Photo: BULENT KILIC/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

Six days in Raqqa: inside the battle for Islamic State’s last major stronghold

Suddenly there was a buzzing overhead, followed by two loud explosions. It was an IS drone, dropping grenades.

The first time I crossed into an Islamic State wasteland was in February 2015. Kobane was a northern Syrian city only half in ruins and not completely abandoned, but still the monochrome landscape felt like it belonged to older, greater wars.

Islamic State (IS) had made its last stand in the east of the city, close to the border with Turkey. The craters from the US-led coalition’s air strikes were as deep as the houses they had destroyed. In the cold winter air, blankets and fabric hung stiffly across the streets: screens to protect against snipers. There was so much destruction – 360 degrees of ruin, layer upon layer – that your eye struggled to take it all in. Among the dust and rubble, you searched for signs of life as it was before the final onslaught: a mangled bicycle, a photograph, the boot on a dead militant’s foot.

More than two and a half years later, we still call IS fighters “militants”, but in its wake the group has left a trail of destruction worthy of an army. And as bad as it was, what happened in Kobane was only the beginning. Much worse was to come.

IS had already established a pattern of warfare that would become familiar elsewhere: the tunnels, the snipers, the car and suicide bombs, the civilians used as shields and as bait, and the coalition’s overwhelming air power that would finish off the fighters when ground forces could go no further. Always with IS, there were innovations, smart new tricks to kill or maim, effective enough to hold off its enemy that little bit longer. In Kobane, it was the tunnels. In Mosul, IS’s main base in Iraq, which was liberated in July, it was the use of drones to drop grenades. Now, in Raqqa, which before the war was Syria’s sixth-largest city, it is motion sensors attached to home-made bombs. Each battle contains a surprise. And with each battle, the carnage grows and the rubble mounts.

A soldier of the SDF receives first aid in Raqqa in August, left, and a gun propped up on the front line in the west of the city. Photos: Moruck Umnaber/DPA 

In Raqqa, it appears that the entire city has been sacrificed to the war against IS. The terror group’s last major stronghold – the capital of the so-called caliphate declared by the group’s spokesman, Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, on 29 June 2014, then publicly announced by its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, at the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, Iraq, a few days later – looks from above as if it is being erased from the map. “Raqqa has paid the price for all the world, for Britain, for Germany… Raqqa citizens paid the price with the destruction of their city,” Ismail al-Ali, a local engineer, told me.

He was standing in his white dishdasha and apologised for its worn and dirty condition. Around him was nothing but shattered homes. All were missing windows and doors. Some were missing walls. There was no running water or electricity.

“Buildings, schools, hospitals – all the city is gone. Now children are without education. People are in a very bad situation, they are hungry,” said Ali. “But we need only one thing: the reconstruction of Raqqa.”

But he was not in Raqqa. He was in the nearby town of Tabqa, with thousands of other former Raqqa residents. In the six days I spent inside Raqqa in September, I did not see a single civilian. The only sound was of gunfire and explosions.

***

Most people have already left the ancient city on the banks of the Euphrates River that was once home to as many as half a million people. But some 20,000 are trapped in parts of the city still controlled by IS. Surrounded by mined streets and at risk from sniper fire, few dare to escape.

Raqqa is a no man’s land. Most of its buildings have been destroyed. Across the skyline at night, you barely see a single light. It is a city fit for none – except fighters.

The Western-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were created to destroy IS. They are mainly a Kurdish force, drawn from a socialist militia called the People’s Protection Units, or YPG. In Raqqa, they are joined by Arab tribes from Syria, which the Western coalition say have made a significant difference in the fight against IS.

Abu Abdo is a short, pencil-thin Arab commander. He chews his beard when concentrating, as he peers down at his smartphone. It is a gift from the Americans – and for this lightly armed force, the phone is its deadliest weapon. His men fight in sandals, and few have a formal uniform or body armour. Their weapons are old, Chinese-made AK-47s, the stocks held together with adhesive tape. Abu Abdo’s phone, though, has the power to deliver air strikes.

I stood with him in the cover of a bombed-out shop near the centre of Raqqa. IS still holds about eight square kilo­metres of the city. This is its last holdout, its last stand. Crucially, its snipers control the rooftops.

Around the corner, bleeding from a chest wound, was one of Abu Abdo’s men, a 21-year-old fighter from Manbij, northern Syria, called Nadin Abu Aziz. But Abu Abdo couldn’t get close. When his soldiers approached the injured man, an unseen IS gunman fired off shots. Using the cover of debris and burned-out vehicles, the SDF fighters crept closer to their fallen colleague. There was a buzzing overhead, followed by two loud explosions that filled the street with dust and rattled the shutters of the abandoned shops. It was an IS drone, dropping grenades. The SDF fighters retreated, looking for cover, fearing another attack from IS’s improvised miniature air force.

Abu Abdo returned to his phone. He had identified the building from which the sniper was firing and located it on a map. We waited half an hour, taking cover in the street, while the sniper fired occasional shots. Then a whoosh, and a boom, and the top of the building and the sniper were gone as the air strike hit.

Nadin Abu Aziz was carried from the street by a young fighter who was wearing a blue top and a small silver crucifix around his neck. The injured man was limp, his eyes closed. He was rushed to a field hospital but his comrades knew the truth. He was dead.

The terror and desperation of the last three hours were replaced by numbness. The men crouched down, dazed. They drank water and stared into the distance, their faces shiny with sweat and effort.

The young fighter with the blue top, barely older than a boy, stood dumbstruck, his eyes wide, his mouth open. He reached under his top and kissed his crucifix.

How many days have you had like this? I asked Abu Abdo.

“It’s every day. Yesterday,” he said, pointing to his head, “we were supposed to receive some civilians and one of us was killed, shot in the head. We went to help families and babies. That was yesterday.”

IS fighters had disguised themselves as civilians to lure his men into a trap.

“But we’ll keep going, and we will sacrifice our blood for Raqqawis [the people of Raqqa] and our people inside… because they are having a tough time, a really tough time.”

***

It is not just IS that is causing pain in Raqqa. In August, some 5,775 coalition bombs and shells hit the city, according to the monitoring group Airwars. In comparison, the Western coalition dropped little more than 500 munitions across all of Afghanistan during the same period.

Airwars claims that the bombing resulted in at least 433 likely civilian casualties in Raqqa. That is more than the number killed by Russia, the Syrian regime, or IS.

The coalition disputes the figures and has confirmed only four civilian casualties. It claims to have conducted the most precise bombing campaign in history. As a witness, I can confirm that it does look like Western warplanes often hit their target; the problem is that there are so many targets.

IS, its ranks filled with foreign fighters, has used the Western bombing campaign for propaganda purposes. In one statement, the militants noted that 27 mosques in Raqqa had been destroyed by Western bombs. They did not mention, however, that many of those mosques had been turned into firing positions by their fighters. In one mosque, I saw a deep and wide tunnel that had been used to bring men and weaponry from nearby houses right into the middle of the prayer floor.

During my six days in the city, the pattern was repeated again and again. When SDF fighters were pinned down, artillery or air strikes were called in to eliminate the threat. The lightly armed militia is merely the tip of the spear against IS; the coalition knows that its overwhelming air power is the most effective weapon. So, street by street, house by house, Raqqa is being destroyed.

It was different in the battle for Mosul, IS’s capital in Iraq. There, the well-trained and well-equipped counterterrorism forces of the Iraqi army were able to retake buildings during ground fighting. Most of Mosul, besides its old city, remains intact. Life, which never left the city entirely, has quickly returned.

Mourners at a funeral for five SDF fighters in Kobane in July. Photo: Moruck Umnaber/DPA 

Um Sham and her six children escaped Raqqa two months ago. The end came when a bullet hit her six-year-old daughter, passed through her leg and hit an elder daughter. Both girls survived but the family fled and now lives in the ruins by the Tabqa Dam on the Euphrates River.

Islamic State’s rule was harsh and cruel but Raqqa’s population swelled after it took full control of the city in early 2014, as people sought sanctuary from Syria’s civil war. So did Um Sham blame the West or IS for the destruction?

“They are both as bad as each other, but the worst is Da’esh [IS] – it’s because of them that we have the air strikes. They killed and beheaded in public, and the children have seen this. They drowned people and beat people, and they stoned people. Most of our men were trembling… and then the air strikes came and made it worse,” she said.

Her husband, Khalil al-Khatab, agreed. “Life was hell. It’s a war of shelling, aircraft, artillery and rocket launchers, and endless destruction.” But, he said, they would return to the city as soon as possible.

Despite being weakened, IS launched a surprise counterattack in late September that caused chaos and casualties among the SDF forces in the east of the city. A decision to send the best Arab fighters from Raqqa to Deir ez-Zor must have weakened defences. In Deir ez-Zor, the SDF is fighting against IS, but just as importantly for its Western backers, it is trying to stop the Russian-backed, pro-regime advance. Syria’s civil war is continuing – and when the battle against IS ends, the fight for territory and control across the country will go on. Deir ez-Zor has valuable oilfields, and fighting there will shape the new Syria.

Most of the civilians who are still trapped in Raqqa remain in the centre, where the coalition has been sparing in its bombing campaign. It could be days, even a month, before the SDF has the confidence to move forward in a ground attack.

In Raqqa, as in Mosul before it, IS’s dream of an all-powerful caliphate is dead. In one offensive in the north of the city, I accompanied Kurdish fighters as they attempted to retake its grain silos. Every few hundred metres, there was another IS corpse. After the twelfth body, I stopped counting. I could smell many more rotting in the ruins.

Besides Mosul, IS has also been driven from Ramadi and Fallujah in Iraq and Sirte in Libya. And when Raqqa’s hospital and stadium are taken, the terror group will have lost its important territory in Syria, too. Then the battle will move along the Euphrates valley to Deir ez-Zor and to the towns of Mayadeen and Abu Kamal. IS’s leadership is relatively intact, however, and it can still carry out and inspire attacks on the West. The caliphate may be gone, but the idea of an Islamic state will not be bombed out of existence.

***

One night, after spending the day inside Raqqa, I returned to Kobane. It’s a four-hour drive, but it is safe there now and you can get a good meal and have a warm shower. The ruins I saw two years ago have gone, replaced by fresh cement and paint.

I sat and ate mutton kebabs and watched a floodlit football match. Much of the town has been rebuilt, the homes and shops have been restored, and the Kurds are even replanting trees along the city’s streets.

After the football, I sat and ate ice cream that tasted of burned pistachio and marvelled at how quickly life had returned to Kobane, a place where – for me, at least – the first full horrors of IS were made real. In Raqqa, where the destruction is so much greater, I fear it may take a lot longer.

Quentin Sommerville is the BBC’s Middle East correspondent

This article first appeared in the 12 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How May crumbled

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The gay Syrian refugees still living in limbo two years after making it to the UK

They still have no right to live and work in the UK, no permanent accommodation or means of financially supporting themselves. 

31-year-old Ahmed and his boyfriend Said* fled Syria in 2013, after the civil war intensified. They both headed to Turkey – where they first met – then moved on through Greece, Croatia and Western Europe. In December 2015, they completed their 4,500km, two-year journey and arrived in the UK.

When Ahmed and Said shared their story with the New Statesman two months later, the Home Office was still deliberating on whether to accept responsibility for their asylum claim. At the time, their lawyer feared plans were being made to deport the couple back to Croatia, where they’d previously been registered while incarcerated in a refugee camp. 

Eventually though, in November 2016, the Home Office officially agreed to process their claim. The decision to do so is one of the few positive developments in their situation since they arrived in the UK more than two years ago. Little else has changed.

They still have no right to live and work in the UK, no permanent accommodation or means of financially supporting themselves. They’re unable to engage in basic day-to-day functions, from owning a bank account to booking a cab through an app. They still have to keep their identity and status as a gay couple anonymous – a precaution in case they are made to return to Syria, or outed to intolerant family members. They continue to live in fear that they could be summoned and deported at any moment. It’s been two years in limbo.

“For everything here you need documents or a bank account,” says Ahmed. “We don't have an address because you need income. So the minimum of life requirements we cannot get. We're not asking for much. We're not asking for financial support, we're not asking for accommodation. Just give us the right and we will depend on ourselves. We will work. We will study. We will find accommodation. We will pay tax.”

Shortly after the couple arrived, they were given temporary accommodation in Rochdale and a weekly allowance of £35. With no right to legally work in the UK, this was all they had to survive on. And while the flat in Rochdale was the first place they had space to themselves, they were isolated from the reason they came to the UK in the first place: to be with the only friends they knew in Europe.  

“We couldn't stay there, we tried really hard,” says Ahmed. “At that time we were alone, completely alone, in Rochdale. We were living separately there was no one around us… we got depressed. We got stressed there. So we decided to move to come to London because we have a friend here who can support us, who can be with us.”

In May 2016 the couple moved in to the spare room of their friend’s Mayfair apartment. She had arrived from Syria six years ago on a student visa. In the time they’ve been in London they’ve tried, in vain, to prepare for work, readying themselves in case they are actually granted asylum. After another friend loaned them some money, Ahmed, a trained architect, took an animation course, while Said, a chef, took a course to improve his English. Said finished the first level, but wasn’t allowed back to complete the next module without a passport. Ahmed stopped the animation course after running out of money from their friend’s loan.

Moving in with their friend may have bettered their living conditions, but it proved detrimental to their financial situation. The small sum they received from the Home Office stopped when they moved out of the accommodation in Rochdale. The Home Office claims this was due to the fact they were no longer classed as destitute.  The few friends they do now have in London have often had to loan them money or lend them essentials, like clothes. With no money and little to keep them occupied during the day, the limbo they’ve found themselves in has taken its toll on their mental health.

“Most of the time we get depressed because we don't have money to do anything,” says Ahmed. “You can't work, you can't study…you can't imagine how you feel when you spend your days doing nothing. Just nothing. Nothing useful in your life. Nothing. Can you imagine the depression you get?”

Though their friend has helped over the last year or so – giving them the place rent-free and providing them with food – she is now selling the apartment. They have four weeks to find new accommodation. If they don’t they’ll be homeless. The stress has caused Said’s hair to start falling out and he now has a plum-sized bald patch on the back of his head.

“If any country can accept us we would go back,” says Said. “But Turkey can't accept us. Syria can't accept us. Croatia can't accept us. So no one needs us. Where we can go? What are the options we have?”

The Home Office officially began processing the couple’s asylum claim in November 2016, and stated it aimed to make a decision by 27th May 2017. According to its own guidelines, claims should be processed within six months. Ahmed and Said have been waiting more than a year.

On 11 September 2017 they received a letter from the Home Office via their legal representatives at the Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit, an organisation which provides free advice and representation predominantly through the legal aid scheme. The letter apologised for the fact their asylum claim had taken longer than six months to process. It went on to say that they would be invited for a “substantive asylum interview within 14-18 weeks with a decision to follow 8 to 12 weeks after.” More than 22 weeks later, the couple are still waiting an invitation.

“When they didn't [invite them to an asylum interview], we threatened them with a judicial review again,” says Ryan Bestford, an immigration lawyer at the unit, who has been working with the couple. In Ahmad’s case, the judicial review – an application to a higher court which seeks a review of a government decision - would look for an order forcing the Home Office to interview him. “In response to our [judicial review] threat, they then claimed that they will interview Ahmed within 10 weeks.”

The letter to their lawyers also states that there are many reasons why a claim may take longer than six months. According to the Home Office “further internal enquiries in relation to your client’s asylum claim were being made,” hence the delay in Ahmed and Said’s case. No additional information for the delay was provided.

According to a recent report in the Guardian, claims are often classified as complicated or non-standard by the Home Office to excuse the UK Visa and Immigration Unit from processing claims within six months. Ahmed and Said’s lawyer scoffs at the notion their case is complex.

"This case is not complicated," says Bestford. "They are from Syria and even the UK government accepts that the situation in that country is so bad that all Syrians are entitled to refugee status. In addition they are gay. This case is straightforward."

Bestford has been working with the couple since January 2016, when the Home Office wanted to return them to Croatia, despite the fact the Croatian government had made it clear that they did not want them. As LGBT asylum seekers, Ahmed and Said are an especially vulnerable group. Said is also HIV positive, and when the Home Office consider his application to asylum they’ll need to consider his ability to access treatment.

Such vulnerabilities are no guarantee of asylum. According to a Home Office report published in November 2017, 3,535 asylum applications were made on the basis of sexual orientation, 2,379 of which were rejected. Just 838 were approved.

"They should have been granted refugee status a long time ago," says Bestford. "I have no idea what the reason for the delay is. But it certainly cannot be the complexity of the case. If the Home office are saying that it is because of the complexity of the case – they are not fit for purpose."

As well as support from the few friends they have in the UK, they’ve also found an ally in Lord Paul Scriven, the Lords spokesperson for international LGBT rights. He highlighted the plight of the couple in July last year, in a speech which raised concerns about the detention of LGBT asylum seekers and the systemic delays in processing asylum claims.

“I am both bewildered and surprised that [Ahmed] and [Said]* are still waiting for their case to be dealt with and them been granted right to stay,” says Scriven. “I have written to the Home Office and made it clear it is totally unacceptable and needs now to be dealt with as a matter of urgency.

“As in many cases the reason for this delay lies at the door of the Home Office and the way in which they deal with cases of asylum for people claiming on the grounds of their sexuality or gender identity.  In many cases this slow and cold approach is all too common by the Home Office.”

Ahmed has contacted the UK Visa and Immigration Unit helpline to try and seek temporary accommodation. He is still waiting to hear back from them. For now the couple’s situation is no clearer; but with impending homelessness it’s certainly more desperate.

They arrived in the UK eager to work and excited about the possibility of living openly as two gay men. They arrived brimming with ideas for what a new start could look like. The last two years have taught them to abandon any forward planning and to avoid imagining a life where they have been granted asylum.

“I can't plan anymore,” says Ahmed. “All our plans have disappeared…we thought we escaped from the war…we thought we're gonna start again. We thought there's justice here. We thought there are human rights. But nothing exists. There's no justice. There's no fair. There are no human rights. They treat us like animals. The dogs live better than us here.”

Close to defeat, Ahmed and Said have discussed one final alternative. “Or I go back to Syria,” says Ahmed. He swiftly disregards any concerns about the conflict and his identity as a gay man. “I prefer to die there at least with my family in my country. Better than dying here alone. “

In a statement provided to the New Statesman, a Home Office spokesperson said:

“The UK has a proud history of granting asylum to those who need our protection.

“An asylum case that does not get decided within 6 months is usually one classed as a non-straightforward asylum case. These cases are usually not possible to decide within 6 months for reasons outside of our control.

“Asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute are supported with free accommodation and a weekly cash allowance for each person in the household. This is available until their asylum claims and  any appeals are finally determined or they decide they do not require Government support.”

*names have been changed

This article first appeared in the 12 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How May crumbled