Where Is Raqqa? The ISIS-Led Syrian City Illustrates Why So Many Citizens Are Seeking Asylum
Following the Paris terror attacks on Friday, France bombed the city of Raqqa, the capital of ISIS, in a northern central region of Syria. Mickael Soria, press adviser for France's defense minister, claimed that 10 targets in the war-torn city, including a command center, a recruitment center, an ammunition storage base and a training camp for the terror group, were all destroyed following the air raid. Sunday's airstrikes are the most recent in a long line of attacks against the self-proclaimed Caliphate of ISIS, including an attack by the U.S. on Thursday that reportedly killed the high-profile "Jihadi John."
Raqqa has not always experienced this level of violence. During much of the 20th century, the city proliferated as the capital of the region and underwent a period of growth because of the booming cotton industry. However, the city suffered from the regime of former president Bashar Assad, and was entrapped in fighting during the Syrian Civil War. Raqqa was liberated by rebels in March 2013 and a tenuous democratic peace was briefly established, but airstrikes and regional instability left it open to takeover by ISIS in January 2014.
Now, the 300,000 citizens of Raqqa live under intense rule by ISIS, which enforces an especially brutal interpretation of Islamic law. Women are not allowed to leave the house without a male companion, prayer is enforced throughout the day for all citizens, and schools have been forced to stop teaching law, philosophy and other "infidel studies." Public beheadings and crucifixions are not uncommon, one source told NBC News.
Rare but revealing refugee accounts give important context to the lives of the 3 million refugees who have fled Syria since the civil war began in 2011. One refugee camp with over 14,000 occupants is reported to house over 4,000 Syrians from Raqqa and the surrounding area — the people's desperation to leave the region is indicative of how bad the situation has become.
The emotional connection to the refugees is adding leverage to pleas on social media to avoid airstrikes that can kill indiscriminately. Many are calling for a deescalation of violence, particularly bombings that are likely to harm civilians as well as suspected terrorists; one organization, Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, is posting live updates from Raqqa on Twitter, documenting the airstrikes in real time
The city of Raqqa has experienced enormous suffering at the hands of ISIS and foreign airstrikes. At times when the violence in the Middle East can seem so remote, there are events and accounts to bring the realities of war into sharp focus. As France bombs the already crumbling city of Raqqa, the plight of the millions of Syrian refugees and the innocent people still living in the war-torn country is not to be forgotten.