What Happened to Raqqa, Once the Syrian Capital of Liberation?

What Happened to Raqqa, Once the Syrian Capital of Liberation?
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Celebrations in Raqqa one month after liberation – Photo by Sarmad Al Jilane 2013

Four years ago, the people of Raqqa, Syria, thought their dreams of freedom had come true.

They toppled the statue of Hafez Al Assad in their city on March 4, 2013, as an official sign that they’d liberated themselves from the oppressive and genocidal Assad regime.

With the hard work of revolutionary people peacefully protesting in the streets and rebel forces entering the city, Raqqa had become the Syrian capital of liberation. Raqqa was free.

But the very regime which they’d rid their city from had been planting seeds of evil all across Syria, which were growing into an extremist force that would spread like cancer throughout the country.

Using Daesh as a deadly distraction, Assad continued his genocide against the innocent civilians rebelling against an oppressive regime. By calling all who opposed him terrorists, Assad strengthened support of his systematically deadly actions against civilians. tweet

By releasing slews of Daesh (ISIS) criminals from prison at the beginning of the war in 2011 and 2012, Bashar Al Assad aimed to foster chaos among the revolutionary rebel factions and nurture the growth of what would become Daesh dominance today in certain Syrian cities.

The rebel forces originally developed early in the war in response to Assad regime targeting people peacefully protesting in the streets. As Assad forces increasingly made opening fire on protesting civilians a tactic of their war on freedom, civilians were forced to take up arms and organize to defend themselves. Assad, well aware of the power and support these rebel forces were garnering, figured releasing Daesh extremists into the fray would create enough chaos to confuse and weaken the success of their efforts.

Video: Assad forces opening fire on protesting civilians in Raqqa, 2011

Using Daesh as a deadly distraction, Assad continued his genocide against the innocent civilians rebelling against an oppressive regime. By calling all who opposed him terrorists, Assad strengthened support of his systematically deadly actions against civilians.

Assad continued and even increased opening fire on those peacefully protesting in the street. The regime rained down bombs on residential areas, markets, hospitals, schools, rescue workers, civic centers, humanitarian organizations, and groups attempting to flee from death — blatant war crimes. Assad filled his prisons, such as Saydnaya, with those who dared continue their dissent — abducting people off the streets and subjecting them to unimaginable neglect and torture. In 2015, Russia added the power of their military to aid Assad, thereby thoroughly turning the ides of this war in his favor.

But all the while Assad was killing civilians, he was carefully avoiding targeting Daesh — the very group he claimed he wanted to destroy. tweet

Before 2011, Syria used to open their borders to large numbers of refugees, which accounted for 12% of the Syrian population. But according to UNHCR after nearly six years of war, more than 4.8 million Syrians have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq, at least 1 million have requested asylum to Europe, and 6.6 million are internally displaced within Syria. Many more have left the country and are unaccounted for.

According to the Syrian Network For Human Rights (SNHR), nearly 470,000 or more people have died in these six years of war — most at the hands of the Assad regime.

By calling all dissent “terrorism” and using the evidence of Daesh regrouping in Syria as an excuse, Assad bolstered regime support and forged on with war against freedom.

Two Sides of the Same Coin - art by Julie Larah 2017

Two Sides of the Same Coin – Art by Julie Larah, 2017

But all the while Assad was killing civilians, he was carefully avoiding targeting Daesh — the very group he claimed he wanted to destroy. Assad did not want to stop terrorism. He wanted to kill civilian dissent all while preserving his regime’s connections to oil sold by Daesh, land dominance, and information control.

The newly released Daesh criminals strengthened, organized, and began the process which would spread them throughout the country — eventually taking Raqqa as their main base of operations in 2014.

Any resistance of Daesh was met with abduction, imprisonment, torture, rape, slavery, and public execution. tweet

Raqqa — the city of revolution and freedom — was captured by ISIS forces in January 2014 and turned into a dark seat of terrorism. Civilians celebrating freedom became prisoners aching for release. Raqqa became a ghost town — people living quietly in constant oppressive fear — their voices utterly silenced and their actions completely restricted by these dark overlords.

Daesh killed freedom in Raqqa. Civilians lost all access to television, news, phones, and internet. Strict curfews, taxes, dress codes, and prohibitions on previously prevalent practices were imposed. Any resistance of Daesh was met with abduction, imprisonment, torture, rape, slavery, and public execution. Under Daesh rule, women’s freedom and autonomy became severely limited, children were taken as prime targets for extremist indoctrination, and men who dared not join their Daesh forces were watched carefully until an excuse to exterminate them arose.

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Woman with infant in present day Raqqa – Photo from Sound & Picture, 2017

 

No one wants to stay among Daesh, but they cannot leave. If anyone tries to escape the city via smuggling, they face (if caught) abduction, rape, imprisonment, enslavement, torture, public execution, or death being used as human shields/target practice for child Daesh trainees. Even if they do manage to get away from the city, they face judgement and discrimination from their own people, as very few want anything to do with someone from Daesh’s Raqqa. This once vibrant city was now veiled in dark fear and forced quiet.

As international coalition and Assad forces draw closer and closer to Raqqa, civilians pray for liberation, but expect extermination. tweet

But there were those who fought this silence with truth. There were those who refused to let the revolution die forever. Brave Raqqa people like those in Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) and Sound & Picture stood up to Daesh terror by using their investigative reporting skills to infiltrate Daesh strongholds with informants in the hopes of exposing hidden Daesh truths occurring in a city silenced by an imposed media blackout. RBSS and groups like it refuses to let Raqqa become a City of Ghosts. They sacrificed their safety and even their lives to make sure the world would know what was happening within the silenced city. Those in these organizations are some of the most hunted by Daesh assassins, as their organizations continuously work to dismantle Daesh from within.

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Present day Raqqa – Photo from Sound & Picture, 2017

 

Those who remain alive in Raqqa today live a nightmarish existence. They cannot leave and their life as Daesh captives is daily torment. As international coalition and Assad forces draw closer and closer to Raqqa, civilians pray for liberation, but expect extermination. Each army attempting to get Daesh out of Raqqa have very disparate personal goals. Civilians don’t know what to expect but death — it comes from all sides for those in Raqqa.

Nowhere is safe.

All these years, people from Raqqa have only wished for freedom, dignity and justice, but as the war ravages what once was home, this hope seems a distant dream.

Don’t let them die quietly.

Raqqa is alive, and with increased international understanding and support, Raqqa can become the capital of liberation again.

Long live Raqqa. Long live Syria.

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