A Foothold on the Euphrates, a Boot Heel on the Tigris
Before ISIS stomped Mosul and turned Iraq upside down, it slowly crushed its enemies to death in Raqqa.
A peculiar scene marked the moment when the first provincial capital in Syria, the city of Raqqa, fell to rebel forces. While clashes for control of the city were still raging, a video was released showing rebel commanders from little-known Islamist battalions, which have since faded into oblivion, questioning two nervous high-ranking officials from President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in the governor’s palace.
The stilted exchange captured on camera was a foreshadowing of what was to come. The rebel leader interrogating the captured officials appeared reluctant to give any credit to the Western-backed Free Syrian Army for the victory, instead attributing the victory to groups that were the precursors of the various Islamist battalions that later took shape.
"Praise be to God, the operation was conducted successfully by the Islamic fronts and with the lowest number of losses. Praise be to God," he said.
When Raqqa was seized by the rebels in March 2013, anti-government Syrians hoped the city could serve as a successful model for a future democratic and pluralistic Syria. In a cruel twist of fate, however, a new authoritarian force soon came to power: In the mayhem that characterized the transitional period, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham gradually emerged as the strongest force in the city and transformed Raqqa into its de facto capital, using it as a base of operations to launch an offensive that has captured large swaths of territory across Iraq and eastern Syria. The story of how the jihadi organization gained one of its most important footholds in the Middle East shows its patience in coexisting with other groups while it established itself — and its ruthlessness in crushing them once its strength grew.
Today, Raqqa serves as a military staging base for the group formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), now just the Islamic State, as well as a testing ground for its harsh interpretation of Islamic law. Following its capture of the Iraqi city of Mosul in early June, the group staged a military parade in Raqqa featuring tanks, a Scud missile, howitzer artillery pieces, and U.S.-made Humvees, presumably captured in Iraq. One video showed ISIS fighters doing doughnuts with a BMP infantry fighting vehicle in Raqqa’s city center.
But the seizure of power — and its cruel application — came slowly. Back in the middle of last year, several months after it took control of the city, ISIS announced that male Christians would be forced to pay jizya, a tax levied on non-Muslims, as in the times of the Prophet Mohammed. The move foreshadowed the jihadi group’s implementation of jizya in Mosul, where it also publicly marked the houses of Christians to identify them — measures that caused most Christians to flee the Iraqi city. According to a Human Rights Watch report, ISIS has also established a network of prisons in Raqqa governorate, where it has tortured detainees — including children — by flogging them with cables and administering electric shocks. Some of those imprisoned by ISIS were members of rival armed groups, while others were accused of such "crimes" as smoking cigarettes. ISIS even created an all-women brigade in charge of monitoring and disciplining other women.
When Raqqa first fell from regime hands, it was far from obvious that jihadi groups were poised to gain the upper hand. In fact, ISIS had not yet come into existence in Syria — the men who would become its fighters were still an indistinguishable part of the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra. As soon as government forces were rooted out of Raqqa, a diverse array of rebel military formations rushed to establish their presence in the newly liberated city. Jabhat al-Nusra and the Salafi Ahrar al-Sham were the strongest military formations, but several other independent battalions were operating in the city, such as Ahfad al-Rasoul, the Raqqa Revolutionaries Brigade, and Jabhat al-Wahda al-Tahrir al-Islamiya. Several of these smaller secular-leaning battalions struck an alliance in July 2013, raising some citizens’ hopes that this alignment would help offset extremists.
The multiplicity of rebel groups in Raqqa in those early days acted as a check against abuses, as each faction had to be concerned with running afoul of the population and other militias. "When all those brigades were sharing power, they each had to make calculations before every move," said a 17-year-old Christian high school student from Raqqa who goes by the pseudonym George.
Even after ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the existence of his group in April 2013, one month after Raqqa’s capture, the jihadi group’s fighters remained quite approachable. At least in the beginning, George says. There was a sense that one could have a reasonable conversation with them, at their own headquarters, without incurring their deadly wrath. While Tunisian, Egyptian, and other foreign fighters openly mocked George’s Christian beliefs and tried to get him to convert, he never felt threatened.
George said that a young Tunisian fighter even seemed to have been watching out for him until, one day, George exclaimed in gratitude: "You and I are like brothers." The fighter replied solemnly, "We can never be brothers, because you’re Christian."
ISIS fighters did not initially interfere in citizen’s lifestyles, said Haya, a 26-year-old activist who recently sought refuge in Turkey because she is wanted by the Islamic State for being active in a secular youth group. "They started with the real challenge to their authority posed by other armed factions; then they turned their attention to us weaklings."
Raqqa’s residents did their best to adapt to life under their new rulers. A new, uncertain chapter in civil-military relations emerged as various rebel groups tried their best to take over state institutions and provide public services, while refraining from meddling too much in civilian affairs. A local council, funded in part by a number of local NGOs, such as the Ahl al-Khair Foundation, and in part by the political opposition, was allowed to set up shop. However, it remained severely underfunded and was subject to harassment by radicals.
For months, ISIS remained inconspicuous — a hidden part of Jabhat al-Nusra, which the local populace found more amenable as its members were largely Syrians, who were thought to be more receptive to criticism.
Haya was part of a secular group that asked the jihadists outright to take down the black al Qaeda flag, three months after the city was liberated, as the group considered it at odds with the values of the Syrian revolution. The jihadi fighters were startled by the demand and responded tongue in cheek that current windy conditions would probably blow it away soon anyway.
"I approached one of them and explained to him that we didn’t fight for this," said Haya. "He shrugged and told me that the wind would take care of it and that I was free to raise whichever flag appealed to me once that happened."
Before the opportunity to eliminate its military counterweights presented itself, ISIS would often coax others into acquiescence by reaching compromises. In lieu of radically revamping government institutions, the group left them to be managed by the invisible vestiges of the Baathist state or by other powerful military brigades. The Salafist Ahrar al-Sham movement, which was the other major force on the ground until last summer, shouldered a great deal of the responsibilities early on — especially in terms of health services in Raqqa. The movement’s leaders exhibited a certain willingness to cooperate with local councils and often spoke on record of the necessity of creating viable institutions to replace the absent government.
Two states seemed to coexist in the city for a while: Some governmental institutions were still functional, as government employees kept receiving their salaries from the central government in Damascus, while the rebel groups were in charge of security and military matters.
The turning point that brought ISIS out of the shadows came in August, when the jihadi movement became embroiled in a battle with the Ahfad al-Rasoul battalion.
Elexender, a young fighter with Ahfad al-Rasoul at the time who is now staying near the Bab al-Hawa crossing with Turkey, said that the sheer arrogance of ISIS fighters had antagonized locals.
"We stopped one of their so-called emirs at a checkpoint last August and asked for the ID of the woman who was accompanying him," he said. "He looked me in the eyes and told me, ‘We are the state. This is our ID.’"
The long-standing tensions came to a head on Aug. 14, 2013, when ISIS detonated a car bomb at Ahfad al-Rasoul’s headquarters — obliterating the group as a military force. A day later, when activists staged a demonstration asking ISIS to stop clashing with other groups, they were met with a volley of machine-gun fire.
From that point on, ISIS was methodical in its assassinations. Fighters from Ahrar al-Sham and other brigades often complain that, whenever rebels would attempt to set limits on ISIS at meetings during that tense period, its fighters would casually let their hands linger on the suicide belts they always wore. The jihadi group quickly moved to neutralize its most prominent rivals — either executing them or demanding allegiance — and then began to abduct influential activists and implement its strict version of Islamic law.
One by one, rebel forces left the city and abandoned its citizens to their fate. After ISIS’s split with Jabhat al-Nusra, the al Qaeda affiliate left Raqqa at the end of last summer and settled in the nearby town of Tabaqa. Ahrar al-Sham was also driven out within weeks, following sporadic but costly clashes. Some activists suspect that, in an attempt at pragmatism, Ahrar al-Sham struck a secret deal with ISIS, promising to hand over Raqqa to the group if it, in return, was allowed to stay in Aleppo and some parts of Idlib governorate.
In February of this year, a document bearing ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s signature announced the implementation of the jizya tax. But when it became evident that most disadvantaged Christian families in Raqqa simply could not afford to pay the required sum, an emir requested a meeting with Christian figures to inform them that they would not be taxed after all, as ISIS couldn’t return their churches to them or promise them protection from outside aggression, which are requirements under Islamic law.
Public displays of violence have been central to the Islamic State’s hold on people’s psyches. According to Meizar Matar, a 30-year-old independent filmmaker from Raqqa, even the way the group first announced its existence was a brazen display of power, meant to strike fear in their opponents’ hearts.
"They announced that they were the Islamic State the same day they executed the three Alawite people in the clock square [at the center of the city]," said Matar. "But people didn’t quite know who they were and kept referring to them as Jabhat al-Nusra for quite a while after that."
Now that it is firmly in control, the Islamic State, much like the Assad regime, at times appears deliberately ambiguous toward small acts of dissidence. It’s never quite clear to residents what transgressions might elude its fighters’ vigilance, and which could result in their heads getting severed. The jihadi group has sometimes turned a blind eye to small infractions, such as wearing slightly improper attire — but at the same time has staged public crucifixions of its supposed enemies in the center of Raqqa, as its supporters proudly tweeted out the gruesome images to the world.
"It’s a way to stay on top of things," says Elexender, the young fighter who had been with Ahfad al-Rasoul. "You never know what could get you in trouble with them."
Elexender claims the extremist group was always more interested in triumphing over its rivals than paving the way for a better life for the citizens of Raqqa.
"The public had leverage before and was one of the determinants in whether a certain group was popular or not, and that kept us all in check," he said. "But with ISIS, they just rely on their brutality."