The northeastern Syrian city, once known as the “bride of the revolution,” was the first city to fall under complete opposition control and attracted activists’ interest, until it fell to Daesh and was declared as their so called capital in Syria.
Raqqa, once Daesh’s stronghold in Syria and one of the major battlegrounds in the conflict in the country has fallen five months after the SDF started their final push into the city in June this year.
Known as Daesh’s de facto capital in Syria, and once a center for the opposition against Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad, it signifies a major symbolic loss of yet another one of the cities remaining in Daesh’s steadily dwindling territories.
Daesh declared a caliphate in 2014 at the height of its power, when it ruled over millions of people from northern Syria to the outskirts of Iraq’s capital Baghdad. But it has since endured a series of losses, including its de facto capital in Iraq, Mosul in June, coming under attack from many sides.
And after months of fighting, the US-backed SDF surrounded Daesh into a small section in Raqqa in June, before launching their final assault.
Raqqa before Daesh
Before Raqqa fell to Daesh in 2014, it was a center for the Syrian opposition, and the first major city to fall under complete opposition control.
Before the start of the Syrian civil war, the province had a population of nearly one million. Raqqa city, with its population of about 200,000 was the sixth-largest city in Syria.
Although exact figures are not known, it had a Sunni-Arab-majority population, along with Kurdish and Christian populations.
Located along the Euphrates River, Raqqa province was known as the breadbasket of Syria and was a primarily agricultural province.
Raqqa city is also located near the country’s oil fields. While Syria does not produce much oil, this oil-rich northeastern region is a valuable source of energy for the country.
At the start of the uprising in March 2011, in Raqqa, anti-Assad youth staged protests, only to be overshadowed by larger, pro-regime counter-protests around the same time. Assad continued his hold on the city, but towards the end of 2012, his forces started to lose control.
Opposition groups headed by the Ahrar Al Sham group, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and to a smaller extent the Al Nusra Front continued their campaign for the city. Finally, on March 4, 2013, they declared victory in what constituted the first major city to come under complete opposition control.
Syrians referred to the city as “the bride of the revolution.”
In a period of civilian control spanning months, anti-Assad youth poured into the city from different parts of Syria. Together, they formed civilian councils to govern the city.
However, some hardliner elements within the city started exerting more pressure on the various groups, actions that were spearheaded by Al Nusra Front, which is the Syrian affiliate of Al Qaeda.
Tensions caused by the pressure and reactions from some residents continued until the arrival of Daesh.
Daesh takes control
In April 2013, some elements of the Al Nusra Front pledged allegiance to Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), which is the former name of Daesh before it spread to Syria. While the Nusra leader rejected this merger, many Al Nusra Front militants started to support Daesh. Soon after, in a direct challenge to Al Nusra leader Abu Mohammad al Julani, Daesh leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi traveled from Iraq to a town in Syria’s Aleppo province, where he was joined by Arab and foreign fighters who had formerly fought for Julani’s Al Nusra Front.
Despite local protests against Daesh and Al Nusra, Daesh’s influence continued to grow.
The rift within the various opposition groups fighting Daesh and the Assad regime continued to widen.
Foreign and Arab wings of ISI started operating formally under the new banner of Daesh while many Syrian Al Nusra Front militants dispersed to join other opposition groups.
In August, Daesh, started attacking opposition groups, including Ahrar Al Sham and Al Nusra in Raqqa. By January 2014, they claimed victory over the city, declaring it its de facto capital.
Raqqa became centre of Daesh’s operations in much of eastern, central and northern Syria. It was also the location from where many attacks abroad were planned.
SDF formed in the campaign for Raqqa
The war in Syria had multiple fronts. The Syrian regime ceded eastern Syria to Daesh and northern Syria to the US-armed YPG, and its stronghold remained western Syria where it carried out campaigns backed by Russia, Iran and Shia militias including Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
As the YPG gained territory in northern Iraq, it started to contain a small number of non-Kurdish elements, and “re-branded” itself as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as it headed towards Raqqa.
The YPG’s rebranding came as a result of Turkey’s harsh reaction to US support of the group, and aimed to legitimise them through the addition of the word “democratic” to their name.
That’s because the YPG is the Syrian branch of the PKK, which is considered to be a terrorist organization by Turkey, the US, the EU and NATO countries. The US support for the YPG, which it considers to be separate from the PKK, led the tensions grow between Turkey and the US.
As the campaign neared its final few weeks, Daesh was hemmed into a small area in Raqqa’s city centre that included the stadium, the National Hospital and Clock Tower Square, infamous for the public beheadings staged there during its three-year rule in the city.
The SDF closed off all media access to Raqqa starting on Sunday.
Why is Raqqa so important?
Raqqa’s strategic location near several fronts of the Syrian war as well as its proximity to oil resources makes it a key city for all parties.
After suffering major losses in Iraq, a large number of Daesh militants moved towards Raqqa, the only major city that was under their control.
The group was forced out of Iraq’s Mosul in July and recently was driven from Hawija, meaning it holds just a sliver of territory in the Euphrates Valley near the border with Syria.
The loss of Raqqa city leaves Daesh with just a handful of small positions in Syria and Iraq.
As Daesh’s territories shrink, however, experts say the number of international terror attacks, and Daesh-inspired attacks outside of Syria and Iraq could take place.
Tens of thousands of people fled Raqqa since the US-backed offensive broke into the city in early June, but Daesh was suspected of using civilians still stuck in the city as human shields.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 1,117 civilians have been killed as of October 7, including more than 250 children as a result of the SDF and coalition airstrikes in the city since the start of the campaign in June.
This number does not include civilian deaths before the June campaign, but it is difficult to establish exactly how many people have died.
The fighting left much of Raqqa in ruins, as intense air strikes and street-to-street battles devastated buildings, flattening much of the city.
Officials say the destruction will take years and cost millions of dollars to repair.
What will happen in Raqqa?
Raqqa’s political future remains uncertain.
After the SDF campaign, it comes under the sway of YPG-led forces. Although the US has promised self-rule in the city, the YPG expects a more permanent status.
This poses questions of legitimacy for the local population, an issue brought up by Turkish authorities regarding governance in the province. “The future of Raqqa will be decided by Raqqans,” Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan said.
Furthermore, YPG-led rule is strongly opposed by neighbour Turkey, who views it as a security threat. Turkey’s borders are currently closed to the SDF-controlled areas, and supplies to Raqqa come through northern Iraq.
Assad has also sworn to retake the entire country, making it a coveted region for the regime, and posing problems for the western-backed SDF dominating the area.
The SDF has already begun a new campaign against the Daesh to retake territory they hold in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, which neighbours Raqqa and borders Iraq.
They are fighting on the eastern side of the Euphrates River that diagonally slices Deir Ezzor in two.
The Syrian regime army is fighting a separate Russian-backed campaign largely on the western bank of the river, and last month broke a Daesh siege of nearly three years on parts of Deir Ezzor city.