The Islamic State has imposed a two-tiered social system in its self-proclaimed caliphate where supporters “live a life of luxury in comparison with other Syrians,” Furat al-Wafaa, a 31-year-old activist working with Journalists Without Borders, tells Syria Direct’s Ammar Hamou.
The squeeze on Raqqa residents is deliberate, the grassroots media campaign Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) concluded in a recent report called “How the Islamic State is Attempting to Bring Raqqa’s Poor Into Its Fold.” IS has intentionally adopted measures aimed at exacerbating poverty levels to “starve the civilians into their ranks, under the pressure of empty stomachs,” according to the report.
One example is the doubling of the price of bread in recent months.
“The increase in bread prices is a calculated move,” says al-Wafaa, echoing the sentiments expressed in the RBSS report.
By onlyproviding benefits to those who actively support IS and limiting other sources of aid, IS aims to coerce civilians into joining their ranks. They create ties with the local community through marriage to IS fighters and dangle high salaries and food supplies in front of recruits and their families.
The look and feel of the provincial capital under Islamic State rule are growing shabby and desperate. Where the streets were once tidy, trash blows through the desert city. Power is sporadic to the point that citizens can count on no more than two hours per day. Shortages of pretty much everything now mean long lines in A-Raqqa’s soup kitchen, operated by a local charity.
“Everything has changed,” says al-Wafaa.
Q: Describe the living conditions in A-Raqqa since the Islamic State (IS) took over?
When IS first took over, the worst thing they did was to impose a specific ideology and force people to adopt a new lifestyle, such as wearing clothing compatible with sharia law and banning many things, including smoking, which were previously part of daily life. The living conditions have gotten worse recently because electricity and water have been cut off and the health and sanitation conditions are terrible.
Services are almost completely absent. Electricity reaches the city on average only an hour or two every 24 hours. A kilo of bread is now SP200 ($1.06).
The health sector is in a disgraceful state and there is a shortage of medical providers and medical supplies. In addition, currency fluctuations contribute to higher prices, not to mention that merchants have exploited this fact. Together, all of these factors have caused the deterioration of living conditions.
There is no comparison between the services now and before the emergence of IS.
Electricity was working regularly within the limited hours legislated (no more than six hours a day). Now, some areas of the city scarcely have any electricity at all; two hours at the most. Some areas in the countryside only receive electricity every few days.
There used to be volunteer campaigns undertaken by young men of the city, as well as efforts by Ahrar a-Sham, to clean and take care of the streets.
Yet everything has changed and shifted following IS’s assumption of control over A-Raqqa city. Assuredly the reason is not a monetary crisis since IS controls the oil wells in A-Raqqa and Deir e-Zor. They also bring in revenue by seizing the people’s money through taxes, alms, fines, and other means of taking income from the people.
A-Raqqa residents line up at a soup kitchen. Photo courtesy of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently.
Q: If IS is not suffering from a lack of funding, then why has it imposed a number of taxes on civilians?
These taxes are one way IS pays for the needs of its partisans who live a life of luxury in comparison with other Syrians.
Q: When IS first emerged, did they subsidize bread? Why have bread prices soared in recent months?
IS did not subsidize bread nor facilitate its delivery, as some tried to say.
As for the reasons behind the rise of bread prices, the lack of flour is the main reason and it is something I believe is deliberate. The convoys transporting wheat that leave from A-Raqqa prove that the increase in bread prices is a calculated and deliberate move.
Q: Does IS provide assistance or services to the poor in the area?
There isn’t anything of this sort and any talk that says otherwise is merely a lie.
Whoever wants proof of this should see the thousands of families who seek out the aid kitchen in A-Raqqa and see the charitable people who work tirelessly in and outside of the city. Meanwhile, IS hasn’t paid a single Syrian pound to support this kitchen that covers the needs of around 2,500 families.
Q: Who runs the aid kitchen? Does IS run any charitable institutions or kitchens that provide services and aid to civilians?
The relief kitchen is run by a civilian administration and it is supported by donations from generous residents of A-Raqqa both inside and outside the province. The kitchen is not related in any way to any organization or support group. As for IS, they have no charitable organization in A-Raqqa.
Q: Do any international relief agencies or organizations send aid convoys to A-Raqqa?
All international agencies and organizations have stopped working in A-Raqqa since IS took over nor have any aid convoys entered the province in a long time.
Q: Is the mandatory enlistment and forcing of youth to join IS connected to their loss in popularity?
As of yet, mandatory enlistment has not been officially declared by IS. However, the impediments that youth face, combined with rising prices of food and few job opportunities, force some to join the ranks of IS. It is considered a good financial opportunity and offers its supporters a number of advantages.
Price hikes, a lack of jobs and the prevention of young men from leaving the city for fear they will join the regime, have imposed a blockade of sorts on them.
As for its popularity, I don’t think that IS is concerned about this because it doesn’t possess the basic elements that would allow it to gain a popular support base. Instead, they impose a specific ideology based on specific circumstances.
Q: Is there dissent within IS’s ranks? Are foreigners still coming to join IS?
It is not a secret that there are many who are honorable and true and who have come to Syria to wage actual jihad in accordance with God.
They had envisioned that they were coming to fight a regime that ravages the land, but when they learn that they are fighting youth who give up their lives in order to fight the oppressive regime, they withdraw from their involvement with IS and search for any means to get out. There are many who are actually able to break away from IS.
There are many more who face the death penalty merely for being deemed a sinner for defecting and charged with supporting the regime.
These days, the arrival of foreigners is very rare, especially after the truth about IS reached the world, but there are still some naïve individuals, deceived by IS slogans, but they are fewer in number now.
Q: Why has there recently been an increasing number of voices raised against IS?
Injustice and repression are the main reasons for the voices rising to oppose IS. Every family in A-Raqqa and Deir e-Zor has lost loved ones to regime bombings and other forms of injustice suffered to this day. Who would be happy after losing what you most value, to submit to an oppressive organization that is just as oppressive as its predecessor? I believe that the repression practiced against the people will explode in the face of IS. It’s just a matter of time.
Q: Have members of IS come to believe that the self-proclaimed caliphate is a failure? If so, why?
You have to attend one of the lectures of the IS officials with their sheikhs and supporters to recognize how they have been brainwashed. It will take a lot in order for them to wake up from the lies.
One day they will learn that they were the victims of a despicable campaign in the guise of Islamism to thwart the revolution so as to be acceptable to ordinary people.