Is an assault on Raqqa in the offing?
NORTHERN SYRIA - “Their bombardment is futile. It will not make much difference. The coalition planes have been hitting Raqqa for more than a year in addition to the regime and the Russians lately but they did not defeat Daesh.”
The comment by Raqqa resident Mohamad Abou Fares, using an Arabic term for the Islamic State (ISIS), came after the US-led coalition, France and Russia intensified air strikes on ISIS’s de facto capital in Syria in response to the deadly terrorist attacks in Paris and the bombing of a Russian passenger plane over Egypt.
“It (ISIS) will not be defeated because there are parties and countries that want it to stay in order to serve their interests,” the 60-year-old former government employee said.
“Had the United States been serious about eliminating Daesh, the group would have been wiped out in days. The same applies to the regime but the bastard child, which expanded geographically in Syria and Iraq, is nurtured by many, including the Syrian regime, Turkey and the coalition,” he said.
Abou Fares has adamantly refused to leave his home in Raqqa city after his family had fled in the wake of the latest heavy bombardment from the air and by cruise missiles launched from Russian warships. “I have witnessed all the blitzes that Raqqa has sustained since it was captured by ISIS… All that will not work,” he said.
Since November 14th, France and Russia have stepped up air offences, pounding suspected ISIS targets in Raqqa with tens of daily strikes that have caused massive destruction and casualties among militants and civilians.
A medical source in Raqqa, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said at least 70 civilians have been killed and 300 injured in the first days of the blitz. “I believe that casualties among the militants did not exceed a few dozens,” the source said. “It is hard to know the exact number because they transport their dead and wounded to their own private centres.”
According to activists in Raqqa, known ISIS bases in the city have long been destroyed by regime and coalition air strikes and no obvious centres are being used by the militants, who have taken measures to be not detected by surveillance planes. “They stopped travelling around the city in convoys and moved into residential neighbourhoods in empty houses abandoned by people who fled Raqqa earlier, to minimise chances of being located,” one activist said.
Yasser Abu Ahmad, a former Syrian army officer from Raqqa who fled to Turkey in August, said ISIS has banned residents from leaving the city unless they provide convincing justification and on condition they cannot take any possessions with them. “Those who sneak out secretly are dispossessed of their belongings and properties. Only families seeking shelter in Deir ez-Zor and Iraq are free to leave since they would be staying within the borders of the Islamic State,” said Abu Ahmad, who spoke on condition that he was identified by this pseudonym.
But fear gripping the northern Syrian city’s residents forced thousands to flee to villages in rural Raqqa province, as ISIS stepped up security measures in the city.
“In addition to the eight checkpoints at the entrances of Raqqa, the group deployed more than 50 roadblocks across the city, searching, in particular, Raqqa natives whom they suspect to be dormant cells of the Free Syrian Army and the regime,” said activist Mohamad Abou Ammar.
“Militants have carried out several raids in Rmeileh district in the north-eastern part of the city lately, rounding up tens of young men they suspect of acting against them,” added Abou Ammar.
While Raqqa’s original population of 500,000 is believed to have dropped to less than 200,000 after ISIS captured the city in early 2014, newcomers are estimated at more than 600,000. These include pro-ISIS Syrians from other regions and some 20,000 foreign militants and their families, mostly from the Maghreb, the Gulf states, Egypt, central Asia and European countries.
The growing tension and nervousness in Raqqa since airstrikes escalated is also fuelled by anticipation of possible assault on the city by US-backed rebel groups, including an Arab-Kurdish coalition, the Democratic Forces of Syria and the Army of Tribes, according to a rebel field commander who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“We are only 50 kilometres away from Raqqa, a distance that we can cross in a few hours. All we need is an air cover by coalition forces because we have dormant cells inside the city that are capable of making openings to facilitate our advance,” the commander said.
“I believe there will no big battles, as we expect the terror group to pull back towards Deir ez-Zor because if they resist thousands of their militants and supporters, whether Syrians or foreigners, would be eradicated,” he added.
Raqqa’s inhabitants, however, have little hope of an imminent liberation, expressing little confidence in international efforts to combat ISIS. “We strongly believe that French planes, and before them the Russians, are merely putting up a show by targeting what has been targeted already and destroying the destroyed,” said Abu Ahmad.