Foreign ISIS Fighters Captured, Turned over to Western Countries in Raqqa

Raqqa- Syria’s Kurdish-Arab rebels fighting under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced on Wednesday initiating combing operations to clear Raqqa from ISIS members.

A number of foreign militants captured in the former ISIS stronghold have already been handed to Western countries, said SDF sources.

Despite the US-backed SDF claiming full control over Raqqa, the fate of dozens of foreign ISIS fighters who were known to be located in the area remains unknown.

The British-based Observatory for Human Rights says that no one has spotted foreign fighters in particular, but apprehended French and Belgian militants were turned in to intelligence forces of their respective countries.  

As battles continue to drag around Syrian terrain, the latest loss suffered by regime forces was the death of Brigadier General Issam Zahreddine in Deir Ezzor.

The Republican Guard’s Zahreddine, who also commanded regime operations in Deir Ezzor, was killed in a mine explosion in the Hawija-Sakr area inside the city, according to Syrian media.

Zahreddine played a role in the progress made by the Syrian pro-regime army forces in Deir Ezzor city and the surrounding areas.

Zahreddine led army operations against the armed opposition in Homs and Aleppo, before moving to the eastern region to fight ISIS.

On the other hand, the regime launched raids against Deir Ezzor’s eastern oil field, racing SDF units for control over oil and gas fields in eastern Syria.

More so, the US is expected to lead efforts in clearing out and restoring basic public services in Raqqa after its liberation. SDF search teams have at the same time announced combing the city for “sleeper cells” hiding among civilians.

“We will assist and take, essentially, the lead in bringing back the water, electricity and all of that,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told a briefing. “But eventually the governance of the country of Syria is something that I think all nations remain very interested in.”

“The United States and our allies have prepared for next steps and will continue to work with partners to provide humanitarian assistance to those in need and support the stabilization efforts in Raqqa and other liberated areas,” Nauert said.

Additionally, SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said preparations were underway for a formal declaration of the city’s liberation.

The SDF said Tuesday that military operations in Raqqa have ended and that their troops have taken full control of the city. The US-led coalition cautioned that the clearing operations would continue, saying some 100 militants may still be hiding in the city. 

Tears, Joy & Devastation Fill Raqqa’s Post-ISIS Air

SDF spokeswoman Jihan Sheikh Ahmed

Raqqa- Four months ago, Syria’s Raqqa found itself drenched in bloodshed as fierce and violent battles ripped through the former ISIS stronghold. When casually strolling down liberated areas, it becomes all the more evident how destructive the battles were.

Homes wrecked to the ground, debris, and a demolished infrastructure all spell out a devastating new reality left behind by ISIS.

For the few lucky neighborhoods which survived bombardment and stray bullets, the war still left its mark through shattered windows and broken doors taken down by blast waves.

Despite the destruction, joy prevailed as citizens and Syrian Democratic Forces celebrated smashing victory against ISIS on the liberated streets of Raqqa.

SDF fighters gathered at Raqqa’s center with a celebratory spirit, forming traditional dance rings, raising SDF flags and chanting slogans about victory and freedom.

Triumphant convoys and demonstrators paraded around Raqqa, as the former ISIS bastion is now under full control of the US-backed Syrian rebels.

Raqqa’s infamous “Al-Naim” square, dubbed ISIS’ square of hell, now is home to fluttering SDF flags waving in the near completion of military operations.

“Today we stand at Al-Naim square, which was once dubbed the circle of hell as it served as an arena for brutal executions carried out against anyone who opposed ISIS and the rule of its self-proclaimed caliphate,” Leader and Spokeswoman for the SDF “Euphrates Wrath” (Ghadab Al-Furrat) military campaign Rogada Flatt told Asharq Al-Awsat.

The capture of Al-Naim followed fighting since Sunday near the square, the Arab-Kurdish alliance said in a statement.

“We are left with only a few points, and combing operations are underway to eliminate the sleeper cells and cleanse the city of mines,” asserted Flatt on the continued liberation of Raqqa, the caliphate’s former ‘capital’.

“At least 22 ISIS members surrendered to our forces and were sent to detention centers for investigation, after which they will be referred to the adequate courts,” said SDF spokeswoman Jihan Sheikh Ahmed.

Reviewing battles fought, Ahmed said that “a few foreign militiamen kept fighting until the last minute.”

“Our forces have started mop-up and sweeping operations considering the probability of ISIS cells hiding in some locations,” said Ahmed. “Mines planted by the cells need to be defused to make sure that the entire city has been cleared,” she added.

Since June, Raqqa residents have been held hostage by ISIS terrorists.

As the terror group lost more and more territory, it resorted to using these civilians as human shields.

Surviving civilians were trapped in hellfire as SDF troops carried out operations, US-led coalition staged airstrikes, and ISIS snipers infested the streets and prevented people from escaping.

Haitham al-Zaher, 48, was the last civilian to escape ISIS captivity.

Zaher managed to escape with his wife and three daughters.

“We could not escape until clashes were close to us— until then, my wife and I decided alongside 7 other families, to take shelter in an abandoned cellar, where we stayed 3 days in hiding, food and water were scarce and almost ran out,” said Zaher.

“We lived through very difficult moments, where we heard the thuds of heavy shelling and cracking of clashes,” he added.

Malika al-Zaher, aged 38, said that during September her family was moved 14 times to different locations.

“As the fighting progressed, ISIS ordered us to change the place, taking us as human shields,” said Zaher’s wife.

Today, Syrians in Raqqa sent out a cry for help to conduct extensive investigations in order to reveal the fate ISIS-held detainees and to restore the city once again to its people.

Asharq Al-Awsat in Raqqa… Battles and Smoke Pending Liberation

Raqqa

Beirut – Clouds of smoke covered on Monday the skies of Syria’s Raqqa as the sound of bullets and the roars of bombs filled the air.

The liberation of the city is now pending the last battles waged by ISIS foreign militants, who are fighting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the southern part of the city in eastern Syria.

Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the Kurdish-dominated SDF told Asharq Al-Awsat that there are between 300 and 400 ISIS militants, the majority of them foreigners, who are still fighting in Raqqa.

On Sunday, the SDF launched their last attack on Raqqa after a convoy of ISIS gunmen left the city following a deal negotiated by local officials and tribesmen.

An SDF spokesperson said that 275 Syrian ISIS fighters left Raqqa, leaving behind only foreign-born terrorists.

According to Bali, the liberation of the city is expected in the upcoming days after the SDF seized control of the neighborhoods of Andalous, Nahda, Bado and Sakhani in central Raqqa on Monday and evacuated around 200 civilians, who escaped from the terrorist organization.

The streets of the city, once the group’s de facto capital, are now covered with debris and piles of rubble. Military bulldozers made their way through narrow alleyways and streets to allow the passage of cars.

When walking in the liberated areas, the appearance of destruction caused by the fierce clashes looks clear. Some buildings turned into rubble, while the rest were left with no windows and doors due to the pressure caused by the bombs dropped in the surrounding areas.

Life stopped in the city. Only the sound of the US-led coalition warplanes and bombs was heard in the city.

A cloud of smoke covered the sky pending the liberation of ISIS’ capital.

‘Civilian Council’ to Administer Deir Ezzor, 70% Voted in Federal System of Northern Syria

Qameshli, Deir Ezzor- The Syrian Democratic Forces said on Sunday it established a “civilian council” to administer the oil rich province of Deir Ezzor in east Syria where regime forces are racing to control the ISIS-captured area.

The SDF appointed 100 figures from the leading tribal sheikhs to meet and elect a council to run the province.

In its final communiqué, the council said on Sunday that its priority was the return of tens of thousands of displaced residents of the province who fled during the conflict and restoring basic utilities.

The council also urged the US-led coalition to provide aid to the war-torn province.

“We want to bolster ties among the people of the province,” the statement of the Deir Ezzor civil council said.

Last week, the executive committee of the Kurdish-controlled Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria encouraged Syrians to participate in the elections of bodies running local communities scheduled for Sept. 22.

Meanwhile, a Russian lieutenant-general was killed in Deir Ezzor on Sunday after ISIS shelled his convoy.

In a statement carried by a Russian news agency, the Defense Ministry said that Lieutenant-General Valeryi Asapov died at a command station manned by Syrian troops, assisting commanders in the liberation of the city.

“As a result of a sudden mortar shelling by ISIS militants, Lieutenant-General Valery Asapov was fatally wounded by an exploding shell,” the ministry said.

In a related development, the executive committee of the Kurdish-controlled Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria said on Sunday that in Friday’s election, around 70 percent of eligible voters picked 7,464 leaders for some 3,732 “communes” spread across three regions of the north, from Afrin in northern Aleppo to eastern Aleppo and the two cities of Hasaka and Qameshli in northeastern Syria.

The elections will be held on three stages, that begun last Friday as part of Syrian Kurdish groups’ plan to set up a federal system of government in the north of Syria. The process will be followed in November by the elections of local councils to end up in January 2018 with the election of an assembly that will act as a parliament.

Syrian Women Empowered in Local Opposition Communities

Gaziantep (Turkey)- Women empowerment has long been a vital aspect of building stronger communities, and Kinda Omriin wears a confident smile when describing her journey with the “Syrian Women’s Network.”

Kinda, 28, is a single Syrian mom that had escaped her war-torn country in 2012 and headed for Turkey. Staying in Turkey’s Gaziantep, she tells the story of a five-year struggle after getting divorced and having to support her four-year-old child alone.

Kinda carries on describing how she survived six months after her divorce, with no husband to support the family of two, no work to provide a much-needed income to cover the expenses of living in Turkey.

A while later, Kinda revisits the day the sun shined a bit brighter when she received a call from her friend, changing the course of her life. Her friend invited her in March to attend a workshop for empowering Syrian women organized by the Syrian Women’s Network.

Prior to attending the workshop, Kinda thought the term ‘gender’ was a mere category to differentiate males from females. Afterwards, she came to realize that it stands for so much more; it is a statement covering a wider social spectrum.

After attending the workshop, she decided to join the network and aspired to become a fully invested feminist activist. She stressed that the most important workshop she attended this year revolved around “Political Empowerment for Women”—at which she learned what the constitutional “quota” stands for and how it represents a positive electoral system for achieving equality and reducing the gender gap.

“The workshops have critically turned my life around. I feel that my awareness was given a 70 percent boost,” said Kinda.

The Syrian Women Network was founded on March 8, 2013, by a group of public activists who are focused on the political empowerment of women and building up their capacity to reach decision-making positions. The group does not only aspire to merely have Syrian women reach highly contributive posts in society, but also to do so with excellence.

Khawla Dunya, who runs the network’s office in Gaziantep, said that many Syrian women after attending workshops and seminars organized by the group had experienced a positive impact on their lives.

Kinda, for example, was employed shortly after completing the first seminar. She needed to regain self-confidence, something that the group greatly focuses on— “these workshops changed the lives of many women for the better,” added Khawla.

“Men participate in all network activities at the rate of 20 percent. After participation, their views on women differ and they are convinced that they too are capable of leadership and decision-making,” said Khawla.

Members of the network participated in the rounds of the Syrian peace talks held in Geneva, including Jumana Saif, who is working on the talks’ civil platform.

Alice Mafraj, another women activist, was a negotiating member of the Syrian opposition delegation.

Basma Qadmani is a key leader in the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) and along with Marja al-Beqa’i, who is the media advisor to the opposition delegation. Both of which are women.

Three Syrian Women Who Got Married to ISIS Foreigners Tell their Stories

Ain Issa Camp, Raqqa- In an isolated room in Ain Issa Camp – 50 kilometers north Raqqa – three Syrian women sat while dressed in black. Beside them sat children whose ages are three years or less and none of them has an official birth certificate.

They got married to foreign members from ISIS and didn’t know this is where they will end up.

Souad – in her thirties – said: “I had a dream to become an English teacher: to teach kids, translate stories and international novels.” Then, she lit a cigarette and continued: “I started smoking ten years ago, and I never quit smoking even when I was living in Raqqa where ISIS members banned smoking and punished for it.”

“I met my Moroccan husband as I was walking once in a street in Raqqa. He proposed and we got married in summer 2015,” Souad continued.

Nour, 22, moved to live with her family in Raqqa in 2007 and that is where she met her Malaysian husband and got married. “At the beginning I refused then I accepted because he is a religious person,” she added.

On the contrary, Khansae said that she had no choice.

“A Tunisian ISIS member proposed and my father accepted as if he was the charming prince. My mother stood by my side but was incapable to do anything,” she narrated.

These three women have poor hope, as they gaze upon their vague future and the future of their children that is even more complex than theirs.

Raqqa Escapees Head for Ayn Issa Fleeing ISIS Brutality

UNHCR

Ayn Issa, Raqqa, Syria- Resting in a humble tent and under scorching heat touching unprecedented peaks, Jasim Alali, 52, along with his wife, three children, and two cousins sit together reminiscing on what it was like a few days before being driven out of their hometown, Raqqa.

Soaad,48, says that earlier June news came in on Syrian Democratic Forces making a push towards Raqqa.

“At the time we decided to escape to a nearby clash zone, the idea was crazy. To move towards the battles, but it was our last hope,” said Alali’s wife, Soaad.

“We secretly moved into Aljazara farm, which was under ISIS control—we waited some 11 days for the clashes to start,” she added.

After hearing the sounds of the clashes approaching and watching US-led international coalition air strikes pounding ISIS headquarters, the family knew it was time to get on the road and that the time to flee was running out.

“We stayed up for days and nights,” said Soaad.

“We survived the hunger and thirst, bullets, airstrikes and ISIS snipers who aimed at anything that moved, but thank God we are okay and have arrived to safety.”

The family then slipped through a desert extension and managed to escape to the Khatouniya farm, located in Raqqa’s western outskirts.

At the time, the farm was under the control of Syrian Democratic Forces.

After a ravaging journey the family of five was then transferred to Ayn Issa camp.

The town of Ayn Issa along with its residents, barely 56km north of the front line, are seeking for a post-caliphate future.

When speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Alali removed a pack of smokes from his pocket and lit up a cigarette, while saying that it has been over three years since he could do that in public.

Alali recalled on how ISIS ultra-hardliners had banned smoking, with patrols inspecting the streets for smokers.

“Militants have gone to the extent of smelling each by passer’s mouth odor to know whether he was smoking or not,” said Alali.

The father of three revealed that he would rub cologne into his neck and face to trick the militants out of knowing whether he had been smoking or not.

Hundreds of families move for Ayn Issa to escape ISIS-held Raqqa.

Fleeing the area is a journey filled with fears and ravaging difficulties as families are ripped apart by the battles and deteriorating life conditions.

Raqqa is considered one of the most challenging and expectedly brutal battles for recapturing ISIS’ Syria stronghold.

Facing dire conditions, most those escaping Raqqa, when arriving Ayn Issa camp, share a tent with another displaced family until they are sorted out to a private tent.

Two families may share the same tent.

Raqqa Residents in Turkey Demand Safe Passage for City’s Civilians

Raqqa

Sanlıurfa (Turkey) – When the ISIS terrorist group captured the Syrian city of Raqqa and announced it as its de facto capital in June 2014, Mona Freij was an opposition activist who was organizing anti-regime rallies with her fellow colleagues.

Months later, she was forced to leave the city for fear of being arrested by ISIS terrorists.

Today, she resides in Turkey’s Gaziantep city near the Syrian border where her house has been turned into a hub for making banners for the “save Raqqa’s civilians” campaign that she launched with several activists from the Syrian city.

The campaign, which kicked off in mid-June, is aimed at organizing rallies and protests in various Turkish provinces and in the world to demand that civilians be kept clear of the battle to liberate Raqqa from ISIS.

Around a hundred protesters took part in a rally that was staged in Gaziantep on June 18.

Freij told Asharq Al-Awsat that the campaign was launched shortly after the battle for Raqqa began. A campaign hashtag on Twitter has generated around 800,000 followers.

“We are demanding that that the civilians be granted safe passage,” she added.

“We want to tell the international community that the Raqqa residents are not a social base for ISIS and they are not members of the organization. They simply were born in that city,” she stressed.

Activists and the United Nations estimate that around 150,000 civilians are caught in the crossfire in Raqqa. Some 300,000 had lived under ISIS’ rule, 80,000 of whom were displaced from other Syrian regions. Thousands have since fled the city when the battle to liberate it began.

Saleh, another Raqqa resident who has been living in Turkey’s Sanlıurfa for the past three years, said that several of his relatives are still trapped in the Syrian city.

In Sanlıurfa, he has opened a vegetable shop to provide for his family. He told Asharq Al-Awsat: “My two brothers and my two sisters and their children are still trapped in the old neighborhood that is under ISIS control.”

He said that he constantly checks his telephone for any messages from his loved ones, which means that they are still safe.

According to Turkish Interior Ministry figures, Sanlıurfa province hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees in Turkey at around 400,000. The majority are from Raqqa and Deir al-Zour.

On April 18, some 100 social and clan figures from Raqqa established a civilian council to manage the province after the expulsion of ISIS. Sheikh Mahmoud al-Bursan and activist Leila Mustafa have been elected to its joint presidency. Three lawmakers have also been elected to the council.

Mustafa told Asharq Al-Awsat that the Syrian Democratic Forces pledged to hand over the administration of Raqqa after its liberation to the civil council.

“We have formed local councils in each liberated region and we have taken up the town of Ain Issa as our temporary headquarters,” she revealed.

“Once Raqqa is liberated, the council will be restructured to include representatives from throughout the province, without marginalizing anyone, so that it can be an example of coexistence,” she stressed.

So far, 14 specialized councils have been established to restore the operation of various services, including security. In fact, the internal security forces has already deployed police officers in the majority of the villages and towns that have been liberated, said Mustafa.