In Raqqa, largest city held by Syrian rebels, Islamists provide electricity, bread, and order

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 24, 2013 

— The sounds of battle can still be heard nearby and residents remain fearful that the government will attack with airstrikes and missiles. But Abdul Hakim Mohamed, the vice president of the local civil council in the largest Syrian city so far to fall to rebel control is optimistic about the future, though what that future will be is uncertain.

“Raqqa is a shining example of what can happen,” he said.

Rebels took just three days to seize Raqqa earlier this month, sparing it the level of destruction that has marked other places where insurgents have challenged government forces. The rebel groups that seized the city – the same Islamist fundamentalists who’ve been responsible for most rebel victories of recent months – appear to have prevented looting, spray-painting warnings to would-be thieves on shop shutters.

“People are afraid of us, and some of them even started writing (the warnings) on the shops themselves,” said Abu Fera, the leader of a group of fighters from Jabhat al Nusra, one of the groups that participated in the fighting and is now making plans to administer the city.

Nusra also is in control of a hydroelectric dam to the west of the city, providing Raqqa with 24-hour electricity, an improvement from the months before the city’s takeover, when power was on for only half the day.

According to Abu Fera and other local leaders, the Raqqa branch of the Syrian Central Bank remained intact. They said its contents would be used to pay salaries of government workers who return.

The capital of the northern Syrian province bearing the same name, Raqqa is now the largest city rebels control outright. Normally home to about 250,000 people, Raqqa’s population as much as tripled with refugees from other parts of the country in the months before the rebels took it. Then many of those people fled to nearby villages as the rebels neared. Now most people asked estimate that the population is currently about 100,000.

During a two-day visit here last week, the city was quiet. Local bakeries opened only after dark for fear of airstrikes.

Government soldiers remain at three points in the province – a military airport near the dam, at the headquarters of the Syrian army’s 17th Division near the entrance to Raqqa city, and at a military base about 30 miles north of the city.

Rebels surround all three. Members of Ahrar al Sham, another Islamist group that participated in the seizure of the city, are laying siege to the 17th Division’s headquarters, and expect the base to fall soon. Proof of the army’s weakness, they say, is that the soldiers rarely shell the city from the base.

“Hopefully people will return soon, after the end of the battle at the 17th Division,” the civil council’s Mohamed said.

What the coming weeks and months will bring, however, is a source of debate. Mohamed’s council has set up its headquarters in the local Writer’s Union, a decision Mohamed said was intended to send a message to people outside Syria.

“We want people to know we chose the Writer’s Union because we are not extremists,” he said, sitting in front of a shelf of books that included western literature translated into Arabic.

Mohamed said he hoped his council would receive support from the Syrian Opposition Coalition, the exile opposition group the United States and others have recognized as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people. The United States recently pledged $60 million to the coalition to help it organize and last week the group elected a prime minister as a first step toward setting up a government that might replace the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. But the group’s leader, Mouaz al Khatib, resigned suddenly on Sunday, throwing the organization into turmoil.

“We want them to help us run things until there are elections,” Mohamed said.

Mohamed’s vision of elections runs counter to the groups that fought for and won Raqqa, however. The United States has labeled Jabhat al Nusra, also known as the Nusra Front, as a terrorist group that is just another name for al Qaida in Iraq. It and Ahrar al Sham share a belief that any post-Assad Syrian state should be based on Islamic law.

On Friday night, members of Nusra, including fighters from Egypt and Tunisia, handed out literature encouraging people to accept Islamic law in one of Raqqa’s main roundabouts. The group’s leaders and members have repeatedly denounced elections as un-Islamic.

They, not the civil council, are clearly in control. Nusra and Sham, along with a third group, the Islamic Front for Unity and Liberation, have plans to set up a sharia court in Raqqa and are already policing the streets. While Nusra controls the electricity, Sham has taken over nearby stocks of flour and wheat, and controls distribution to bakeries. The civil council doesn’t seem to control much outside the Writer’s Union building.

Nonetheless, Mohamed said he was confident that a compromise would be reached.

“No political process will pass without the people’s approval,” Mohamed said.

The direction of the city may become clearer soon as both the Islamists and Mohamed lay plans for putting on trial officials of the Assad regime who were captured when rebels stormed the government building. Among those being held is the province’s governor, Hassan Jalaly.

The rebels hold dozens of other prisoners and said they were negotiating possible exchanges with the government. Videos posted to YouTube when the city fell to the rebels suggested summary executions had taken place.

How the rebels deal with captured Assad officials – what is known as “transitional justice” – hasn’t been an issue in Syria before; until now, no major city has been in rebel hands.

“We will have a court,” Mohamed said. Then, referring to the political party identified with Assad rule, he added: “Syria had civil laws before the Baath Party.”

Enders is a McClatchy Special Correspondent. Email: denders@mcclatchydc.com Twitter: @davidjenders

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