Islamic State: Why family fled capital of the caliphate for 'land of infidels'

Syrians are finding it increasingly difficult to leave Raqqa, but airstrikes and inflation make life hard. Even those who side with the jihadists are ready to flee.

Rodi Said/Reuters/File
Displaced people, fleeing violence in Aleppo city and from Islamic State-controlled areas in Raqqa and Deir al-Zor, wait at a school in al-Mabroukeh village in the western countryside of Ras al-Ain, Syria December 28, 2015. The displaced people are gathered at the school to await sponsorship by residents before they can be registered by Kurdish security forces and allowed into Kurdish-controlled areas.

The sermon’s thundering reproach hit on what residents of Raqqa, Syria, capital of the Islamic State’s self-described caliphate, say is a recurring theme at Friday prayers: “migration.”

“Don’t you know the dangers endured and the price our holy warriors pay to come here, the heart of the caliphate? And you? You want to go the land of infidels,” the IS preacher said, according to six Syrian siblings who fled in January.

It was the last sermon they heard, say the siblings, who made their way to Turkey with the help of a complex chain of smugglers. 

“IS picks up on the chatter on the street so they know people want to leave the ‘land of Islam’ for the ‘land of infidels,’” says the eldest, Hamza.

Leaving Raqqa has become increasingly difficult and expensive, but many Syrians are still making the journey to Turkey. They are tired of the jihadists’ draconian decrees, but also of rising prices and a life under constant bombing, which has made life difficult even for those who have preferred IS rule to that of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“Of course they know people are leaving IS areas,” says Hamza, a 28-year-old construction worker now working as a tailor in the outskirts of Istanbul. “They are lining their pockets with commissions from the smugglers.”

But Qayss, his brother, who still sports a longish beard in line with the dictates of the terrorist group, interjects, furious at the hint of IS corruption.

“As long as you respect their boundaries, their presence is better than the alternative, definitely better than the regime,” he says, sullenly. “Most IS members wouldn’t dare steal or take bribes, if not out of fear of God, out of fear of their commanders.”

The bottom line

The brothers – who requested to use pseudonyms for their safety – run the spectrum of views when it comes to IS. Hamza is the most critical of the group. Adnan says he started to hate them after a foreign jihadi fighter pulled a gun on him to get ahead in a ridiculously short bakery line.

Like a meticulous accountant, Amer weighs the perceived positives, which includes the closure of brothels and the reintroduction of Islamic dress and prayer, against all the negatives. The youngest, Qayss and Omar, still view them kindly.

But they all concur that life in Raqqa was untenable. In the end, they say, the arbitrary airstrikes of Syrian and Russian forces, coupled with inflation and lack of jobs, spurred them to leave. 

“When IS first came, 80 percent of the population was happy, 20 percent was not,” says Amer. “Now it is the opposite because of the excessive pressure they put on the population.

For their sister, a reprieve

“In the beginning everyone could go anywhere, even women as long as they had a male escort,” he says. “Today even men aren’t allowed to leave IS territory except under very special circumstances, such as seeking medical treatment.”

The brothers say they stayed in Raqqa as long as they did largely because their father was sick with lymphoma and wanted to die in his land, which he did in December. He received treatment in regime-controlled areas, but all the back and forth, coupled with medical care for Qayss after he got into a serious car accident, dried up their savings.

They spent the last of their money on smugglers and are now trying to work to save up and make the journey to Europe, although it would mean being further away from their mother and another brother who decided to stay put in Raqqa.

Their sister, Hanan, is the happiest in Turkey. Failure to observe proper attire in Raqqa earned her a fine of 4,000 Syrian pounds as well as 30 lashes for the brother who came to collect her. Going to the market to get fruits and vegetables is once again a pleasure, as is again being able to access Internet and watch satellite TV.

“As a fully veiled woman in Raqqa, you can’t even see where you are going,” she says, relaxing at home in leopard pajamas. “IS will pick on you for anything, plus you are in a state of constant fear of being bombed.”

Skyrocketing inflation

The prices of fruit and vegetables, the family says, witnessed a five-fold increase because prices are pegged to the dollar and IS insists certain fines be paid in gold. When they left, a gallon of cooking gas was selling to IS members for 1,100 Syrian pounds, or $3, whereas Syrians were paying at least six times as much on the black market.

By late January, gasoline  cost 650 Syrian pounds per liter; diesel fuel costs 150  pounds per liter, while a gallon of cooking gas had reached 10,000 Syrian pounds, according to a resident still living there.

Leaving Raqqa has also become prohibitively expensive. The journey to Turkey used to cost 15,000 Syrian pounds, including the fee for the cross-border smuggler. Now, a minimum of six smugglers might be involved in the journey from IS areas to Syrian regions controlled by Arab or Kurdish rebels and onward to Turkey.

In the siblings’ case, the journey added up to 125,000 Syrian pounds per person – $325 or the equivalent of at least three months of construction work.

To reach Turkey the family first journeyed to Manbij, an IS-controlled town in the northern province of Aleppo, hid in a chicken coop overnight, and then hiked seven kilometers to the nearest checkpoints held by rebels linked to the opposition Free Syrian Army.

Can Raqqa be liberated?

“The first person in the smuggling chain doesn’t know the last,” explains Adnan. “At every stage the smuggler is a local who advises you where to say you are going at checkpoints to sound credible.”

For others the journey can drag out longer. For the family of Abu Zahra, natives of a small village in Raqqa Province, the journey to Turkey took 16 days. Abu Zahra says he decided to leave IS-controlled territory because two militants had set eyes on his 20- and 18 year-old daughters and he worried that his son would be conscripted to fight with the group, which some of his own relatives have joined already.

“When my cousin gave birth in Raqqa, IS fighters were thrilled because they had a new “mujahid,” or holy warrior, he recalls. “The Syrian people are caught between two fires: the regime and IS. If the regime of Bashar al-Assad fell, I am certain people would have the courage to kick them out.”

That’s a scenario that Hamza and his brothers simply rule out. The fall of the IS-controlled city of Ramadi in Iraq coupled with the proximity of Kurdish factions to the self-styled capital of the caliphate may have raised hopes that the “liberation of Raqqa” is feasible, but people there are too terrified and oppressed to revolt.

“If conditions continue to worsen there is a small chance that people will rise up, but it is truly tiny because everyone is terrified,” says Adnan. “Anyone against them is an infidel. For IS, beheading someone is as simple and easy as saying hello.”

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