IS tight­ens grip in Syria bas­tion Raqa as as­sault nears

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

BEIRUT: In­ter­net cafes closed down, travel bans and new check­points: res­i­dents say ji­hadists are try­ing to tighten their grip on power in Raqa as US-backed forces near the Is­lamic State group’s Syr­ian bas­tion.

A Kur­dish-Arab al­liance called the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces (SDF) be­gan an op­er­a­tion to re­cap­ture the north­ern city on Novem­ber 5. Since then, res­i­dents say IS has tried to seal its strong­hold off from the out­side world, im­pos­ing a me­dia black­out on the city’s pop­u­la­tion of more than 300,000.

The flow of in­for­ma­tion into and out of Raqa had al­ready been re­stricted since Jan­uary 2014, when IS seized the city from rebels who had cap­tured it from regime forces in March 2013. Since the ji­hadist group took over the pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal, only a hand­ful of out­siders have been able to main­tain con­tact with Raqa res­i­dents.

They in­clude Bri­tain-based mon­i­tor the Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights and ac­tivist group Raqa is Be­ing Slaugh­tered Silently (RBSS). RBSS formed se­cretly in April 2014 to show the world what was hap­pen­ing in­side the city, and has doc­u­mented life there de­spite a ter­ri­fy­ing back­lash from IS, which has mur­dered its ac­tivists in Raqa and even in Turkey.

Through RBSS, AFP made con­tact with sev­eral peo­ple still in­side Raqa, who spoke un­der pseu­do­nyms and de­scribed an at­mos­phere of grow­ing para­noia among the city’s ji­hadist rulers. Musa, 31, said IS was care­fully con­trol­ling ac­cess to news on the US-backed cam­paign to oust the ji­hadist group from Raqa. “Be­cause of the heavy re­stric­tions im­posed by Daesh on the in­ter­net and satel­lite dishes, it’s very dif­fi­cult to find out what’s hap­pen­ing in the bat­tle for Raqa,” Musa said, us­ing an Ara­bic acro­nym for IS.

“We rely on what we’re told by peo­ple who do man­age to fol­low the news on­line-but that is very dif­fi­cult to do, and very dan­ger­ous.”

Close sur­veil­lance

It is risky to even dis­cuss the bat­tle, he said. IS only al­lows “ru­mors that they are ad­vanc­ing and in­flict­ing losses on the other side, who will fail to en­ter Raqa, as they put it”, said Musa.

Any dis­cus­sion of IS losses could re­sult in ar­rest and even ex­e­cu­tion by the ji­hadists, he said. IS has long re­stricted ac­cess to the in­ter­net in ter­ri­tory un­der its con­trol, ban­ning pri­vate routers and al­low­ing only a hand­ful of in­ter­net cafes to func­tion un­der close sur­veil­lance.

Res­i­dents say even per­mit­ted cafes are fre­quently raided to pre­vent cus­tomers ac­cess­ing banned con­tent. Since the SDF as­sault be­gan, IS has closed sev­eral in­ter­net cafes in the city and erected new check­points, 22-year-old ac­tivist Ahmed said. “I go on­line now and then and surf on cer­tain pages-but very, very care­fully be­cause of the re­stric­tions Daesh puts on in­ter­net cafes,” he said. Mean­while, IS pro­duces a steady stream of vic­to­ri­ous pro­pa­ganda, say­ing “they are killing and blow­ing up the Kurds”.

IS has im­posed an ex­treme in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Is­lam on Raqa, ex­e­cut­ing those who break the group’s rules. The ji­hadists’ de facto Syr­ian cap­i­tal has been the scene of some of the group’s most hor­ri­fy­ing acts of vi­o­lence, as well as a hub for for­eign fight­ers it has at­tracted from around the world.

Try­ing to es­cape

Res­i­dents have long been pre­vented from leav­ing Raqa with­out IS per­mis­sion, but in re­cent months it has be­come im­pos­si­ble, said Abu Mo­hamed, an­other ac­tivist with RBSS who spoke from out­side the city. Abu Mo­hamed said many res­i­dents want to flee. “But if their plans are dis­cov­ered, they are ar­rested and their money is con­fis­cated, and the smug­glers try­ing to help them will be ex­e­cuted,” he said.

He de­scribed two fam­i­lies who re­cently tried to es­cape with their chil­dren, ter­ri­fied of in­ten­si­fy­ing USLED coali­tion air strikes and the ji­hadists’ grow­ing para­noia, but were cap­tured shortly after leav­ing. The men were im­pris­oned and the fam­i­lies’ money and iden­tity doc­u­ments were con­fis­cated, he said. An­a­lysts say the fight for Raqa is likely to be long and com­pli­cated.

The SDF says it will in­volve two phases: the first to be­siege the city, and the sec­ond to en­ter and re­cap­ture it. But ten­sions over which forces will lead the fi­nal bat­tle and the risk of civil­ian ca­su­al­ties are likely to hin­der progress. Musa said he was wait­ing im­pa­tiently to be rid of IS’s “oc­cu­pa­tion”. “Lib­er­a­tion is the dream of all the free peo­ple of Raqa,” he said.

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