Raqqa sees gradual return of civil society amid widespread destruction, political uncertainty

A Raqqa resident sifts through debris in Raqqa city in March. Photo courtesy of a local aid worker

AMMAN: In the months before the Islamic State shrouded Raqqa in black—and declared its so-called caliphate in early 2014—the northeastern city was better known as the first of Syria’s provincial capitals to fall into rebel hands.

Dozens of civil society organizations (CSOs) operated throughout the provincial capital, taking advantage of newfound freedoms following the collapse of Syrian government control in early 2013. Youth groups cleaned streets and distributed bread, a media center documented political, social and military developments and volunteers organized workshops and exhibitions. A grassroots civil society movement was accompanied by a local council—elected by activists, civil society representatives and tribal leaders—that was tasked primarily with ensuring basic services.

And yet that “revolutionary moment” was short-lived. As Islamic State (IS) militants brutally established control over the city, the hardline group imposed crippling restrictions on civil society organizations, detained and punished their proponents and severely limited access to the outside world. Some CSO members went underground and continued to work in secret, often at great risk. Others stopped work or fled the country entirely.

IS rule in Raqqa ultimately came to an end following a punishing, months-long aerial and ground campaign launched by an international coalition led by the United States and the majority-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

When the dust settled, the battered city that emerged was not only devoid of its residents—estimated to number some 300,000 before the conflict began—but also the infrastructure and services needed to facilitate a return to daily life: schools and hospitals, bridges, water networks and sewage systems. More than 140,000 people have since returned and now live among the rubble that conceals bodies still buried by the coalition’s bombardment, as well as countless explosives left behind by retreating IS fighters.

Civilians are slowly coming back, and so is civil society—with a number of local organizations contributing to the daunting task of rebuilding a city in ruins alongside local authorities and a handful of international NGOs. The grassroots initiatives, driven by residents eager to do their part, have been praised as an organic revival of the city’s once-vibrant civil society. But the resurgent movement is in many ways a product of Raqqa’s troubled past and present—and continues to be shaped by shifting US priorities as well as local ethnic tensions exacerbated by years of war in the still-disputed, Kurdish-held region spanning a quarter of Syria.

‘A top-down and bottom-up approach’

“After all the hardship [in Raqqa], we felt a responsibility to do something and decided to start an organization,” says Abdul Latif Hassan, a Raqqa city resident who asked that his real name be withheld for security reasons.

Hassan first returned to the city in late 2017, just after it was declared safe to do so, with the aim of “addressing people’s needs, even if only through something very small-scale. 

ERT workers clear rubble in Raqqa city in July. Photo courtesy of Early Recovery Team.

The result was Oxygen Shabab—an organization whose projects include distributing safe drinking water, painting schools and clearing the area around Raqqa’s historic city wall. It was one of the first to operate in the city after the withdrawal of the Islamic State, Hassan says—although by summer last year, a handful of similar initiatives were already active in areas of the Raqqa countryside captured from IS before Raqqa city itself.

“Civil society is now reviving in Raqqa, after four years, with much enthusiasm,” Zubair Shweikh, director of the the Civil Society Support Center in Raqqa (CSSC), a body established in March to serve as a hub of support for local organizations, said in May.

The number of locally established and staffed organizations has grown to more than 20 since the Islamic State was expelled from the province in October, according to the US-backed hub—although civil society workers who spoke with Syria Direct estimated the number of organizations currently active in the city and the surrounding area to be lower, at around a dozen.

Most of the local CSOs, like Oxygen Shabab, provide some combination of social services, relief and development work.

Between rows of flattened buildings and fields of debris, groups of Raqqa residents sport construction vests and helmets as they repair electrical and sewage networks, rebuild schools and clear streets. In tattered classrooms, children who have gone years without a formal education are gathered for games and psychosocial support.

A US State Department official, speaking to Syria Direct, optimistically describes a city where groups of locally organized returnees are “rolling up their sleeves and helping to rebuild.” 

The US government—which has spent billions on the campaign to defeat the Islamic State, and whose coalition allegedly killed at least 1,400 Raqqa civilians in the process—is funding most of the civil society organizations in Raqqa, according to the State Department official and local activists. The activities fall under what the US calls “stabilization” work.

According to a recent multi-agency review of US stabilization efforts worldwide, stabilization projects aim to support “local partners that can reestablish the rule of law, manage conflict and restore basic services,” in areas vulnerable to “terrorist and criminal competitors.” The US has dedicated at least $875 million to stabilization assistance in Syria since 2011. In Raqqa alone, $13.7 million in US support has reportedly gone toward various service-related projects, and some $54 million toward the gruelling task of clearing mines.  

By definition, stabilization assistance is more concerned with long-term prospects than urgent day-to-day needs targeted through the provision of necessities such as food, water, shelter and healthcare in what is commonly known as humanitarian aid. There is a growing presence of international NGOs dedicated to humanitarian needs in Raqqa.

Tribal leaders met with Raqqa Civil Council representatives on August 3. Photo courtesy of Raqqa Civil Council.

But stabilization in Raqqa is, for the moment, the almost-exclusive domain of the US government and its implementing partners on the ground. Major UN agencies and other international donors noticeably lack a permanent presence in the de facto Kurdish-held region, where work is done without Syrian government permission.

And so the US has faced the delicate task of selecting which local partners to engage with, and empower, in Raqqa, which was captured by and remains under the control of the Kurdish-led SDF but is populated by fragmented, majority-Arab tribes with a generally unfavorable view of the both the SDF and its international backers.

Kurdish governance in other Arab-majority cities including Tabqa and Manbij—both captured from the Islamic State by the US-backed SDF long before Raqqa—has witnessed fierce backlash from residents regarding conscription policies and alleged rights violations. With the messy politics that followed those cities’ recapture from IS, US diplomats and policymakers saw an opportunity to do things differently in Raqqa.

“We are very clearly focusing on a top-down and bottom-up approach,” the State Department official tells Syria Direct, “because there’s so much capability and so much work to go around.”

At the top is the Raqqa Civil Council (RCC), a body formed by the SDF in April 2017—about seven months before the Islamic State defeat in Raqqa—that is tasked with administering the city. The council, headed by Arab and Kurdish members but otherwise consisting of mostly SDF-friendly Arab residents, receives direct US support for its Reconstruction Committee, which, among other activities, has recovered hundreds of bodies from beneath Raqqa’s rubble. 

Meanwhile, at the bottom is the core of US-supported civil society organizations, formed by “technocrats, engineers and civil servants who saw an opportunity to reorganize and practice their technical expertise” outside the structure of the Kurdish-led council, says Hadeel Al-Saidawi, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut who has charted civil society dynamics in northern Syria.

‘Constant scrutiny’

Longstanding ethnic tensions in Syria’s northeast are now emerging in the relationship between Raqqa’s civil society groups and the city council, according to civil society workers and analysts.

“The largest challenge for CSOs in Raqqa is the SDF itself,” says Bashar a-Raqqawi, a civil society worker who asked that his real name be withheld.

Workers repair a Raqqa electrical line in August. Photo courtesy of Raqqa Civil Council.

Raqqawi, like other local civil society workers interviewed by Syria Direct for this report, speaks about the RCC and SDF interchangeably—a reflection of the close ties between the two organizations. He points to “constant scrutiny” by the SDF, its “interference in every detail and its attempt to control the work.”

All organizations operating in Raqqa—including both local and international NGOs—must obtain a permit from the Raqqa Civil Council’s Bureau of Organizations, and permits need to be renewed every three months. Several civil society and humanitarian workers told Syria Direct that the process, which can take weeks to complete, can be problematic—notwithstanding the fact that the system of permissions tends to guide organizations towards service provision rather than fields often seen as the traditional domain of civil society organizations.

“Their standards are that you need to do service work,” says Oxygen Shabab member Abdul Latif Hassan, claiming that organizations who “tried to steer away from services were stopped.”

Notably for an area once seen as a model for opposition activists across the country, only a few of Raqqa’s civil society organizations listed in a study by the Civil Society Support Center focus on human rights work, and none appear to work on cultural and media projects.

"As it controls the local council, the PYD isn’t leaving a lot of room to maneuver for a political civil society,” says Rana Khalaf, a fellow at the University of St Andrews’ Centre for Syrian Studies whose research has focused on Syrian civil society movements. “The PYD is operating like a state that wouldn’t want any kind of political civil society to challenge it.”

‘Raqqa needs international support’

In a city with no shortage of needs, residents tell Syria Direct that civil society groups have been able to fill some of the gaps that exist as local governance bodies with limited support and capacities struggle to keep up with demand in a city where an estimated 70 to 80 percent of all buildings are destroyed, according to the UN.

One 36-year-old resident Muhammad Othman calls the Early Recovery Team (ERT)—a US-backed group that conducts stabilization activities across eastern Syria—the “backbone of work in Raqqa.”

“Even the Raqqa Civil Council is on their shoulders,” he says.

Council members are less inclined to agree. One RCC representative, media office director Mustafa al-Abeed, acknowledged to Syria Direct that “one or two” organizations—including the ERT—have contributed to services in the city. But he calls the notion of CSOs “filling a void” left by the council “impossible.”

And while there have been some improvements to basic services in recent months, entire neighborhoods remain without access to the city’s water and electricity networks. Mines claim casualties on a regular basis.

“The situation in Raqqa requires more work than you can imagine,” a former ERT member, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of their work, tells Syria Direct. “The needs are many, and the destruction is widespread.” 

Residents say needs in the city are greater than capabilities of all of Raqqa’s current actors combined.

“There needs to be work done on the local and international level, in parallel,” says Muna al-Fareej, a Raqqan activist who returned to the city four months ago. “States need to adopt the [cause of] rebuilding and stabilizing Raqqa, not [just] civil society organizations.”

“And if there’s no entity tasked with supporting those impacted,” she adds, “then a large responsibility falls on the international coalition that took part in the destruction of Raqqa.”  

The US appears reluctant about its role, though. President Donald Trump has previously alluded to a possible pullout from Syria, while it was reported that he had ordered a freeze on $200 million in funds allocated to stabilization assistance in Syria. State Department officials refuse to say whether any operations have been halted as activities remain “under review,” while calling on other donors to increase support.

Exactly when a pullout of the 2,000 American troops stationed east of the Euphrates River might take place—and how it may shift power dynamics in the northeast—remains unclear. But with that withdrawal now a possibility, the majority-Kurdish leadership in the northeast has publicly acknowledged for the first time that it is engaging in talks with the Syrian government over a potential political settlement between the two parties, Syria Direct reported. Public service provision is expected to be a key discussion topic.

Any cut in US funds could radically change the landscape of a nascent civil society movement in Raqqa—and have a devastating impact on wider recovery efforts, residents say.

“Official bodies can’t meet all of the needs by themselves. It would be a catastrophe on the social, service and humanitarian levels,” says Oxygen Shabab member Hassan.

“There would be a chasm between residents and their needs.”

This report is part of Syria’s month-long coverage of former Islamic State-held territories in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria. Read our primer here.

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011.

Avery Edelman

Avery Edelman graduated from Tufts University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in Arabic and International Relations.