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Uncertainty gripped ISIL’s Syria ‘capital’ as it braced for US strikes

In Raqqa, anti-Assad activists opposed to the extremists said they would welcome limited US campaign

In the days preceding the U.S.-led air strikes that pounded the Syrian city of Raqqa on Tuesday, many in the heart of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)’s self-declared caliphate welcomed the idea of strikes against their extremist rulers — even with little known about what seems likely to become a prolonged operation in their homeland.

The U.S. and partner nations – Jordan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates – conducted 15 strikes against ISIL targets in and around Raqqa and several other parts of Syria overnight Tuesday. More than 20 ISIL fighters were killed in Raqqa alone, according to the Syrian Observatory on Human Rights, a monitoring group.

The capital of ISIL’s self-declared caliphate, Raqqa has chafed under ISIL’s extremist brand of Islamic law ever since it exploited a power vacuum in rebel-held territory to begin governing parts of northern Syria last year. Activists in and from the city reached by Al Jazeera were enthusiastic about the prospect of military action against ISIL "safe havens," as promised by the Obama administration, which they considered the only recourse for their desperate situation.

“Yes, I want these strikes,” said one member of the anti-ISIL campaign Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, whose name Al Jazeera has withheld for security reasons. “We’re the living dead here. Say a single word against our rulers and they can execute, crucify or stone us.”

But many questions remain about the administration's anti-ISIL strategy in Syria, the more politically complicated arena of the transnational ISIL insurgency. According to Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, who testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, “This will not look like shock and awe because that is not how ISIL is organized, but it will be persistent and sustainable.”

Across the border in Iraq, where ISIL has seized large swathes of the north and west, U.S.-led air strikes are designed to support the efforts of anti-ISIL ground forces — principally, the Iraqi government and Kurdish security forces — to recapture territory from the extremists.

The ground component in Syria is ill-defined. Congress has approved an expanded arming and training program for those Syrian rebels dubbed "moderate" by the U.S. — the weakest faction on the battlefield in Syria — in the hope that they can serve as viable ground partners after aerial strikes, at the same time as fending off the army of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

A satellite image of Raqqa, Syria.
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Activists in Raqqa who oppose both ISIL and Assad expressed their doubts about that strategy but hoped that the U.S. would undertake what they called a surgical in-and-out operation to at least roll back ISIL. “If America executes its strategy with 100 percent precision, there won’t be any backlash,” said a second anti-ISIL activist, who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Khalil and who fled Raqqa last month for a safer location along the border with Turkey.

But analysts question how long that support for U.S. strikes will hold, noting that any foreign military intervention – no matter how “hands-off” – poses risks to civilians on the ground.

If Obama intends to pursue a strategy in Syria and Iraq along the lines of covert U.S. drone wars in Yemen and Somalia — which the president cited as examples of how the U.S. has “successfully” contained Al-Qaeda affiliates without sending in combat troops — an "in-and-out" ground operation is not what he has in mind.

In fact, the White House has indicated that the anti-ISIL campaign would probably be handed off to the next administration, not to mention that U.S.-led counterterror operations in the region have a tendency to drag on longer than expected. Analysts who have studied the past 13 years of the U.S. “war on terror” in countries such as Yemen caution that casualties and destruction from U.S. strikes could ultimately backfire on the ground, turning a population currently hostile to ISIL against Washington’s preferred antidote over time.

“The wars in Iraq and Syria will go on a long time,” said Aron Lund, an expert on Syria’s opposition and the editor of the Carnegie Endowment’s Syria in Crisis blog. “With a lot of these things, there’s no end.”

Among the unknowns in ISIL's case is how such a campaign might safely isolate targets — whether high-profile commanders or weapons depots — when they are scattered and hidden among the sprawling urban expanse of Raqqa, a city of over 200,000.

Sources in Raqqa told Al Jazeera that they’ve seen drones flying surveillance missions in recent days, which has been taken as a cue to brace for more violence. Anticipating air strikes, ISIL has also begun to relocate its weapons stores and personnel among the civilian population of territories it controls, the classic strategy of insurgents facing superior firepower.

Meanwhile, dozens of other families have begun to flee the city.

“It’s natural for people to fear strikes when ISIL are hiding behind human shields,” said Abu Khalil. “Their headquarters are among the civilians, and they move,” he said.

For an organization that has made an almost ostentatious show of governing Raqqa — distributing pro-ISIL pamphlets, advertising its public services over social media and being filmed for a Vice documentary — and has vaunted its ability to maintain security as war rages across the country, the prospect of U.S. strikes has already cast a shadow over the caliphate, analysts say.

“If there are drones in the sky, IS leaders will have to keep their heads down,” said Lund, using an alternative acronym for the group. “They won’t be able to publicly rule the way they want to. [The group’s leader, Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi won’t be able to give a speech in Raqqa’s central square, for instance. That will impede their functioning in some ways.”

ISIL’s propaganda machine, however, may prove resilient, activists in Raqqa noted. That has been an overarching criticism of Obama’s anti-ISIL strategy: Through grotesque beheadings of Western journalists and other mass messaging, the group has brazenly invited the U.S. to intervene in Iraq and Syria — something Obama has been reluctant to do. By striking ISIL-held territory, the U.S. might be playing right into the extremist group’s hand, validating Baghdadi’s narrative of resistance against the West and bolstering ISIL in its competition with Al-Qaeda. Some fear that could inspire a new wave of recruits who wish to rid the Middle East of U.S. imperialism.

And while it is difficult to gauge public opinion, ISIL already has a support base among war-weary Sunnis in Syria who hate the Assad government and see no viable alternative and among others who merely appreciate ISIL’s ability to maintain some semblance of normality in its conquered lands while war rages across the country. The U.S. is threatening to disrupt that.

“It’s possible American strikes could breed a phenomenon of allegiance to ISIL,” said the activist in Raqqa, though he believed only those “ignorant about religion” could be so swayed. “Since ISIL claims to rule under the pretext that all the world is fighting us, they’ll say these raids are targeting the Syrian people and not ISIL or other extremist groups.”

Lund gave the example of the U.S. operations against Al-Qaeda’s core in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which has killed tens of thousands of people — both combatants and noncombatants — over more than a decade, according to the Costs of War project. “It’s quite useful to drive a knife into their leaders, and I’m sure they’ve degraded Al-Qaeda’s central leadership in these countries,” he said. “But on the other hand, if you’ve pushed relatives of victims into the arms of insurgencies, are you really helping?”

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