WASHINGTON - Under heavy bombardment by both the U.S.-led coalition and Russian warplanes supporting the Syrian government, Islamic State militants appear to be struggling to keep control of their stronghold in northeast Syria, the strategically important city of Raqqa.
According to local activists, media reports and news accounts, the extremist fighters are taking desperate measures to hold onto Raqqa, a city of approximately 400,000 people that became the Islamic State's de-facto capital last year.
The Islamist fighters have increased their presence on the streets of Raqqa, where IS recently imposed a new conscription order, requiring all men and boys at least 14 years old to to register with local “Islamic police” for service.
When IS first captured Raqqa in January 2014, the group began providing food, water and power to the local population in an attempt to win support, but that effort is now failing.
Reports say water and electricity are available for only a few hours a day. Photos posted on social media sites show piles of garbage on the streets.
Nearly four weeks into its air campaign in Syria, Russia has reportedly shifted its focus away from government opposition groups to attacking IS targets in Raqqa.
“Russian airstrikes in the past two weeks have been concentrated on IS positions inside Raqqa city,” Syrian activist Mustafa Abdi told VOA. He said the Russian campaign has moved the U.S.-led international coalition to step up its own strikes against the group in Raqqa.
The airstrikes have disrupted the local economy in Raqqa. Many residents are trying to flee the city. Those who remain appear to be increasingly disenchanted with IS rule - and that includes rank-and-file members of the extremist group.
“Their members are not happy with them anymore. They [IS] used to pay $400 to each member as a monthly salary. Now they only pay $50,” said Abdi who follows IS activities in Raqqa closely from the border town of Kobani.
Doctors barred from leaving
IS has prohibited doctors from leaving Raqqa City.
According to Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, a group that reports on IS abuses in the city, there has been a massive shortage of workers at the main hospital where IS fighters are treated.
“IS has vowed to seize properties of those [doctors] who manage to flee. IS running short on doctors and medical supplies as a result of intensive airstrikes by the [US-led] coalition,” the activist group wrote on its website.
Raqqa was the first provincial capital to fall under the control of rebel forces opposed to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in March 2013.
Various opposition factions, including many Islamists, fought each other for control of the city. IS militants took complete control over Raqqa in January 2014 and declared it as their Syrian capital.
With the war-ravaged city in ruins, thousands of people have fled abroad. Most are in refugee camps in Turkey, activists say.
The dual bombings conducted by coalition forces and the Russian military are not coordinated, but U.S. and Russian accounts indicate the two sides have agreed on some safety measures to protect their fighter jets in the air over Syria from crossing paths and colliding.
Coalition vs Russian effort
The U.S. and its Western allies support anti-government Syrian rebels, in contrast to Russian military units based in Syria who are backing the Assad regime. The Russians say their airstrikes are targeted against Islamic State fighters, but the Western-backed rebels say they, too, have been hit by the Russians - and too often for such attacks to be blamed on mistakes or accidents.
After Kurdish YPG forces backed by U.S.-led coalition airpower took over the border town of Tel Abyad – administratively part of Raqqa – in mid-June, Islamic State's economy suffered significant problems.
Tel Abyad, about a two-hour drive from Raqqa, was part of a major IS supply route.
Locals on both sides of the border believe the crossing also was used as an entryway for foreign fighters to join IS in Syria, and as a conduit for crude oil sold on the black market in Turkey.
“IS used to sell oil to private businessmen in Turkey with cheap prices, as cheap as $20 per barrel,” said Syrian economist Khorshid Alika, who is based in Germany.
“It’s much harder for them to export the oil now, given that fewer crossing points are under their control,” he told VOA.
In late September, the coalition targeted a number of oil refineries in the region that generated revenues for IS. After that crucial income disappeared, Islamic State resorted to imposing higher taxes on the local population, Alika said.
In a sign of what may lie ahead for Raqqa's Islamist defenders, a newly established Kurdish-Arab coalition force is preparing to advance on the city. The U.S. and its allies support the new group, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Two weeks ago, the U.S. airdropped ammunition and equipment to the SDF.
“A large operation on Raqqa might happen ... soon,” said activist Abdi, referring to a possible SDF offensive. His comments echo those of Kurdish commanders in the region.
“It will be a decisive and historic battle for Raqqa and Syria,” a leader of the Thuwar al-Raqqa Front – part of the SDF -- declared in a video message just released. He said all of Raqqa province is now a military zone, and advised local residents: "Therefore, for your safety, be advised to stay away from places that have Daesh [IS] positions.”