A-Raqqa activist: 'Most citizens have rejected ISIS…but are afraid'

January 23, 2014

In weeks of violent conflict pitting the Islamic Front, Jabhat a-Nusra, the Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups against insurgent group Islamic State in Iraq and a-Sham (ISIS), ISIS has been forced to retreat from strongholds in Aleppo, Idlib and elsewhere in northern Syria, while seizing control over the entire northeastern province of a-Raqqa.

For months, ISIS had shared control of a-Raqqa province’s eponymous capital and its surroundings with a host of other rebel groups, including the Islamic Front’s Ahrar a-Sham and Liwa a-Tawhid, as well as Jabhat a-Nusra’s Liwa Thuwar a-Raqqa. Amidst the ferocious fighting across northern Syria that has left over 700 dead, those groups have since withdrawn from a-Raqqa.

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Central a-Raqqa prior to the ISIS' consolidation of control.

Since consolidating control, ISIS has destroyed a revered Shiite mausoleum and imposed restrictions on residents, demanding that women wear the niqab and forbidding smoking, music and “raising one’s voice in the streets,” among other prohibitions, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported Sunday.

Syria Direct’s Mohammed al-Haj Ali spoke with a media activist in a-Raqqa, who requested his name not be used, about the abrupt series of withdrawals and ceasefires that allowed ISIS to gain full control of an entire province, and the extremist group’s presence in his city.

Q: Did the Free Syrian Army and Jabhat a-Nusra withdraw from a-Raqqa City?

Yes, a-Nusra and the FSA withdrew from a-Raqqa, and those who remain from FSA battalions and those who did not fight against ISIS are of course very small battalions without headquarters or located on the outskirts of the city.

Q: Why did the FSA and Jabhat a-Nusra withdraw? Was it because of a shortage of weapons?

There were a number of reasons for pulling out. In a-Raqqa [city], the withdrawal was because of a severe lack of ammunition and due to the fact that Jabhat a-Nusra’s Liwa Thuwar a-Raqqa remained by itself after Ahrar al-Sham withdrew from the city.

In al-Tabaqa, the four-day battle forced the biggest battalion – [Islamic Front-affiliated] Liwa a-Tawhid – present in the city to sign an agreement with ISIS to stop the bloodshed. It was agreed that Liwa a-Tawhid and its allies would recognize ISIS and surrender their weapons, and in return the fighters would be safe and not subjected to ISIS control. In Tel Abyad, rebels withdrew primarily because of a lack of weapons.

Q: What has been the reaction to ISIS’s presence in the city?

In terms of ISIS’s presence in a-Raqqa and its suburbs, most citizens have rejected ISIS since its first entry into the city. There were a number of protests calling for ISIS to leave a-Raqqa, even after ISIS gained control over a-Raqqa and its suburbs. Now, when speaking with people, there is a lot of fear; they strongly warn against [making any] error in front of its [ISIS] fighters.

Q: How are the citizens? What is the humanitarian situation like in a-Raqqa?

Generally speaking, the humanitarian situation has remained as it was before – a huge shortage of bread and other foodstuffs, and high prices.

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