Raqqa: From Ancient Capital to ISIS Stronghold

Raqqa

London – Raqqa was liberated on Tuesday from the grasp of the ISIS terrorist group that had turned the ancient city into its stronghold and a symbol of its atrocities.

The city has been inhabited for hundreds of years, and its peak, it enjoyed a golden age under the early Islamic empire of the Abbasids.

In 722, Caliph al-Mansour ordered the construction of the city of al-Rafiqa, which lies near Raqqa. The two cities eventually were merged into one.

In 796, the powerful caliph Haroun al-Rashid transferred his capital there from Baghdad because of its strategic location at a crossroads between Byzantium, Damascus and Iraq. It sits 90 kilometers (55 miles) south of the Turkish border and about halfway between Syria’s second city Aleppo and the Iraqi frontier.

He ordered major works and Raqqa was soon dotted with grand palaces and mosques.

Although the caliph’s court returned to Baghdad in 809, Raqqa remained a major administrative center for the western part of the empire.

But in 1258, the city was largely destroyed by the Mongol invasion.

Before the Syrian civil war, Raqqa prospered from agriculture in the fertile valley and benefited from nearby hydroelectric dams generating power for much of the country.

On March 4, 2013, two years after Syria’s war broke out, Raqqa was the first provincial capital to fall to rebels. The seized control of the military intelligence headquarters, one of the most notorious regime detention centers in the entire province, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. They also destroyed a statue of late leader Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current regime head, Bashar.

Clashes however soon erupted in 2014 between ISIS and opposition fighters, including the al-Nusra Front. They culminated in ISIS seizing complete control of Raqqa in January of that same year.

In June 2014, ISIS declared its infamous “caliphate” across swathes of Syria and Iraq.

In August 2014, ISIS enjoyed complete control of Raqqa province after seized the Tabaqa airport from the regime. It then went on to impose its laws in Raqqa through intimidation and terror. It resorted to mass executions, beheadings, rape, ethnic cleansing and stoning to impose its extremist ideology on others.

Raqqa has long been coveted by multiple parties to the Syrian conflict, including the regime, Russia, Turkey and the US-led coalition set up in 2014 to tackle IS.

On November 5, 2016, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) launched a major offensive dubbed “Wrath of the Euphrates” to seize the city.

As the SDF closed in on the city, thousands of Raqa residents were smuggled out to territory captured by the US-backed force.

After taking swathes of the surrounding province, including the key town of Tabqa and the adjacent dam, the SDF sealed off the approaches to Raqqa from the north, east and west.

In early July, SDF forces penetrated the heavily fortified heart of the city for the first time but continued to face tough resistance from the extremists.

On September 1, the SDF successfully captured the entire historic district, bringing it closer than ever to ISIS’ bastion’s well-defended and densely populated heart.

By late September, they had taken control of 90 percent of the city, cornering the extremists in Raqqa’s stadium, a few surrounding buildings and a major hospital.

On October 17, an SDF spokesman told AFP that the group’s fighters had “taken full control of Raqqa” from ISIS.

Abbas Opens Recruitment for Security Services in Gaza

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gestures as he delivers a speech in the West Bank city of Bethlehem

Ramallah- Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas opened the door to recruitment in the Gaza Strip, in a move that would rearrange the security services in the sector.

Member of Fatah Central Committee Hussein Sheikh said that Abbas signed the decision to open the recruitment in the Gaza Strip to restructure the security establishment, noting that a number of security leaders in the West Bank would head to Gaza in the coming days in order to oversee the structure of the security services there.

“We want a security institution committed to the basic law of the State of Palestine, and its doctrine is to protect the national project and the political program of the Palestinian legitimacy,” he added.

Abbas’ decision came ahead of scheduled meetings with security officials from the West Bank and others from the Gaza Strip, in order to arrange security in the sector.

Sources close to the matter told Asharq al-Awsat newspaper that the president’s decision would entail “rebuilding the security services and getting rid of any burden.”

“The decision was made in coordination with the Egyptians. They have been informed,” the sources added.

They went on to say that a large number of the PA’s military personnel would be referred to retirement.

“This may also apply to the Hamas military, and then the remainder will be chosen as the nucleus of the new forces in Gaza,” the sources explained.

The Authority plans to attract some 5,000 new recruits in the Gaza Strip. The applicant must be Palestinian holding a Palestinian identity, between the age of 18 and 22. He must not be sentenced to a felony or misdemeanor. He should have a good appearance and have passed the initial medical examination, and not being separated from his previous service by disciplinary decision.

Hamas and other Palestinian factions gather thousands of armed men in Gaza. The weapons of these groups were not discussed during the rounds of Palestinian dialogue in Cairo. It was only agreed that peace and war would be based on a joint decision and that weapons remain in hideouts to be used when needed.

ISIS Loses Its Syria ‘Capital’

SDF fighters ride atop military vehicles as they celebrate victory in Raqqa

Beirut, Raqqa- ISIS lost on Monday its de facto capital in Syria, Raqqa, as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced they completely control the city, following four months of fierce battles that ended with the withdrawal of some of the terrorists’ militants in an unclear deal that failed to detail the destination of those fighters.

“Everything is finished in Raqqa, our forces have taken full control of Raqqa,” SDF spokesperson Talal Silo told AFP on Tuesday.

He added that “the military operations in Raqqa have finished, but clearing operations are now underway to uncover any sleeper cells there might be and remove mines.”

Silo said an official statement declaring victory in the city would be made soon.

But, despite assertions from the SDF forces that the military operation has ended in Raqqa, the US military said around 100 ISIS fighters were still left in the city.

The Coalition’s spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon said the battle was “near its end,” confirming that 90% of the city had been cleared.

However, he failed to specify the fate of foreign militants.

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

An estimated 275 Syrian ISIS fighters were evacuated from Raqqa to an undisclosed location, leaving behind foreign ISIS jihadists.

The US-led Coalition had rejected that foreign combatants leave the city with the Syrians as part of the deal.

Abu Mohammad al-Raqqawi, an activist in the Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, told Asharq Al-Awsat that “since the first day of the deal’s implementation, foreign fighters were leaving Raqqa in batches as part of the convoys that included Syrians.”

He said that the majority of those fighters went to Deir Ezzor, adding that some of the foreign jihadists were carrying fake Syrian identity cards.

Raqqawi said that between 130 and 150 out of the 1,300 foreign fighters who were inside the city have already surrendered.

He added that many of them were able of fleeing the city after hiding among civilians.

Save the Children: Liberation of Raqqa Does not Signal End of Humanitarian Crisis

Raqqa

Beirut – The liberation of the Syrian city of Raqqa from the ISIS terrorist group does not mean the end of humanitarian suffering in the region, warned Save the Children on Tuesday.

It instead said that the situation is in fact escalating.

“The military offensive in Raqqa may be coming to an end, but the humanitarian crisis is greater than ever,” the aid group’s Syria director Sonia Khush said in a statement.

The Syrian Democratic Forces announced on Tuesday that the city has been liberated from ISIS after a four-month military campaign.

Save the Children warned that “some 270,000 people who have fled the Raqqa fighting are still in critical need of aid, and camps are bursting at the seams.”

It said that most Raqqa families had no homes to go back to and that thousands of civilians were still being displaced in the eastern Deir al-Zour province, where fighting was still raging.

The aid group said that the reconstruction effort would require massive investment and that funding would also be needed to bring children back to school.

“Many are plagued by nightmares from witnessing horrific violence and will need extensive psychological support,” the aid group said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights meanwhile announced that 3,250 people, including some 1,130 civilians, were killed in the campaign to liberate Raqqa that began in June.

Director of the rights group, Rami Abdul Rahman, stressed that there are hundreds of people missing and they are likely stuck under the rubble in the city that has witnessed heavy destruction in the months-long offensive.

Abadi Says Referendum is Over, Calls for Dialogue ‘Under the Constitution’

Riyadh, Baghdad, Irbil- The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz briefed the Cabinet Tuesday on a telephone conversation he held with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi during which the King stressed Riyadh’s support for Iraq’s unity, security, stability, and the adherence of all parties to the country’s constitution for the interest of Iraq and its people.

The King chaired the Cabinet session at Al-Yamamah Palace in Riyadh on Tuesday afternoon.

Meanwhile, as Kurdish Peshmerga forces continued to gradually withdraw from the disputed areas between Baghdad and Irbil, Abadi announced that the Kurdistan region’s referendum on independence is over.

“The referendum is finished and has become a thing of the past,” Abadi said in a press conference on Tuesday.

He called for a dialogue with the Kurdish leadership “under the Constitution.”

For his part, Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani said that after the withdrawal, the new borders between the Peshmerga and Iraqi forces would be as they were before the Mosul operation launched on Oct. 17, 2016.

However, Barzani said: “The loud voices you raised for the independence of Kurdistan that you sent to all nations and world countries will not be wasted now or ever.”

Meanwhile, Iraqi President Fouad Massoum held the Kurdistan Region president, without naming him, responsible for what happened in Kirkuk.

In a statement, Massoum said that he had exerted immense efforts to reach a solution between the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Region government, but said the “latter insisted to hold the referendum.”

The president also called on all parties to engage in urgent dialogue to prevent a worsening of the crisis in Iraq and he reminded everyone that they should resort to the constitution to solve the crisis in Kirkuk.

On Tuesday, the Peshmerga forces withdrew from the disputed area of Khanaqin, near the border with Iran.

Meanwhile, Reuters quoted oil officials in Baghdad as saying that all the fields near Kirkuk were working normally on Tuesday after coming under the central government’s control.

Reuters said Iraq’s dollar-denominated bonds jumped nearly one cent on Tuesday, more than making up for Monday’s losses.

Ankara Offers Washington ‘Goodwill Gesture’ to End Visa Crisis

Topuz

Ankara – Turkish and American authorities kicked off on Tuesday talks to end the visa dispute that erupted after Ankara arrested Metin Topuz, an employee at the US Consulate in Istanbul.

Ankara offered a gesture of goodwill to the Washington by releasing from custody the wife and daughter of another consulate employee, who authorities want to question over his alleged links to the banned Fethullah Gulen group.

The authorities had summoned for interrogation the second employee over his relatives’ alleged links to the failed 2016 coup. The wife and daughter were held for a week before their release and are currently barred from leaving the country.

Topuz was arrested in early October for also having connections to Gulen’s group.

The Turkish-American talks got underway at the Foreign Ministry in Ankara. The US delegation at the discussions is headed by Jonathan Cohen and the Turkish side is headed Ahmet Muhtar Gun.

Washington suspended visa services to Turkey after Topuz’s arrest. Ankara reciprocated by also suspending visa services and efforts have been underway by both sides to avert any escalation in the crisis.

The judiciary has ordered Topuz’s imprisonment for his links to the coup and for alleged spying.

Tensions spiked further, when on Monday, the General Prosecution in Istanbul announced that it had summoned another consulate employee, who does not enjoy diplomatic immunity. He was summoned over the same charges as Topuz.

Gulen has been exiled in the US since 1999. Ankara has accused him of orchestrating last year’s failed coup, an allegation he denies.

Seven Miners Killed in Coal Mine Collapse in Southeastern Turkey

At least even miners were killed and another was missing after part of a coal mine in Turkey’s southeastern province of Sirnak collapsed on Tuesday, government spokesman Bekir Bozdag said.

Reuters cited Turkey’s energy ministry as saying that the coal mine was unlicensed and had been operating illegally.

“The activities of the mining field in Sirnak where the accident took place were stopped by the General Directorate of Mining Affairs in 2013 because it carried operational and security risks,” the energy ministry said.

Workplace accidents are not unusual in Turkey. Its rapid growth over the past decade has seen a construction boom and a scramble to meet soaring energy and commodities demand, with worker safety standards often failing to keep pace.

More than 3,000 people have been killed in mining accidents across Turkey since 1941, mostly due to fires, landslide or explosions.

A report from 2010 stated that the number of deaths in mine accidents in Turkey outnumbers those in the world’s biggest coal producers, the Unites States and China, in terms of fatalities per ton.

Its worst ever mining disaster took place in May 2014 in the western town of Soma, where 301 workers were killed.

Eighteen Injured in Bomb Attack on Police Vehicle in Turkey’s Mersin

A bomb blast wrecked a bus carrying police officers on Tuesday in the southern Turkish province of Mersin.

According to the report cited by Reuters, the blast injured 18 people in an attack that security sources blamed on Kurdish militants.

Seventeen of those hurt were police officers, Deputy Prime Minister and government spokesman Bekir Bozdag told parliament, branding it a terrorist attack.

“Turkey’s battle against terror will continue under any circumstances in a strong and determined way,” Bozdag said.

Security sources said militants of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) were believed to have carried out the attack. They also said that none of those wounded were in a critical condition.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the bombing.

Local mayor Burhanettin Kocamaz told broadcaster Haberturk the attack took place on a street where the local governor’s office was located and had hit the police vehicle as it passed.

Images from NTV showed smoke billowing from the area, in Mersin’s Yenisehir district. Ambulances, police and fire trucks were sent to the site of the attack, security sources said.

Turkey is battling a three-decade insurgency in its mainly Kurdish southeast. The PKK frequently carries out bomb attacks on security forces in the southeast and elsewhere.

The PKK is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union as well as by Turkey. More than 40,000 people, most of them Kurds, have died since it first took up arms against the state in 1984.

Israeli Intelligence Accuses Hezbollah of Recruiting Palestinians for Operations in Settlements

Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah addresses his supporters via a screen during a rally marking Al-Quds day in Beirut's southern suburbs

Tel Aviv- Israeli intelligence accused Hezbollah of recruiting Palestinians to carry out operations in Israeli settlements and other sites.

It revealed that one man was brought to court on charges of carrying out terrorist acts and that the official in charge of this file from Hezbollah is called Mohammed Ataya.

“Hezbollah recruited a Palestinian man to carry out attacks against Israel in the West Bank,” Ofir Gendelman, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Arabic-language spokesperson, said Monday.

“This is another failed attempt by Mohammad Ataya, commander of the Hezbollah unit that recruits Palestinians to carry out terror attacks,” he added in a tweet moments later.

Ataya directs Hezbollah’s 113 Unit, which aims to compile intelligence and build up operational capabilities to carry out what it describes as revenge attacks against Israel.

According to the results of the investigation, he was recruited by Hezbollah in May 2017 through a Lebanese “profile” on Facebook.

He was supposed to receive money from the Lebanese officer in charge from Hezbollah to buy a laptop to communicate with him through a secret program.

Badawi planned to carry out the operations after receiving the money, but he was arrested before he could do so.

The statement pointed out that investigations with Badawi showed he had worked in arms trade and threw stones at Israeli military forces, who were working in the area of his residence.

“The method used by Hezbollah to recruit Badawi is a well-known method for the activity of this organization, as was evident during other investigations conducted during the last year,” the statement stressed.

Jordan Sentences 8 to Prison on Terrorism Charges

Jordan

Amman – The Jordanian State Security Court on Monday issued three- to 15-year prison sentences against eight Jordanians after they were convicted of carrying out terrorist acts, promoting the ideas of an extremist group and attempting to join ISIS.

The court also sentenced a man to 15 years hard labor for planning to commit a terrorist act for ISIS by stabbing a Tourism Ministry guard, Mousa al-Abudullat, the defendants’ lawyer told Asharq Al-Awsat.

The 24-year-old convict, who has been in custody since March 2017, was found guilty of conspiring to carry out terrorist acts, promoting ISIS terrorist ideology and attempting to join the terror group.

The sentence was announced during a public hearing held under Colonel Judge Mohammad al-Afif and the membership of the civil judge Ahmad al-Qatarna, the leading Judge Safwan al-Zu’bi and in the presence of the State Security Prosecutor Captain Anas al-Khasawneh.

Also on Monday, the court sentenced six convicts to three years hard labor and a seventh suspect to four years hard labor for promoting ISIS ideologies and trying to join terrorist and armed groups.

Two detainees were acquitted.

Abdullat said that during the past three months, the court has sentenced 120 suspects, ten of whom were Syrian and the rest were Jordanian.

Most of the cases were related to promoting ISIS ideology or attempting to join terrorist organizations or carry out terrorist acts.