RAQQA, Syria – On Wednesday, U.S. President Barack Obama said he would expand an aerial campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in northern Iraq to territory controlled by the Sunni militants in eastern Syria.
He also called for a coordinated military campaign in which nations would contribute “as appropriate.”
Following the speech, fear spread among residents of this desert city, an ISIS stronghold and its launchpad for its offenses in Iraq and its expansion into other Syrian provinces.
Locals worry that strikes here could result in a large number of civilian casualties – and that the fear is leading many families to flee Raqqa before the campaign starts.
Abu Hamza, a local activist, says that families living in the vicinity of ISIS buildings and positions have left their homes for fear of becoming collateral damage during U.S.-led airstrikes. Many have gone to rural Raqqa – still controlled by ISIS, but further from obvious military targets – carrying whatever personal belongings they can.
He also says that since Obama’s speech, ISIS fighters have been preparing for the strikes by reshuffling their positions in the city in an attempt to throw off intelligence.
Abu Ahmad, 37, left Raqqa city with his family after Obama’s announcement.
“We will not stay in our homes waiting for death to find us because of some [military] targeting error,” he says, adding that ISIS is known to cloak its fighters by embedding them along civilians – and that is has begun evacuating its fighters’ families to rural Raqqa.
“We are scared and we picked places [to flee] away from where ISIS members are,” Abu Ahmad says.
Abu Faisal, 35, worries that the U.S. will not take extra measures to protect civilians like him and his family once the airstrikes begin – and expresses a frustration commonly held here, that the international community has taken a stand against ISIS but not against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“We do not accept [the U.S.] leaving us to our fate,” he says. “We’re against the strikes unless [the U.S.] carries out parallel strikes against the Syria regime.”
Should the aerial campaign take place, “it doesn’t mean we support it,” says Ahmad al-Salem, 30, a media activist in Raqqa. “[We feel] the U.S. acts without taking the Syrian people into consideration.”
Like others here, Salem equates ISIS with the Assad regime, saying that both have terrorized, killed and displaced the Syrian people.