WASHINGTON - U.S.-backed forces are continuing their assault on the Islamic State’s stronghold of Raqqa. Here’s a look at Raqqa and how IS turned the city into its de facto capital in Syria.
Raqqa is a remote oil-rich provincial city in northern Syria on the north bank of the Euphrates River.
Dating back to the Hellenistic period, the city was an important trading post between the Sassanid and Byzantine empires. Between the years 796 and 809 - during a period generally seen as the “golden age” of Islam – the then ruler of the Abbasid caliphate, Harun al-Rashid, moved his capital from Baghdad to Raqqa.
Before the outbreak of Syria’s civil war in 2012, Raqqa had a diverse population of nearly 300,000 residents, making it the sixth largest city in Syria. Sunni Arab tribes made up the majority in the city, but there were also a significant number of minorities such as Kurds and Christians.
The four most prominent Sunni tribes known as al-Bayattrah, al-Ajeel, al-Breij, and al-Na'im, made up about 115,000 residents of the province and had significant influence.
How did IS gain Raqqa?
During the beginnings of rebel uprisings against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2011, Raqqa became known as “the hotel of the revolution” due to increased migration of anti-government protesters from major Syrian cities.
“It provided a very fertile ground for the Syrian opposition especially the Islamic side of it, and to some extent probably even for IS, because of the widespread antipathy among especially more outlined Sunni Arabs to the Assad regime for sectarian reasons,” David Pollock, a Middle East expert at the Washington Institute, told VOA.
First major city to fall
In March 2013, Raqqa became the first major city to fall to the rebel Free Syrian Army and al-Qaida affiliated al-Nusra Front (currently Jabhat Fateh al-Sham).
Many members of the al-Nusra Front in the city were already affiliated with then Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and were sent into the city to help their jihadi brethren led by Syrian al-Qaida leader Abu Mohammed al-Joulani.
Over time, more extreme elements of Islamic armed groups close to al-Baghdadi migrated to the city and al-Nusra Front turned against the Free Syrian Army and opened sharia courts in the city.
In April 2013, al-Baghdadi released a recording in which he announced the merger of ISI with the al-Nusra front to form the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) and asked al-Nusra members to disband and join ISIL ranks. Al-Qaida leaders Ayman al-Zawahiri and al-Joulani rejected the merger, but the ranks of al-Nusra Front gradually shrank in favor of ISIL.
By January 2014, as the relationship between ISIL and al-Qaida deteriorated, ISIL took complete control of Raqqa. Members of the Free Syrian Army or al-Nusra Front who did not pledge allegiance to ISIL were either killed or forced to flee.
Why de facto capital?
In June 2014 the group renamed itself Islamic State and chose Raqqa as the center of its self-styled caliphate.
IS leader al-Baghdadi allegedly saw his brutal regime as the second coming of the Abbasid caliphate.
“When al-Baghdadi was giving a speech declaring his caliphate, he was dressed to look like an Abbasid caliph,” Mustafa Abdi, a Syrian activist from Hasakah province told VOA. “He was wearing a black attire which was the regional color of the Abbasid caliphs.”
By declaring Raqqa as the capital of IS, al-Baghdadi wanted to tell Muslims he was following the steps of the most powerful Abbasid ruler in history, Harun al-Rashid, according to Abdi.
Raqqa’s proximity to the Iraqi border and the strong ties of its tribes to Iraqi clans also allowed IS to use Raqqa to freely operate across the border and move back and forth between the two countries based on shifting battle needs.
“The semi desert landscape of Raqqa has made it possible for IS to move across a vast land almost with no challenges,” Zagros Qamishlo, a commander of Kurdish forces in Syria known as the People's Protection Units, told VOA. She said IS has turned to informal routes as U.S.-backed Syrian forces have controlled Raqqa’s main highways.
How IS ruled Raqqa?
Over the three years of brutal IS rule, Raqqa became a gathering place for thousands of foreign fighters from dozens of countries to join the IS cause.
IS transformed Raqqa into what activists monitoring from abroad described as an enormous prison. It abolished old ways of life in the city and forced residents to follow its strict interpretations of sharia law. Those who did not follow were either executed or forced to flee.
A group of activists, displaced from their hometown and living in exile abroad, founded the Facebook page "Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently" and started documenting the militants’ terror through a network of informants who remained in Raqqa.
What remains of IS in Raqqa?
U.S. officials estimate that there are currently about 3,000 to 4,000 IS fighters in Raqqa. They expect U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces to make steady advances into the city as they provide aerial power in support.
“The liberation of Raqqa will deal the enemy a punishing blow and further degrade their ability to move throughout the region and further spread terror and kill innocent civilians,” U.S. Army Colonel Ryan Dillon said last week.
Experts say Raqqa might remain unstable long after IS is removed. They say the city’s complex demography and its remote location are likely to continue to attract local actors for influence, regardless of events elsewhere in Syria.
“The battle to retake Raqqa will be very difficult, and restoring security and governing the city will be even more difficult,” Ibrahim Al-Assil, an analyst at the Middle East Institute in Washington, told VOA.
He said the U.S.-led coalition needs to make sure the Syrian regime does not control Raqqa in the future to prevent IS and other Sunni Islamist groups from exploiting the city’s tribes.
“The city should be governed by its people; that is the best way to stabilize the city, restore security, and make sure IS doesn't return to Raqqa in the future,” he said.