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Civilians Flee IS De Facto Capital Ahead of Looming Battle

Internally displaced Syrians who fled Raqqa city rest near sheep in northern Raqqa province, Syria, Feb. 6, 2017.
Internally displaced Syrians who fled Raqqa city rest near sheep in northern Raqqa province, Syria, Feb. 6, 2017.

As the battle is nearing to recapture the Syrian city of Raqqa - the de facto capital of Islamic State - more civilians are reported fleeing their homes to seek safety in areas outside the control of the terror group.

Every day, dozens of local residents embark on a dangerous journey to get out of the city, and are paying large amounts of money to smugglers to facilitate their escape, according to local activists and military officials.

“Smugglers charge up to $700 for each individual who wants to flee the city,” said Hussam Eesa, a founding member of Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, a group that reports on IS activities in Raqqa and elsewhere.

The fleeing of civilians has continued despite a decree issued by IS last month requiring residents of Raqqa to get permission from IS's security offices before traveling between villages under the group's control.

Eesa told VOA that those who are caught by IS while attempting to flee are either jailed or publicly executed.

IS on the verge of isolation

U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have made major advances against IS in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor provinces, as part of their offensive to isolate Islamic State in Raqqa.

Last week, SDF forces cut off the main highway that links Raqqa to Deir Ezzor, adding more pressure on the militant group inside the city.

IS is estimated to have around 4,000 fighters inside Raqqa.

Most civilians escaping IS rule in Raqqa end up at camps run by anti-IS forces in the northern parts of Raqqa, activist Eesa added.

“We receive many of them every day,” an SDF commander, who insisted on anonymity, told VOA. “First we screen them thoroughly to make certain that they are not linked [to IS], and then settle them at the camp in Ayn Issa [in northern Raqqa]."

The commander said that so far hundreds of Raqqa residents have been resettled at the SDF-sponsored camp in Ayn Issa.

Saeed Shlash, a Syrian journalist who lives in Turkey said IS has an interest in keeping the civilians inside the city.

“Islamic State wants to keep civilians in Raqqa to use them as human shields when anti-IS forces bring the battle into the city,” Shlash said.

Loss of border region weakened IS

After being ousted from the border regions with Turkey, IS no longer has the advantage to generate revenue through smuggling oil and other goods in and out of Turkey.

U.S.-led coalition airstrikes have targeted many IS oil facilities, including tankers and refineries across Syria and Iraq, dealing a major blow to IS’s once flourishing black market economy.

Some analysts believe IS’s deteriorating financial situation has pushed some of its low-ranking members to get involved with smugglers in an effort to generate revenue. IS members reportedly provide safe passage to smugglers in exchange for money.

IS “has lost most of its sources of revenue, and this has affected its ability to pay high salaries to its fighters,” said Sadradeen Kinno, a Syrian researcher who closely follows militant groups in the country.

“So some of their fighters and even some of their local commanders resort to human trafficking and other types of smuggling,” he added.

But the group has intensified its crackdown on smugglers facilitating people's escape. The group executed two men in late February for allegedly trafficking people out of Raqqa.

Local sources estimate that more than 200,000 people live under IS rule in Raqqa, including thousands forcibly relocated there by IS from Iraq's Mosul and the ancient Syrian town of Palmyra.