Syria Feature: Life Under the Islamic State’s Violent Rule in Raqqa


In a lengthy article for The New York Review of Books, Sarah Birke describes the Islamic State’s rule over Raqqa, the largest city outside the Assad regime’s control.

Birke’s article has a concise, telling passage of how Raqqa, which could have been a stronghold in the insurgency’s fight against Assad, fell to the jihadis:

Although there had been some protests when the Syrian uprising began, Raqqa had remained fairly loyal to the Assad regime, partly because of Damascus’s patronage of local tribes, partly because the large number of displaced Syrians who came to the city during the opening years of the conflict were not intent on rebellion. In March 2013, however, mainly Islamist rebel militias, including the devout Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, seized Raqqa from the Assad regime. The takeover came from outside and many locals were unhappy about this.

When I visited the city two months later, in May 2013, the black flags of Jabhat al-Nusra were hanging along the street close to the governor’s office, which it then occupied, but no one group controlled the city. The militias that remained were more intent on wooing locals, and competed for space with local moderate activists who continued to work toward democracy. Although the Alawite minority was closely associated with the Assad regime, one could still see the tolerant outlook Syria had been known for; for example, I met an Alawite nurse who was open about her sect. (In Raqqa today, she would be beheaded just for her faith.) A municipal council headed by a lawyer was having considerable success keeping city services going, ensuring that street cleaners were paid, and maintaining an ambulance system. Many locals reveled in their newfound freedom. Graffiti and art projects were everywhere.

But competition between armed groups and lack of consistent funding to the council prevented a full-fledged local government from taking shape. This gave the upstart ISIS a signal opportunity to capture a major city….

In August 2013, ISIS forces launched a brutal attack on other rebel groups in Raqqa, rapidly taking control of the city as the other militias withdrew. Now ISIS controlled a provincial capital rather than just small villages and towns, and it became the group’s headquarters. It set up bases in Raqqa, manned by Syrians and Iraqis as well as numerous foreign fighters; more flocked in as the city gained notoriety….

ISIS’s leaders, who include a number of former Iraqi Baathist military men as well as veteran jihadists, are known to use several buildings in Raqqa such as the governor’s palace, the municipality, and the Armenian church of the martyrs, and they wield tight control over areas outside the city such as Division 17, a former army base, and oil installations, where many of the group’s Western and other hostages subsequently executed or released for ransom were held. A division has been made between ISIS’s military and civilian arms, and alongside its military and security forces, there are ministries run by ministers, although they appear not to have physical central locations. The group has set up new courts, local police forces, and an extensive economic administration, while taking over the existing education, health, telecom, and electricity systems (with some utilities still supported by the Syrian government).

Secretly-filmed footage of Raqqa in September:

Birke explains that, soon after the Islamic State’s takeover, residents “disliked the excesses…but some were pleased that the corruption and chaos of rebel rule had ended”. Even this approval has given way, however, as repression has expanded:

According to ISIS’s strict interpretation of sharia law women must wear a niqab, men must not have pictures on their t-shirts, smoking is banned, shops must shut for the five prayer times (as happens in Saudi Arabia), only women can work in women’s clothes shops. Since August women need a mahram, a male companion, to go out. Adherence to the rules is monitored by an all-women brigade called al-Khansa and a male Hisbeh force — two women from the city told me Saudi members, who come from a country with the version of Islam closest to the ISIS worldview and that has religious police, are often the most vocal about moral transgressions.

Raqqa has also been a model for ISIS’s system of taxation: shopkeepers from Raqqa told me the group takes 2.5 percent of their revenue, deemed zakat, the alms payment in Islam, and 1,500 SYP monthly fee (it is never described as a tax). ISIS now collects around 400 SYP per month for telephone lines, even though the costs are borne by the regime. Locals also report that salaries are regularly paid by a new state office to both civilian workers and fighters, who may get $400 or more per month, and that prices of goods are tightly regulated by the government.

Then there is the violent enforcement of authority, which Birke says has become worse since US airstrikes began in late September:

Residents said they were terrified of the group’s horrific punishments. In a central square in Raqqa, heads are posted on spikes with a sign above them indicating what transgression was involved. The square used to be called Sahat al-Naem, or paradise, but is now dubbed with the rhyming Sahat al-Jaheem, or hell; the doctor I met told me she took a route to work that took three times as long just to avoid it. None of the Raqqans I talked to was sure whether ISIS’s sharia courts actually listen to evidence, but several noted that gruesome punishments are sometimes meted out on the spot to instill fear. A former teacher from Manbij, an ISIS-controlled town north of Aleppo, told me, almost in disbelief, how he watched the beheading of a man who had accidentally driven into ISIS territory while smoking and then tried to claim it was not banned in Islam after being caught. Militants then jumped into the man’s car and ran over his head, he told me.

Though the group is unable to electronically monitor the Syrian regime-controlled phones and Internet, it gathers information about everyone, does spot checks on phones, beheads anyone caught filming (hence the dearth of images from the city), and has members monitoring goings-on in public places. Many Syrians told me they had deleted photos and music from their phones for fear of being caught.

Birke concluded bleakly:

Many people wonder why those under ISIS rule don’t revolt. After all, Raqqa’s earlier history under the Assad regime and during the initial months of rebel control suggests that much of the city’s native population would be glad to return to a more secular government. Moreover, Sunnis rising up against ISIS is, after airstrikes, the second pillar on which the American strategy against the group rests. But the people I met from Raqqa said they are too afraid to rise up. They point out that local protests against the regime and then, in the months after the group’s takeover of the city, against ISIS ended in massacre. When some seven hundred members of the Shaitat tribe rose up in August against ISIS in Deir Ezzor province they were slaughtered, but no one paid any attention….

ISIS may be failing in its attempt to govern, but for now there is nothing else in sight.

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