Inside the “ISIS Stronghold,” Civilians Face a Multifront War

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It is still possible to take the bus from Beirut to Raqqa, the Syrian city just east of Aleppo that is now the de facto capital of the Islamic State. The journey once took seven hours, but it now takes a minimum of 20, due to roads destroyed by clashes and dozens of checkpoints from the trifecta of the Syrian regime, al-Nusra and the Islamic State. According to accounts from those who have recently made this journey, there are still some passengers on the largely empty bus leaving from Beirut’s Charles Helou bus station every other day, provided that passengers don’t have cigarettes in their pockets and are prepared to obey modesty laws dictated by the Islamic State.

But civilian life is far from normal in Raqqa right now. First the US-led coalition to fight the Islamic State (ISIS) began pummeling the city, targeting fighters while also inadvertently killing several civilians. In recent weeks, the Russian military has launched airstrikes on the city, also – while allegedly fighting the Islamic State – causing several civilian casualties.

On November 15, French President François Hollande announced that France would launch airstrikes on the Islamic State, in retaliation for the now notorious ISIS-coordinated attack that left 129 dead and injured 350 in Paris on November 13. While some civilians living inside Raqqa support the international measures taken to drive the Islamic State from their city, the strikes nevertheless mean added chaos – and an additional danger – to their daily lives.

This week, the French airstrikes have reportedly killed 36 militants while avoiding documented civilian casualties. Meanwhile, Russian airstrikes have killed five civilians.

The Ascendance of ISIS in Raqqa

Before the Syrian uprising began, Raqqa was considered one of Syria’s most liberal cities. Located in one of the first regions to be completely liberated from regime control, the city demonstrated the potential of nation-building inside of Syria. Activists formed local councils, creating mutual aid networks and a vision for the future of Syria, after the downfall of Bashar al-Assad and the end of the war. However, when infighting tampered with their organizational tactics, Jabhat al-Nusra took advantage of the power vacuum to seize control of the governing institutions. This paved the way for ISIS to seize the city from al-Nusra in 2014.

Airstrikes have not meaningfully targeted Islamic State’s presence and have done little to loosen the repression inside Raqqa.

ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared Raqqa the capital of the “caliphate” and implemented a series of incentives that enticed foreign fighters to migrate and join the Islamic State. Meanwhile ISIS made it more and more difficult for Syrian civilians who had once called the region their home to live. Newly recruited ISIS fighters – referred to as mujihireen – have free electricity and health care. They are given subsidized rent and fuel prices, and skip to the front of the line in bread queues.

For locals, it has been a different story entirely. Prices for basic goods have skyrocketed during the war economy, leading to a class divide between the mujihireen and the locals that leaves many financially struggling. Internet is expensive, and communications are monitored – meaning that there is a strong fear of surveillance and of speaking out. Journalists have been formally banned, and activists who share information about the Islamic State have been targeted and killed, on both the Syrian and Turkish sides of the border.

Culturally, life in Raqqa is different, as well. While women once were an integral part of the local councils, experimenting with the future of governance in the city, now they are not allowed to be in public without a male guardian and are forced to wear the full burqa, covering their faces as well as their bodies.

The “ISIS Stronghold” Holds Civilians Too

Over the past week, international media have been quick to refer to Raqqa as the “ISIS stronghold.” While technically true, this framing ignores the presence of the 300,000 Syrian civilians who have not pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and now live in the crossfire of a multifront international war involving ISIS, the Assad regime, the US-led coalition, Russian airstrikes and now French retaliatory airstrikes.

Meanwhile, members of Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered, a network of Syrian media activists who report undercover on life inside ISIS-occupied Syria, reported that electricity in the entire northwestern part of the city was out, and ISIS fighters responded to the strikes by hiding in civilian buildings, endangering those on the ground.

While symbolically welcomed by some civilians in Raqqa, the airstrikes have not meaningfully targeted Islamic State’s presence and have done little to loosen the repression inside Raqqa.

“The targets bombed by French warplanes were mostly abandoned by ISIS fighters,” an activist from Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered said on the condition of anonymity.

According to other accounts, ISIS fighters have abandoned their posts and are hiding in civilian buildings to avoid the airstrikes. Meanwhile, Russian airstrikes destroyed bridges and hospitals inside the city, targeting more civilians than militants.

“The US, Russia and France are all bombing Syria,” the activist added. “How many more countries want to bomb us?”