Sarah Birke writes: In late November, there were widespread reports that both the US-led coalition and the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus have stepped up their bombing campaign against the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, in eastern Syria. The jihadist organization has long been secretive about where its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and other senior members are based — locals say they move around between Iraq and Syria — but Raqqa is often referred to as the “capital” of ISIS’s self-declared caliphate, and has become its most emblematic city.
To judge from images distributed by the group, Raqqa is an extremist hotbed whose inhabitants crave a radical version of Islam, enjoy public executions, and fervently support their ruthless black-clad overlords; the beheading of James Foley — and of several of the other hostages — was filmed on a hill in its outskirts. Yet there is little about this provincial center of some 500,000 people that might have suggested jihadist or even Islamist tendencies. In fact, Raqqa did not even enter the Syrian conflict until 2013.
Living in Damascus before the war, I had several occasions to visit Raqqa, and I was struck by how ordinary it was. A dusty place far from the country’s other major cities, it offered few amenities and most Syrians complained about it, if they chanced to visit. It was true that the local population, a mixture of tribes and settled Bedouins, were almost entirely Sunni Muslim, but unlike such eastern cities as Hama and Aleppo it didn’t have a tradition of Islamist activism. As a resident of al-Tabqa, a town near Raqqa with a Syrian air base that was captured by ISIS in August, put it: “The irony is we were famous for not praying!”
But Raqqa’s substantial size, location, and relative remove from the main areas of conflict have been critical to ISIS’s aim of creating a large and highly centralized state. The group holds territory that now extends from the outskirts of Aleppo in Syria’s west to Iraq’s Iranian border in the east, from the Syrian-Turkish border in the north down through Iraq’s Anbar province to six miles outside of Baghdad in the south. Although its forces have been pushed back, slowly, from Kobane, on the Syrian-Turkish border, they have also won land elsewhere, including at Heet and Ramadi in Iraq, despite US-led bombardment. [Continue reading…]