BEIRUT: One month after Raqqa became the first provincial capital to completely fall to opposition hands, opposition forces are plotting to extend their gains south and east. But fears are mounting that an imminent government campaign to retake the city may interrupt the plan.
Friday saw hundreds of people turn out to anti-government protests in the liberated city in northern central Syria, although activists said the demonstrations were abruptly cut short after continuous shelling from government warplanes and mortar fire in the north of the city made the rallies too dangerous.
Raqqa – a predominantly Sunni city that sits at a strategic gateway between Aleppo in the northwest, Deir al-Zor to the east and Homs in the center – fell to the rebels March 4 after a combined attack led by Islamist brigades.
The fall of the city was swift and coordinated. Units from the Islamist Nusra Front and the Salafi al-Sham brigade, in coordination with other Islamist brigades, easily overran Syrian army units positioned at checkpoints around the city, sparsely manned by one army unit, Division 17.
A leading sheikh from Raqqa, Sheikh Habib Fundi, told The Daily Star the Islamist units – mostly from Deir al-Zor and Idlib provinces – were key to an organized campaign to capture the city.
Members of the FSA and Local Coordination Committees in Raqqa, however, have told The Daily Star that local Free Syrian Army divisions also assisted in the campaign. It remains unclear how much involvement the FSA units had or what level of support was given to rebels from inside the city.
Since then, the rebels have imposed a form of Islamic law on the city, and along with local officials have taken control of management of the city’s institutions, running courts, schools and police stations. Residents said power to the city had been largely restored and while telecommunications were mostly cut, they said shops were open and food was available.
For the last week, activists said, warplanes have been circling and shelling the area to the north of the city, where the last remaining besieged brigade of Syrian soldiers from Division 17 remain holed up, close to the military airport at Tabqa. Further east, Brigade 93 remains locked in clashes with opposition forces.
Some members of Division 17 have defected, a rebel spokesman told The Daily Star, while others who have been captured and “who participated in the killing” were awaiting trial at the Islamic court inside the city.
“They will be tried for their crimes but they are not being mistreated,” the rebel source, affiliated with Raqqa LCC, said.
“There is one tribunal operating, a court made up of local officials and religious leaders from the city.”
Habib, meanwhile, said tribesmen were protecting an Islamic shrine in Meshrab, which, before the uprising started, had become a popular destination for Iranian Shiite pilgrims with the help of funding from Iran.
But the relative calm may be about to disrupted. Habib and other official sources said there was evidence of troops moving north from Hama and Homs to Raqqa to bolster Division 17.
“The Syrian army is sending reinforcements to strengthen Division 17,” the sheikh said via telephone from Homs, where he is working with government officials and rebels to negotiate local cease-fire agreements.
“The people are worried. They are stuck in the middle. [The opposition] has imposed Shariah law there. They are scared of the Army ... and they can’t get out.”
The LCC rebel spokesman told The Daily Star the city was still under firm opposition control, but acknowledged the campaign to recapture the city might escalate.
“We still have targets that we need to take completely; the Tabqa military airport, and Battalion 93 at Ain Issa,” he said.
“Once our FSA forces capture them we can protect the city from the outskirts.” From there, he said, “Inshallah our forces will be able to move toward Homs and Deir al-Zor.”