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Last exit Raqqa: Local tribes play key role in evacuating civilians

More than 3,000 civilians have evacuated Raqqa in a deal brokered with tribal leaders
Syrian civilians gather on the western front after fleeing the centre of Raqqa on 12 October (AFP)

RAQQA, Syria – Covered in dust and many suffering injury, the roughly 250 civilians arrived, escorted by fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), at a mosque in the western area of Hawi al-Hawa.

Those suspected of being affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) group were quickly taken away by intelligence forces. Those left behind were treated by medical volunteers.

The SDF, backed by US-led air strikes, has been trying to take Raqqa from IS since June. It is the first big city IS seized when it romped through Syria and Iraq and declared a "caliphate" in 2014. 

According to US forces, about 3,500 civilians have escaped the Islamic State-held parts of the city in the past week. And for many like the hundreds at the mosque, salvation came through delicate negotiations between local tribes and IS militants still hanging on inside the city.

A Syrian woman flashes the victory sign as civilians gather on the western front after fleeing the centre of Raqqa (AFP)

A convoy of IS militants and their families left the city on Sunday in an evacuation deal brokered with tribal elders. IS militants in return allowed the safe passage of civilians.

Fatima Adnan Salam, 26, one of those who fled, said she had tried many times before without success. Her husband did not make it.

"Every time snipers would fire at us, every day I would tell myself that I had to get out of Raqqa,” she said, adding conditions inside the city were dire.

“We ate dry bread. There was no water and we did not wash for a month and a half.

Every time snipers would fire at us, every day I would tell myself that I had to get out of Raqqa

- Fatima Adnan Salam

“There were a lot of injured people, but IS gave no medicine. 

"My daughter was in need of an operation, but I couldn’t go to the hospital, and now she is disabled.

“They beat me and broke my hands.”

All hope seemed lost. But with the battle for Raqqa reaching its end, Arab tribes inside the city last week contacted the Raqqa Civil Council, the administration set up by the SDF, and IS militants, to negotiate a deal and stop the killing.

“The tribal leaders came to us and said that their children were being killed and their homes destroyed,” Omar Aloush, a key leader in the council, told MEE.

“Every time you kill an IS fighter, you kill 40 civilians and we want a solution [they told us]," he added.

Aloush said the commanding general for the anti-IS coalition in Syria and Iraq refused to allow IS militants to leave Raqqa. The US-led coalition feared the move would strengthen IS in Deir Ezzor province, where both the Syrian government and the SDF are fighting IS. 

“Just find a way to get the civilians out and for Daesh to surrender, then we can stop the fighting,” a coalition general told the Arab tribes according to Aloush. 

As a result, the US-led coalition temporarily halted air strikes for a few days last week. 

“The fighting stopped for two days and many civilians left and surrendered themselves to us,” Aloush said. 

Rojda Felat, a senior SDF commander, told MEE: “We stopped using air strikes and mortar attacks. We only used hand weapons because of the presence of children and women.”

Civilians evacuate Raqqa after a deal was brokered with tribal leaders (MEE/Wladimir Van Wilgenberg)

No deal for foreign fighters

However, the local council said on Sunday that foreign IS militants were not allowed to leave under the deal. 

The statement came after one of its members told journalists earlier that "a portion of the foreigners have left," in reference to foreign IS militants in Raqqa.

According to Nicholas Heras, a Middle East researcher at the Centre for a New American Security, the US fears any foreign fighters who leave could pose a threat in the future.

"The US military is operating on the assumption that those foreign fighters allowed to leave Raqqa on their own accord, without unconditionally surrendering, are likely to either return to battle somewhere else in Syria or Iraq, or otherwise try to continue to wage jihad under the banner of IS in their home country,” he told MEE.

Furthermore, US officials say that having been involved in planning attacks in Europe including Paris, there is more reason to be wary of allowing foreign fighters to leave.

“The city became a magnet for foreign fighters, and worldwide attacks such as those in Paris, Brussels, Nice, Manchester and others were either planned, supported, financed or inspired by IS leadership in Raqqa. IS used its three-plus-year occupation to convert Raqqa into a fortified military garrison,” a coalition spokesperson told MEE.

At the same time, some foreign fighters refused to leave as well, reported civilians that escaped Raqqa.

“We are happy because we left Raqqa, and the [Tunisian] governor of Raqqa allowed civilians to leave the city, but the foreign fighters do not want to leave,” said a local journalist. “They are afraid the Kurdish fighters will kill them, but we Syrians understand each other,” she said. 

Civilians evacuating Raqqa on 16 October (MEE/Wladimir Van Wilgenberg)

Surrender

Other foreign fighters as well as Syrians affiliated with IS have felt the need to surrender, however.

“Some of them [foreign fighters] have no more will to fight because they have been besieged in a small area for months and have no more food,” Abdul Hussain, 49, who had escaped Raqqa on Thursday, told MEE.

“More than 100 IS terrorists have surrendered in Raqqa in the last 36 hours, and were removed from the city,” a coalition spokesperson told MEE. 

“A good number of IS fighters are simply giving up, and their leadership has completely lost command and control of their forces."

At this same time, the SDF “accepted receipt of those who wish to get out of Raqqa city and especially Syrians,” said Sheikh Hamed Abdul Rahman al-Faraj, the chairman of Raqqa’s tribal reconciliation council.

Yet there remains about “300 and 500 IS fighters in Raqqa,” a coalition spokesperson told MEE, adding that their nationalities cannot be confirmed. 

“We still expect difficult fighting in the coming days and cannot at this time set a specific date for when we think IS will be completely defeated in Raqqa,” he added.

Raqqa official Omar Aloush said it is still possible that foreign fighters will try to exit Raqqa, as they did in the city of Manbij after they abducted 2,000 civilians and used them as a cover to reach Jarabulus in August last year.

“Daesh can use civilians as a way out and then they can go to Deir Ezzor,” he said.

“In this case, the SDF and the coalition will not be able to target them, just like in Manbij,” he said.

Ryan Dillon, a colonel in the US-led coalition, said whatever was agreed his forces would not fire on convoys containing IS militants due to the presence of "family members or civilians". 

Meanwhile, air strikes by the US-led coalition against IS-held areas continued on Monday, Dillon said.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.