I Fled the Islamic State’s ‘Caliphate’ in Raqqa — But Fear Its Liberators
The Arab residents of my hometown are trading their jihadi tormentors for Kurdish rulers they don't entirely trust.
In January 2016, I left behind my home in Raqqa, unable to live any longer under the rule of the Islamic State. I dreamed of returning when the city was liberated from the terrorist group. Now that dream seems on the verge of realization.
Instead of being jubilant, however, I worry that my city’s troubles are far from over. These days, I sit with my friends in exile joking about the inaccurate map produced by the media of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). As the SDF battles the Islamic State for control of our city, these purported locals use the maps to explain their advances — but they have located some neighborhoods in the wrong part of the city and have misspelled the names of outlying villages. In their videos, they also mispronounce the names of neighborhoods and villages in which they are fighting.
While most of the Arab population in eastern Syria hails the end of the Islamic State era, many Raqqans have mixed feelings about their mainly Kurdish liberators. Fear of indiscriminate retaliation and long-term racism looms large. How will the liberated Arab Sunnis, in whose name the Islamic State committed unspeakable atrocities, fit in the new order?
That is why my friends and I ask each other questions like: “Is it better for one’s house to stay standing or leveled to the ground, so it won’t be ‘mistaken’ for a Daeshi’s house and thus confiscated?”
“The SDF only confiscates ISIS houses,” one of my friends replies.
“But ISIS confiscated hundreds of houses in the course of the last four years,” another remarks. If the SDF confiscates houses that were initially confiscated by the Islamic State, will they ever be returned to their original owners?
The main question we all have for our new liberators is: What’s going to happen next?
Two weeks ago, SDF official Talal Silo announced the beginning of the battle to “destroy the so-called Daesh capital” and “liberate the capital of terrorism and terrorists.” Since then, the U.S.-backed assailants have managed to capture a neighborhood or two from each side of the city, and U.S.-led coalition aircraft have escalated their bombing campaign, reportedly using white phosphorus-loaded munitions. This has led to “a staggering loss of civilian life” in the words of a United Nations war crimes investigator, as well as the destruction of vital infrastructure. Activists from the Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently group have documented over 600 fatalities in the period from March to June.
Raqqa, which hosts internally displaced Syrians from across the country, remains home to over 200,000 residents and 2,500 Islamic State fighters, according to the latest estimates. The SDF may soon be responsible for governing this entire population. But many of the civilians who recently fled the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed “caliphate” to SDF territory argue the Kurdish-led force is less interested in alleviating the city’s suffering than establishing Arabs’ status as second-class citizens.
A friend of mine who aimed to move from Raqqa last month to the city of Manbij — an Arab-majority city located in Aleppo’s eastern countryside, which is under SDF control — with his wife and four little daughters was forced by the SDF into a transit camp on his way. The camp, one of several the group established to conduct background checks for fear of Islamic State infiltration, is located in a fenced-off yard of a cotton storage facility in the town of Ain Issa, 30 miles north of Raqqa. The town was captured in 2015 by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Kurdish force that forms the backbone of the SDF.
The U.N. refugee agency estimates there are 9,000 people hosted in and around the camp. “[SDF] collects the IDs of those who leave Raqqa and send them to camps, where they are being mistreated.” My friend said. “They keep people up to 15 days ‘under the sun’ to film them as being taken care of. We had nothing but bread in the morning.”
My friend was kept there for three days. He said his family was forced to sleep in their car, while he slept on the ground. His group had to protest to get their identification cards back. We were beaten for it,” he said. “I wished I’d stayed in Raqqa.”
Nevertheless, he eventually received a permit from the SDF guards to proceed to Manbij, but the obstacles didn’t end there. When he reached the city, the Kurdish police checkpoint asked for a “sponsorship letter” — a document signed by a Manbij resident that states that the person seeking refuge is trustworthy — to be allowed into the city. To have a permit approved to live there, they would need to go through more bureaucracy.
Manbij is the first model for a Syrian Sunni Arab city governed by Kurds. Difficulties aside, not all the news is bad for Sunni Arabs: I spoke with several people about the situation in Manbij, and they said it has improved since the SDF’s military and civilian councils took over responsibility for governing from the YPG. Electricity, for example, has been regularized since SDF forces seized the dams on the Euphrates River. And when the Syrian regime wrested control of the pumping station on Lake Assad from the Islamic State, the SDF managed to arrange for Manbij to again be supplied with water. The main cellular network also returned.
The de facto no-fly zone over SDF territory continues to provide a safe refuge to thousands of families who either fled the Syrian regime’s advances or fighting in Islamic State-held territories. Collectively, the Arabs living in this area have lived under all four warring sides of the civil war — the SDF, the Islamic State, the Free Syrian Army, and the Assad regime.
Ahmad, a middle-aged man who owned a currency exchange shop in Raqqa’s al-Mansour street before fleeing to Manbij, favors the SDF. “Under the FSA, I couldn’t keep my shop open, fearing looting for any reason. Under ISIS, businesses like mine thrived as they protected our properties. You could come to my shop with a pocket filled with $100,000; you wouldn’t bother about safety,” he said. “Now under SDF, it is just as safe, with the exception that we don’t have to pay zakat,” he added, referring to the obligation in Islam to give alms.
For women, the shift from the Islamic State to the SDF brought radical change. Sameera, a pharmacist who graduated from Damascus University, was one of thousands of women who were forced to wear black cloaks and veils from head to toe during the jihadi group’s rule. She kept her drugstore in Raqqa’s central Fardous neighborhood open when the Islamic State took hold. But it wasn’t easy.
“It was a hard time selling medicine,” she said. “I’d have gotten into trouble for handing [Islamic State members] tablets without covering my hands with sleeves.”
Sameera comes from a conservative family in Raqqa, and wore long clothes before the Islamic State but never covered her face. Now in Manbij, she’s waiting for her hometown to be liberated to return to her normal life.
The SDF governance is widely seen by Arabs as a restoration of the pre-revolution Assad regime — only now with Kurds on the top, replacing Alawites. “Kurds are just like the regime,” said Ahmad. “There are individuals in charge who happen to be persons of integrity, but sometimes you couldn’t go on without bribery or connections. But of course they are still far better than ISIS or the others.”
The years of war have shifted some Raqqans’ views on what they want for their lives, and for their city. For some, simple survival has become the only goal after years of jihadi maniacs on the ground and roaring jets in the sky. A “Manbij solution” may be the best short-term option available for Raqqa — that is, if the city survives obliteration.
“We are seeing frightening footage of destruction coming from Raqqa,” said Abu Merei, an old man who left his house in Raqqa’s al-Noor street. “If only they [Islamic State fighters] withdraw soon. Our hope is that we return to our houses and find them still standing. I don’t care who’s going to rule.”
UYGAR ONDER SIMSEK/AFP/Getty Images