In the Islamic State’s Former Stronghold, a Secret Yearning for Assad

Though Raqqa was captured by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, many residents are mistrustful and believe only Bashar al-Assad can bring stability.

A man carries a bag across his shoulders in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, the former Syrian capital of the Islamic State group, on May 1.
A man carries a bag across his shoulders in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, the former Syrian capital of the Islamic State group, on May 1. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images

RAQQA, Syria—The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces that liberated this war-ravaged city from the Islamic State—which had declared Raqqa its capital—are having a tough time winning hearts and minds two years later. In fact, much of what they’re getting from residents is resentment.

During a recent visit, an activist called Hamoude—a pseudonym to protect his identity—described what he hears from hometown relatives who fled to Damascus and Aleppo whenever he urges them to move back to Raqqa: “We will come back when the regime returns,” referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Rumors, spurred by the Syrian state media, have circulated among the city’s residents about an imminent handover of Raqqa to the regime. That spells even more uncertainty over the tenuous rule of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, and its somewhat chaotic civilian governance structure, called the Self-Administration. “All the time you hear that the regime will come back next month or that the regime will come here after it takes Idlib,” the last opposition-held stronghold, said one resident.

Meanwhile slow reconstruction, inadequate funding, displeasure with Kurdish-led rule in an Arab-majority city, and above all a yearning for security after so many years of war are keeping the SDF from gaining widespread support in the city, according to dozens of conversations with local residents, SDF commanders, activists, and business leaders in the city. The SDF leadership finds itself unable to provide basic services due to shortage of funding, and ongoing militant attacks in the city are undermining its popular legitimacy. 

Another major reason for mistrust of SDF rule is the massive destruction of the city during its liberation from the Islamic State, which residents believe was excessive and at times unjustified. The battle ended with a secret agreement allowing hundreds of Islamic State fighters and their families to withdraw to the organization’s remaining strongholds in Deir Ezzor governorate. The United Nations later found the city to be 80 percent uninhabitable. 

“If they were going to let them leave to Baghouz [the last stronghold of the Islamic State], why did they have to destroy the city first?” asked Ismail, a young shopkeeper interviewed by Foreign Policy. (Like all the names of residents in this story, his is a pseudonym to protect him from retribution.)

During my visit earlier this month, some Raqqawis expressed clear support for the Self-Administration. Several hundreds of women in the city joined the ranks of the SDF, many of them after being victimized under Islamic State rule. The supporters of the Self-Administration saw it as the best alternative to the repressive regime of Islamic State rule, and to the greater instability and criminality that characterized the Free Syrian Army rule that followed. The Free Syrian Army—defectors from Assad’s military—acting together with Islamist rebel groups evicted Syrian regime forces from the city in 2013 and instituted rudimentary forms of self-governance. Civil society groups were allowed to operate for the first time in 40 years, but civilians suffered due to regime shelling, abusiveness, and criminality of some of the ruling factions. Soon after, in 2014, this period of instability was replaced by the totalitarian rule of the Islamic State. Then the SDF, an international coalition-backed umbrella organization of multiple militias led by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, captured the city from the Islamic State in late 2017.

But nearly two years later, residents have also found SDF rule wanting. Many Raqqawis were cautious in expressing opposition to the SDF out of fear of retribution—and a habit of concealing their political preferences honed during decades of dictatorial rule of the Assad regime—but they often opened up in conversations held inside private homes and shops. 

The main concern was lack of services. Water is now running 24/7 in Raqqa, unlike in many other cities in Syria, but the electrical grid is not functioning. Many of the schools and hospitals are destroyed. Civilians interviewed in the city would often compare their current living conditions to their lives prior to the outbreak of the uprising, reciting from memory costs of tomatoes, bread, and fuel before 2011 compared to now. 

“We used to have free water, free electricity, free bread, free schools, free hospitals. Now everything is expensive,” said Samira, an older woman from a relatively well-off family who hosted me in her home, who later professed support for the return of the Assad regime.

As the sound of heavy drilling—clear signs of reconstruction—pierced the air around us, other locals insisted “there is no reconstruction.” Some admitted that, yes, reconstruction is happening, but they were quick to point out that it appears to be mostly self-financed, by locals taking out loans to rebuild their homes and businesses. Several locals interviewed by Foreign Policy expressed the mistaken belief that billions of dollars have been donated for the city’s reconstruction (only millions have been allocated for this purpose) and have been stolen by local officials and implementing organizations.

Such attitudes are manifested in the lackluster recruitment of volunteers from the city into the ranks of the SDF, limited cooperation with the SDF in hunting down Islamic State cells operating in the city, and the refusal of many educated professionals to join the ranks of the Self-Administration of the city.

Raqqawis are also concerned by the ability of sleeper cells, most likely linked to the Islamic State, to continue to carry out attacks in the city. Some abruptly ended conversations when the questions turned to their views of the militant group and its presence in the city. A Kurdish intelligence official described to Foreign Policy a meeting he attended undercover in a mosque in the city, in which a group of men discussed resurrecting Islamic State activity. Locals and the intelligence official, who handles agents in the city, said civilians are afraid they will be targeted if they cooperate with the SDF in the arrest of Islamic State cells or help uncover tunnels still used by the group in the city.

During the Islamic State’s reign of terror, decades of the Baath dictatorship reinforced the tendency of Raqqawis to stay docile and feign support for the ones in power. Multiple city residents, including high-ranking SDF commanders in the city and a former Islamic State emir from Raqqa, interviewed while in SDF custody, mentioned a common saying about the city’s residents: “They clap for whoever is coming [into power] and boo those who leave.”

The political preferences of individuals were at times hard to decipher, with the same individual expressing contradictory views in the span of several minutes. For example, a woman who expressed support for the regime later mentioned that when she visits Damascus, she tells soldiers at checkpoints that she is from Tabqa, a nearby city that is less associated with the Islamic State, because “we are tainted as ISIS in the eyes of the regime.” 

True, the SDF is in a bind—civilians want more security but are often unwilling to pay the price this entails. Raqqawis, for example, demanded tighter security procedures and more checkpoints, but checkpoints and SDF bases are often targeted by the Islamic State, causing peripheral damage to civilians. Multiple residents complained about the release of criminals and suspected militants briefly after their arrest, but prolonged detention of locals can increase tensions between their relatives and the SDF. Residents also grumbled that the local men who joined the SDF are often petty criminals, former Islamic State members, and individuals joining for a salary, who are not willing to risk their lives to stop the next bombing. At the same time, locals with more respectable resumes are largely unwilling to join the SDF, and inhabitants of this Arab-majority city reject the option of deploying more skilled Kurdish fighters from farther north in the city’s streets.

The slow pace of the reconstruction of the city is also not mainly the fault of the SDF, instead largely stemming from inadequate stabilization funding from international donors. The limited capacities of the impoverished locals are also creating resentment. 

Another reason locals associate the SDF with instability is the dithering U.S. commitment to remain in the region and protect the areas under SDF control from regime or Turkish takeover. This sense of impermanence drives locals to avoid joining the organs of the civilian Self-Administration or SDF, fearing they will be punished for it after the regime takes over. This, in turn, further hampers the ability of the local administration to repair infrastructure and provide services.

Educated Raqqawis with useful professional experience are also leery of joining the Self-Administration because of a widespread perception that decision-making power is monopolized by long-term cadres of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), whose Syrian affiliate, the Democratic Union Party, is the dominant force behind the government. The Kurdish PKK cadres, who are not from Raqqa, are seen as unfit to rule the Arab-majority city. “The cadres are always present in the committees and offices, even though they are not technocrats with specialization,” said Zaid, an activist in the city. He insisted that “there is clear marginalization” of locals, which is obvious even to Raqqawis not involved in politics. 

Two activists working in the city reported that many in the city view the Self-Administration as a form of foreign occupation. In meetings with SDF officials in the city, a local Arab commander rarely spoke, while his Kurdish superior, from outside the city, answered questions, even ones directed to the Arab commander. Both SDF officials and locals confirmed that there is limited interaction between the SDF’s leadership and the wider populace. 

Still, the Syrian central state that many residents are hoping will return is the one that ruled Syria before the outbreak of the uprising: repressive, but able to provide security and cheap basic services. In a sense, many Raqqawis are wishing for a time machine to go back to the days before the uprising against Assad, in which most of the city’s residents did not participate. 

Recent announcements made by U.S. President Donald Trump about an imminent U.S. withdrawal raised the possibility of the SDF losing control of the city. In the event that the SDF will be forced to hand over the city to the regime due to withdrawal of coalition protection, however, the regime that will return will not be the pre-2011 one. The Syrian regime in its current form is more repressive, more corrupt, and simply broke—unable to afford to reconstruct Raqqa or provide cheap services. Raqqa has also been tainted in the eyes of the regime, with its residents perceived as disloyal and possible extremists. In areas militarily recaptured from the Islamic State by the regime, such as in Deir Ezzor, the regime has failed to provide services or security, while preventing the return of much of the population and carrying out forced disappearances and confiscation of property. 

If the SDF were to lose control of Raqqa, it would likely occur through a reconciliation agreement, which nominally protects the population from reprisals by the regime. However, Assad has repeatedly reneged on promises not to punish those who opposed his rule. Thousands of individuals who have reconciled with the Syrian state have been arrested, and some of them already tortured to death within the industrial-scale detention and torture apparatus operated by Damascus. 

The consensus of opinion, in the end, is that the unclear future of the SDF governance project, insecurity, and poor service provision are significantly undermining the legitimacy of the U.S.-backed governance project in Raqqa. It is a problem, people here believe, that can be addressed only by quickly improving living conditions and devolving real power to locals. Otherwise, the hopes of many will continue to rest with a resurrection of the Assad regime.

Elizabeth Tsurkov is a Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute focusing on the Levant. 
 Twitter: @Elizrael

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