The siege of Raqqa began in the spring of 2017, when a group of militias known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — made up predominantly of Kurdish forces, including the Syrian wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party — and supported aerially by US-led coalition forces, engaged in a vicious battle against Islamic State fighters in the area, who fiercely defended their position for over six months, until the SDF coalition took control of the city on October 20. To celebrate their victory, the Kurdish Democratic Union staged a military parade in Naeem Square in the center of the city and hung a large portrait of the leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party, Abdullah Öcalan.
The battle of Raqqa was framed by international political and media discourses as an important fight to eliminate “the capital of the caliphate.” Reports and documentaries surfaced about foreign fighters joining Islamic State militias and the female fighters allied with the Kurdistan Freedom Party, who were posited as feminists fighting against the forces of terrorism, extremism and darkness. What this discourse ignored was that Raqqa had been reduced to rubble in the process under heavy aerial and artillery bombardment, and thousands of civilians were killed in a number of residential districts, which there appeared to be no military justification to bomb.
The people of Raqqa and surrounding areas appeared in press photos and videos as passive masses that were often spoken for by others. When they did feature in front of the cameras, they were depicted enjoying a cigarette after “long periods of deprivation under the Islamic State,” or casting off the black abayas “imposed on them” after crossing through SDF checkpoints.
Research into the human cost of the battle or the degree of displacement that the people of Raqqa faced in their thousands is hard to come by. Where are they now, in which camps, under what conditions? How are they being treated by the forces that displaced them? Why were no aid or relief efforts put in place? — The international coalition presumably had access to intelligence, as well as military information, so likely would have anticipated the high level of displacement of civilians that occurred. When will they be permitted to return home, and who will guarantee their return, under what circumstances?
Raqqa’s history was denied. Its present was violated. And its future eradicated. No space was permitted for consideration of the cost of the fight against the Islamic State, not even in terms of “collateral damage,” the heavily loaded term often used for civilian casualties of war.
While there’s no doubt the people of Raqqa largely desired the elimination of the Islamic State militias that took the city in early 2014 and imposed three years of terror and death, the struggles and sacrifices they had made up until the point of international intervention were overlooked entirely. Raqqa came to be seen solely as a military front to be brought under control at any cost.
Although the majority of the execution scenes broadcast by the Islamic State depicted the citizens of Raqqa being brutally killed in public squares that were intended to terrorize the people of the city, they were never recognized as the victims of terrorism in the same way others have been across the world, or in the way that foreign victims of Islamic State in Raqqa have been. They were denied the possibility of participating in the fight to reclaim their city, and their houses and possessions were violated without a second thought. Thus, Raqqa was destroyed in the process of eliminating its kidnapper. There is a popular saying that the surgery succeeded but the patient died in the process. The difference here is that the doctor didn’t care whether or not the patient was alive to begin with, as he/she was not visible.
The tragic story of the Fayyad family is one that tells of the destruction of the city and its people. On July 25, 2017, Ismail al-Fayyad died from his wounds after his SDF shelter was hit with artillery fire. He was buried in the garden of a nearby school. It was too difficult to access the city cemetery as a result of the ongoing siege and bombardment. Ismail was the father of Mohannad al-Fayyad, an activist who was against the Assad regime and tried to organize life in Raqqa for people after Assad’s forces left in March 2013. He participated in protests against the control of Islamist militias and later the Islamic State, before they took full control of the city and he was kidnapped in July 2014. Nothing has been heard of Mohannad since. He is just one of dozens of anti-Assad activists kidnapped by the Islamic State because they were perceived as a threat to the group’s ambitions to control the city.
Militias first started kidnapping prominent Raqqa activists in July 2013, three months after the birth of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria was declared. First, Firas al-Haj Saleh and Ibrahim al-Ghazi were kidnapped. They were followed by Paolo Dall’Oglio, a cleric of Italian origins, dozens of other revolutionary activists, and hundreds more who were disappeared for resisting the organization and its attempts to control all aspects of life in Raqqa. It is known that the Islamic State used areas like Houta, a ravine in the northern countryside, to hide hundreds of bodies of those they kidnapped or disappeared. About two years ago, the SDF and coalition forces took control of the area, but there has been no investigation to date into the deaths of the thousands of people found there.
The SDF coalition also took control of a number of facilities that were used by the Islamic State as detention centers, such as three dams on the Euphrates and the city football stadium. But no attention was paid to examining any evidence or traces of those who had been held there, no international organizations visited these places and no international media conducted investigations. The main desire was to eliminate the “capital of the caliphate,” and this trumped all other concerns.
On top of years of such terror, the people of Raqqa were forced to endure months of siege and fighting. It is impossible to ascertain the numbers of those who died or went missing under the rubble, though, there is no doubt they reached terrifying proportions.
Attacking forces did not pay any attention to securing the roads for people to evacuate the city. Any assistance given was set up by locals, including many of the camps, which were extremely basic and received no assistance or provisions from international entities. Many people attempted to secure shelters collectively themselves.
Despite the battle for the city ending in October, many families are still searching for their loved ones. The scale of the tragedy is evident on social media groups like “Khaberni Ya Tair” (Tell Me, Bird), where families with missing relatives have shared information about them in the hope of getting news from others.
There has been no support since the battle ended for the people of Raqqa and no solidarity from the de facto powers of the SDF or their international supporters, who instead have focused on self congratulation and crediting themselves with clearing the capital of the Islamic State.
There seems to be no intention to examine how the battle was waged, or to hold anyone accountable for the war crimes committed. A deal brokered by the SDF to permit a large number of Islamic State fighters to leave Raqqa and head east was reported by the BBC without any question raised as to why there was such destruction of the city, when, in the end, a deal was brokered anyway.
Raqqa today has been destroyed. There must be attention paid internationally to supporting its people to return to what remains of their homes if they wish to, but such efforts should empower them to take back agency and control, and to reclaim their social and political capital, or they risk losing the areas to pro-Assad forces in the future.
The tragedy of Raqqa, a significant chapter in the overall Syrian tragedy, will continue for years to come. Even with the most optimistic of predictions, its recovery will take decades and will require a great deal of assistance. But this won’t start until the neglect and denial of its people is acknowledged.
Translated by Assmaa Naguib