Last Thursday, US-led coalition warplanes scattered leaflets across the Islamic State’s de facto Syrian capital of A-Raqqa city. Laid onto a picture depicting Syrians fleeing from a destroyed, anonymous city to greener hills, the text read:
“The time…has arrived. It’s time leave Raqqa.”
“The time you’ve been waiting for has arrived. It’s time to leave a-Raqqa.” Photo Courtesy of “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently”
“An estimated15 percentof the civilians have fled A-Raqqa [since the leaflets were first dropped on the city, last Thursday],” says Muhammad a-Salah, spokesman of the grassroots media campaign “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently.”
The warning to leave comes as Kurdish forces steadily advance in A-Raqqa province, cutting off IS supply routes.
While admitting their planes dropped the leaflets, the Pentagon denies an impending offensive on A-Raqqa, say officials. The leaflets are part of a psychological warfare campaign against IS, one Pentagon official explained to the Daily Beast last week.
“It’s part of our ‘mess-with-them’ campaign,” the official is quoted as saying.
The campaign, targeting IS, has left a mark on A-Raqqa’s civilian population, many of whom are “fleeing to the countryside,” Muhammad a-Salah tells Mohammed al-Haj Ali, with many civilians “trying to sell their home furnishings” to afford the journey out the city.
Q: At this point, how many civilians have fled A-Raqqa city? Where are they going?
I would say an estimated15 percentof the civilians have fled A-Raqqa [since the leaflets were first dropped on A-Raqqa city, last Thursday]. They are heading from the city to the countryside.
The majority of civilians are fleeing to the countryside, the only place IS allows them to go. It’s important to note that civilians are forbidden from leaving IS territory for any reason.
As for those able to leave, it is limited to the financially well off.
Q: How do people get permission to leave A-Raqqa? What steps do people have to take in order to leave the city?
Well, movement inside IS-controlled areas actually doesn’t require any specific permission form. IS doesn’t forbid movement with its territory.
Q: Do you have any information regarding the permission granted to civilians to leave the city? Is it related to the pamphlets the international coalition planes dropped on A-Raqqa city?
Migration towards other areas under IS’s control is an option that IS gives to civilians for its own interest. It’s a tool IS employs to curtail migration to areas outside its control.
IS needs civilians to remain so they can be used as a kind of human shield to help alleviate exposure to air strikes.
Q: What is the situation in A-Raqqa as we speak?
The movement in the markets and streets isn’t any different; civilians continue to go about daily life. However there has been a general movement of IS fighters to northern regions. There is also a high level of alert among the fighters still in the city.
I know of several civilians who are trying to sell their home furnishings to afford the journey out of the city.
Q: What is it like for people who have left the city for the countryside?
There isn’t a tangible difference between the city and the countryside in terms of access to services. The electricity cuts out as frequently in the countryside as in the city. Water and food are equally available in both places.
Generally, people are either renting or staying with relatives who live outside the city.
You’ll also find more freedom of movement in the countryside, but this simply stems from the larger area. IS militants are less concentrated in the countryside.
Q: In your opinion, why is there a large migration from the city?
People are scared. The coalition is dropping pamphlets saying that people should leave A-Raqqa. People think this is the beginning of a massive bombing campaign and there will be total destruction. People look at Aleppo now and think this is what is headed their way.
Q: Do you expect a large-scale attack to follow the distribution of the international coalition’s pamphlets?
It’s impossible to predict but it seems possible that there is large-scale operation that will take place in northern A-Raqqa province,in conjunction with airstrikes on the city.
Q: What did the population make of these leaflets?
In general the population was terrified by the pamphlets and the impending wide-scale airstrikes.