News compilation by New Cold War.org, Oct 8, 2017
Introduction by New Cold War.org:
The city of Raqqa in eastern Syria lies in ruins following a months-long offensive by the United States and its allies in the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. Hundreds of civilians have been killed by U.S. airstrikes, while the full human toll of the U.S.-Kurdish operation is as yet unknown.
When the eastern districts of Aleppo in northern Syria were liberated from right-wing militia control by the Syrian armed forces and its Russian allies in December 2016, Western governments and media howled in rage. One UN official called it “the end of humanity”. Yet the siege of eastern Aleppo ended in a ceasefire agreement in which the right-wing militias were allowed to escape to Idlib province. Many such agreements by the Syrian government have ended what could otherwise have been disastrous scenarios such as what has happened in Raqqa.
Furthermore, the U.S. military has no authorization from the Syrian government to be in the country in the first place.
Debris and dust: Raqqa, Syria is ‘sacrificed’ to defeat Islamic State
RAQQA, Syria – The ancient mud brick walls circling Raqqa’s deserted old city are almost the only structure still intact. Inside, shops and homes spill crumbling concrete onto either side of the narrow roads, block after block.
Fighting between U.S.-backed militias and Islamic State in the jihadist group’s former Syria stronghold has peppered mosques and minarets with machine-gun fire while air strikes flattened houses. No building is untouched.
“The old clock tower could be heard from outside the walls once. It’s damaged now. It’s silent,” Mohammed Hawi, an Arab fighter from Raqqa, said at a nearby home occupied by the Syrian Democratic Forces alliance (SDF).
Raqqa, where Islamic State plotted attacks abroad during its three-year rule, is almost captured in a months-old offensive backed by U.S. air cover and special forces. But driving militants out has caused destruction that officials say will take years and cost millions of dollars to repair.
The nascent Raqqa Civil Council, set up to rebuild and govern Raqqa, faces a huge task. It says aid from countries in the U.S.-led coalition fighting IS is so far insufficient.
Raqqa’s uncertain political future, as it comes under the sway of Kurdish-led forces which neighbor Turkey opposes, and is still coveted by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, is partly what has made coalition countries hesitate, diplomats say. But failure to quickly return services to the city that was once home to more than 200,000 people, mostly now displaced, risks unrest, they warn.
“Infrastructure is completely destroyed, water, electricity networks, bridges. There’s not a single service functioning,” said Ibrahim Hassan, who oversees reconstruction for the Raqqa council at its headquarters in nearby Ain Issa. “We gave our city as a sacrifice for the sake of defeating terrorism. It’s the world’s duty to help us,” he said.
A major bridge leading into eastern Raqqa lies collapsed after a coalition air strike. Beyond it, damaged water towers and the skeletons of teetering residential blocks dot the skyline. Awnings hung by militants to hide their movements flap in the wind.
Bodies under rubble
Senior council member Omar Alloush estimated at least half the city is completely destroyed. “There are also bodies under rubble, of civilians and terrorists. These need reburying to avoid disease outbreaks,” he said.
Amnesty International has said the U.S.-led campaign, including air strikes, has killed hundreds of civilians trapped in Raqqa. Residents have reported civilian deaths, but it is difficult to establish how many people have died.
The coalition says it does all it can to avoid civilian casualties. But the city is densely built up and militants firing from homes are often targeted by air raids.
Council officials said with the battle still raging in a small, encircled area of the city center and countless explosives rigged by militants in areas they abandoned, reconstruction has not yet begun. “The focus is on emergency aid, food and water, de-mining,” Hassan said.
The council wants to get services up and running as soon as possible, but has limited capacity and is staffed by volunteers. At its headquarters, the offices of several departments consist of a single desk in a shared room.
“Support from the international community has improved and we feel less isolated, but it’s been modest,” Hassan said.
The United States delivered several bulldozers and other vehicles to the council to clear debris recently, the Raqqa council said, out of a total of 56 due to arrive.
“Even 700 wouldn’t be enough,” Alloush said.
Raqqa council volunteers have said they told the coalition it will take 5.3 billion Syrian lira (about $10 million) a year to restore power and water supplies, roads and schools.
“Groups that took over Raqqa in 2013 didn’t run it well,” a Western diplomat in the region said, referring to Syrian insurgents who seized the city from Assad’s forces earlier in the six-year-old civil war, before IS arrived. “That’s partly what allowed Daesh (IS) to take over. If there’s a gap in humanitarian assistance and no effective local governance structure, the risk of future violence increases.”
The council said coalition countries were reluctant to aid the Raqqa council, made up of local engineers, teachers and doctors.
“We’ve suffered from bureaucracy in the decision making process for foreign aid,” Hassan said.
Some coalition countries were concerned about relations with NATO member Turkey over support for a governing body perceived to be allied to Kurdish militia, the diplomat said.
The SDF, which for now controls much of Raqqa, is spearheaded by the Kurdish YPG militia, a foe of Ankara which is fighting its own Kurdish insurgency. Turkey opposes the YPG’s role in capturing Raqqa.
Council officials say Raqqa will be governed independently of a self-run administration for northeast Syria that is dominated by Kurds, but is expected to have close relations with it. The extent of those relations is to be decided by elected officials once elections can be held.
A second diplomat in the region said reluctance to aid the council was partly over concerns whether it properly represented the ethnic make-up of mostly Arab Raqqa, seeing tension if local Arabs were sidelined. Several prominent council members are Kurdish. There is also uncertainty over whether Raqqa will remain allied to the self-run parts of northern Syria, or if it would fall back to Assad in future upheaval. Assad has sworn to retake the entire country.
For now, with Turkey’s borders closed to SDF-controlled areas, aid to Raqqa comes a longer route through Iraq’s Kurdish region.
Raqqa council says it may have to be self-sufficient. “We’re waiting for help to repair the east bridge,” co-president Leila Mustafa, a civil engineer, said. “If it doesn’t arrive soon, we’ll begin ourselves, using any means we have.”
Raqqa in ruins: Brutal fight against IS leaves city destroyed
By Wladimir van Wilgenburg, Middle East Eye, Thursday, Sept 28, 2017
U.S.-backed SDF forces look to soon liberate Raqqa from ISIS. But not much of the city remains
RAQQA, Syria – As the Islamic State (IS) group is slowly but surely routed from its former Syrian “capital” in Raqqa, the last stand looks to be the most vicious, with civilians being used as human shields, and mines circling the city.
Reduced to its last few positions in Raqqa, from where IS once planned major attacks against the West, the militant group now holds around 20 to 25 per cent of the city, according to officials from the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
But a senior SDF commander warned against “premature” declarations that the fight was over.
An anonymous U.S. official told MEE: “From what we’re seeing, IS is indeed weakened in Raqqa. They’re not functioning as we’ve seen elsewhere,”
“That may be why observers are prematurely declaring victory. But if west Mosul is any indication, it doesn’t take many IS fighters to make an urban battle long and drawn out,” he added.
On Tuesday, wearing camouflage with YPG insignias, IS managed to infiltrate the frontlines in the northeast of the city. The attack was eventually repelled, but 28 SDF members were killed, including British-Kurdish filmmaker and member of their media team, Mehmet Aksoy, who was 32. Around 100 IS members were involved in the ambush, according to the SDF.
But generally, according to Ismet Sheikh Hassan, a senior Kurdish defence official from Kobane “the situation is good, it will not take long, there is only 20 to 25 per cent left, and also the operation for Deir Ezzor has started.”
A few kilometres from the frontlines in Raqqa last week, U.S. coalition forces in the east of Raqqa could be seen firing mortars on IS positions amidst the sounds of gunfire and air strikes.
Driving through the east of Raqqa, where SDF fighters are walking through rubble-strewn streets, there is huge destruction. Few civilians can be seen escaping. Officials say around 5,000 to 7,000 remain. The damage might be worse than in the city of Mosul, some say.
“We saved a lot of civilians in the city,” said heval (“comrade” in Kurdish) Ari, the nickname of a Kurdish-Danish fighter with the SDF, who spoke to MEE after returning from battle in Raqqa. “Some of the civilians come out in groups of three or four. Sometimes they are alone. And some Daesh fighters surrender.”
But while the Kurdish fighters have largely been portrayed in the West as the moderate, secular response to IS, many Syrian civilians in the city have been taught by IS to fear them. “The civilians are scared: IS put it in their heads that when the Kurds come, they would cut off people’s ears, and take out their eyes,” the Danish fighter explained.
A few days ago, a small number of IS child soldiers surrendered, in make-up and women’s clothes in an effort to look like civilians.
“They told us there are not so many Daesh left in the city, and they all try to mingle with civilians to get out of the city,” he said. “There are probably only 100, 150 or 200 left,” Heval Ari added.
But according to coalition assessments, there are still around 400 to 900 IS militants left in the city.
Jumping over dead bodies to escape IS
Inside Raqqa, it’s now difficult to find civilians who have escaped from IS.
However, in a camp for displaced people in the town of Ain al-Issa, where the Raqqa civil council is based, thousands of internally displaced people wait for the day they can return home.
“We were surrounded. When the SDF attacked we had no food left.”
“We were jumping over the dead bodies to escape,” said Fatima Ali, 29. “When you were walking, there were mines everywhere, and IS were killing anyone they found trying to escape,” she added.
“Even when they saw people trying to flee by, they tried to shoot them dead as well,” chimed in Ahmed, 26, who also arrived in the camp from Raqqa.
He lamented the destroyed city he would one day return to. “Even if we go back, we will have to bring these tents with us,” he said, gesturing at their flimsy temporary homes. “Because our houses are destroyed,” he added, saying that he believes 90 percent of the city is in ruins.
Rebuilding the city, a heavy task
Fatima too expressed concern over the destruction of her city, much of it razed to the ground in the battle to oust IS.
“It could take 10 years to rebuild, it’s destroyed to the ground,” she said. “But we have to go back, because sitting here it’s not a solution,” Fatima added.
With a heavy task ahead of him, Nazmi Mohammed is leading Raqqa’s reconstruction project. Speaking from just outside his office in Ain al-Issa, he said that the Raqqa Civil Council and the SDF are preparing to first clear the mines.
“On the outskirts of Raqqa, there is not a lot of destruction, and people can go back there,” he said. “We have fixed the water plant for Raqqa, so they will have five hours of water per day,” he said.
However, other areas are much more badly damaged. “I think more than 50 per cent of the city is totally destroyed, but I am not 100 per cent sure,” he said.
He expected it could take at least three to four years for Raqqa to rebuild – but, he stressed, that projection was contingent on the receipt of direct help.
Thus far, almost none of that help has arrived, he said.
“We want the same support we got from the Americans to defeat IS in Raqqa for the rebuilding of Raqqa,” he added.
“We gave a lot of blood for the battle to fight IS,” he added.
Civilian victims rise
Aside from material destruction, the coalition air strikes on Raqqa have also claimed a civilian toll.
“In the eastern side of Raqqa, the destruction is minimal, they are all small houses, no high buildings,” said Ali, 28, a civilian who fled Raqqa, speaking from the IDP camp.
“But my uncle’s house was destroyed inside Raqqa, as IS had made a tunnel between his house and another, and when an air strike hit the tunnel, both houses were destroyed,” he added.
“One family was buried by the rubble due to an air strike in the Jemili neighbourhood,” Fatima Ali said.
“It was a centre for the Islamic police and all of the neighbourhood was destroyed,” she added.
On Monday [Sept 25], Human Rights Watch (HRW) documented the human toll of the aerial campaign against IS in Raqqa, accusing the coalition of killing at least 84 civilians in just two attacks near the city in July. “The coalition should follow our lead, conduct full investigations, and find ways to make its civilian casualty assessments more accurate,” Ole Solvang, deputy emergencies director at HRW said.
But Haqi Kobani, a senior SDF commander, told MEE that great care had been taken to protect civilians.
Without civilians remaining in the city, he said, the battle would already be long finished.
“The bombing of the air strikes is planned – if not 2,000 civilians would have been killed,” he said.
“IS forced some of them to stay; we want to ensure the civilians can leave peacefully,” he added.
Another SDF fighter said that the coalition has difficulties targeting the main hospital and the football stadium, due to the high number of civilians in these fortified places.
“The next target for the SDF, the stadium and the hospital cannot be hit, because the Americans respect international law,” Heval Ari said.
“Ten to 15 per cent of the city is still under IS’s control,” he believes, but the battle will soon be over. “In about a month’s time, everything will be in SDF’s hands,” he said.
The lack of air support in these positions will make it more difficult for the SDF to take it.
One of the most important targets for the SDF is now the hospital, which it is besieging from all sides. “Under the hospital, IS have constructed a big command centre. And within the hospital there are around 30 to 40 IS fighters, but the Americans can’t hit it,” he said.
“They have put mines all around the hospital. So it’s difficult,” he said. “We tried sometimes to enter, but with no success,” he added.
Moreover, the north of Raqqa is littered with mines.
“You cannot walk one step without stepping on a mine, and that’s why our forces cannot go as fast as we want. That’s the problem and that’s why we can’t take Raqqa in one or two days,” the fighter said.
IS’s last stand?
But even once IS is fully routed from the city, the group’s final reckoning will happen in Deir Ezzor, where both the SDF forces and the Syrian army are racing to take as much territory as possible.
Low level conflicts between the two sides, backed by the U.S. and Russia respectively, are sporadically breaking out, with the Russian airforce allegedly hitting SDF positions in the eastern Syrian region on Monday. Moscow denied the SDF allegations.
“The battle for Raqqa is no longer the main game for the U.S.-led coalition,” Nicholas A Heras, a Middle East researcher at the Centre for a New American Security, told MEE. “There are no longer any high-value IS targets left in Raqqa for the U.S. military. Those are all in the area between the cities of Mayadin and Albu Kamal in Deir Ezzor.
“The fight against IS will end in Deir Ezzor, not in Raqqa,” he added.
“The big place for Daesh now is the city of Mayadin,” echoed Ari, the fighter from Denmark. “It’s the new capital of the caliphate, and I think that will be the hardest part, and the last stand. I don’t know if we will go to battle, or the Syrian government will, but I hope we will go and finish off Daesh 100 percent.”
Humanitarian catastrophe in Raqqa and numerous U.S. mistakes and airstrikes on civilian objects, Moscow accuses
Repeated targeting mistakes of the U.S.-led coalition in Raqqa have caused significant damage to civilian infrastructure in the city, while a lack of humanitarian aid has led to a catastrophe, a senior Russian diplomat said.
Oleg Syromolotov, who supervises counterterrorism cooperation with other nations on behalf of the Russian Foreign Ministry, said the actions of the U.S. and its allies in Syria differ greatly from how Russia acts.
Russia actively works to provide humanitarian assistance in Syria and bring about a return to normal life on the ground while “the same cannot be said about the U.S. and its cohort,” the diplomat told the RIA Novosti news agency in an interview.
“We are witnessing a humanitarian catastrophe in Raqqa as we previously did in Mosul [in Iraq]. It was caused by a lack of effective effort to deliver humanitarian aid and create corridors for the evacuation of civilian population, as well as persistent mistakes of the U.S. Air Force, including airstrikes targeting civilian sites,” he stressed.
The Russian diplomat voiced the accusations in an interview with the agency, which will be published in full later on Friday.
The high civilian death toll of the Raqqa siege and U.S. reluctance to acknowledge it was highlighted in a report released by Human Rights Watch on September 24. [See a related news report on RT on Sept 26, 2017.]
“There is enough evidence to indicate that many civilians were killed, dozens,” Nadim Houry, HRW director of terrorism and counterterrorism division, told RT. “When we asked them [U.S.-led coalition]… on how they conducted their investigation they said these were… secrets that they could not share with us.”
The government in Damascus on Thursday called on the UN Security Council to pressure the U.S., so that American troops would stop “systematic” airstrikes targeting civilian infrastructure in Syria. The Syrian government reiterated that the U.S. presence on its territory was illegal.
Syromolotov reiterated Russia’s criticism of Washington’s failure to cooperate with the Syrian government in Damascus in tackling terrorism.
“This is an absurd situation, in which a foreign force, present on Syrian territory illegally and without consent from the government of Syria, starts imposing some geographic boundaries for the Syrian Army, which is fighting to free its own country from terrorists,” he stressed.
The remark is an apparent reference to U.S. troops in Syria attacking militia fighters allied with Damascus, saying the troops were targeted upon crossing the border of the American zone of control.
Despite setbacks and international efforts to curb foreign funding, IS and other terrorist groups continue to receive funding and supplies from outside of Syria, Syromolotov pointed out.
“The most imminent task for the international community is to eradicate ISIL and other UN-designated terrorist organizations, including Jabhat Al-Nusra, regardless of what rebranding this Al-Qaeda offshoot uses to hide. The issue here is not only the resources this ‘terrorism international’ has in its own right,” he said.
The Russian diplomat said Moscow had the impression that the U.S. is not eager to see IS fully defeated.
“We tell our American colleagues: we are offering coordination of our efforts in fighting terrorists in Syria, but you reject it. Who benefits? ISIL,” he said.
He added that Russia maintains contact with the U.S. to avoid potential conflicts over their respective military operations in Syria.
“The dialogue continues on the level of military specialists. For example, the Russian military command in Syria informed their American partners through an established channel about the area of operation against ISIL in Deir ez-Zor,” the diplomat said, calling the terrorist group Islamic State (IS) by its former name.
Syrian Kurdish commander: We’re ‘ready to engage’ with Damascus, interview by Amberin Zaman with SDF commander Mazlum Kobane, Al-Monitor, Sept 26, 2017
Raqqa, Syria: A hellhole created by the regime-changers of the West, commentary by Neil Clark, published on RT.com‘s ‘Op Edge’ feature, Sept 2, 2017
U.S.-led coalition rejects UN call for Raqqa pause, says battle must continue, Middle East Eye, Aug 30, 2017