A primer on Raqqa, Islamic State’s so-called ‘capital’


Now that the Islamic State/Daesh has taken credit for three major attacks — the downing of a Russian flight over the Sinai peninsula, a double suicide bombing in southern Beirut and the concerted Friday night onslaught in Paris — there’s a growing consensus that the international community is doubling down on concerted efforts to confront the radical Sunni jihadists at their core in Syria.Syria Flag Icon

That began on Sunday afternoon, when French forces hit Raqqa, a city in northeastern Syria that IS/Daesh has claimed as its de facto capital, with more than 20 airstrikes. In the aftermath of Friday night’s coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris, French president François Hollande declared that the attacks amounted to an ‘act of war,’ pledging to lead a response that ‘will be pitiless,’ and the French military reaction came even while police still search for one of the alleged perpetrators of Friday’s attacks.

Well before Paris, US officials have been increasingly focused on Raqqa

As the world’s attention now turns from Paris and Beirut to Raqqa, those terrorist attacks seem likely to accelerate what’s been a gradual effort to place pressure on ISIS in Raqqa. US airstrikes last Thursday killed militant Mohammed Emwazi, popularly known as ‘Jihadi John’ in the US media. A Kuwait native who grew up in London before traveling to Syria to fight for IS/Daesh, he appeared in several videotaped beheadings of westerners, proclaiming jihadist slogans in perfect English as he and his allies murdered their victims.

In early July, a series of 16 US airstrikes also targeted Raqqa, with the goal of destroying ISIS strongholds and disrupting transit routes — an attack that killed at least six civilians. News reports suggest that the United States and its allies are gradually preparing a campaign to liberate Raqqa in tandem with the Syrian Democratic Forces, a new coalition of Kurdish, Arab and other Syrian minorities in the country’s northeast, though its strength may be more aspirational than anything else.Formed just last month, it Forces are still a somewhat nebulous group, anchored by the YPG (the Kurdish acronym for the People’s Protection Units, the Kurdish armed peshmerga fighting IS/Daesh), but which also includes Sunni Arabs and, most incredulously, some longtime pro-Assad forces.

US special forces that entered Syria in the last month, in particular, are thought to be spearheading the Raqqa effort. As Vox‘s Zach Beauchamp wrote earlier in October, a successful US-led siege on Raqqa would be difficult but would also call into doubt the Islamic State’s ability to hold, control and govern territory in Syria (or Iraq, for that matter).

Raqqa, in Syria's northeast, is the de facto capital of the Islamic State's so-called caliphate. (BBC)
Raqqa, in Syria’s northeast, is the de facto capital of the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate. (BBC)

In the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks, there have already been calls in the US media to ‘erase’ Raqqa:

Alain Bauer, a leading French criminologist and adviser to officials in Paris, New York, and elsewhere about counter-terror strategies, is among those who believes that ISIS is lashing out precisely because it is under pressure on the ground….

“If we really want to do something, we need to erase Raqqa,” [criminologist Alain] Bauer told The Daily Beast. What keeps this from happening? In Bauer’s opinion, the United States. “Every bombing is a nightmare to negotiate,” he said. “Here’s a target. ‘Oops, there’s a garden there. Oops, there’s a family there. Oops, you cannot destroy this, you cannot destroy that.’”

But ISIS is embedded among the civilian population. Bauer thinks there’s an important distinction. “They are representing the civilian population,” he says, at least those who have remained and sometimes profited from the group’s presence. “They are not enslaving them. And a war is a war.”

But the facts suggest otherwise, and the limited reporting from Raqqa over the past year indicates an urban population terrorized by the Islamic State’s fundamentalist grip. Gruesome public executions are now a routine occurrence, foreign-born militants from Africa and Europe alike (often unable to speak Arabic) mix awkwardly with the local population and jihadists routinely police their moral vision, for example, forcing women to wear niqabs. Though Islamic State certainly has its supporters among the Sunni population, many of Raqqa’s civilians are, like the victims of the Beirut and Paris bombings, victims of Daesh-led terrorism.

How once-secure Raqqa became so notorious

A Vanity Fair report from last October describes a shellshocked city where bakeries no longer produce enough bread, religious police forbid smoking tobacco,photos of models and even swearing, while young children are forced to trawl through garbage in search of valuables that they can sell for money. 

Before Syria’s civil war began, Raqqa had a civilian population of over 220,000, making it country’s sixth-most populous city in 2011. For the first two years of Syria’s civil war, Raqqa was ironically one of the safer places in the county. It was so secure, in fact, that Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad even visited the city in June 2012 to pray at one of its mosques.

That changed abruptly in March 2013, when pro-Assad forces clashed with Sunni rebel forces — not Islamic State, but the relatively moderate Free Syrian Army and the more hardline al-Nusra Front. Pro-Assad forces fell within a matter of days to Sunni rebels. But, increasingly over the course of 2014, the more hardline Islamic State gradually wrested control from the Free Syrian Army, paralleling the retreat of moderates within the Sunni rebel forces all across Syria.

The notion, however, that France, the United States, Russia or anyone else can ‘erase’ Raqqa also ignores the city’s rich history, which began in the Hellenistic era.

Once the capital of a sophisticated Islamic empire

Its heyday came between the years 796 and 809, when Harun al-Rashid moved the capital of the Abbasid caliphate from Baghdad to Raqqa. That may not mean much to us in AD 2015, but the Abbasid caliphate is generally seen as the ‘golden age’ of Islam, and history remembers Harun al-Rashid, in particular, as one of the Arab world’s most enlightened leaders, more powerful in the late eighth century AD than his contemporary, the Frankish king Charlemagne.

Harun’s caliphate is the Islamic world that inspired the stories found in ‘One Thousand and One Nights,’ a society where Muslims developed algebra and other forms of advanced mathematics, discovered for the first time the Andromeda galaxy and contributed to the concept of what we now know as the scientific method. Muslims during the Abbasid caliphate introduced paper to Europe, and they created some of the world’s most treasured Islamic music, art and architecture, including the Alhambra in what is today southern Spain. Harun built the Bayt al-Hikma, or House of Wisdom, one of the world’s most remarkable libraries and educational institutions until the Mongol sack of Baghdad in 1258. Though Harun moved his empire’s capital to Raqqa, Baghdad remained the caliphate’s administrative and cultural center, the Abbasid Paris to Raqqa’s Versailles.

Though ISIS’s leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi allegedly sees his brutal regime as the second coming of the Abbasid caliphate, Harun’s empire represented a beacon of civilization at a time when Europeans were languishing in the medieval period, as Viking attacks subdued the British isles and Charlemagne’s Carolingian Empire crested and fell almost as quickly as it emerged. The original Abbasid caliphate embraced science, learning and art; Baghdadi’s distorted vision rejects it.

Raqqa, however briefly, stood as the center of an empire that, under Harun, included much of what we today know as the Middle East, stretching from what is today Algeria, across north Africa to Egypt, parts of today’s Turkey, the Arabian peninsula, Iran all the way to today’s western Pakistan.

There’s not much left from Raqqa’s golden age, but remnants of the Baghdad Gate from the city’s eighth-century walls still stand. The Islamic State’s militants, who have destroyed temples built two millennia ago in Palmyra in central Syria, had no qualms in demolishing the Uwais al-Qarni Mosque, a Shiite mosque built in 2003 with Iranian funds, which contained the remains of Uwais al-Qarni, an important figure for all Muslims, including Sufi Islam.

As French bombs fall on Raqqa today, and as more bombs are likely to rain down on the city in the weeks and possibly months ahead, it is important to realize that Raqqa is not just another dusty speck on the map, but a city with real humans and a richer heritage than the Daesh-led tyranny would ever suggest.

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