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Michael Jansen: The Raqqa consequences
April 23, 2018
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

While the West has focused on events in the Syrian town of Douma east of Damascus, Raqqa remains not only forgotten but snubbed. Raqqa, the capital city of the province of the same name, was occupied by Daesh in 2013. Raqqa was an historic city: it was the summer capital of the mighty Haroun Al Rashid, the eighth century caliph of the golden era of the Abbasid empire. Raqqa had a population of 400,000 before the conflict which has wreaked havoc in Syria. Before its conquest by Al Qaeda’s Jabhat Al Nusra and the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army and subsequent takeover by Daesh, an additional 50,000 Syrians displaced by fighting had taken refuge in Raqqa, which had been declared a neutral city.

Today Raqqa is a wreck. Only Raqqawis and journalists take its state seriously. The Washington Post’s Tamer El-Ghobashy and Alice Martins are among the latest correspondents to visit the city and describe the devastation wrought by the US and its partners when blasting Daesh occupiers. They quote Fatima Mahmoud, a resident of a displaced persons camp far from Raqqa, as saying, “My city has been liberated, but I can’t live in it.”

Another Raqqawi quoted in the Post article asked, “Was this devastation and death worth it?.. We suffered under [Daesh] but we’re suffering more from this American liberation.” He lost seven members of his family and his restaurant business due to US airstrikes.

So much for liberation by the liberals of the west. It closely resembles the liberation of Ramadi, Falluja, and western Mosul by by US-backed Iraqi forces and some districts of Homs and eastern Aleppo liberated by the Syrian army and its allies. Liberation by war generally amounts to devastation.

However, six months after liberation, Raqqa remains a catastrophe. Rubble still entombs corpses. While 300 have been recovered, another 6,000 are reported to still be buried under collapsed buildings. Explosives planted by Daesh lurk in homes. Debris clogs streets. There is no running water or electricity. The Post’s team concluded that “the United States wrecked the city but it unwilling to take responsibility for putting it back together.”

This is precisely what happened in Iraq where Sunnis driven from Daesh-held cities continue to live as displaced persons, explosives remain in ruins, and public services have not been restored. The UN has provided aid in rebuilding to several hundred of the tens of thousands of families who have returned to smashed and torched homes. In some cases, they have paid to have their properties demined.

The Post’s team reports 11,000 buildings in Raqqa were “destroyed, severely damaged or moderately damaged between February and October 2017” during US aerial bombardment. While an estimated $60 million has already been invested in what the US calls “stabilisation” across the whole of northern Syria not just Raqqa, Donald Trump has frozen $200 million – an inadequate sum – pledged to “stabilise” areas in Syria where US forces were responsible for devastation. Having “broken” Raqqa, the US is not interested in “fixing” the city.

The focus of Washington’s Kurdish allies in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who served as ground troops during Raqqa’s liberation is not Raqqa, an Arab city, but Kurdish majority areas along the Syrian frontier with Turkey which are under challenge from Ankara. The chief Kurdish component of the SDF is seen by Turkey an as offshoot of the Turkish Kurdish Workers’ Party which has been fighting the Turkish army for Kurdish rights since 1984.

While Arab residents have been appointed to Raqqa’s local council, the Kurds, who did not join jihadi or rebel efforts to oust Syria’s government, remain the dominant party. Some have suggested they should ask Damascus to return to power since the government has made a serious effort to demine, clear bodies and rubble, and reconnect services to recovered areas in eastern Aleppo, Homs, and elsewhere.

The Syrian government has every reason to exert efforts to restore war-devastated areas. This shows Damascus regards itself responsible for the country and its well-being. Reconstruction means thousands of the estimated six million displaced within Syria can return to their homes or, at least, former areas of residence. Some 600,000 are estimated to have returned to eastern Aleppo over the past 15 months. Displaced families from Raqqa and other areas have also settled in eastern Aleppo. The latest influx of displaced people come from the Turkish-occupied Afrin enclave which has been ethnically cleansed of 137,000 Kurdish inhabitants.

In early March 2017, The Gulf Today visited eastern Aleppo, evacuated by insurgents at the end of 2016. Bomb disposal teams had been at work. Rubble had been cleared from the streets. Thousands of civilians had returned. Huge red containers had been set up in neighbourhoods where people could collect water. In mid-January children had gone back to more than 20 schools reopened by UNICEF. Vendors were selling fruit and vegetables on street corners, some shops had opened, and buildings were being repaired by owners. Although the government does not have funds to aid individuals or families in reconstruction, it provides security and services to enable them to resettle in home districts and reclaim disrupted lives.

This was true also in the Old City of Homs, liberated in 2014, where water and power have been restored “24/7” as Homsis say, and an increasing number of buildings are being rebuilt.

Reconstruction is, of course, taking place while the war continues to rage with no prospect of ending because the powers involved in proxy wars have not ended their struggle for possession of Syria.

When this correspondent pointed out to a Beiruti couple that Damascus and Homs now have round-the-clock electricity while Lebanon, 27 years after its civil war ended, still suffers long power cuts, compelling residents to rely on expensive neighbourhood generators, my friends replied, “Ah, but Syria has a government, Lebanon doesn’t.”
The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East
affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict

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