How Islamist Rebels in Syria Are Ruling a Fallen Provincial Capital

Raqqa city was once firmly in the hands of the Assad regime, but it fell within a week to a rebel assault. Now, the city’s new Islamist rulers must figure out how hard they should push their ideology

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Hamid Khatib / Reuters

A man runs as smoke rises from buildings damaged by what activists said were missiles fired by a Syrian Air Force fighter jet loyal to President Bashar Assad in Raqqa province, Syria, on March 12, 2013

Raqqa city was once dubbed the “hotel of the revolution” because it became home to hundreds of thousands of people displaced from fighting elsewhere who sought refuge in a place considered firmly in the grip of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Earlier this month, however, the city in north central Syria, which was late to the antigovernment revolt, became known for something else: it is the first and only provincial capital that Assad’s regime has completely lost — with the rebels taking control of it within the span of a week.

The regime will likely lose the entire province within days. There are only three remaining regime outposts in this vast eastern tribal area that extends all the way to the Turkish border: there’s Division 17 a few kilometers outside the city; the military airport at Tabqa about 40 km to 50 km away; and Brigade 93 in Ain Issa, some 70 km away. All three positions are under heavy rebel attack and government counterattack.

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But in Raqqa city, some 100 km from the Turkish border crossing of Tal Abyad, the scars of war are faint. Warplanes still rumble in the air, mainly to aid the men besieged in Division 17, but despite reports from earlier in the month, air strikes and artillery shelling in the city are now rare.

The dusty streets are swept clean, unlike so many other areas in Syria where the state’s power has collapsed along with its services and festering piles of fly-ridden garbage crowd the streets. The power outages are brief in most parts of the city although there have been days-long blackouts in areas around some damaged government buildings. The mobile-phone service has ceased since a few days ago, but the landlines still work. There are fresh fruit and meat in the markets (albeit at inflated prices), and most of the stores along the main thoroughfare of Tal Abyad Street are open, selling everything from carpets and women’s clothing to hardware and leather shoes. There are, however, long lines of people outside the bakeries, which only operate at night because Assad’s warplanes generally don’t fly in the dark. (In other parts of Syria, people waiting outside bakeries during the day have been the victims of air strikes.)

Perhaps what is most striking is that only a handful of the sand-colored flat-roofed three- and four-story buildings in this city have been damaged by fighting — or its aftermath. Even some of Assad’s portraits remain in place. There’s one on the outer facade of the office of the Agricultural Worker’s Union, another on the civil-engineering faculty as well as a two-starred Syrian regime flag flitting above the three-story women’s hospital. (The secularist rebels have a three-starred flag; the Islamists have variations of a black banner with Koranic script.)

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According to the locals, the battle here was brief. It started in earnest at dawn on March 2. Regime forces positioned in the five checkpoints ringing Raqqa city either retreated into the city or were overrun within a day or so. Several security outposts inside the city were also abandoned, the men inside fleeing to either the military or the political-security branches, the two sites that saw fierce clashes that nonetheless only lasted three days. The governor and the local head of the ruling Baath Party were both detained. By March 7, Raqqa city had fallen to the rebels.

So far, the city has avoided the disorder of a postregime security vacuum. Very few homes were looted. The banks and the money in them have been secured, while government and security offices were not ransacked and the paperwork within them was not burned. Instead the files have been collected and are being studied. The city’s two churches in this majority Sunni Muslim area are untouched and protected, although the townsfolk speak of Alawites being killed just for being Assad’s coreligionists.

So why and how did this happen in Raqqa? Put simply, it’s because the regime had diluted its forces here, deploying them to other parts of the country, and because the forces aligned against Assad were mainly Islamists, largely outside the broad umbrella of the more secular, loosely organized and in some cases poorly disciplined Free Syrian Army (FSA).

The offensive was spearheaded by Jabhat al-Nusra (which the U.S. considers a terrorist group with ties to al-Qaeda), the Salafi Ahrar al-Sham brigade and Jabhat al-Wahda al-Tahrir al-Islamiya (a grouping of some two dozen battalions) — all non-FSA groups who prefer the term mujahedin (holy warriors) to revolutionaries, the label many FSA rebels use to describe themselves.

A special unit of Ahrar al-Sham called Liwa Omana al-Raqqa (the Brigade of Security for Raqqa) was tasked with securing government installations after they fell, protecting public and private property and maintaining services to the city. The unit was specifically formed with this aim, according to its commander, Abu Tayf, a history graduate who used to work in real estate. “We had sleeper cells inside the city for a long time. When we entered the city, they rose and implemented the plan,” he says. “The project was devised a long time ago.”

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There are also spray-painted messages around the city warning against theft. “A thief’s hand will be cut. Signed Jabhat al-Nusra” is plastered in many places, including outside Real Estate Bank, which like the other banks in the city, is guarded by al-Nusra.

Several commanders of various Islamist units said they prevented some FSA units from entering the city, either during or after the battle, because they feared they might be more interested in looting than fighting. In at least one instance, an FSA unit was turned away by force, after an exchange of gunfire. “We did not forbid the Free Army, we forbade people who we suspected wanted to cause trouble in the city,” says Dr. Samer, “emir” of Jabhat al-Wahda al-Tahrir al-Islamiya who formerly went by the nom de guerre Abu Hakam. “I’m talking about certain individuals or battalions, but we don’t forbid people from jihad.”

Dr. Samer, a 32-year-old physician who was studying to be a surgeon before the rebellion began, cuts an imposing figure in his full military uniform, black boots and black beret. He wears his bushy black beard in the manner of a Salafi (without a mustache) and although he used the Islamist term emir rather than commander to describe himself, he smokes Gauloises Blondes — unlike ultraconservative Muslims in Jabhat al-Nusra who forbid the practice. The doctor appeared in an amateur video posted shortly after the city’s fall. In it, he’s seated on a couch between Raqqa’s governor and the local Baath Party leader, two men who remain in rebel detention. “That was filmed upstairs,” Dr. Samer says, referring to the video.

His unit is now based in the governor’s home, a palatial mansion that could rival any of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s. No less than seven green-hued chandeliers hang from the dining-room ceiling. There’s a sauna and a steam room. The gilded bust of former Syrian President Hafez Assad that once adorned the spacious marble-tiled entrance now sits outside the house’s high black-and-gold metal gate. “Tyrant” is spray-painted in blue across its head. Yet little else seems to have been removed. The china and crystal glassware remains in the cabinets, tapestries still hang from the walls, and furniture remains in its place.

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“The governor will be treated as he deserves,” Dr. Samer says. “He is being interrogated. His positives will be weighed against his negatives, and he will be treated according to Shari‘a.” The doctor would not say if he still has the two regime men, or if they’ve been handed over to Jabhat al-Nusra, which is more likely. However, he says he is prepared to consider a prisoner swap: “We are ready if the regime wants to do something, we will consider it, for the sake of not spilling blood.”

There are other prisoners too. There were at least 140 with the doctor’s unit according to his military spokesman, Abu Abdullah, although 40 were released. The others, who are mainly soldiers and security men, await trial in Shari‘a courts.

That Islamists now run this city is unmistakable. On Thursday, a massive black flag bearing the Islamic shahada (“There is no god but God and Mohammad is His messenger”) was hoisted atop a flagpole in the square in front of the elegant multiarched governorate building, near a fallen bronze statue of Hafez Assad in tribal garb. “Tomorrow will be better” is spray-painted along the statue’s back, but not all of Raqqa’s residents think so. Even those who want an Islamic state — which appears to be a clear majority — are wary of what seems to be Jabhat’s version of it.

The Islamists have maintained order, protected property and set up a Hayaa Shariyaa (Shari‘a Association) to hear court cases and establish religious classes among other duties. They are working to get civil institutions up and running. In one letter dated March 17, Jabhat al-Nusra said it “invites” former civil servants to return to work. It was signed by the group’s emir in Raqqa, “Your brother in Jabhat al-Nusra, Abu Saad al-Hadrame.” The groups are also looking at how to secure salaries.

But the Jabhat has distributed other pamphlets too, including one a few days ago that called for replacing the tri-starred revolutionary flag with the Islamist black one: “Yes to choosing that the [black] banner … be the flag of the Syrian revolution and Syria.” It upset a fair number of people, some of whom simply want a civil state. Others feared that it would serve as an excuse for the regime to brand the city’s residents as extremists, or place Raqqa on a list of Islamist targets in Syria that the U.S. is allegedly putting together for potential drone strikes.

At least a few hundred publicly protested against the raising of the black flag in the square outside the governorate, while others complained inside the privacy of their homes. “We all pray, we all say, ‘There is no god but God,’ but I will not raise this flag,” an older man said. “Are they trying to break away from Syria? From the country of Syria? That [black] flag doesn’t represent me,” said another. “This is an insult to people who died for the revolutionary flag,” one young man said.

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Another pamphlet pictorially depicts what is considered appropriate dress for Muslim women. Some of the Muslim women in the city wear jeans, tight shirts and hijabs although most wear abayas out in public. According to the pamphlet, trousers are out, as are wrist-to-ankle abayas (or black cloaks) that come in at the hip, or buttoned-up wrist-to-ankle overcoats that suggest a hip or shoulders. The only form of dress with a green tick beside it is an amorphous cloak of black material and a waist-length headscarf that also completely covers a women’s face. On a recent afternoon, five women passed around the pamphlet, before derisively dismissing it. “I won’t cover my face regardless of what happens!” said one. “This is our clothing,” said another, pointing to her long-sleeved, ankle-length, emerald green dress and lilac headscarf. “What’s wrong with this?”

For their part, the Jabhat and other Islamists say that nothing will be forced, and that they are merely presenting their ideas and offering a choice. “We, in Shari‘a, do not have something called an infidel dress code and a believer’s dress code,” says Sheik Abu Ali, who is at once part of Omana al-Raqqa (Ahrar al-Sham) as well as a Shari‘a official of Jabhat al-Nusra in Raqqa. “Our guide is that a woman should not dress in a way to entice a man.” Regarding whether a woman should cover her face, he says the issue is undecided among religious scholars. “Islam in the Levant was not and will not be anything except a moderate Islam,” the sheik says, adding that Christian women could wear what they want, as long as they do not “entice men.”

“We proselytize and try to raise people’s awareness about Islam, but we will not force anything on anyone. There are a lot of women around here who are in trousers, tight trousers, but all we can do is teach and invite.” Directing his remarks to me, he continues, “You are a woman and you are sitting here with us. As long as you are respectful, there is no problem.”

All of the key mujahedin commanders in the city seem cognizant of the need to avoid antagonizing the local population and know that Raqqa will be a test case in the new Syria. “Raqqa today is under the microscope,” says Abu Tayf. “If civil peace prevails, we will be an example for others to follow, but if we fail people might even turn away from the idea of liberation.”