From IS-controlled Raqqa, tales of the group's resilience

The jihadis of the Islamic State beheaded another hostage on video this weekend in Syria, as the US and other western states vowed to destroy the group. But the militants are well dug in.

Islamic State militants celebrating after seizing Syria's Tabqa airbase near Raqqa in August.

In a hospital bed in southern Turkey, lies a Syrian volunteer rescue worker who had his kneecap blown off in an airstrike in Raqqa, the Syrian bastion of the self-styled Islamic State (IS).

His story - and that of others who have made their out of Raqqa - sheds light on what life is like under the group's rule, and of how difficult it will be for a US-led coalition that President Barack Obama insists will "destroy" IS to make headway with airstrikes alone. The Syrian government's use of airpower so far, according to survivors, has killed many civilians while leaving the jihadi group largely unscathed.

“The situation in Raqqa is tragic,” says a pale Zakharia, in pain after several operations on his knee and a fractured right arm. “The hospitals are out of supplies. It is hard for people to leave Raqqa and flee to Turkey. We don’t have the means to house and feed ourselves here. The nearest border crossing is closed.”

Zakharia was allowed to cross into Turkey via the usually-sealed Akcakale border gate due to his critical state. But for members of IS, access to healthcare in NATO member Turkey doesn't appear restricted. The group has established control of smuggling routes between Syria’s Tal Abyad and Ackakale in Turkey over the past month. Just a few doors down from Zakharia a wounded IS fighter is being treated in a private room.

The Syrian regime has ramped up its campaign against IS-strongholds like Raqqa in a bid to convince the West that it is a vital partner in the campaign to eradicate IS militants. But Raqqa residents and activists say that the majority of those killed in regime attacks have been civilians. 

“From mid-August until today, we’ve documented more than 150 air strikes and 10 scud missile attacks against Raqqa Province,” says Syrian activist Abu Ibrahim, who fled the country due to a crackdown on his network, which documents atrocities committed by IS.

“Almost all the casualties are civilians,” he says, asking that his real name not be used. He's a member of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, which estimates that 225 people have been killed in regime strikes in Raqqa the past month.

By all accounts, the regime’s bombing of Raqqa City began after IS militants seized Tabqa Airport. The battle for the base reached its climax on August 24 in one of the bloodiest direct confrontations between IS fighters and troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Tabqa represented the regime’s last foothold in the area.

Local activist says the Islamic State killed 400 regime captives on August 28 in three separate executions, one of them held as a rite of passage for new IS fighters. While shaky video footage posted online and witness testimony appears to support this claim, lack of access limits what can be verified.

“Before the regime would come once a week and strike. Now they are doing five to seven sorties in a single day,” says Abu Ahmed, a resident of Raqqa who moved to Akcakale this month with his wife and childre after a regime air strike claimed the lives of his neighbors, a family of five. 

Dying every day

“Every day a plane comes and people die but no one knows about it because (IS) forbids filming,” says Umm Ali as she arranges a colorful hijab and a set of beads on her youngest daughter. “Now that the regime has lost all its bases in Raqqa, they are hitting left, right and center. They don’t care what they hit.”

One of the worst strikes in Raqqa City came on September 6 in Tal Abyad Street, where residents shop for vegetables. The attack hit IS-run Al-Andalous Bakery and killed more than 50 civilians, according to a toll compiled by a local activist group.

The attack wounded 15 members of the Islamic State, according to the same source. But regime-issued reports and tolls compiled by the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights paint a different picture. The Observatory says nine Islamic State activists were killed and that some of its buildings were hit.

Raqqa, a city of half a million people on the banks of the Euphrates River, has been largely off limits to journalists since the Islamic State took over earlier this year.

The militant group has beheaded two American journalists, James Foley and Steve Sotloff, and murdered UK aid worker David Haines this weekend. In their videotaped murder of Mr. Haines, IS threatened British hostage Alan Henning with the same fate.

Who's to blame?

Many Syrians and foreign analysts blame the rise of the Islamic State on the Assad regime, which released high profile Sunni militants from its prisons at the start of the civil war and gave priority to fighting moderate groups over extremists. Damascus has sought to narrow the choices for the country: The regime or IS.

“The regime is trying to convince the Syrian opposition and its allies that it is fighting the Islamic State, when in reality everything that the regime has done benefited the Islamic State,” says Youssef Daais, 45, a journalist from Raqqa now based in Turkey.

“Assad wants the West to believe he is the only one tackling Daash (IS). If this happens, the next stage will be even worse,” he says. “The issue is deeply linked with the fall of the regime. If the United States is serious about tackling terrorism then they must tackle Assad because he is the root of this whole crisis.”

President Obama on Wednesday outlined his strategy to eradicate the group, heralding a new phase of US involvement in Syria to complement efforts to squash IS militants in Iraq. A senior US defense official who asked not to be identified says that the military is “ready to conduct direct action against (IS) targets in Syria.”

The timing of such action remains unclear but what appear to be US surveillance drones have been sighted in Raqqa this week. For its part, the Islamic State is said to be taking no chances. The group has evacuated its family members from the city to the outskirts, according to activists and residents. The Odessa Hotel, said to be housing IS families, was also emptied in a narrow escape from a regime hit.

Hundreds of Syrians fleeing IS held areas cross into Turkey at the border gate of Kilis. Those from Raqqa say the 200-mile journey now takes 17 hours zigzagging across back roads to avoid clashes around Aleppo. Families with valid documents face long wait times and must register their entry a day in advance. The rest turn to smugglers. The trip costs a minimum of $100 per person to cross and carries the risk of being turned back or fired on if caught by Turkish troops

The prospect of US air strikes is a source of both dread and hope for many Syrians who are living in or fleeing IS-controlled areas. “Please, please tell them to focus their strikes on their bases, not to hit civilian areas,” a man living in Tal Abyad whispered in a phone interview.  

Glad for US help?

Not everyone wants to see IS defeated. A woman covered in black at the Kilis border gate rejects the idea of US strikes wholeheartedly. “This is a war on Islam. If it was not a war on Islam, the US would have stepped in to save Muslims in Syria a long time ago,” she roars.

Many others welcomed the shift in US policy – hopeful that strikes would be surgical and pave the way for a respite form the arbitrary bombings of the Assad regime. A new arrival from Raqqa, a young man in a striped t-shirt and sunglasses, brims with optimism.

“Let them hit, let them hit and let us be done with these problems,” he says.

A man in his forties who made the same journey was quick to admonish him: “You want Syria to become like Iraq? Have you even seen what became of Afghanistan?”

The young man broke into a broad smile and said: “Maybe third time lucky.”

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