As part of the Operation Wrath of Euphrates to liberate Raqqa, dubbed the ‘Great Battle’, YPG/YPJ-led Syrian Democratic (SDF) cleared Raqqa of ISIS on October 17th following a battle of 135 days. A large number of fighters from the YPG (People’s Defense Units) and YPJ (Women’s Defense Units) participated in the campaign which had been launched on June 6th.
The fighters were welcomed by crowds with great enthusiasm as they returned to Efrîn after successfully completing their mission with great sacrifices. The fighters danced Kurdish traditional dance halay to celebrate their victory over ISIS in its so-called capital.
Raqqa is a city to the north of Syria, on the Euphrates River 160 km west of Aleppo. The city’s population was 220,448 in the 2004 census and 191,784 in the 2008 census, but there has been arrivals and departures from the city after the Syrian civil war started.
Raqqa was invaded by gang groups in the Syrian National Coalition in the 2011-2014 period, and ISIS gangs removed the SNC gangs to invade the city themselves in 2014.
Raqqa is to the northeast of Syria. It is a strategic location that connects trade routes among Syria’s big cities and Iraq’s western cities like Mosul and Baghdad.
The greatest change Raqqa saw was in the 1970s. A huge hydroelectric dam was built near the city on the Euphrates River. Large scale agriculture projects in the region pulled tens of thousands of people seeking new opportunities from Syria’s other cities to Raqqa.
This started to change the demographics in the city. Raqqa is on the intersection of main roads that lead to every corner of Syria. The partially desert city has easy access to Iraqi territory, which is the reason why ISIS gangs chose it as their so-called capital.
Before the civil war broke out in Syria, there was a private university and state-owned schools in Raqqa. Life in the city was relatively different than other Arab countries.
The residents stayed out in the streets until the late hours of the night in the summers, visited parks, went to cafés, and ate dinner in restaurants where women and men went together. Women and men went to the entertainment locales together as well. The attentive minds will remember that the anti-Assad demonstrations were also held by women and men together.
But everything changed when the city was invaded by the SNC gangs groups after the civil war broke out in 2011. The city fell under sharia law in the 2011-2014 period.
Raqqa was quickly transformed into a “radical Islamist” space after the fascist ISIS gangs took control of the city in 2014. The city began posing a threat to the world and turned into a “Hajj” for the jihadist movements and gangs from around the world.
ISIS gangs set up a system with the locals and former public workers after they finalized their invasion. They passed sharia laws and set up courts accordingly.
It was impossible to resist or protest the practices of the gangs in the ISIS-invaded Raqqa. There was a long list of people punished for breaking ISIS “laws.” The gangs took to public beheadings, stonings, executions and other such practices.
The people that remained in the city adapted to the ISIS invasion because they had some semblance of access to security, law, services, and food. But the energy and water supplies were destroyed by the intensifying aerial bombings of the US-led international coalition and Russia, making life difficult for civilians. For instance, there was a fuel shortage due to the bombing of the oil facilities and refineries.
Women and girls were not allowed to leave their houses without an accompanying male relative, which was usually their father, brother, or husband. They were forced to wear a veil and a black niqab that cover their bodies from head to ankle. ISIS gangs set up seperate brigades to inspect women in Raqqa.
There was a special patrol on the streets that inspect the clothing of men as well. It was forbidden to smoke. Smokers faced sentences of lashings if they were caught smoking by the ISIS “security units.” All men were obliged to go to a mosque on prayer times during the day.
ISIS sentenced people who were caught with photographs of women on their phones to 30 lashes. It was forbidden to watch football games. If they broadcast games, cafés and restaurants risked being shut down, while the owners risked getting killed.
ISIS gangs formed an all-women El Hansa Brigade that inspected the clothing of women on the streets. Most women in these brigades were the wives of ISIS militants. Their job was to punish the women who did not adhere to the dress code and to torture women detainees.
These, and not wanting to be forced into marrying gang members, were the reasons why women stayed in their homes.
The wives of killed ISIS militants were married off to other ISIS members. Children were not usually on the agenda because the marriages do not last long. Women were mostly turned into sex slaves in order to satisfy the gang members’ “needs.”
On 19 October 2017, the liberation of the city was officially declared at al-Naim Square where ISIS gangs would commit mass executions. The area was decorated with a huge image of Kurdish People’s Leader Abdullah Öcalan, flags of People’s Defense Units (YPG), Women’s Defense Units (YPJ), Shengal Women’s Units (YJŞ) and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Making the official statement on behalf of YPJ Command, Nesrin Abdullah said they dedicated the Raqqa victory to Kurdish People’s Leader Abdullah Öcalan and all the fighters who lost their lives during the liberation campaign.
Abdullah said: “We inflicted the heaviest blow on the gangs here which they called their capital. With this struggle of ours, we emancipated and glorified the trampled honor of Êzidî women. We have emancipated thousands of captive Êzidî women and children. Arab women who have joined the YPJ during this process declared two battalions under which they participated and gave a great struggle in the battle for Raqqa. Another battalion from YJŞ also took an active role and avenged their people in this campaign. We have rescued 450 thousand civilians from the clutches of the gangs and helped them reach safe zones. During the historic Raqqa campaign, 30 female fighters have fallen as martyrs. We dedicate the liberation of Raqqa to all the women of the world.”
The statement ended with the slogan “Jin, Jiyan, Azadi” [Woman, Life, Freedom] and celebrations in the area continued for a while.
ISIS had drained the joy of life in Raqqa, but after three years, sounds of music rang in the city once more and people danced again. Fighters played traditional music from their vehicles and broke the silence in Raqqa.