claim that their new fight with Kurdish forces in northern Raqqa (in Tal Abiyad and surrounding villages) has delayed their bid to defeat the 17th division, but they do not deny that disputes among their various brigades has not helped either.
But one activist, who declined to be named, believes the delay is deliberate. He said, “If the 17th division falls into the hands of the armed opposition, the latter would be forced to move on to another governorate and open a new front, which is something they do not want. The luxury they found in combat in Raqqa may not be possible elsewhere.”
In this climate, the majority of the residents have to live with fear, hunger, thirst, and poverty. The one thing everyone agrees on is that Raqqa, and everything in it, has been lost. The city, which for decades suffered from marginalization and neglect, is in ruins, having become, almost overnight, a “new Kandahar.”
The Opposition’s 11th Division
A month after taking control of the city, the militants began scattering. Al-Nusra’s fighters left Raqqa in April, after ISIS’ commander Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, along with many of his supporters, defected from al-Nusra and its leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani. Al-Nusra repositioned itself inside the Euphrates Dam and the Jaabar citadel 53 km west of the city.
In turn, after coming to control the city for just a few days, Ahrar al-Sham moved the bulk of its forces towards the city of Tal Abiyad north of Raqqa, along the border with Turkey, where it went on to decimate al-Farouk Brigades and seize the border crossing. Ahrar al-Sham still maintains a strong presence alongside other factions in the city.
ISIS came to dominate Raqqa, after executing three citizens at the Clock Square in the city center on May 14 for “spying for the regime.” After that, the secular peaceful protest movement began to gradually wither, at least in the public sphere. Though activists called for peaceful protests to reject violence, their efforts did not pan out, especially as many activists were arrested. Now, revolutionary action has returned to secrecy and false names, operating mainly through social media.
Raqqa residents soon appealed for help from the brigades of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in the city, and leaflets were distributed attacking ISIS and attempting to rally the FSA to act. The battalions and brigades of the FSA in the city, which mainly consisted of Raqqa residents, came together to form the 11th division in July, comprising brigades like the Raqqa Rebels, Muntasir Billah, and Nasser Salahuddin.
These units represented about 80 percent of armed opposition groups in Raqqa. Their goals were, according to a statement, liberating the 17th division’s headquarters, Tabaqa military airport, and the 93rd battalion, and then carrying on with “jihad” outside the governorate. In addition, the statement said the unit would seek to coordinate with other opposition brigades in other governorates to prevent the establishment of any military group except under the command of the 11th division, organize day-to-day affairs of the civilians, activate the local council, and expand the Islamic Law Council.
But none of these goals materialized. A battle took place between ISIS and the Descendants of the Prophet Brigade lasting for days, in which many civilians were killed. Then, on August 13, ISIS targeted a train station used as the headquarters of the brigade in question with a car bomb, turning the entire building into rubble. Civilians were barred from tending to the wounded or even removing the bodies, which by some accounts exceeded 25.
Subsequently, the brigade disappeared from Raqqa, and ISIS detained all its surviving members. Meanwhile, the brigade’s general command in Syria declared it would not respond out of its keenness on maintaining “unity in the ranks” of the opposition.
Al-Nusra fighters returned to Raqqa on September 12. In a statement, the group declared that it built a Sharia-compliant camp to rehabilitate the “mujahideen,” after noticing that some exhibited “deviations in their behavior.” Al-Nusra also pledged to work to serve Islam and fight the “Nusairi” regime – a derogatory term for Alawis. The statement claimed some people had used the name of al-Nusra to engage in kidnapping, assassination, and robbery, “which is something we do not accept.”
Al-Nusra’s return split the 11th division. The Muntasir Billah Brigade rushed to pledge allegiance to the al-Qaeda affiliate, followed by the Raqqa Rebels Brigade, while Nasser Salahuddin declared its loyalty to ISIS, and Liwaa Umanaa Raqqa joined the Ahrar al-Sham Brigade.
Only a few days after al-Nusra returned, its top commander Abu Saad al-Hadramai was kidnapped. Several days later, his car was found with the explosive belt that he usually wears inside, in the town of Deir Hafer in the governorate of Aleppo. According to activists, ISIS kidnapped him.
Officially, FSA presence in Raqqa all but ended on September 15. Large signs were erected at the entrances of the governorate declaring: “The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – Raqqa Province.” The city was the first to officially fall out of regime control.
The Coming Battle
Al-Nusra’s return to Raqqa also upset ISIS. Tension has mounted to such an extent that it now threatens to erupt into a full-blown war at any moment between the two al-Qaeda affiliates.
Everyone is watching the events unfold in silence. The “spray-painters” have returned to the city too. Previously, they would spray anti-regime graffiti on walls across the city. Now, they are writing anti-ISIS slogans, demanding freedom, democracy, and a secular state.
A prominent activist who goes by the name “Syrian Fidel” said, “Our civil movement is on the verge of dying out. ISIS left no room for any peaceful civilian activism. They kidnap any activist caught speaking out or participating in protests. Currently, the movement is progressing very slowly and has returned to secrecy, just like things had been under the regime.”
Fidel, who wears an explosive belt in anticipation of any ambush he fight fall into, added, “There is no solution except by having a counter revolution that restores life in Raqqa. Death is better than falling into their hands,” meaning the jihadis.
ISIS has regularly executed by firing line unidentified people they claimed were “infidel Nusairis” in the Naim Roundabout, with large crowds present. Field executions were also carried out in the cities of Tal Abiyad, Tabaqa, and Maadan.
Exodus of Christians
Christians in the area have not been spared. The first anti-Christian attack occurred in May when members of al-Nusra confiscated crops owned by Agha Agob Sagltian in the city of Tal Abiyad. A few days ago, the body of a young Christian man who had been kidnapped from Tabaqa was found on the Tabaqa-Safsafa road. The incident was met with wide outrage among the people of Raqqa, who consider Christians an inseparable part of their social fabric.
A number of Christians in the city have participated in peaceful anti-regime protests. For instance, dissident Corporal Toni al-Mallouhi, former mayor of Mansoura, handed over the town to the FSA in February, before the militants entered Raqqa. But when fighters from the Nasser Salahuddin Brigade entered the city, they captured Mallouhi and handed him over later to ISIS.
ISIS declared that it would execute Mallouhi. After dignitaries interceded on his behalf, the corporal was released, but only after he converted to Islam and changed his name to Mohammed Nour al-Mallouhi.
Shortly after this incident, unknown assailants vandalized a cross outside the Church of Our Lady of the Annunciation in downtown Raqqa. Activists decried the attack and called for protests demanding churches be protected. In response, masked militants took the bells and the crosses from the Church of the Martyrs and vandalized the place, burning its library, before replacing the crosses with the ISIS flag.
Youssef, another activist, said, “It was a tough situation. We could not defend our brethren with whom we have been living for years. We were deeply hurt and felt helpless and ashamed. Christians have been part of our history for decades. They lived among us and we could do nothing more than weep as we saw the flames and columns of smoke rising.”
Christians, who came to Raqqa many decades ago, most recently following the mass Armenian exodus as a result of the Armenian genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Turks, have nearly all left the city.
Fear paralyzes the residents of Raqqa, and no one dares criticize the jihadis. Even grumbling has to be done in secret, with the new “state” deploying spies and informants in nearly every neighborhood and alleyway.
Stories are rife about people who disappeared for criticizing a decision or expressing resentment toward a particular act. The Islamic Law Council, which was supposedly established to protect the people, cannot even protect itself. Its presiding judge, Abdullah Assad, was kidnapped on the third day of Eid al-Adha. The commission has not been able to protect anyone or run the affairs of the city, just like the local council, whose members have been arrested repeatedly by some brigades.
The City Worries
People in Raqqa have to live with sporadic shelling, as warplanes carry out strikes from time to time against militant positions. Troops from the 17th division also shell the city with mortars, but they often miss their targets and hit civilian homes.
People are outraged by these mistakes that have claimed dozens of lives. On September 29, the shelling hit a school killing 17 students and a school employee. Then, on October 26, the Syrian air force struck a residential neighborhood near the vegetable market in Raqqa, missing its target and destroying two homes with their inhabitants inside, killing seven, mostly children.
For ISIS, Christians Not Entitled to Safety
There are four churches in the Raqqa governorate, two in the city – Lady of the Annunciation and Lady of the Martyrs – in addition to the Church of Martyred Saints Sergius and Bacchus in Tabaqa, and a church in the city of Tal Abiyad.
Those who burned the churches justified their action by claiming, “When Islam emerged, the prophet and the Caliphs ordered existing churches not to be destroyed. But churches built after Islam emerged were built on falsehood, and therefore, they must be destroyed and removed.”
An ISIS official, who is incidentally not a Syrian national, said during a Friday sermon that burning churches is “an action based on fatwas from Abdullah ibn Abbas, holding that churches in conquered cities must be burned and their crosses removed. As for cities taken peaceably, with its inhabitants paying the jizya (tax payable by non-Muslims), their churches and their temples must not be harmed, and can continue practicing their rituals, albeit not publicly.”
But the latter classification, according to the ISIS preacher, “does not apply to Raqqa which was conquered through violence, and where Christians did not pay the jizya.” Therefore, he concluded, “They are not entitled to safety, but nevertheless, those among them who did not deal with Bashar al-Assad shall be spared.”
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.