On Monday, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria captured the small Iraqi city of Tal Afar, continuing an offensive that has seen it take control of Mosul and Tikrit, open the border between Iraq and Syria and begin marching towards Baghdad. As photos of ISIS fighters driving tanks into Syria’s Deir Ezzor province made the rounds on social media. residents in Raqqa, the group’s Syrian stronghold, said hope of ousting ISIS and returning to normal life had grown dim.
Raqqa is the first and only major Syrian city under ISIS control. Even there, the group has faced challenges. In January, rebels drove the group out of Aleppo and Idlib provinces and stymied its march through Deir Ezzor, briefly breaking its control over Raqqa.
Local civilians have chafed at and protested its increasingly violent governing tactics and conservative brand of sharia law, which mandates that women be fully covered in public and denied access to employment and education. Residents have described a culture of fear under ISIS, including public executions, overcrowded jails and even the banning of Western products like cola and cigarettes.
But analysts say that weapons and other spoils acquired during last week’s victories in Iraq, including the tanks, will help ISIS renew its Syrian offensive.
In the wake of the turmoil in Iraq, our reporters asked eight people in Raqqa about life under ISIS rule. They say a longed-for return to life outside ISIS’s grip is looking less likely with each advance the group makes across the border, in Iraq.
Khalaf, 45, employee at a Raqqa electricity company: Our dreams of getting rid of ISIS’s unfair rule and fatwas are vanishing as every city falls under the control of ISIS. We gradually started losing hope in restoring the life we have had for hundreds of years. The world has been silent over the ISIS crimes that hit everything in our city.
Suliman, 33, unemployed: I lost my job after ISIS came to Raqqa, but I kept on hoping that the Syrian government would be able to impose its control over the city and that I would get to go back to my work like some others who lost their jobs, but I have no hope now. I am totally convinced that after ISIS took over several Iraqi cities and villages, it will be impossible to get free of them.*
Salma, 48, housewife: ISIS’s gains in Iraq gave ISIS fighters here high hopes. So they started to treat everyone badly and be even stricter in implementing their laws. No woman is allowed to go out on the street now during Ramadan without a male. It seems that ISIS is not afraid of any operation now by the Syrian regime.
Khaled, 43, shop owner: I never imagined that I would live to see ISIS control Iraq. I thought that what happened in Raqqa was a nightmare. I am living a nightmare that has turned the life of my family into hell. I cannot understand how this has happened in Iraq, [now] everyone is involved in this war for sure, even the government of Nouri Al-Maliki, Kurdistan, Turkey … all the states in the region.
Ali, 44, trader: ISIS control over many Iraqi cities serves the Syrian regime by complicating the sectarian scene in the neighboring countries, signaling to the world that that what happened in Syria was not a revolution but a civil and sectarian war.
Sahreef, 55, retired: It seems that we shall live like this in Raqqa for a long time, and no one [around me] would openly discuss the situation we live in because ISIS sees and hears everything.