What is happening in Raqqa? It is worth bring attention to the governorate that is “ruled” by the opposition, since it is the first actual model of an alternative authority to the state. The opposition referred to here is not the Syrian Coalition or its “temporary” government, but the Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigades and the Religious Body to Support the Syrian Revolution.
Based on the reality on the ground, there is confusion on the part of the opposition, especially in the management of the agricultural, educational and service sectors. There is also a risk of defaulting on the payment of salaries for state employees, as well as news about a new dictatorship being exercised by the brigades in the name of Sharia. It also seems that reconstruction will remain pending until further notice.
Amid all of this, the regime still maintains a presence in the governorate, from which it launches military operations to restore the city of Rashid.
The decline of agriculture and the absence of civil life
The life of the residents of Raqqa did not change much after the easy fall of their governorate outside the control of the regime, unlike in any other region in Syria.
The governorate fell in the hands of the opposition brigades starting with the Tal Abyad crossing on the Turkish border, then the Euphrates river and dam, to the heart of the city, which constitutes a small part of the vast rural areas.
Raqqa has a large population, a mixture of its original residents and those displaced after the outbreak of armed confrontations.
Not much has changed in Raqqa. However, the walls of the city have been painted, and are covered with revolutionary, Islamic, and advocacy slogans bearing the signature of Jabhat al-Nusra or Ahrar ash-Sham.
In contrast, the service sectors are still functioning as before. Employees of government institutions — such as electricity and water plants and bakeries — still go to work.
The Ministry of Education in Damascus decided to approve the student exams, which have been supervised by the local council. However, the Syrian National Coalition issued a decree setting the date for the official high school examinations for August.
The main problem is with the agricultural sector, the key economic source in Raqqa. Agriculture in Syria was already suffering from drought, as well as decreased care from the government. This has triggered extensive migration of the rural population in Raqqa to the outskirts of Aleppo and Damascus.
Today, the suffering resurfaces as the wheat harvest season begins. Farmers complain of difficulty in marketing their products, not just wheat, but all kinds of crops, especially sugar beets.
Irrigation is another problem suffered by the agricultural sector. Farmers depend on rain water in the winter despite its scarcity, in addition to pumping water from the Euphrates River, which requires equipment, fuel and electricity.
Despite the promises made by several European entities to improve the irrigation systems and support agricultural production, they are hampered by the lack of an executive authority or transitional government that would exercise its functions on the ground. This information has been provided by activists who have followed the issue of the decline of agriculture in the region.
The issue of executive power has become a subject of widespread discontent among the various social segments in Raqqa. The Syrian National Coalition is preoccupied with traveling, holding meetings and delivering useless speeches, while being completely oblivious to the need to manage the region, as some believe. This is happening at a time when the primary concern of many combat brigades is to attract the masses, engage in Islamic advocacy, apply the death penalty in public squares, and arrest people.
It is noteworthy that the regime still controls several military locations from which it launches operations aimed at restoring the governorate, especially through the Tabaqa military airport (near the Euphrates Dam) or launching medium-range missiles.
Thus, the governorate seems to be anything but safe, especially since it can still be accessed through several roads from Damascus, Palmyra or Deir al-Zour.
Oil … a different story
Another tragedy, which is no less significant than the agricultural sector, involves oil. This is especially true following Western reports saying that the ruling brigades are selling Syrian oil to foreign sides. The most affected are the rural residents. Some have turned to refining oil in primitive ways to be used as fuel for irrigation, since farmers need fuel to run water pump engines. Also, there will be an increased need for heating and electricity generation in the winter.
The primitive process of refining crude oil is done through “burners,” which are cylinders that operate according to an oil filtering mechanism. Thus, some have benefited from this process, selling fuel without consideration for the risk of the spread of vapors resulting from refining, which are believed to be carcinogenic. There is also a risk of the burners exploding, which would exacerbate the tragedy. However, the most important thing for fuel refiners are the millions or billions they are able to rake in.
And, of course, traders in “black gold” do not mind forming armed battalions to protect the process of stealing oil from fields along the course of the Euphrates River, refining it and even exporting it to Turkey and selling it in dollars there. As a result, the oil lords have joined their counterparts — the warlords, arms smugglers and thugs — in the Syrian arena.
Raqqa has also been witnessing another phenomenon, which has been overlooked by the media. It is the protests led by civil society activists opposing the policy of arbitrary arrests carried out by the Religious Body.
Video clips that have circulated on YouTube show demonstrations in which slogans against the militant brigades were raised, such as, “Pity, pity, you have betrayed us in the name of Islam.” The footage on YouTube showed part of what is happening in the city, which had witnessed the executions of what Jabhat al-Nusra called “regime soldiers.” Following these executions, several demonstrations were launched denouncing the new dictatorship, offset by counter-demonstrations in support of Jabhat al-Nusra and its allies.
Paradoxically, many activists in Raqqa have maintained silence and refrained from giving details about the situation, on the grounds that what has been happening is mere individual cases unworthy of casting light on. In their view, exposing these facts would compromise the unity of the city and burden the fighters, as well as distract attention from the priorities for which the revolution was launched.
Some acknowledge that the continuation of these “individual” cases may lead to graver consequences in the event that a civil authority, which the various military battalions and groups would become subject to, is not established. This seems to be a distant notion, especially since some consider themselves to be the absolute commanders as long as they possess arms.