Syria: Raqqa Lies in Ruins

Article Summary
The city of Raqqa, which for nearly two years escaped the horrors of the the civil war in Syria, has been sucked into the fighting and now lies in ruins, writes Ziad Haydar.

The armed opposition has dragged the Syrian army into yet another battle that will lead to yet more destruction and bloodshed. With this, Raqqa city, where the situation had been calm for two years, has joined the tragic flow of incidents in Syria.

Military reinforcements consisting of destructive tanks are on their way to Raqqa, while tanks at the military points near the city are shelling militant positions and “declaring huge losses in their ranks.” Meanwhile, the air force is constantly hovering in the city’s skies as they seek  destructive victories that have made opposition militants jubilant. Opposition activists are warning of gangs “from Aleppo suburbs that have invaded the western part of Raqqa” and carried out theft in the city.

Contrary to expectations, Raqqa — controversially — did not initially join the “Syrian revolution.” When the incidents first broke out, diffident protesters took to the streets, but they soon stopped. The city’s movements remained peaceful until the end of last year. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad even prayed in one of Raqqa’s mosques during Eid al-Adha last June.

When the armed movements gradually started spreading to the eastern region, bloody incidents for which both the opposition and the government took responsibility occurred. Dozens of people were killed in the Qahtaniya region outside the city, and the government accused terrorist groups of executing the operations. The shelling also reached a gas station in Tal Abyad, and the official media announced, at the time, that the region was a hub for terrorists.   

Contrary to the bloodshed in Raqqa’s surroundings, the city’s roads have remained open and the travel into and out of the city has continued as normal. However, another disappointing expectation was the government’s conviction that the city was safe, due to previous tribal coalitions and to the presence of a large number of displaced people in it. Mostly coming from Idlib, Deir al-Zour and Aleppo, they exceeded half a million, seeking to escape the constant destruction in their regions and benefit from the exceptional calm in Raqqa. However, they have run farther away now, along with Raqqa’s citizens, to Deir al-Zour and Hasaka, where the situation is not any better.

The agreement with the Free Syrian Army leaders in the Kurdish regions, and the heavy blow that was dealt to the militants and Jabhat al-Nusra in Aleppo triggered quick action to achieve another victory.  There was also news about militants coming from Iraq, and they paved the way for the battle of Raqqa city by taking over its suburbs without any real resistance. They then tightened their grip on al-Tabqa city and its areas of strategic importance, such as the Euphrates Dam. All of these steps were leading up to a large-scale offensive on the city, which started with a blockade on its central prison and ended with frequent incursions from different entrances to the city.

Pro-government websites published unconfirmed news of the death of the retired Emirati Col. Muhammad Ahmad al-Said al-Abdouli, who participated in the attack. Meanwhile the opposition’s “Raqqa eyewitnesses” page mentioned that “Oumana al-Raqqa, Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham” have taken hold of the governmental buildings and detained the governor and some military leaders. If this is true, the doors of negotiation will be opened.

A video taped by militants showed Raqqa Gov. Hassan Jalili and Suleiman Suleiman, the ruling Baath party's secretary-general for the province, seated among armed fighters. One of them said, “We want to topple the regime.”

Several websites published news about a robbery that targeted Raqqa Museum, which includes authentic Roman and Islamic antiquities, in the city center. However, the Directorate-General of Museums and Antiquities yesterday denied “any theft of important antiquities”. Opposition websites also announced that the “Islamic Brigades” are conducting patrols in the city to fight theft and looting.

It is hard to describe the current situation, especially since telecommunications are almost completely disconnected within the city. Real Raqqa activists sporadically appear on the internet due to the bad connections. Some people, who have devices adapted to satellites or are outside the city, can get a better view.

On the other hand, no detailed stories have been released through the official media about the military situation. One source stated that militants are present in many neighborhoods, while it claimed that the barracks of Military Brigade 17 is among the most important defense positions left. Despite its need for reinforcements, according to leaked information, it is still participating in the shelling of locations in the city. Activists indicated that the “armored” city center was shelled by aircraft and that violent clashes are taking place in different regions of the city.

Opposition activists and inhabitants announced that Syrian [helicopter] gunships were attacking Raqqa. According to a local, “Raqqa is being shelled by warplanes. I would say there were around 60 missiles.” He added that the hospitals are asking for blood donations, with the increasing number of wounded people.

At the end of the day, the situation in Raqqa is not very different from that in other cities, where the “war of liberation” has been declared. After getting their media moments of fame for days or hours, these cities turned into military battlefields, where political and human accounts are settled and blood is shed. The fighting persists until the big victory clock strikes or a far-fetched settlement is reached. Then, the “victory brokers” of different nationalities will step in to “rebuild the country,” especially since the United Nations stated that the Syrian losses have amounted to around $220 billion recently. This description considers the Syrian economic situation “the worst catastrophe in the region since the invasion of Iraq.”

The clashes between the regime’s forces and the opposition militants persisted in several neighborhoods in Homs. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights indicated in its data that “the neighborhoods of Khalidiya and old Homs are being heavily shelled by Syrian forces. Loud explosions can be heard, in addition to military air raids on Khalidiya.”

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Found in: syrian revolution, syrian opposition, syrian, aleppo
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