ISIL militants and civilians flee Raqqa ahead of expected US-backed assault
AIN ISSA, SYRIA // ISIL militants are fleeing Raqqa ahead of an expected US-backed assault, according to residents who said they took advantage of the reduced militant presence to also leave the city.
Four hundred families from Raqaa arrived last week at a camp for displaced people in Ain Issa, in territory that is controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces.
The US-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias launched a campaign to retake Raqqa in November and are now fighting ISIL at Tabqa dam, site of Syria’s biggest dam about 55 kilometres upstream on the Euphrates river.
Raqqa residents said fears over the expected assault had been reaching fever pitch and rumours that the Tabqa dam would collapse and flood the city had sparked further panic.
“The hisbah [religious police] announced over megaphones, ‘the land of Muslims will be flooded, the Tabqa dam has collapsed,’” said Mohammad Mahmoud, 38.
“It’s hell there. Fear rules over everything,” he said as he smoked a cigarette, a vice ISIL banned when they captured Raqqa in 2014.
Mr Mahmoud, his brother and both their families paid $1,000 (Dh3,670) to a smuggler and fled Raqqa last week.
“I was so afraid, I couldn’t think straight,” he said, his face lined with exhaustion, his clothes covered in dust.
He hovered protectively around his elderly mother in a wheelchair, its wheels caked in mud after their 14-hour trek out of Raqqa.
The camp in Ain Issa where he and his family have found shelter is home to several thousand Syrians displaced by war. Children walked between tents emblazoned with the logo of the UN refugee agency, clutching sandwiches and water bottles. Inside tents, men waited for their turn to have the beards ISIL ordered them to grow shaved off. At the entrance to the camp, Kurdish police units, known as Asayesh, searched new arrivals.
“ISIL is finished now. Most of its fighters fled to Mayadeen or Albu Kamal,” Mr Mahmoud said. The two towns are in the oil-rich eastern province of Deir Ezzor, most of which is under ISIL control.
Ahmad, a Raqqa resident in his fifties, said residents seized the opportunity to flee when they saw ISIL fighters leave.
“We were no longer afraid to flee Raqqa like before, because ISIL fighters were less and less visible,” he said, his six children perched atop suitcases packed with their belongings.
Ahmad said the militants had abandoned most of their checkpoints, built tunnels around the city and reinforced their positions with sandbags.
He said the journey to Ain Issa was traumatic for his family.
“We were so terribly afraid of the air strikes, that the coalition might think we are ISIL fighters,” he said.
“Daesh is afraid of the assault on Raqqa,” said a 25-year-old man who asked to use the pseudonym of Zuhair.
“Many of their fighters fled with their families on motorbikes and there are fewer and fewer checkpoints,” he said.
But even as the extremists left Raqqa, “they warned residents ‘not to go to the infidels’,” said Zuhair, who still has relatives trapped in the city of 300,000 residents.
“I don’t know what happened to them,” he said.
Zuhair said he was jailed and lashed by extremists several times for selling tobacco in defiance of an ISIL ban.
“But if I hadn’t taken the risk, I couldn’t have fed my family,” he said, crouched near his year-old daughter Qamar.
Jilal Al Ayyaf, who runs the camp in Ain Issa, said he was bracing for an influx of displaced people as the SDF press their advance.
“The more the noose tightens [around ISIL], the more displaced people we’ll get,” he said.
* Agence France-Presse