Raqqa, the Isis capital where hostages were beheaded, is now Syria's most thriving city

October 02, 2021

A girl on the way to school this week near Paradise Square in Raqqa, where Isis used to crucify and behead its victims



[Note by Tom Gross]

I attach two articles below about Syria.

In the first, The Times of London reports today from Raqqa, previously the capital of the Isis caliphate, where western and other hostages were beheaded prior to 2017. Then in 2016-17 the city was pummeled to the ground by American, British and French warplanes in one of the fiercest military campaigns in modern history. The almost total destruction of 80 percent of the city included schools and hospitals.

Today, reports The Times, "Raqqa's streets are packed, lined with new restaurants, and officials say its population has grown beyond its prewar numbers as Syrians flee violence and poverty elsewhere in the country to its relative security."



The second piece below discusses the way in which Assad supported and helped Isis throughout the war. It is a subject I have discussed several times before on this list and mentioned during TV appearances. This new article sums up this crucial tactic used by the sadistic Assad regime to help it survive.

As the piece points out: "One key tactic of the regime's strategy was to focus its military efforts against the moderate Syrian rebel groups opposing the Assad dictatorship, in particular the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and not the Islamic State group. The Syrian regime made this strategic decision to enable and facilitate the continued survival of the Islamic State in Syria in an effort to paint all of the Syrian opposition as 'terrorists'."



Among other related dispatches:

The abandoned freelance journalists trying to report the world's worst war, Syria (2014)


"Good to meet you, bro": A poetic tribute to James Foley (2014)




Among related articles:

In an exclusive first interview, a freed French Isis hostage who was held in Raqqa, tells Tom Gross that the British and American prisoners he was held with (who were then beheaded) remained as cheerful as possible but that their governments could have done more to save them.

Daily Mail, February 27, 2015


Video here:



Among related short TV clips:

"As UK government demands Israel investigation, why not first investigate 2017 UK bombing in Mosul & Raqqa?" (2018)





I wrote the following note, for example, in a dispatch in 2018:

On multiple occasions I have asked why western governments, human rights groups and media have all but ignored the American-British-French bombing of Raqqa in Syria and before that of Mosul in Iraq during the last three years.

The bombing of Raqqa, which concluded in October 2017, and in which over 30,000 munitions were fired by the US, UK and France, is believed to be the heaviest western bombing since the Vietnam War. More civilians are estimated to have been killed by western bombing in Raqqa than by Islamic State.

Finally, today [2018], Amnesty International has issued a report accusing America, Britain and France of "indiscriminate bombing" and "possible war crimes" in Raqqa in 2016-17.

But the coverage this morning on the BBC and other media is very different from the often hysterical and greatly exaggerated coverage of Israel's recent defensive actions as Hamas tried to breach Israel's border.

The BBC barely scratches the surface of what went on in Raqqa in its reports so far this morning, and the very same news presenters who have been bashing Israel day in, day out, sometimes eagerly lapping up (without even attempting to fact check) what turned out to be fake news slurs, are very dismissive of the overwhelming evidence of what happed in Raqqa and Mosul. Other media, by contrast, report on it:





I am not seeking to pre-judge western military tactics, only commenting on the very different approaches by media and others towards Israel and towards every other country, an approach that has done so much to whip up hatred of Israel and stir up anti-Semitism.

At the present time (7.30 am UK time), both The Guardian and New York Times websites ? despite each having over 30 stories and headlines on their home pages ? don't mention the Amnesty accusations against the US and Britain even though other British media are running the story as their second most prominent headline. (President Obama ordered the military action. Perhaps if it had been initiated by President Trump, the New York Times would cover it.)



Raqqa, the Isis caliphate capital, is now Syria's boom town
By Richard Spencer, Raqqa, Syria
The Times (of London)
October 2, 2021

Paradise Square was once famous as the roundabout where Islamic State crucified and displayed the heads of its victims. Now it has a Nutella House caf?.

The caf?, newly built next to one of the bombsites that filled Raqqa four years ago, is just one symptom of the city's stark change in fortunes.

Isis's former capital, on the fringes of the desert where Mohammed Emwazi, known as Jihadi John, paraded his captives, was pummeled into submission by British and American missiles in 2017.

Today, its streets are packed, lined with new restaurants, and officials say its population has grown beyond its prewar numbers as Syrians flee violence and poverty elsewhere in the country to its relative security.

"The economic situation at home is terrible," said Juneya Sayyan, who has moved to Raqqa with her children from a village near Damascus, which is firmly under the control of the Assad regime. "My house was destroyed in the war. There is no work there, and prices are sky-high. So we came here."

She lives in a block of flats that, like 80 per cent of the city's buildings, was partially destroyed in a coalition airstrike when the West's Kurdish-led allies on the ground drove out Isis fighters.

Holes gape in the walls pockmarked by bullet holes, offering a glimpse of children playing in the ruined landscape. It is hardly ideal but it is safe, and here her family's only son at least has a job to support them.

Working at a chicken restaurant earns him about $90 a month ? hardly a fortune but almost double the equivalent job in Damascus. The capital is suffering from western sanctions and has experienced a collapse in its currency similar to that in neighbouring Lebanon, in whose failed banks many Syrians kept their money.

When Isis was driven out of Raqqa, it was after one of the fiercest military campaigns in modern history. The attacking army, the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), had to fight from building to building to dislodge the Isis fighters, who were down to a hardened, fanatical rump after three years of war.

The SDF developed an extraordinary tactic with their British and American allies. As they advanced, they marked Isis outposts on computer pads linked to a central database. The co-ordinates would then be transmitted by allied headquarters directly to the jets' missile guidance systems.

As a tactic, it saved many SDF lives. How many civilians died on the ground, trapped in basements under the Isis positions, remains hotly disputed.

What is not disputed is that the city was physically levelled in a way rarely seen even in modern warfare. The almost total destruction included schools, hospitals and basic services.

"When we arrived here there was no one," Asma Habal, 36, who came from Aleppo, said. Her extended family was partly motivated by fear ? some were wanted by the regime and other men would at least be called up for military service.

Her cousin, Ahmed Hamido, 26, came to join the conversation. He had been a journalist in rebel-held Aleppo when it was surrounded and barrel-bombed by the Assad regime, and would be an immediate target for retribution.

Much of Raqqa's wreckage remains. There is still insecurity, with regular arrests of what the authorities say are Isis sleeper cells. But compared with the fighting going on in northwest and southern Syria, and the economic devastation in regime-held territory, Raqqa is starting to look good.

A report by Save the Children said it was possible the population was now higher than before the war. Mustafa Hamshu, a local tribal elder, said that the number of people in Raqqa province was several times larger.

The charity said that conditions were still poor, with more than a third of the city's buildings in a state of ruin and families camping in the wreckage afraid of roofs literally falling in on them.

In addition, drought and a fall in the level of the nearby Euphrates is leading to disease, while schools have still not been rehabilitated. "Children are still living among ruins, with limited water, electricity, and access to education," it found.

However, everything is relative. The families seeking refuge often have no homes to go back to; here the local authorities have granted them permission to stay in old council accommodation, even if damaged.

While the main Syrian Kurdish party, the PYD, has a reputation for authoritarian behaviour, it allows a greater degree of freedom than either the regime or the Islamist militia Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which runs Idlib province in the northwest.

Safety also is understandably uppermost in the minds of the families here. Juneya Sayyan's husband was killed in crossfire in a gun battle between rebels and the regime, and her eldest son disappeared into a regime prison nine years ago, never to be seen again. Asma Habal's husband was killed by an Isis car bomb.

Even in SDF-run territory further north, Turkish forces shell positions occupied by Kurdish soldiers, many of whom are in effect the local affiliate of the Turkey-based guerrilla organisation, the PKK. Raqqa, though, is protected by the US presence and is anyway no longer fought over, perhaps not really wanted, by any of the other powers that have contributed to Syria's destruction.

Another woman, Jihad Azo, said she had lost two grandsons, aged 10 and 11, during the siege of Aleppo, when the family home was bombed. As she cradled a baby granddaughter sitting in Sayyan's first floor flat, the wall behind her lay open to the elements.

"Our homes here may be destroyed and open to the sky, but at least there's shelter," she said. "And we have our children in our laps."



Assad's Business Model for Supporting ISIS
By Matthew Levitt
September 26, 2021

The international community stepped up to the ISIS challenge but has failed miserably to address the multifaceted problems presented by Assad, whose regime has worked with the terrorist group on and off for years.


The regime of Bashar al-Assad consistently supported the Islamic State (ISIS) when the group controlled significant amounts of territory, even as the regime struggled to retake control of Syrian territory from the various rebel groups engaged in the Syrian civil war, including ISIS. One key tactic of the regime's strategy was to focus its military efforts against the moderate Syrian rebel groups opposing the Assad dictatorship, in particular the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and not the Islamic State group. Assad typically would be involved in any major decisions, and government officials would be wary of the consequences of making sensitive decisions or taking sensitive actions without Assad's prior approval. It is therefore inconceivable that Syrian intelligence could have assisted, facilitated or tolerated ISIS operatives without prior decision-making at the highest levels of the Syrian government. The Syrian regime made this strategic decision to enable and facilitate the continued survival of the Islamic State in Syria in an effort to paint all of the Syrian opposition as "terrorists."

In May 2011, in the wake of some of the early Arab Spring protests in Syria, the Syrian government began to release hardline Islamist terrorists in the first of a series of official government amnesties. Decree No. 61, for example, issued in May 2011 covered "all members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other detainees belonging to political movements." Several of the terrorists released in these first amnesties went on to head Islamist extremist groups in Syria, including Hassan Abboud, a founder of Ahrar al-Sham; Zahran Alloush, the commander of Jaysh al-Islam; and Ahmad `Aisa al-Shaykh, the commander of Suqour al-Sham, as well as senior figures in ISIS such as Ali Musa al-Hawikh (aka Abu Luqman). Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat with Syria's foreign ministry who later defected to the opposition, told the Wall Street Journal in 2014 that "the fear of a continued, peaceful revolution is why these Islamists were released. The reasoning behind the jihadists, for Assad and the regime, is that they are the alternative to the peaceful revolution. They are organized with the doctrine of jihad and the West is afraid of them."

By housing the jihadists together in the notorious Sednaya prison before the rebellion, the regime effectively networked together formerly disparate and unconnected jihadists, who came to refer to themselves as Sednaya graduates. According to one released Sednaya jihadist, "when I was detained, I knew four or five or six, but when I was released I knew a hundred, or two or three hundred. I now had brothers in Hama and Homs and Daraa and many other places, and they knew me. It took only a few short weeks?weeks, not a month?for us, in groups of two or three, in complete secrecy, to start."

Beyond strategically and intentionally releasing jihadists from Syrian prisons, the Assad regime also frequently refrained from attacking ISIS positions. At times, the Assad regime and ISIS agreed to several evacuation deals, and sometimes the regime appeared to collude with ISIS in an effort to encourage the group to attack moderate rebels rather than the regime. In other cases, ISIS appeared to take actions favorable to Syrian government interests. For example, in July 2014, ISIS forces withdrew from the northern suburbs of Aleppo just as the Syrian regime was trying to outflank FSA forces in the city. The ISIS withdrawal enabled regime forces to take the city's northern suburbs without firing a shot and then outflank FSA forces in the city from three sides.

One reason the Assad regime may have elected not to target ISIS positions in Eastern Syria was the regime's business dealings with the organization. The U.S. State Department has stated unequivocally that "the Syrian regime has purchased oil from ISIS through various intermediaries, adding to the terrorist group's revenue." This started around 2014, when ISIS seized control of the Deir al-Zour region of Eastern Syria, and gained control of more than 60 percent of the country's oil fields, including Syria's largest, the al-Omar oil field. By September 2014, ISIS's daily income from oil from Iraqi and Syrian oil fields was estimated to total some $3 million a day, with sales of around 50,000 barrels a day in Syria alone.

Reports emerged in 2015 that the Islamic State was selling at least some of its oil to the Syrian government. According to the U.S. Treasury Department, in 2014 "ISIL may have earned as much as several million dollars per week, or $100 million in total, from the sale of oil and oil products to local smugglers who, in turn, sell them to regional actors, notably the Asad regime." In March 2015, the European Union blacklisted prominent Syrian businessperson George Haswani, explaining that "Haswani provides support and benefits from the regime through his role as a middleman in deals for the purchase of oil from ISIL by the Syrian regime." Meanwhile, according to a Financial Times investigation, there were reports that Haswani's company, HESCO, "sends ISIS 15m Syrian lira (about $50,000) every month to protect its equipment, which is worth several million dollars." Haswani's son denied this but confirmed that ISIS did, in fact, "partly" run the company's Tuweinan gas plant.

The Assad regime's business dealings with ISIS did not end with oil and gas, however. The regime also purchased and sold grain from areas under ISIS control. Samer Foz, a Syrian businessman blacklisted by the European Union in 2019 for providing financing and other support to the Assad regime, reportedly transported grain from Syrian government-controlled areas to territory controlled by ISIS. According to other reports, he also moved wheat from ISIS-controlled areas through Turkey into Syrian regime-controlled territory.

The Syrian regime also supported the financing of ISIS by allowing Syrian banks to continue to function and provide financial services within ISIS-held territory. In a report on ISIS financing issued in February 2015, the Financial Action Task Force?the multinational body that develops and promotes policies to counter illicit financial activities?found that "more than 20 Syrian financial institutions with operations in ISIS-held territory" continued to do business there. Moreover, these bank branches remained "connected to their headquarters in Damascus; and some of them may maintain links to the international financial system."

The Assad regime also looked the other way and allowed ISIS to conduct financial transactions through informal financial networks, even once these illicit terror-financing channels were publicly exposed. For example, in April, September and November 2019, the U.S. Treasury Department designated a series of ISIS financial facilitators and money service businesses that had been enabling ISIS activities in Syria and beyond. But the Syrian government took no action against these publicly outed ISIS financial intermediaries, which continued to function unmolested.

The ISIS financial networks in question were not insignificant, making the Syrian government's decision not to act against them, even once their activities became public, all the more galling. They included, for example, the ISIS "general financial manager" Abd-al-Rahman Ali Husayn al-Ahmad al-Rawi, who according to information released in the Treasury Department press release announcing his designation in April 2019, "was one of a few individuals who provided ISIS significant financial facilitation into and out of Syria." Moreover, "Abd-al-Rahman had a hard-currency liquidity of several million dollars in Syria. He served as ISIS's general financial manager, and prior to his relocation to Turkey, he traveled around Syria on behalf of the group."

The territorial defeat of ISIS, coupled with the relative increase of the Syrian regime's strength, means the group's utility to Damascus has largely run its course. ISIS cells primarily attacked regime-aligned forces in the Badia (the Syrian desert) in 2020, regime forces have carried out operations targeting ISIS forces rather than letting them relocate as before, and the group has become even more reliant on illicit money service businesses in the region to transfer funds internationally.

While ISIS remains an insurgent threat in Iraq and Syria and a global threat as a terrorist network, it no longer controls significant territory and the risk it poses is a fraction of what it once was. But there is no clear global coalition?political or military?to address the threat posed by the Assad regime, which has killed exponentially more people than ISIS, facilitated the group's terrorist activities, and caused population displacement, migration flows, and tremendous regional instability. The international community stepped up to the challenge of ISIS, but it has failed miserably to address the multifaceted challenges presented by the Assad regime, let alone address the calamity that is the Assad regime itself.


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