A mere 30 miles from Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa, Ain Issa has become a flashpoint for fighting between the militant group and Kurdish armed forces. With conflict escalating, civilians are caught in the crossfire, often waking up to find that a different group has taken control of their neighborhood.
Although most of Ain Issa’s 15,000 remaining residents are ethnic Arabs, an estimated 15 percent are Kurds. Last week Burkan al-Furat – a coalition of fighters from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) – seized control from ISIS. The militant Islamist organization had taken control of the town last Monday after carrying out a bloody offensive against Kurdish fighters and anti-ISIS rebel groups.
Because of its proximity to Raqqa, Ain Issa has become a high-priority target for armed groups. The fighting has pushed many civilian residents out of the city, locals told Syria Deeply.
Abu Maher, a 40-year-old bus driver, took his family to Turkey as Ain Issa was consumed by fighting last month. “After the YPG seized the area we tried to go back,” he told Syria Deeply, “but we were not allowed to enter the region because the situation wasn’t stable.”
He recalled finding Ain Issa a ghost town when they returned after ISIS launched its recent offensive in the area. “The town was already completely empty,” he said. “Some families fled to Raqqa and other villages [in the area], but most of the town’s residents went to Turkey.”
Burkan al-Furat has overrun the headquarters of Islamic State’s Brigade 93, situated on the southern edge of Ain Issa and one of the group’s most important military bases in northeastern Syria. Brigade 93 was home to ISIS’s largest arms stockpile and is an important supply point due to its central location. “Since the YPG retook the town, many people tried to go back to their homes,” Abu Maher commented, explaining that most “were refused entry because the area is not yet safe.”
Elsewhere, Syrian civilians and armed groups have accused Kurdish fighters of ethnic cleansing in Tal Abyad, a town on the Syrian border with Turkey. After the YPG expelled ISIS from the area, they allegedly instructed local Arab residents to leave their homes, as Syria Deeply recently reported. Abu Maher says that the YPG hasn’t taken similar measures in Ain Issa. “Despite what the media says and some people from the northern countryside of Raqqa about the YPG carrying out systematic ethnic cleansing of Arabs, nothing like that has happened to us here in Ain Issa,” he said. “We had to flee because we feared for our lives when the fighting and the airstrikes intensified. We were all displaced, Arabs and Kurds alike.”
Abdul Hakim al-Ahmad, a 35-year-old Kurdish farmer, crossed the border into Turkey as bombs pounded Ain Issa. “Some of the people tried to go back to [Ain Issa] but they found that a large part of the city has been destroyed,” he told Syria Deeply. “All residents – Arabs and Kurds – had to leave, but none of us – neither Arabs nor Kurds – were allowed to go back yet.”
Al-Ahmad fears that Kurds will be completely cleansed from Ain Issa if ISIS gains permanent control of the area. “If ISIS controls the town, we [Kurds] will never be allowed to go back,” he said. “They did it before. They kicked us out of Ain Issa a year ago. We’re all hoping to go home now that the YPG recaptured the city.”
Coalition airstrikes and ground battles killed at least 78 ISIS fighters in areas across northern Syria on Sunday night, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports. ISIS has also launched attacks on Jabal al-Akrad, a Kurdish-majority area, and Latakia, the Alawite-populated coastal area that serves as a stronghold for President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
As their homes continue to be flattened and the death toll rises, some of Ain Issa’s displaced residents are losing hope. Umm Rafat, a 50-year-old housewife from Ain Issa, says she no longer cares which group controls the area. “What difference does it make who controls Ain Issa? It doesn’t matter,” she told Syria Deeply. “The majority of the town is destroyed and our homes are gone.”
Umm Rafat and her family have had to flee from Ain Issa three times since 2013. The first time, after the FSA took control of a nearby Syrian army base, they packed their bags and took off as the regime’s bombs rained down from the sky. “When ISIS took over, we were allowed to go back, but the majority of the town was destroyed and we didn’t have access to basic services,” she recalled, adding that there was no electricity or clean water available to civilians at the time.
Noting that the cost of living has increased dramatically in Ain Issa due to the shortage of food and basic supplies, Umm Rafat says that most of Ain Issa’s residents – who worked predominantly in agriculture – are now suffering. “Life has been very hard on everybody,” she remarked.
Her family had to seek refuge in a Raqqa-area village before Kurdish forces were able to recapture Ain Issa. “ISIS fighters accused my husband of apostasy,” she said. “They were going to execute him, so we had to run away. We pray that the YPG maintains control and that the situation gets better so we can finally go home for good.”