10 min read  | Culture & Society, Raqqa

Raqqa residents suffer daily while awaiting bridge reconstruction


April 29, 2021

AMMAN — At the southern entrance to Raqqa city in northeast Syria, the al-Rashid (New) Bridge remains out of service. One of five bridges connecting the former Islamic State (IS) capital with its countryside, the al-Rashid Bridge is the most important, several sources told Syria Direct

The existence of the al-Mansour (Old) Bridge, which was repaired in June 2019, at the city’s southern entrance does not replace the al-Rashid (New) Bridge. “The old [bridge] isn’t suited for trucks with heavy loads to cross,” the director of a medical organization headquartered in Raqqa city who wished to remain anonymous told Syria Direct. As a result, “trucks carrying medical equipment and materials go to Tabqa city in the western Raqqa countryside. The cargo is unloaded into smaller transport vehicles and then taken to the city.” This process takes more time, effort and money.

While more than 90 percent of the destroyed bridges and crossings in Raqqa province have been repaired, either officially or temporarily on an ad hoc basis, those most important for residents are still out of commission. 

The al-Rashid (New) Bridge went out of service in January 2017 after it was bombed by the international coalition during the battle to eliminate IS. The battle destroyed 70-80 percent of Raqqa city, according to United Nations estimates. The bridge had been previously bombed and partially destroyed by Russian warplanes in November 2015. 

سوريا جسر الرشيد

Part of the destruction of the al-Rashid (New) Bridge south of Raqqa city, 3/4/2021 (Syria Direct)

While more than 90 percent of the destroyed bridges and crossings in Raqqa province have been repaired, either officially or temporarily on an ad hoc basis, those most important for residents are still out of commission. 

According to data Syria Direct collected from official sources and civil society organizations, Raqqa province contains 134 bridges and crossings, including the Euphrates and Baath (Kadiran) Dams. Some 66 of these were completely or partially destroyed by international coalition bombings or IS attacks.

Four years since the Raqqa Civil Council was founded under the Autonomous Administration in North and East Syria (AANES) and given responsibility for all service and health matters in the province, eight bridges and two crossings remain out of service. These are: the al-Rashid (New) Bridge in Raqqa city; the al-Yamamah, Sahl al-Khashab and Huneidah–Kadiran (Train) Bridges in the western countryside; the al-Rajam al-Abyad Bridge in the northwestern countryside; the Tal al-Saman–al-Kalitah and Khanzir al-Wasti–al-Hatar Bridges in the northern countryside; the al-Mughlah Bridge in the eastern countryside; and the two Kasrat Sheikh al-Jumaa crossings in the southern countryside. 

Although 56 bridges and crossings have been repaired, 14 of those have been repaired temporarily through the installation of metal (military) bridges. Some 10 others have been restored in a rudimentary way, “by putting in debris backfill and rubble as an alternative to the bridge,” the director of a civil society development organization in Raqqa told Syria Direct. He requested anonymity for security reasons. “These bridges are unstable and become death traps during rainfall because they are dangerous. Aside from that, they are not suited for trucks and cars with heavy weights,” he said.

An ongoing humanitarian crisis

In the western Raqqa countryside, 500 meters away from the Sahl al-Khashab Bridge—destroyed by international coalition airstrikes in December 2016—farmer Abu Muhammad lives with his wife and eight children in difficult conditions. “There is no clinic or specialized doctor in the village,” he told Syria Direct. He has to go to Tabqa city “to get good medical services, or meet our needs for things that aren’t available in the area, including agricultural materials and equipment.”

In his daily trip to Tabqa, Abu Muhammad traverses a “dangerous and unfit road on the shoulder of the Balikh irrigation canal,” since it is the shortest route. He has to travel 13 kilometers to Tabqa by the unsuitable road rather than the better, alternative road over the Baath (Kadiran) Dam in order to avoid traveling a 40-kilometer distance. Before the bridge was destroyed, the trip was 14.5 kilometers by crossing the bridge to the village of al-Suwaydiyah on the way to Tabqa. 

Apart from the danger of the road, Abu Muhammad shoulders additional financial burdens, as “the roughness of the road and lack of public transportation means we have to rent a car, costing SYP 20,000 [$6.75] there and back” at a time when the estimated average monthly income for a person in Syria is SYP 64,000 ($22). 

One rainy day, Umm Muhammad accompanied her husband on that trip to Tabqa. But as they travelled the unsuitable road, “an accident happened right in front of us. A motorcycle crashed and fell with its driver into the canal,” said Abu Muhammad. “This incident was extremely traumatizing for my wife. Since then, she suffers from anxiety  to the point of collapse when travelling this road.” But “I can’t do without the Tabqa markets,” he said. “And I don’t want to take the long road.” 

Abu Muhammad’s problems resemble those of many Raqqa province residents, regardless of where they live or the details of their stories. In the case of Khalil Abdelqader, a 45-year-old trader who relies on Raqqa city to get basic materials and distributes them in the al-Kasrat area of the southern countryside where he lives, he is unable to transport purchases exceeding four tons over the al-Mansour (Old) Bridge.

Since the al-Rashid (New) Bridge is out of service, trucks must go “35 kilometers west to cross the Baath Dam at Kadiran village, then a distance of 30 kilometers to the al-Kasrat area.” But “if the new bridge, which was used for commercial traffic, were repaired, the distance from the city to al-Kasrat would be no more than 15 kilometers.” 

For Abdelqader, the long distance and time it takes means higher transportation costs. He pays SYP 75,000 ($27 according to the current exchange rate in the parallel market, which hovers around SYP 3,000 to the dollar), three times the transportation cost if the al-Rashid Bridge were operational. That “raises prices for civilians,” he said. 

Turning to the northern Raqqa countryside, to Khanzir al-Kashah village where Khalil al-Rashed lives, there are three bridges in the area. Two of them, the Khanzir al-Wasti–al-Hatar and Tal al-Saman–al-Kalitah Bridges, are out of service. The third, the Thulth Khanzir–Tal al-Saman Bridge, has been repaired “by residents of the area putting debris backfill in place of the destroyed parts of it.” 

تل السمن جسر الرقة

A truck crosses the dangerous Tal al-Saman Bridge in the northern Raqqa countryside, which was repaired using debris backfill, 3/4/2021 (Syria Direct)

Al-Rashed, who also works in agriculture, travels on summer days between his house in Khanzir al-Kashah and his farmland in Tal al-Saman using the arbitrarily repaired bridge. But “I avoid using it in the winter, when rain falls and the river floods,” he told Syria Direct. Then, instead of travelling the four kilometers between his house and his land, al-Rashed crosses a distance of 20 kilometers by heading to Hazimah village to the south and from there driving north to Tal al-Saman. 

Instability

In an effort to empower the local community and support the stability and development of Raqqa province, international and local organizations are working in cooperation with the Raqqa Civil Council to implement infrastructure rehabilitation projects and restore basic services: rubble removal, restoring public utilities and delivering electricity and water. The goal is to improve living conditions for 551,934 residents, including 117,612 internally displaced people. 

جرافة إعادة إعمار سوريا

A bulldozer removes the rubble of a destroyed building in Raqqa city, northeast Syria, 3/4/2021 (Syria Direct)

“Stabilization support projects aim to effectively restore life by rehabilitating the infrastructure related to essential services, without reconstruction being linked to a political decision,” the director of a stabilization-focused civil society organization in Raqqa told Syria Direct, on the condition of anonymity. His organization has contributed to a number of “service projects, such as repairing schools and the electricity networks in Raqqa,” he said. 

But the failure to repair the bridges could hinder the process of supporting stability in the area and reflect negatively on the ability of civil and medical organizations to implement their projects. The process of supplying Raqqa city with medical materials and equipment is also affected by the al-Rashid (New) Bridge being out of service, according to the director of the medical organization working in Raqqa. “The Sahl al-Khashab Bridge being out of service in the western Raqqa countryside impacts [our ability to] serve people in the area with the organization’s mobile clinics. It impedes their movement between villages in the western countryside.”

Although the majority of bridges and crossings in Raqqa province have been restored, “the repaired bridges do not make up for the ones that are destroyed,” according to the source in the civil society development organization in the western Raqqa countryside. “The destruction of the Sahl al-Khashab and al-Yamamah Bridges forces civilians and organizations to travel greater distances.” 

“While time is important to us as civil sector workers,” he added, “the destroyed bridges prevent implementing projects or conducting evaluation visits within the time required.” The source pointed out that “an evaluation visit for a project in Sahl al-Khashab would take no more than two hours if the bridge were fixed, but today it takes a full day or two.” 

Although a number of civil society organizations emphasize the importance of repairing the bridges, many told Syria Direct that work on bridge restoration projects is beyond their financial ability. “There is also an issue of  security that requires the approval of and coordination with the international coalition, ” the director of the civil society development organization told Syria Direct

In response, the co-head of the AANES media office, Amer Murad, told Syria Direct that “the subject of bridges has nothing to do with security issues. Protecting and serving the citizens are two complementary duties. They are not in contradiction to the degree that one of them comes at expense of the other.” 

A red line? 

Civil society organizations and residents of areas impacted by the bridge destruction have called on the Raqqa Civil Council and the municipalities “to repair the bridges and put them on the Council’s list of priorities, with no response,” the director the development organization told Syria Direct. “The Council claims there are no funds to repair the bridges, but perhaps security reasons were behind this.” 

But more important than the funding and specialized equipment needed to repair Raqqa’s bridges, the restoration process requires a decision from international donors.

In an effort to end people’s suffering, which has stretched on for years due to the destruction of the bridges, “his organization has demanded, in multiple meetings with the international coalition and the Raqqa Civil Council, that the al-Yamamah and Sahl al-Khashab Bridges be repaired,” said the source. “They are a great priority.”

A structural engineer who has worked with a number of international organizations in Raqqa emphasized that “some of the bridges need a large budget to be repaired.” She also pointed out that “the area lacks the technology, such as cranes or quick-curing cement, without which large bridges like the al-Rashid Bridge can’t be rehabilitated.” For that reason, “the solution could be for foreign companies to come in that have high capacities to repair the remaining bridges.”

But more important than the funding and specialized equipment needed to repair Raqqa’s bridges, the restoration process requires a decision from international donors. This has not been on their agenda until now, “because what was accomplished in repairing bridges was under the item of stabilization support; that is to say, repairs within limited mechanisms,” according to the engineer. 

In this context, a member of the Local Administration Committee within the Raqqa Civil Council told Syria Direct that “the Council is underfunded, and has repeatedly appealed to donors to restore the bridges.” But because repairing some of the larger bridges “falls under reconstruction, this requires a political solution in Syria, meaning that it is not on the international donors’ agenda.” 

But co-head of the AANES media office Amer Murad, in turn, denied that the issue of bridges is linked to reconstruction. He said the AANES is carrying out “its duties towards citizens, according to the available capabilities. Reconstruction is another matter.” Murad added that “it is unreasonable to delay basic services on the pretext of reconstruction,” explaining that “the service issue is tied to the scale of available financial abilities. There are no red lines before the matter of serving civilians in all fields.” 

Until the complete restoration of Raqqa’s bridges, a “lifeline” for the province’s residents, as the director of the civil society development organization working in Raqqa put it, the population will continue to suffer and stabilization projects will not achieve their desired goals. 

**

This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.

This report has been produced with the financial assistance of the European Union and Free Press Unlimited. The contents of this report are the sole responsibility of Syria Direct and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of the European Union.

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