Rebel-Held Raqqa Sees Electricity Cut, in a Patchwork of Public Services

RAQQA — Last week, activists in this Islamist-held provincial capital said the government had drastically cut their electricity supply.

Written by Lava Selo Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

That they had been receiving supplies from President Bashar al-Assad may come as a surprise, since Raqqa fell to the opposition in March 2013, the first major city to do so.

Syria’s minister of electricity said the reduction (from 147 to 47 megawatts) was made to punish local armed groups that had started leveling a tax on citizens for electricity.

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Electricity companies in Syria are considered a neutral body, with operations often a collaboration between the government and opposition forces.

Since the regime retreated from Raqqa, citizens have tried to keep services running. Thy say the government has been more helpful in this regard than the opposition.

Shortly after the northern city fell to the rebels, Jaber*, a longtime official of the state electricity company in Raqqa, sat behind the desk in his large office as several employees smoked on a nearby sofa.

“What would be the destiny of a ship with 20 captains?” Jaber mused, referring to the numerous opposition and extremist groups fighting for control of the city. “When we had one shipmaster, things were fine. Now, there are brigades and each one of them wants to run things in a different way.”

Rebel brigades protected the electricity company’s building during the battle for Raqqa in February and March, Jaber said. But its vehicles were not guarded, and officials now must borrow cars to make rounds and inspect reported electrical faults.

Collecting bills from individual residences has also proved challenging; the company currently relies on funds provided by largely by local councils.

Jaber justifies his relations with the opposition to his bosses in Damascus by saying that he must deal with these “terrorist groups” in order to keep Raqqa connected to the grid.

The government is often more reliable than the opposition in providing promised electricity resources. Recently, Jaber’s company sent a list of their urgent needs to the Syrian National Coalition, including 150 barrels of transformer oil, worth 800 million Syrian pounds ($5.7 million).

Jaber said the Coalition promised to fulfill their needs within a month, but nothing materialized. In the end, it was the regime that delivered the barrels from Damascus to the entrance of the northern city of Aleppo. From there, members of the powerful Ahrar al-Sham Brigade transported them on the final leg to Raqqa.

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It’s not just the electricity industry that’s caught in the tug of war between the government and the opposition.

When Raqqa fell to opposition forces, the Ministry of Education cancelled national standardized exams in the city and requested that students now take their exams in neighboring cities that were still under regime control.

Not all students were able to make the journey, so teachers in Raqqa formed what they called the Union of Free Teachers and conducted belated exams.

“If the educated people do not take up arms, then the uneducated ones are going to mess up the country,” said Abdulbasit al-Hussein, a 32-year-old math teacher and a member of the union.

In the early days of the uprising, Abdulbasit joined peaceful demonstrations and caught the attention of Syrian authorities. Military security raided his house several times but never caught him. He fled to an area controlled by the armed opposition in the Raqqa countryside, then took up arms for 10 months.

”I participated in liberating the province of Raqqa, and shortly after the liberation I took off my arms and went back to the education field,” he said.

Though rebel brigades vacated the schools they had been using as bases at the start of the new school year, education has been severely disrupted in Raqqa.

Abdulbasit said that the Coalition had only promised to pay teachers’ salaries for the one month of standardized exam proctoring, and many could not continue without pay.

Meanwhile, in September, the regime sent five months’ worth of salaries for Raqqa teachers to be pick up in the neighboring province of Deir Ezzor.

Abu Aziz, a member of Raqqa’s Sharia (Islamic Law) Committee, says they have two judges in the committee who are still working on the government payroll. Without them, the city would be unable to issue marriage certificates that are recognized across international borders.

Aziz and the other employees see no contradiction in receiving money from the state’s coffers while helping to govern an opposition-held city.

For them, the institutions belong to the people, not the government.

“We support the continuation of the work of the state institutions,” he said. “If the regime is dissolute and a failure, it does not mean we should abandon the state… and the state has no right to abandon us as citizens.”

 

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