Ever since being liberated from regime control on March 4, 2013, the city of Al Raqqa has become the focus of Syrians’ attention as the first regional capital to have experienced some degree of autonomy. How do its people manage their affairs? How do they live? What is the reality of the military brigades on the ground? Who are these brigades? What is that unites or divides them? What relationship do they have to the civilian population? What kind of model does Al Raqqa represent? 1
The mysterious disappearance of Father Paulo
We arrived in Al Raqqa on the evening of July 29. The city was almost deserted. People had barely finished their Ramadan iftar and had yet to take to the streets after a hard day’s fast. We were fortunate that the city’s most famous café, Apple, had begun to open its doors. The café is the destination of choice for the city’s youth and is situated near to the Al Rashid Gardens in the city centre, facing the Old Church. The civilian revolutionaries occupy the corner alongside the church from where they set out on their protests and demonstrations.
We had been sitting in the café for less than half an hour when a rumour started going round that Father Paolo, who had last been seen in town at three that afternoon, had «disappeared». More troubling was that he had failed to attend an iftar to which he’d been invited by a local family. The Jesuit priest was known for fasting during Ramadan, his habit for the many years he had been resident in Syria and an affirmation of his belief of that Christians and Muslims had much in common.
The day before, July 28, Father Paolo had taken part in a demonstration organized by civil society youth groups, principally the Union of Free Students. Paolo gave a short speech in which he greeted those present and said how happy he was to be there in Al Raqqa, which he described as «the first capital of Free Syria».
The café’s whispers quickly became openly stated questions: «Where is Father Paolo?». Al Raqqa is a city by name, but really it is more akin to a vast village in which no secret can be kept for long. Someone dashed up to report that «S», a young man known to most of those in the café, had been told by Father Paolo that he might disappear for three days and if he did, no one should be concerned or suggest that some evil had befallen him. S’s account was bolstered by further stories of the desire which Paolo had expressed to numerous others he had met; his intention to get in touch with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Some of them had tried to dissuade him, but without success it seems. Abdullah, one of the most active young revolutionaries in the city, told me that he had met Paolo in Turkey just days before he came to Al Raqqa and had tried, fruitlessly, to get him to change his mind. Others tried the same and likewise failed. His friends reported that the day before his disappearance Father Paolo had visited the ISIS headquarters and emerged in high spirits. He had a good feeling. He had announced to his friends that he would persist, as he intended to meet with Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi himself. In any case, all the accounts agreed that Father Paolo had intended to return to the ISIS headquarters the next day. Some of his friends had heard Father Paolo mention a plan to act as an intermediary in order to stop the on-going conflict in the north between some of the Islamic brigades (including ISIS) and Kurdish fighters accused of working with the armed forces of the Syrian regime. He also wanted to find out what had become of individuals abducted by the jihadist group, in particular Firas Al Hajj Saleh, Ibrahim Al Ghazi and two French journalists.
The news that Paolo had anticipated a three-day absence assuaged the fears of many of those present, though some remained dubious of this account. One of these doubters, a young man working in the city’s media centre, asked us to accompany him to his car for a reason he described as «very important». On the way we discovered that we were going to meet Abu Eissa, the commander of 11th Division. The 11thDivision had been formed just days before our arrival and was the largest local military unit affiliated with the Syrian Free Army.
The fighting forces: friends today, enemies tomorrow?
On July 17, a statement announcing the 11th Division was released. The statement claimed that the company comprised 80 per cent of the combat-ready military forces in and around the city. The second clause in the text of this mission statement reads, «[To] protect citizens and refuse to permit any party—whatever it may be—to detain any citizen without the consent of the Sharia Committee and the 11thDivision's Security Office» 2), a clear reference to the growing incidence of kidnappings in the city in recent months, which have been attributed to ISIS. The overwhelming majority of Al Raqqa’s residents welcomed this new formation and had high hopes for it. In their eyes, this umbrella organization of military brigades, predominantly local in composition and operating beneath the Free Syrian Army’s banner (FSA), creates a military counterweight in the liberated city to offset the strong presence of brigades beholden to Jihadist, Salafist ideology, foremost among them The Ahrar Al Sham Movement (Freemen of Syria), one of the largest and most powerful fighting Islamist movements in Syria and one part of the Syrian Islamist Front (though in many regions of the country the Movement is stronger than the Front to which it is supposedly subordinate). There is also ISIS, of course, the Jihadist organization affiliated with Al Qaeda, which has started to extend its influence through the liberated territories, particularly in northern Syria. Alongside these large fighting groups are a number of smaller and less influential groups, though Ahfad Al Rasul (Scions of the Prophet), a brigade under the control of the FSA (though clearly independent in practice),has an obvious presence in the city and various other regions throughout Syria.
Understanding the balance of military power in Al Raqqa, the archetype of a city liberated from the control of the Al Assad regime, is of great help in comprehending the points of mutual understanding and incompatibility whose influence on the future of the Syrian entity could prove to be of the highest consequence. Though relations between the groups varies from one region to another, the way these groups act on the ground away from the battlefront give important clues about their methods, aspirations and agendas both hidden and overt.
The residents of Al Raqqa see the formation of 11thDivision as a counterweight to other forces that they consider to be either more extreme or composed of predominantly non-local elements. This is the key to understanding the various sensitivities felt by inhabitants of liberated territories towards the military presence in their areas. In general, the predominance of the local (i.e. any entity made of up of locally-born inhabitants) within the military formations of the area in question is met with a better reception from the populace, though in return any such formation has greater responsibilities to shoulder, stemming from the high expectations people have of their behaviour, incorruptibility and military competence, in addition to an expectation that they can control and protect the area. In many instances, hastily formed and poorly equipped local formations have been unable to meet these expectations, leaving the way open for larger and better-prepared forces to enter and take control.
Ahrar Al Sham has a strong presence in Al Raqqa and is distinguished by the heavy presence in its ranks of fighters from Idlib and the surrounding countryside as well as men from other regions in Syria. This alone can give rise to tensions, but these tensions are more pronounced in the presence of the non-Syrian fighters (referred to as muhajereen or «emigrants/internationals»), who make up the core of ISIS’s fighting forces. This is not to say there is not some mixing in all military units. There are Al Raqqa residents in the ranks of both the Ahrar and ISIS as there were previously in Jabhat Al Nusra (Al Nusra Front). However, the fact remains that a majority of local residents within any unit considerably improves that unit’s relations with the environment in which it operates. Activists in Al Raqqa say that the difficulty of communicating with ISIS is not primarily due to the organization’s lack of openness and the covert nature of its structures, but because almost all of its commanders are foreigners, something that sets the group apart even from the Al Nusra Front, whose Syrian commanders (some of whom were from Al Raqqa: i.e. individuals they were on familiar and intimate terms with) were contactable, making the process of reaching understandings considerably easier.
The Al Nusra Front left Al Raqqa. Today, all that remains of the group are slogans liberally daubed across the city’s walls. The Front’s dispute with ISIS and the subsequent phenomenon of fighters leaving the Front for their rivals hastened the Front’s departure from Al Raqqa to set up in nearby Al Tabaqa, another liberated city, in what appears to be a dividing up of power between the two groups. Some tend to the view that there is no great difference between the two, with both functioning as two extremist arms of a main body that is Al Qaeda. Others believe that open confrontation between the two is on its way, driven by a dispute over approach and vision and, moreover, over legitimacy of representation. People tell the story of an Al Raqqa-born Front commander called Abu Saad who joined ISIS in the wake of the dispute between the two groups, after Al Nusra leader Abu Mohammed Al Jolani refused to swear an oath of loyalty to Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi. Within months, Abu Saad and a group of mujahideen split from ISIS and re-joined the Al Nusra Front in Al Tabaqa. We heard a number of similar stories in the countryside around Idlib and Aleppo of this reverse migration of fighters from ISIS to the Al Nusra Front. Some attribute this to the predominantly Syrian make-up of Al Nusra as opposed to ISIS, while others talk of the revulsion felt by certain mujahideen towards the excessively extreme and uncompromising practices of ISIS. None of this equips us to make a precise measurement of the numbers and strength of the two groups, but it points to a constant movement between them.
Al Raqqa’s residents are divided when it comes to the Islamist Ahrar Al Sham Movement. Some of them believe that the group is biding its time for a decisive confrontation between the FSA and ISIS, which would weaken both parties, thus strengthening the Movement’s hand and helping it extend its reach as the most powerful military formation in the region. Others see the Movement as one of the very few military formations that both possess organized bureaucratic agencies and are also involved in civilian administration alongside their military activities. It is no secret that immediately after the liberation of Al Raqqa the Movement took control of most of the city’s public funds and utilities. This included taking over the Central Bank, rumoured to be holding between four and six billion lira at the time. The Movement is famous for rushing to take over any public utilities it can lay its hands on in liberated territories. Its leaders talk about using public funds to improve daily life in these areas. Dr. «H», one of the group’s civilian leaders in Al Raqqa, claimed that the Movement was shouldering critical responsibilities in the city’s civil administration and guaranteeing essential food supplies. He did not deny that the Movement had taken control of the Central Bank, but talked at length about the group’s duty to create alternatives to the non-functioning institutions of state. Today in Al Raqqa Ahrar Al Sham Movement appears to be a soft power, but an ambitious one, doing its best to act as a parallel state and generating proposals that touch on all aspects of daily life, from school curricula to the management of state utilities. They are involved in both the health sector and the provision of emergency relief as well operating the Tell Abyad border crossing with a reasonable degree of competence. Dr. «H» could not hold back a smile of pride when he told me that the Movement had recently opened a Human Resources Office, a gateway for the full spectrum of experience and expertise, including from outside the Movement.
It may be highly significant that the headquarters of the Ahrar Al Sham Movement in Al Raqqa is situated within the Central Bank and the main offices of the military court system, while ISIS has taken the governor’s offices as its base. A symbolic reflection, perhaps, of the reality of their respective ambitions and approaches on the ground.
Mystery surrounds the Ahrar Al Sham Movement’s relationship with ISIS. On May 4, 2013, the Movement issued a statement criticising Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi’s declaration of the founding of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, as well as Abu Mohammed Al Jolani’s oath of loyalty to Ayman Al Zawahiri. The statement concluded with an affirmation of the Movement’s ultimate goal, to «establish a rightly-guided Islamic state that provides all its subjects with justice and their fair share of the public weal» 3. To date, however, there have been no confrontations between the Movement and ISIS in Al Raqqa, despite the fact that the latter issued a judgment of takfir against the Movement (i.e. declaring them infidels). Some observers expect that any such confrontation will take place in the Idlib countryside first, where the struggle for influence between the two groups is heating up more rapidly.
Dr. «H» trod carefully when I questioned him about the Movement’s foreign sources of funding, though it is no secret that funds are supplied by the Kuwaiti Salafist movement, which is linked with well-known theorists such as Hakim Al Matiri, one of the most prominent backers of the Movement alongside funding networks sympathetic to Jihadist Salafist ideology in the Gulf (Qatar in particular) 4. Furthermore, the Movement, having established its institutional and emergency relief credentials in a number of liberated areas, received openly declared assistance from major regional aid organizations such as Turkey’s IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation and Qatar Charity.
In any case, Al Raqqa’s residents’ hopes, which had been pinned to the newly-formed 11th Division, received a rude shock when they encountered reality. Following Father Paolo’s disappearance, for which the finger of blame pointed squarely at ISIS, the 11th Division proved incapable of taking action. A few days later one of the commanders of The Guardians of Al Raqqa (one of the founding brigades of 11thDivision) was abducted. Once more, all the evidence pointed to ISIS being responsible, and once more, 11 Company’s insistence that the commander be released had no effect.
However, the first indications of an impending confrontation between the Free Syrian Army’s fighters and their ISIS counterparts was not long in coming and by the end of Ramadan tensions between members of the Ahfad Al Rasul Brigade and ISIS had evolved into clashes with small-arms within the city’s residential neighbourhoods. The clashes continued on and off throughout Eid before matters came to a head on August 14, when ISIS detonated a car bomb outside the old train station where the Ahfad Al Rasul had their headquarters, doing enormous damage to the headquarters and killing a number of civilians. After this, the Ahfad Al Rasul left Raqqa. Fighters from both sides would swap insults using the walky-talkies widely used throughout the city, even by civilians. The insults played on a single theme, with Ahfad Al Rasul fighters calling their adversaries «agents of the regime and running dogs of the intelligence services» and the ISIS describing them as «agents of America and the West» in response. Such terms show how each group regards the other. More importantly, perhaps, is that it sheds light on the confrontations that are on the verge of breaking out between the two. Both sides are suspicious of each other, suspicions that disappear on the front lines, but which intensify once the battle is left behind. Suspicions that the Syrian intelligence services (which have a history of facilitating the movement of extremist and jihadist groups in the region—particularly in response to the American invasion of Iraq—in cooperation with their Iranian and Iraqi counterparts) have penetrated Al Qaeda-affiliated Jihadist groups are widely held by civilians and fighters from the FSA brigades. At the same time, the Jihadist fighters and those who support them, believe that FSA formations follow American and Western directives. Such mutual mistrust, though played down in the trenches, reveals radical differences in their visions for the future, differences, it seems, that will be extremely difficult to bridge. These differences deepen further when it comes to the various sources of funding that these groups receive. There is currently great anticipation to see the outcome of Saudi Arabia’s receiving America’s consent to fund the armed opposition in Syria, a move whose principle purpose in the eyes of some is to sideline the Jihadist Salafists and restore the FSA and its brigades, with their predominantly moderate Sunni composition and ideology, to preeminence. The formation of 11th Divisionin Al Raqqa comes as part of this new push to reestablish the FSA brigades at the forefront of combat operations and bring about a more stable restructuring of their ranks 5.
The clashes between Ahfad Al Rasul and ISIS are unlikely to be the last of their kind in Al Raqqa, and maybe, too, in the surrounding areas. Some of these brigades and groups have clear ambitions to establish their dominance on the ground. At the same time, the tendency of the wider public both in the West and locally, to lump all these armed brigades together as variants of the same Sunni extremism is wrong and ignores fundamental differences in their approaches, projects and aims. Some groups believe that the scope of their activities should be limited to the boundaries of the New Syria (variously conceived as a state that takes Islamic Law as the basis for its constitution and government, or a pluralistic, democratic state in which Syrians themselves will decide their constitution and the political system that governs them). Then there are those that see Syria as just one part of a broader Islamic Caliphate. All these different points of view exist in Al Raqqa and traditional displays of piety (such as slogans, phrases, beards and the rest) should not obscure the essential differences in opinion that separate them.
Liberated soil and a sky that rains explosive barrels
The day after we arrived in Al Raqqa, while I was at a friend’s house just before iftar, the lady of the house rushed into the living room screaming, «The ‘copters are coming! Get out quick!» My friends and I rushed out, without me having the faintest idea what was going on. Then I looked into the sky where everyone was pointing and saw two silver dots falling side by side from a helicopter hovering far overhead. People were stampeding all around us, but then someone stopped and shouted, «They’re falling far away». The barrels took about ten seconds to fall then they passed behind some buildings facing us and disappeared from sight. A few more seconds went by, then we heard the explosion and saw a cloud of smoke and dust. The barrels had hit the ground about a kilometer away. That day, the helicopter dropped six explosive barrels on purely residential neighborhoods, killing ten civilians, among them women and children. Nor was this a rare event. The helicopters visited the skies above Al Raqqa in the days that followed, a bombing campaign that served no military purpose at all. These explosive barrels are one of the more absurd manifestations of barbarity. The helicopter makes a pass and drops its barrels without any real pretense at taking aim. Wind speed also dictates which way the barrel will fall. The explosive barrel is the epitome of meaningless death in a war deliberately launched by the regime against its revolutionary subjects. In the eyes of those being bombed from the air, the missiles fired from fighter jets are a far more honourable weapon. They may be more devastating, but at least you don’t have to sit there waiting for them to drop on you, pointlessly. These kind of distinctions matter to Syrians these days. Like all Syrians, the residents of Al Raqqa can identify the sounds made by the various caliber bullets with breathtaking precision, not to mention mortar and artillery fire and, of course, the sound of planes.
On August 3, a MIG jet fired two missiles into Al Raqqa. The first hit a residential building, leaving behind victims that included a brother and sister from the same family, while the second fell near to a children’s playground in the public gardens. No one was hurt. It was noon on a scorching day in Ramadan. At any other time it would have been a massacre. MIGs aren’t like helicopters, because you hear its piercing whine followed immediately by the sound of an explosion. The whole things lasts fractions of a second. The MIG doesn’t give you time to sit there awaiting a pointless death falling on you from the sky, unlike the helicopter, which leaves you long moments of impotent anticipation. When the helicopters come, pedestrians make out the sparkles of anti-aircraft fire (the «Dushka» and 23mm cannons), which all fall short of their targets. The fighters’ attempts to hit the helicopter from the ground appear to be nothing more than a desire to see off accusations of dereliction. Every day or two the helicopters show up to drop an unspecified payload of randomly directed barrels then go on their way, escorted by the impotent glitter of anti-aircraft fire that fails to trouble their serene progress though the upper reaches of the sky. On the morning of the third day of Eid—August 10—the helicopter dropped four barrels causing widespread damage and killing fourteen civilians including Mohammed, a twenty-eight year-old man who had got married just a month before. He was accompanying his wife on a visit to her family home. All of them accompanied one another on a much longer journey that day.
Al Raqqa may be liberated but its skies are free to all, at all times. People in Al Raqqa, like all Syrians, often watch their impending deaths pass above them. With their own eyes they watch the planes that kill them coming and going. The helicopters particularly, cause more upset and grievance by their passing than by the death they bring, for everyone can see them. You sense them mocking the glitter of anti-aircraft fire that springs upwards from dilapidated trucks.The Syrians watch their death coming from the sky even as they follow news reports that speak of a civil war between equal sides, where some fear that weapons sent to the opposition fighters might end up in «the wrong hands». For those who have such fears, the death that comes from the sky is somehow not an act carried out by «wrong hands». And they follow, too, the world’s indifference to their deaths.
The regime has no real chance of retaking Al Raqqa. It has just three remaining military units left in the entire governorate, whose scope of operations is restricted by the surrounding opposition fighters: 93rd Brigade, 17th Division and the military airport in Al Tabaqa. The regime persists in its random bombing raids to reduce the pressure on these units as much as possible and as part of its policy of punitive reprisals against areas that are completely outside its control, to keep them occupied with successive humanitarian disasters. Bombardment by fighter jets and long-range surface-to-surface missiles is its only response to those areas that have extricated themselves from its control: it is the steep price the regime exacts for freedom.
The institutions of state, the administration of civil affairs and the long road to the promised dream
Al Raqqa defies the bombardment in a number of ways. Those who remain (and those who have returned) continue their desperate struggle for daily bread, a struggle that is no simple matter these days. There are a very few public service providers that still receive their salaries from the central government (Communications and Electricity) and others whose salaries have been either totally suspended or that have been paid just once in the last six months (Water and Health for example). These providers of vital services continue to work on a voluntary basis with support from the local council, which itself has extremely limited resources. The other problem currently facing Al Raqqa’s residents is the agricultural sector. There are a number of pressing questions surrounding the fate of limited-income farmers. How can they meet the cost of seed and fertilizer now that the admittedly limited government subsidies have been cut off? The fertilizer that is being imported from Turkey is prohibitively expensive. How will the purchase and distribution of crops be regulated? The civil authorities find themselves burdened with new and weighty responsibilities that the Syrian political opposition has completely failed to deal with. The political opposition has no presence on the ground in Al Raqqa. Effective institutions affiliated with the National Coalition or other groups are nowhere to be found. Certain of its representatives make fleeting visits, but that is all. Confronted with all manner of pressing challenges, it is the local council that shoulders the lion’s share of the burden. There are some praiseworthy initiatives, such as an effort to establish a police force, and a very limited number of these policemen have begun to enforce a traffic system, but its work is limited by the new force’s lack of training, equipment and support for its role. Indeed, it is a decisive test of the city’s ever-present armed brigades and their willingness to keep out of civil affairs. The local council has also revived the city’s municipal offices and started working on keeping the city clean.
But hope rests on the youth and the various civil society blocs they created following the liberation of the city. There are currently forty-one civil society organizations in Al Raqqa and though the scope and effectiveness of their activities varies hugely from one to another, they provide incontrovertible evidence of Syrians’ desire to restore an effective role to civil society. There are groups for rights activists, for the independent media, for teachers and students, for activists from the non-violent protest movement, for those working in development, small-scale economic projects and emergency relief. There are even groups for the theatre and the arts. Some of those who work in these groups were detained two or three times by the regime prior to liberation. It is they who give you hope. Their voices carry a weight that cannot be ignored. Moreover, these groups play a role in maintaining dynamic and flexible relations with the armed groups. These relationships are vital for keeping channels of communication open between the two sides, channels in which personal contacts are of supreme importance. All these forms of interaction are vital to the process of identifying and isolating those who communicate poorly or outright refuse all communication (ISIS, for instance). These days, Al Raqqa’s residents increasingly tend to distinguish between those who bear arms to continue their struggle against the regime and those who do so to impose a dictatorship of another kind or to triumph in purely local power struggles. All these types are present in Al Raqqa today. Most of the time, public reception is the determining factor in one party gaining the ascendency over others.
Despite their weariness and the difficulties of their daily lives (all of them serious obstacles blocking the revolutionary’s movement’s return to full strength) there are clear indications that the city’s civilian population is unwilling to tolerate these new dictatorial practices. Souad, a primary school teacher, leaves home every evening to demonstrate in various locations around the city, carrying signs that reject ISIS’s behavior and demanding the release of all those they have detained. Souad often goes to stand outside their headquarters, an act of open defiance, prompting some of its members to try and dissuade her from her what she is doing.
On the evening of August 10, in response to the harassment of civilians by members of the Ahrar Al Sham Movement, residents gathered together spontaneously, their assembly becoming a fully-fledged demonstration against the actions of the Movement’s members. Some members of the Movement then opened fire to disperse the demonstrators, and the city seethed with rage, only for the Movement to issue a statement hours later in which they declared that the members responsible for the original grievance had been dismissed and those of them who had fled were being pursued to bring them to justice.
A few days later on August 14, when ISIS detonated its car bomb about the headquarters of the Ahfad Al Rasul Brigade in the old train station, civilians attempted to intervene to remove the wounded and allow passage to ambulances. Once more they were dispersed with gunfire from ISIS fighters.
These events take place against a backdrop of rising anger at the ongoing abductions of well-known figures in the city, to which was added the rumour that Father Paolo had been murdered by his abductors. The rumour was later denied, but confirming any information about the group’s prisoners remains impossible due to the inaccessibility of sources within the group itself. The most recent information concerning Father Paolo was leaked by a mujahid who had left the group and informed those close to him that he had seen Paolo alive at the Al Baath Dam (which is under ISIS’s control) before he was transported to another headquarters in the village of Al Akirshi, near Al Raqqa.
These successive events appear to be indicators of a deepening enmity between Al Raqqa’s civilians and the armed brigades, ISIS in particular. The civilians do not seem to be in a position of strength when it comes to these types of confrontations, yet at the same time they have never before been so determined and set on continuing their struggle. Every single person I met saw themselves as part of a popular and radical revolt that has not yet ended. They had removed a totalitarian and tyrannical regime from their city. Today, they see this achievement as just one step along the long and hard road to their goal: a free, just and proud nation…And they do not look like they will be giving up any time soon.
- 1. Some of those I talked to while researching this article requested that their names not be mentioned. I have referred to these individuals using the first letter of their names.
- 2. Announcement of the formation of 11th Division – Al Raqqa (July 17, 2013
- 3. Statement by the Ahrar Al Sham Movement (May 4, 2013): http://www.ahraralsham.com/?p=1324
- 4. The Crowning of the Syrian Islamic Front, Aaron Y. Zelin and Charles Lister (Foreign Policy) http://mideast.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/06/24/the_crowning_of_the_syrian_islamic_front
- 5. External support and the Syrian insurgency, Thomas Pierret (Foreign Policy) http://mideast.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/08/09/external_support_and_the_syrian_insurgency