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Case Analysis 24 March, 2013

Does the fall of al-Raqqa constitute a turning point in the Syrian Revolution?

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The Unit for Political Studies

The Unit for Political Studies is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Unit for Policy Studies draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Situation Assessment, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 


As of March 2013, Syrian opposition forces have gained control over the city of al-Raqqa, located in the northeastern part of Syria, making it the first provincial capital to fall outside the control of the Syrian regime. By capturing the city of al-Raqqa, the province (an area of 19620 km2, constituting about 10.6 percent of the total area of Syria, with a population of 921,000) becomes almost entirely outside the control of the Syrian regime-with the exception of the 17th military division's headquarters and the Tabaqa military airport. For the first time throughout the course of the Syrian revolution, the rebels were able to apprehend the provincial governor, the head of the al-Raqqa Arab Socialist Baath party branch, the foremost provincial field commander, and al-Raqqa's police chief.

The recent developments in the city of al-Raqqa have elicited broad political and journalistic interest, leading to questions such as: Does the city's fall create a turning point in the ongoing conflict to overthrow the Syrian regime? Does it replicate the Benghazi experience during the Libyan revolution? To what extent is there the possibility for a limited military intervention in order to establish a buffer zone in the province? This paper attempts to shed light on the importance of the fall of al-Raqqa within the context of the current military and political developments. Furthermore, this paper attempts to identify the factors that enabled the rebels' control of the city.

 

Al-Raqqa in the Syrian Revolution

The al-Raqqa province is located in the peripheral regions in Syria, about 370 kilometers away from Damascus on the Turkish border, and is considered one of the most marginalized Syrian cities. It is the most impoverished and illiterate Syrian province, and suffers rampant unemployment and dropout rates from elementary education. Al-Raqqa was absent from the government's developmental plans during the rule of former president Hafiz al-Assad, despite the concentration of several economic capacities within it (al-Baath dam, al-Furat dam, and al-Assad lake, in addition to fields of oil, wheat, and cotton). This scenario did not change during the rule of president Bashar al-Assad until after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when the regime became aware of the potential security threat in the Eastern and Northeastern regions near Iraq. Consequently, they set out to ensure the loyalty of the elderly tribesmen by handing out privileges, compensation, and facilitating business transactions-sometimes going as far as arming them. In addition, more recently, the regime has offered to ease like for the sons of loyal tribes in return for recruitment into the army, police, military, and Baath party institutions. Altogether, these factors explain why al-Raqqa did not join the Syrian revolution in its first year. These factors also highlight how successful the elderly tribesmen loyal to the regime were, not only in distancing al-Raqqa from the revolution, but also in supporting the Syrian regime through the participation of their sons in suppressing the small demonstrations that occurred in the city of al-Raqqa, and in other Syrian cities. It is of no coincidence that president Bashar al-Assad chose to perform al-Adha holiday prayers in al-Raqqa on February 6, 2011.

On March 15, 2012, during the first anniversary of the Syrian revolution, the city of al-Raqqa surprised the Syrian people with a number of mass protests, as if expressing the desire to refute their prevailing impression as being one of the cities loyal to the regime. In turn, the regime responded to these protests with live ammunition, leading to three casualties. On March 17, 2012, the funeral procession of the three victims in the al-Mansour area morphed into a large protest with over 100,000 protestors, marking one of the largest mobilized protests in the revolution for the year 2012.[1] These protests demonstrated that the main obstacle to al-Raqqa's people's participation in the revolution was not their bias and support for the regime; rather, some of the traditional social forces (i.e., the tribes) played a role in suppressing the small protests and disabling their development into larger protests similar to those in other provinces, especially the Deir al-Zur province, which borders al-Raqqa and is similar to it in terms of its social fabric.

The city of al-Raqqa did not engage in armed struggle against the regime until September 2012 for several reasons, most notably:

  • The revolution's late arrival to the province, coupled with the decreased use of violence in comparison to other regions.
  • The regime's increased reliance on loyal tribes, who they armed in order to face any act of protest or armed struggle in the province.
  • The migration of hundreds of thousands of Syrians to the city of al-Raqqa, as it was seen as a safe haven away from the ongoing battles between the two sides, thus it's non-intervention in the armed struggle came to serve the interests of all, as if a tacit agreement was made in this regard.

The initial phase of the military encounters occurred outside of al-Raqqa beginning in mid-September 2012 as part of what the rebels called, "the battle of the border crossings". Indeed, the revolutionary brigades were able to gain take control of the Tal-Abyad crossings on the Syrian-Turkish borders, followed by a complete takeover of the city of Tal-Abyad on September 20, 2012. Consequently, the Syrian army forces withdrew from al-Raqqa, and moved to the military police and security headquarters of al-Tabaqa city (55 kilometers west of al-Raqqa city), which is located near the strategic damns and oil wells, as well as in the 17th division's headquarters and military and police branches located inside the city center. The withdrawal of regime forces, then, encouraged a number of the armed opposition factions-most notably the Freemen of Greater Syria [Ahrar al-Sham], the Syrian Islamic Front, al-Farouq Battalions, and al-Nusra Front-to advance and enforce a blockade on the regime forces in the areas where they were located, consequently controlling them accordingly:

  • al-Baath dam on February 4, 2013
  • The city of al-Tabaqa and al-Furat dam (the country's largest dam) on February 11, 2013
  • al-Raqqa's central prison on March 3, 2013
  • al-Raqqa's city center, the political security branch, the state security office, the Air Force Intelligence, the Governor's palace, and the local Baath Party on March 4, 2013
  • al-Raqqa's military security branch on March 7, 2013

Several factors contributed to the rebels' control of the provincial capital, including the regime's loss of much of the northern and eastern countryside of Halab, especially since this area marks a geographic extension to the northwestern countryside of al-Raqqa. This has pushed a number of rebellious battalions north in an attempt to gain control over strategic locations, particularly oil wells and dams. A second factor that led to the weakening of the regime's control in al-Raqqa was the partial relocation of the regime's military forces from al-Raqqa province to the city of Deir al-Zur in order to halt the advancement of the rebels there, and to prevent them from taking over its airport and the border crossings with Iraq. Additionally, the movement of the battle over the Damascus countryside to the outskirts of the capital (Joubar, Qaboun, and Barza) has forced the regime to deploy military divisions on a permanent basis. This, in turn, has limited the regime's ability to send military reinforcements to the al-Raqqa province. On the other hand, the battle in al-Raqqa occurred simultaneously with a widespread regime military operation in Old Homs, during which the regime attempted to mobilize the available military divisions and battalions. They did so in order to seize control over the city after a prolonged siege of 11 months, which obfuscated the quick deployment of military reinforcements to al-Raqqa in order to prevent the rebels from gaining control.

The most important factor behind the sudden and quick fall of al-Raqqa (after only three days of fighting) is the unprecedented cooperation, coordination, and planning between armed insurgents within the city and the rebellious battalions outside. Al-Raqqa, formerly considered a safe haven from the ongoing conflict for hundreds of thousands of Syrians, was transformed into one of the cities most prone to falling into the rebels' hands. A significant fighting force was formed as a result of arming some of the displaced youth in the city, including those who came from the countryside of Deir al-Zur and Halab. These forces helped overtake governmental institutions and security headquarters as soon as the rebellious battalions notified them that the attacks were being launched to seize the city.

The cooperation between the rebels inside and outside the city came as a surprise to the regime forces and to those following the developments of the Syrian revolution. One can note that the tactic adopted in seizing control of al-Raqqa was comparable to that which occurred during the battle to free the west of Tripoli during the Libyan revolution, when an internal revolt erupted in the city parallel to an external attack by rebels from outside, which trapped the Libyan regime forces from both ends. In addition, several regional forces performed an important role in facilitating coordination between the rebels, as well as providing them with weaponry, which assisted in determining the battle of al-Raqqa in a relatively short period.

 

Seizing al-Raqqa: A turning point or yet another phase in the conflict?

Alongside its symbolic importance, the fall of al-Raqqa can be viewed as a vital chapter in the erosion of the regime's control over the northern and northeastern regions. In addition, the city's collapse will establish a geographic continuance between the liberated regions in the north and east, which had been isolated islands besieged by the forces of the regime until this time. In turn, such developments offer the rebels the freedom of movement, and the ability to transfer fighters and weaponry to the eastern region, especially the city of Deir al-Zur and the border crossings with Iraq. At the same time, these developments will contribute to disabling the regime's military forces and their movement toward the east. In this context, it is possible to understand the regime's evacuation of 113 Brigade officers located near Deir al-Zur, as well as why its forces retreated to the city's airport and military vanguard (muaaskar al-Talai'), both of which constitute the only remaining central points for the regime's forces in the Deir al-Zur province. Despite this, the chief development in the battle of al-Raqqa remains the organization, planning, and field cooperation among the different armed rebel forces.

More recently, the regime has focused on protecting Damascus and the central region (Homs and Hama), instead of dividing its powers to regain territorial control over northern and northeastern regions. As an alternative, the regime has applied the long-reach policy (airplanes and scud missiles) to bombard these areas in order to prevent the political opposition from using these regions as a center for their activities, similar to what happened in the city of Benghazi during the Libyan revolution. Unlike Benghazi in Libya, the rebels' control of al-Raqqa is not the turning point because foreign military intervention is out of the question in Syria, and because the Syrian regime, unlike Libya's, is still capable of waging a limitless war that resorts to the use of missiles and airplanes.

Internationally, despite the shift in global attitudes toward arming the Syrian opposition and the large influx of weaponry to the rebels, international forces, especially the US and Russia, have not opted for a military approach to solve the conflict; on the contrary, they are still preventing its occurrence. Washington's positions have softened toward arming the opposition-without being directly involved-though this comes as part of its desire to change the balance of power in a way that forces the Syrian regime to enter into a political process based on the Geneva agreement attained on June 30, 2012.

The complete fall of al-Raqqa into rebel hands, in addition to their successive military achievements, could contribute to partially changing the balance of military power on the ground in favor of the revolution. The fall of al-Raqqa into the hands of the Syrian opposition also offers them a significant political and military gain. If the necessary political will is made available, it could create a basis for establishing a temporary Syrian government headquartered inside Syria. Such a setting still provokes debate among the opposition factions despite broad consensus, particularly since the establishment of a representative body capable of creating a government was the declared aim behind creating the National Coalition for the Syrian revolutionary and opposition forces.

 


[1] The protesting crowds gathered in al-Raqqa on 17/3/2012 can be viewed on the following link:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BXNetPtcyYI.

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*This article was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English Editing Department. The original Arabic version can be found here.