Sitting in a crowded, noisy cafe favored by Syrian refugees in the Turkish border city of Gaziantep, Mohammad, a 34-year-old political activist, relished the prospect of Islamic State fighters being ejected from his native town of Raqqa, which he fled a year ago.
But the former math teacher knows the terror group is not going to give up without a fight. He worries about his family, which has not made it across to Turkey, not having the money to pay border smugglers to get them across.
Mohammad said Islamic State commanders fear a Kurdish-led assault on the town and have been swapping out local fighters for combat veterans from other towns in eastern Syria. They fear that Raqqa-born fighters will not fight to the death and will be more concerned about protecting their families than focusing on defending the town. He said the Raqqa-born IS recruits were being dispatched east to Iraq.
In June, when it looked as if the Kurdish forces of the People’s Protection Units, along with some Arab Sunni rebel factions, would drive south from border victories against the jihadists and attack Raqqa, IS commanders prevented townsfolk from leaving.
They wanted civilians to stay to act as human shields, expecting that their presence would deter U.S.-led coalition airstrikes from striking more broadly across the town.
But now, with Russian warplanes launching indiscriminate bombing runs on Raqqa, Islamic State commanders appear to have switched tactics and want civilians gone from the city. They also need their houses to billet fighters they are bringing in, so permission to leave the city, although not the province, has gotten easier.
Another activist, 26-year-old Faris, said the Russians are less careful about where and what they bomb.
Sixty-four civilians have been killed in Russian bombing runs, he said. U.S.-led coalition airstrikes are more careful, steering away from civilian areas and targeting more precisely IS fighters and bases, he said.
He said most people who were fleeing were staying with extended family in the countryside outside the city. Getting into Turkey with border gates closed by the Turks is difficult, and the smugglers are demanding $300 a person.
“My family, they tried to cross to Turkey at night 10 days ago but they can’t, so back to Raqqa," Faris said. "They don’t have the money. My family is about nine people.”
Civilians are not the only ones leaving. Activists from a network called Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently said they suspected that IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghadi had shifted his base to Mosul, Iraq, where an assault is not likely any time soon.