Al Rakkah, an Icon and a Victim of the Syrian Revolution

This study discusses the changes through which Al Rakkah has gone during the years of Syrian Revolution on all military, social and political levels, and the consequences of these changes that affected the current situation of Al Rakkah and its future on the intermediate term at least.

This study includes:

  • Pre-Revolution oppression of Al Rakkah
  • Al Rakkah with the advent of the Syrian Revolution
  • From freedom to the bitter years of darkness
  • The grand battle between ISIS and Syrian Democratic Forces
  • Where is Al Rakkah heading to after liberation and destruction?

Pre-Revolution oppression of Al Rakkah

Before we go through the bright episodes, and dark episodes which are the longest period that Al Rakkah went through during the last 7 years of the Revolution, let’s have a quick review of the status of this province, its nature, social and political conditions under the rule of Assad’s Regime.

Before the Revolution, Al Rakkah lived in a state of deliberate and planned isolation and marginalization due to the policies of Assad’s Regime. These Assad’s Policies intentionally deformed and undermined some Provinces more than others throughout the country. This was in accordance with the interests of the Assad’s Regime and its unrestricted will that didn’t use to have national commitments.

This province which neighbors Great Euphrates in the North od Syria is surrounded with fertile farm lands despite the desert-like nature. Al Rakkah used to be blooming in its treasures from which Assad’s Regime got as much as it wanted, and at any time. The Regime benefited from the province without any investment that could develop the area and enhance its role in supporting the economy of the country. Assad’s Regime was always keen on sidelining cities in the Syrian Al Jazera Area in general and Al Rakkah in particular. The Regime connected the economic situation of Al Rakkah to public sector and the government profit-based economy. This policy changed people into cogs running in the government machine. These cogs produce much but consume the least thing that keeps them alive. This policy made people of Al Rakkah very much connected to the authority machine. People learn and work only for the benefit of the government and nothing else. They never do things for themselves.

About this important issue which is essential for understanding the situation in Al Rakkah before the revolution, I would like to go through what was said by Ma’bad Al Hasoun, a journalist and researcher from Al Rakkah, in his book “Al Rakkah and the Revolution”. In this recently published book, he says: “We should never ignore the big employed community and the growing educational sector just like the case of the agricultural sector (cooperatives, agriculture banks, land distribution systems. The Regime was using these lands for blackmail and temptation. Al these sectors, together with trade, were vital part of the Regime’s strategy and its domination, and how some focal persons of the Regime penetrated the community”. “All these sectors connected successive generations to the authority machine. It can be said that Al Rakkah was the Regime’s black hole and its back yard for bargains.”

Al Rakkah with the advent of the Syrian Revolution

When two weeks of the revolution passed i.e. on the 25th of March 2011, a considerable number of young people of Al Rakkah went out on a demonstration against Assad’s Regime. This demonstration marked a new era for people of Al Rakkah.

Despite this early involvement in the Revolution against one of the most totalitarian and dictator regimes in the World, many observers think that this involvement was not as expected in terms of momentum and strength due to subjective and objective reasons related to the political and social whatness of this province. The Regime was in full control of influential factors as we mentioned before. Social coherence was undermined and muffled.

This image was reinforced by Bashar Assad’s visit to Rakkah on 6th October 2011 to participate in Al Eid Prayers. Thousands of social figures, government officials, heads of tribes and civil servants prayed with Bashar Assad. Invitation cards were individually sent to their houses or workplaces. It was said that Bashar Assad ordered 25 million to be distributed to heads of tribes with some weapons. They were asked to confront those revolting against the Regime. This visit was very embarrassing to the pioneers of the Revolution as other provinces were trying to clench the threads of Revolution. Those same circumstances, which temporarily made Al Rakkah involvement in the revolution reluctant and slow, contributed to a greater and more influential involvement few months later. Al Rakkah was relatively far away from the central authority in Damascus, 450 kilometers from the Capital, and close to Turkey. The brave and unpredictable solidarity among revolts in Al Rakkah created new ideal conditions for taking the initiative and changing Al Rakkah into a Revolutionary Icon. Al Rakkah was the first province to become away from the grip of Assad’s Regime.

On 25th of March 2012, a big demonstration against the Regime kicked off in the Church Street near Al Rasheed Park, middle of the city. Immediately, security forces and those whom the Regime bribed and armed attempted to suppress demonstrators by force. Bullets of the security forces shot a number some demonstrators. Ali Al Babensi, sixteen-year old young boy, was shot in his breast and died because it was impossible to take him to hospital at that time. He was the first martyr who was killed by Assad’s forces while suppressing demonstrations in Al Rakkah. The death of Ali Babensi was a great shock for the Revolution community which led to a volcanic eruption of a stronger revolutionary gesticulation among revolution advocates.

Going back again to Hasoun’s book “Al Rakkah and the Revolution”, we see that this book documented this great and crucial stage of the Revolution and the history of revolutionary Rakkah. Ma’bad Hasoun says: “The morning that followed the death of Ali Babensi was very decisive, distinct and full of surprises and suspense. The scene was embodied in the imagination and conscience of people. The boundaries of imagination and dreams mingled with punitive reality.  A wave of anger and grief overwhelmed the city and people got to the streets in clusters and individually with unprecedented decisiveness that went beyond intelligibility. Every single person in the city thought that he was the only person coming to mourn the little boy that was blooming in his youth, a young boy who was simply and indifferently killed with cool blood. It never came to the mind of any person that the funeral would be like any other funeral for an average person. This impression was motivated by the fact that the boy did not belong to a big family or tribe. So, not many relatives are expected to be crowding to mourn like in any usual funeral”. The Writer adds: “the crowd was increasing in the morning to take part in the funeral. The number was increasing every other minute. People from distant places sent message to hold on the funeral until they arrive. When the funeral moved towards the cemetery, it was a marvelous scene that impressed every participant and viewer. The funeral immediately changed into one of the most tremendous demonstrations nationwide in the history of the Revolution. It was an unprecedented protest movement in such a small city that didn’t use to be very much absorbed with opposition to the Regime throughout its history. More than 200000 persons attended the funeral-driven demonstration. The scene can be described as an unprecedented consensus and public protest against the Regime and for the Revolution. Most of the people of Al Rakkah were there in one magnificent scene that the city has never seen before or after. 

Demonstrators decided to go to Al Rasheed Park to destroy the bronze statue of Hafez Assad facing the Municipality Palace, But, security forces were alerted there to face demonstrators with gunfire. Security Forces committed a horrible massacre by killing 14 young men and injuring tens of demonstrators.”

From freedom to the bitter years of darkness

Local rebel groups from Idlib, Aleppo Western Countryside and Deir Ezour managed to liberate the city and expel Assad’s Forces from the city in few hours. By this, Al Rakkah was the first province city to be free from the grip of Assad’s Regime. People of the city were intoxicated with a triumph that has never been experienced before. Rebels and activists of Al Rakkah succeeded in creating a Revolutionary Icon. They started organizing some activities related to the Revolution. The city hosted hundreds of thousands of displaced people coming from other areas in Syria that were exposed to brutal military action by the Regime. These new born institutions were able to govern the city in a perfect way. They successfully gave a true image of beautiful Syria. However, this didn’t last for long as ISIS attacked the city in January 2014. Following a period of conflict among ISIS on the one hand and rebel groups like Al Nusra, Ahrrar Al Sham and other Free Syrian Army groups on the other hand, ISIS took over and captured the city although the battles were in favor of rebel groups. People of the city were surprised that their city became in the hands of ISIS which brought its fighters from rural areas. Except for Ahrrar Al Rakkah Brigade, all other groups withdrew from the city although Al Nusra was in full control of the two main bridges of the city. Fighters of Ahhrar Al Rakkah brigade were left alone to fight ISIS. Other groups, like Al Nusra and Ahrrar Al Sham, did not take part in the fight for few days, and therefore Ahrrar Al Rakkah couldn’t stand the battle for long and ISIS dominated the city. By this, Al Rakkah went through a new unexpected catastrophic episode.

ISIS started working on its Caliphate Project using Al Rakkah as a base for its dream. To fulfil its dream, ISIS started a large-scale detention campaign against activists and revolutionary figures. Taxes were imposed, new laws were empowered and schools were closed. Every one who stood against them was brutally executed. The city’s dreams of freedom were all aborted. Their dreams of liberty, freedom and dignity were all gone with the wind despite all the blood they sacrificed for these dreams.

ISIS didn’t spare any brutality to suppress and rebuff civilians in the city. Sharia ‘a Courts and Islamic Police (Al Hesbah) were formed and many foreigners were invited to the city and granted full authority. Then they started looting public facilities, houses, shops without any reasons. All looted properties were given to those foreign leaders. ISIS worked hard to mobilize young men of the city using money and authority temptation simultaneously with threatening them with religious and sectarian slogans. This caused a deep unseen conflict between residents of the city with those who joined ISIS.

The criminal acts of ISIS, their suppressive behavior and their violations of civilians’ rights pushed thousands of people to leave the city out of despair and move to other areas in Syria. Some emigrated to Turkey and Europe. ISIS was late in its awareness of the reality that the city was getting empty and changed into a big camp for ISIS fighters. This was a clear sign that the battle against ISIS was creeping as the city was no longer inhibited by civilians. This made the task of defeating ISIS easier. That was in November 2015 when ISIS started preventing civilians from leaving the city and they brutally killed drivers suspected to be involved in transporting civilians out of the city. Beating, crucifying and imprisoning were very common everyday procedures taken against any civilian who tries to leave this big prison.

The grand battle between ISIS and Syrian Democratic Forces

On the 10th of October 2015, Syrian Democratic Forces were formed in Al Kameshly, Northeastern of Syria. These forces released a statement claiming that they are a Syrian national military body for all Syrians including Arabs, Kurds, Cereins and all other ethnic groups. This army includes Jaish Al Thewar, Syrian Arab Coalition, Euphrates Volcano Operation Room, Sanadeed forces, Alliance of Al Jazera forcesand the Cerein Military Council, PYD and Kurdish Women Protection Forces. The total number of these forces is about 45000 militants. 

The establishment of this military alliance came just after a statement by the United States that it might support some selected groups of these forces for the fight against ISIS in Syria.

Middle of June 2015, the new military body which is logistically and militarily supported by the United States captured Tal Abiadh City and its border crossing with Turkey after ISIS abandoned most of its territories to the North of Al Rakkah.  

End of June 2017, Syrian National Forces (SNFs) declared the commencement of its battle for Al Rakkah. They named their military operation “Anger of the Euphrates” that was declared earlier that year. The military operation was intended to expel ISIS from Al Rakkah, its main stronghold. After SNFs captured Al Tabka, a city near Al Rakkah, and other areas to the North, East and West of Al Rakkah, the battle for Al Rakkah city started.

Thewar Al Rakkah, which is mentioned earlier in this study, was excluded from the battle although it was the only rebel group which fought ISIS when it first attacked Al Rakkah. This was unjustified as it is part of the new coalition. People of Al Rakkah were concerned that their city might be occupied again especially when it was clear that PYD was controlling SNFs and was also dominating all other military fractions.

Middle of October 2015, SNFs expelled ISIS from Al Rakkah with unlimited military support by the US Land and Air Forces. The battle ended with a bargain that allowed the remaining ISIS militants to leave to Deir Ezour. This marked the end of ISIS myth in its main stronghold. This defeat of ISIS cost the destruction of 80% of the city’s buildings and infrastructure, and the death of about 3271 civilians according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights.

Where is Al Rakkah heading to after liberation and destruction?

As much as people of Al Rakkah expressed their happiness for the liberation of their city, they expressed deep sorrow for the destruction of city. The battle cause large-scale destruction of the infrastructure including communication towers, bridges, hospital and other public service facilities including both private and public sectors. Residential areas had the lion’s share of destruction. So many People of Al Rakkah started to worry about the destiny and future of their city as it is in the hand of national Kurdish groups of very fanatic and fundamental origins. These groups have nothing in common with the tribal Arabic nature of Al Rakkah Province which is much of a nomadic area.

During the battle for Al Rakkah, many leaders and spokespersons of SNFs declared that Rakkah is part of the Federal System in the North of Syria, Western Kurdistan, which they called (Roj Ava) in Kurdish. So, many people of Al Rakkah were concerned. However, these concerns started to diminish when Saleh Musalam, Head of the Democratic Alliance Party (PYD), backbone of SNFs, declared that People of Al Rakkah have the full right to decide who governs their city after expelling ISIS.

Five months after ISIS left Al Rakkah, Rakkah was not so different from the day of liberation. Buildings are still destroyed, rubbles everywhere and mines are everywhere. These mines kill many innocent civilians despite the promises made by the Local Council of Al Rakkah, that was formed by SNFs, to remove all these mines and rubbles from the streets.

Civil societies and individuals displaced from Al Rakkah and based in Urfa, Turkey, accused SNFs of reluctance in protecting civilians in Al Rakkah. They also accused SNFs of delaying the return of IDPs to their city and even blackmailing them in some cases. These Civil Societies demand the Coalition Forces and human right organizations to work hard not to connect the return of civilians to the city to political solutions and deals related to Rakkah, or the situation in Syria in general. SNFs are demanded to allow more human and financial resources to accelerate removal of mines before more lives are lost.

Last March, the Local Council of Al Rakkah, which is part of the Syrian Interim Government, demanded the International Community and the International Coalition to help hand over of Al Rakkah to its people as four months passed following the removal of ISIS from the city. In a statement, the Local Council reminded the Coalition that although ISIS left the city four months ago, 70 percent of the buildings are still destroyed and some of the dead bodies are still under rubbles. “The Coalition has not yet removed the rubbles or taken the dead bodies out” the Local Council added. According to the Local Council, SNFs have been looting the houses and shops and imposed fines and taxes on the Arab civilians. SNFs say these fines are to compensate civilians in Efreen who suffer the war there. The Local Council of Al Rakkah urges the International Community and the International Coalition to shoulder their responsibilities and keep their promises to hand over the province to its people so that they establish their own local councils by all ethnic groups in different areas of the province. These Local Councils need to establish local police and legal system by locals of the province. This legal system will follow the Syrian laws. They also need to establish unified armed forces to protect the province.

Conclusion

As the dispute remains unsettled between the bodies supported by the United States like SNFs and Al Rakkah Civil Council on the one hand, and the Local Council of Al Rakkah of the Syrian Interim Government that is somewhat supported by Turkey on the other hand, people of Al Rakkah find themselves on the margin with no true representatives who can sponsor their interests. When the American President, Donald Trump talked about the US intention to withdraw its forces from Syria last March, People of Al Rakkah were concerned that the city might be left in the hands of other parties. Many people think that US presence in the area is the main factor of stability and control of the Kurdish national parties dominating SNFs.

Trump’s statement explicitly says that the United States will leave the area and hand it over to other powers without identifying these powers. This means that the areas controlled by SNFs in the North and East of Syria will be between two jaws of a pliers i.e. Russian Forces in the East supporting the Regime’s Forces, which dream of accessing the rich oil areas in the countryside of Hasakah, Rakkah and Deir Ezour on one side, and Turkish Forces in the West trying to eliminate their arch enemy with the help of Free Syrian Army on the other side. These FSA forces have got the sympathy of civilians in Arab areas dominated by SNFs. In the meanwhile, SNFs declared the establishment of a political party called “Future Syria” end of last March. Observers think that SNFs intends to make this party as a political interface with many purposes. They want to lessen the concerns of Arab citizens in the area through removing the Kurdish outlook of their authorities and make it look more socialistic with Arabic majority. They also want to abort any Turkish attempt to get to Eastern Euphrates after Turkey and its FSA allies captured Efreen, the symbolic stronghold of Kurdish parties. Some other analysts think that this party comes within the strategy of the United States to undo the previous situation of Kurdish domination in in Al Rakkah and Eastern Euphrates. US wants to distribute governance of the area to scatter concerns and congestion and start a new era of stability.

We can say that the destiny of Al Rakkah is still vague despite all statements and press releases by different parties. Reconstruction efforts are at their lowest level. It requires a lot of money and some kind of stability and confidence between the authorities and locals. This confidence is currently lost and might remain lost in the foreseeable future. Starting reconstruction projects and the return of civilians to their homes are very much dependent on the solution to the Syrian crisis as a whole. As the solution in Syria has come to a stalemate, it is not easy to feel optimistic towards any solution to the problem of Al Rakkah and all other provinces in Syria.


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