Although air strikes by America and its Arab allies and the Assad regime’s recent raids have recently made life for ISIS more difficult, Raqqa has become a crucial power center in a territory that is now bigger than many countries and includes some six million to eight million people in Iraq and Syria.
To judge from images distributed by the Islamic State, the Syrian city of Raqqa, its “capital,” is an extremist hotbed whose inhabitants crave radical Islam, enjoy public executions, and fervently support their ruthless black-clad overlords. Yet there is little about this provincial center that might have suggested jihadist tendencies. In fact, Raqqa did not even enter the Syrian conflict until 2013.
While Syrians continue to suffer, sandwiched between a brutal dictatorship and extremist groups, Arab and European jihadists are being indoctrinated and trained in the world’s most active battle zone—experience they may someday bring home.
The most noticeable change in Damascus since I lived here before the war is in the urban population itself. Before the conflict began, the Syrian capital had aspiring filmmakers and graying dissidents, worldly youth and wrinkled shop owners, and many highly-educated lawyers, doctors, and scholars. Now many professionals, the young, and even workers with sufficient savings to do so have left for Lebanon, Egypt, and the Gulf. In their place, the city has received a huge influx of poor and destitute people from the suburbs, who have moved to the Old City, often to live with family or friends, or to districts like Midan, a neighborhood just south of the center which is itself an area of unrest. They now live alongside the city’s rich and apathetic who have stayed and who generally support the regime.
One morning last week, while visiting a friend’s house on the outskirts of the old city of Damascus, I heard high-pitched voices shouting “Irhal ya Bashar!” (“Leave, o Bashar”). I peered out the window onto the street but couldn’t see anything. Later, when I went out, I tracked the chants to children innocently swinging to and fro on a large rusty metal swing in the street. The protest chant against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad would be nothing out of the ordinary in Homs, the city near the Lebanese border that has been a center of the Syrian revolt, but to hear it from children’s mouths in the heart of the capital shows how far the revolution has spread.