Posted by Matthew Barber on Thursday, April 4th, 2013
The Raqqa Story: Rebel Structure, Planning, and Possible War Crimes
Written by Matthew Barber for Syria Comment, with research from the Syria Video team
April 3, 2013
Syria Comment Sunday unveiled Syria Video, a web application that maps and aggregates video footage of the Syrian war. This service does not attempt to measure or compare the respective levels of video content uploaded by conflict participants aligned with the regime vs. the opposition. Syria Video functions as an organized archive for the mass of video material that is already available on the web; the interpretive process is left up to the viewer whose experience is made easier through the mapping of uploaded video by geographical location.
In what follows, we will present our findings on the timeline of events in Raqqa and the organization of the rebel groups operating there, informed by various forms of social media, the most important of which was video material acquired by Syria Video. Aside from any informative value, this report demonstrates the potential of Syria Video as a research tool. Historically unprecedented, information is different in the Syrian conflict—in how it is both acquired and used. The war in Syria is the first conflict of its kind to have such extensive documentation of everyday events captured on video, providing us with levels and kinds of information absent in previous conflicts. Syria Video represents an initial attempt to tap into this expansive resource. In our endeavor to form a clearer understanding of how events unfolded in Raqqa, we relied heavily on Syria Video as an information gathering resource that contributed material that could help revise and expand on the leading narrative already being developed and amended by journalists and others.
The advantages and limitations of relying on uploaded video to construct a picture of events should be considered. The kind of information that can be gathered from uploaded video is different from that gathered by a reporter who has the opportunity to pursue inquiry through direct engagement with actors. However, working with a large quantity of video can facilitate the discovery of emerging patterns and trajectories of events through access to a kind of perspective inaccessible to a journalist on the ground.
The Structure and Relationships of Rebel Groups Operating in al-Raqqa
Syria Video has made it possible to acquire a sense of the number and hierarchical structure of rebel groups who participated in the Raqqa takeover. We have identified over 80 rebel units in Raqqa alone that are grouped into larger bodies that cooperate together.
Figure 1 shows the structure of “Jabhat Tahrir al-Raqqa” (“The Raqqa Liberation Front”), made up of both Free Syrian Army battalions and Islamist battalions. (Click here for .pdf of chart)
The methodology for mapping these militias involved first reviewing announcements released by brigades (who often list each battalion linked to them) and the crosschecking by searching for each battalion and identifying which brigade they say they are linked to. Colors in the chart identify duplicate groups. These could be errors on the part of announcement videos released, multiple groups using the same names or the same group switching teams.
In this map, all battalions under “Military and Revolutionary Council” belong to the FSA, and all the other groups listed are Islamist. But this entire “united front” was only one piece of the Raqqa takeover, and was not the most important (or even second most important) force in the offensive. The graphic does not include Ahrar al-Sham or Jabhat al-Nusra who operate independently. All three bodies cooperated in coordinating the Raqqa takeover.
Based on available material reviewed by the Syria Video team, it would appear that Ahrar al-Sham was the real mastermind and spearhead of the Raqqa offensive. Jabhat al-Nusra was second in importance in this operation, providing significant support. Also participating was the Raqqa Liberation Front of fig. 1. The participants of the overall offensive could be visualized thus:
It will be helpful to continue the discussion of this coalition within a timeline that places the development of these rebel groups with events in Raqqa.
The following are some of the major events since last summer that led up to the current capture of al-Raqqa.
August 2, 2012 The Raqqa Military Council (a union of multiple rebel brigades) is created. This partnership identifies with the Free Syrian Army.
September 19, 2012 Tel Abyad is captured by the forces of the FSA Military Council, about a month and a half after that group’s formation.
December 20, 2012 The Military Council is restructured, with some groups being expelled and others being admitted.
December 25, 2012 Five days after the Military Council is restructured, it joins with a significant number of Islamist groups fighting in the province to form the larger Raqqa Liberation Front (Jabhat Tahrir al-Raqqa). This is the larger body represented in Fig. 1.
January 12, 2012 The Raqqa Liberation Front and Jabhat al-Nusra work together to take the Raqqa–Deir Ezzor highway.
February 11, 2013 The Raqqa Liberation Front and Jabhat al-Nusra are joined by Ahrar al-Sham for the offensive in Tabqah (also called Thawra), a town near the city of Raqqa. Another group, Liwa al-Tawhid (primarily active in Aleppo) comes to aid in the overthrow of Tabqah which happens on the 11th. A statue of Hafez al-Assad is burnt in Tabqah, 20 days before the one toppled in Raqqa city. The victory of this offensive resulted in the rebels capturing a large amount of weapons and ammunition, likely used later in taking Raqqa city. See Jabhat al-Nusra with captured weapons and Ahrar al-Sham with captured weapons.
February 17, 2013 Ceasefire between Kurds and Syrian rebels is brokered in Ras al-Ain (east of Tel Abyad in nearby muhafiza of Hasake) by Michel Kilo and others. Jabhat al-Nusra refuses to sign the agreement, but stops fighting after the other rebels sign. On the same day, the rebels in Raqqa muhafiza elect new local council to preside over the province and designate Tel Abyad the new headquarters until the city of Raqqa could be overthrown.
February 20, 2013 Ahrar al-Sham carefully plans for the offensive on the city of Raqqa during this period, and it is around this time that we have the first glimpse of another emerging Islamist rebel group, Liwa Umanaa’ al-Raqqa. Since the takeover of Raqqa would be largely conducted by outsiders (rebels not from the Raqqa muhafiza), Ahrar al-Sham cleverly fashioned a sub-group (whose name means “Brigade of the Trustees of Raqqa”) consisting of fighters from Raqqa, to legitimize the offensive and serve as the “local face” for Ahrar al-Sham. Liwa Umana al-Raqqa will later become the primary instrument for maintaining order and implementing Islamic law in the city.
March 2, 2013 Ahrar al-Sham leads the alliance shown in Fig. 3 in a large-scale attack on the city of Raqqa. This is a well-organized, well-planned military operation, dubbed Gharat al-Jabbaar (“The Raid of the Almighty”). The offensive is announced by both Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra. The muhafiz (governor) of Raqqa and the head of the Ba’ath party are captured and seen in a video speaking about the takeover alongside their captor, the “Emir” (who in later videos becomes known as “Dr. Samer”). Consistent with Ahrar al-Sham’s plan to have the offensive appear as a local operation, they are not featured in this significant video (significant for showcasing the most important prisoners captured by the regime so far). Instead, the group that announces itself in this widely-seen video (and which beyond serving as the local face of the offensive for Raqqans also served as the face of the Raqqa takeover for us) was called “Jabhat al-Wahdet al-Tahrir al-Islamiyye.” Based on what we’ve gleaned from Syria Video, this group—though acting as frontman—was not as significant a force in the offensive as the other major players. Its ranks were drawn by combining one of the FSA battalions (Kitaabet al-Nasir Salahudin) and one of the Islamist brigades (Liwa Huthayfa Ibn al-Yaman). That it was newly formed resolves our earlier question about why the “Emir” first says he is with the FSA before quickly switching to “Jabhat al-Wahdet.”
The mix of FSA and Islamist fighters comprising Jabhat al-Wahdet illustrates the difficulty of distinguishing between Islamist and nationalist energies on the ground.
This developing picture of the Raqqa offensive as a largely outside operation which utilized shrewd techniques to appear local corroborates the first report I received after the takeover from a tribe member who asserted that the tribes—long closely supportive of the regime—had not suddenly en masse suspended their loyalty. However, this needs to be explored further, as there is evidence of at least one tribe making a switch to the opposition. This tribe (“عشيرة البو عساف”) announced that it took up arms to oppose the regime on May 5 (but that was several days after Raqqa fell). Their militia is called “لواء عمر أمير الأمة” and they called on other tribes to join ranks in fighting the regime.
March 5, 2013 Liwa Umanaa’ al-Raqqa assumes responsibility of the city to “show the people that the fighters are their brethren.”
March 6, 2013 Prisoners are promised safe passage for surrender, and later exterminated. See section below on possible war crime.
March 8, 2013 Abu Jassim, one of the heads of “army security” in Raqqa (a branch of the mukhabaraat), is killed. His head has been shot at point-blank range and his body is dumped from the back of a pickup into the street where it is left through the day and night, as people come by to kick it and spit on it, saying that he had been a very oppressive and ruthless character in the local power structure. Please be warned that the videos are extremely graphic: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.
March 9, 2013 Videos are posted by rebels claiming to have besieged the regime’s 93rd Brigade at an army base in Ain Eissa, further north from Raqqa city within the muhafiza. Underscoring the trend of outsider initiative in the Raqqa offensive, 3 of the 4 militias besieging the base are from Jabal al-Zawiya, Idlib.
March 31, 2013 A convoy of the 93rd Brigade comes out of the base and engages in conflict with the rebels. Rumors begin to circulate that tanks were being sent to re-take the city, but these are unconfirmed and likely untrue. Rebels remain confident that the muhafiza will remain under their control, but until now the muhafiza of Raqqa is not completely empty of regime presence. The 93rd Brigade and Division 17 both remain.
A War Crime in Raqqa?
Syria Video has found six videos dealing with a particular group of prisoners who were promised safety in exchange for surrendering after the city of Raqqa fell to the rebels. The prisoners were regime soldiers with army security, and according to the rebels talking in the videos, they were offered safe passage in return for laying down their arms. The man with the camera says to the effect of: “With God’s help Nusra was able to take the base after negotiating and promising the dogs of Assad to give them safe passage if they surrendered.” We see the rebels loading the prisoners onto a bus, presumably to drive them out of the city. What seems to have happened instead is that the bus was fired upon, killing the prisoners inside it. March 6 is the date of the surrender, when we see the prisoners on the bus. The next time we see the bus, it is after dark the same day. The bus is destroyed. Riddled with bullet holes, its windows are shot out and its tires are flat. The possessions of the men are strewn about on the ground outside the bus. (They had originally boarded the bus with clothes and suitcases, probably having expected they would be sent home.) In a subsequent clip the man filming climbs into the bus and shows us a body on the floor near the back:
The next day we see the bus in the daylight, with the destruction more visible.
What exactly occurred here is not clear. In one clip we hear the man filming say “the rebels gave them safe passage but the soldiers betrayed that trust.” We also hear someone say “thank god the rebels were able to prevent this group from joining the 17th Division” and the attitude is that the soldiers were killed “because they were trying to flee.” What seems odd about these statements is that one of the men filming acknowledges that the soldiers were killed inside the bus. Furthermore, why would they have run away having already given up their guns and been loaded onto a bus that was moving out? If they were planning on running from the beginning, they would not have abandoned their weapons. And why would they need to run if they were being conducted out of the city under guarantee of safety? What does seem clear is that they were all killed (a man filming acknowledges this), and that they were killed unarmed, after having surrendered. Also confusing is that though the bus is destroyed by bullets, the presence of a high quantity of blood is not readily visible inside the bus (that we could detect), though in the sole clip that we have of the bus interior, it is nighttime and dark. If the men were marched off the bus and slaughtered, it would not have made sense to destroy the bus with gunfire. Some shell casings can be seen on the floor inside the bus, indicating that shooting took place inside. Did soldiers shoot from inside or was the bus boarded by rebels who shot the soldiers inside it? Could the soldiers still have had weapons?
Perhaps one rebel group promised the soldiers safe passage, and then another group showed up and disagreed with that decision, deciding that they should be executed. One of the men filming indicates that al-Nusra was arriving on the scene after base had already been taken. The names of two other groups are heard mentioned in the clips: Ahfath al-Rasuul (the grandsons of the Prophet) and Jabhat al-Shura. At one point a man says the “the lions of Jabhat al-Nusra have given them al-amaan” (referring to a kind of pledge guaranteeing security that according to the Islamic religion is quite serious and must not be breached). If the bus had been attacked by another party after leaving, it would explain the evidence of attack from without (the shot tires) and if soldiers had responded with fire it would explain the shell casings, though this would mean that not all of their weapons had been taken by the rebels. Another possibility is that the bus was boarded and the shell casings are from the attackers who shot the soldiers inside. It’s impossible to know who was responsible for the act until we have more information and any theory is speculation at this point, but the evidence we have points toward a war crime on the part of the rebels. It’s not certain that we’ve discovered every video related to this incident, though we were unable to find more in our search. Hopefully more information will emerge soon regarding the incident.
As described above, an Islamist rebel group called Liwa al-Umanaa’ al-Raqqa (Fig. 3) was formed by Ahrar al-Sham to serve as a local face for the largely outsider-conducted offensive to take the city. Featuring local members, the group served to legitimize the operation. But more than this, the group also represented a strategy on the part of Ahrar al-Sham to introduce Islamist rule and the use of Islamic law in the city. This was a very well-organized project; unlike examples of haphazard campaigns around Syria, the Islamists in Raqqa were considering from the outset how they would maintain smooth administration of the city after the attack. Their planning and organization were impressive, but could also be seen as the exploitation of the conflict to further their own religio-political agenda and impose an unfamiliar brand of religious rule over the city, apart from the will of the local people.
An example of their effort to keep the city functioning in an orderly fashion can be seen in a video featuring their management of the transportation system. They have made sure to keep the buses running and to have drivers ready to work. The bus in the video has “Umanaa’ al-Raqqa” spray-painted on its front. In another video, members of the group can be seen guarding a museum.
While it seems the rebels have provided security and administration, concerns exist about the style of religious law being implemented in the city. As in other areas in Syria now under control of Islamists, a “hay al-shari’a” has been established (a body functioning as a shari’a court) that decides punishments for crime. The following video shows us a man who was beaten for illicit behavior with a woman. They accused him of raping her, but the woman’s statement denied this, claiming that they were alone together because she was being threatened by other men and that this man had “saved her from kidnapping.” It appears that they are possibly lovers who concocted the story to justify having been alone together, and that the man was punished for being alone with a woman.
Whatever the actual offense was, the video shows his body severely beaten. The hay al-shari’a meted out his punishment, and the members of Umanaa’ al-Raqqa are functioning as police, bringing transgressors to the shari’a court.
Other groups have also taken advantage of the situation to promote their brand of Islamism. Jabhat al-Nusra has established a “missionary center” from which they have been handing out gifts to the people in a campaign to win hearts and stomachs.
The information presented above represents a developing picture of Raqqa, one that is not perfect. With time, additional clarity may correct aspects of this account. For now, conclusions we’ve drawn from a significant amount of analyzed video content include the following:
1) The fall of Raqqa could have been anticipated if we had been following events occurring in the muhafiza. Most of the governorate was already under rebel control by the time the city fell. (Here’s a video from Feb. 13 purporting to show the burial of 46 regime soldiers in Tabqah.)
2) The attack that overthrew the city of Raqqa was led by several groups from outside of the muhafiza, but it was coordinated with some groups inside.
3) The taking of the city was primarily an Islamist-conducted operation. Some FSA units participated, but their role was minimal. We previously postulated that the ceasefire in Ras al-Ain facilitated the Raqqa takeover by freeing up FSA rebels, but now that it is clear that the FSA role in taking Raqqa was minimal, it appears that the ceasefire was not a significant factor.
4) Ahrar al-Sham, not Jabhat al-Nusra, was the primary force behind the takeover (from what we can tell with our current data). Ahrar al-Sham seems to be the most organized group working in the country—even their media reflects this. Jabhat al-Nusra did play an important role in the takeover, which was well-planned by Ahrar al-Sham, with a high level of coordination between the groups participating. They worked together so closely that they even coordinated their separate video announcements.
5) Ahrar al-Sham not only planned for legitimacy by engineering an insider Islamist group comprised of locals to be the “face” of the operation, but they also planned for post-takeover Islamist governance. The two groups of Liwa Umanaa’ al-Raqqa and Jabhat al-Wahdet al-Tahrir al-Islamiyye were formed a short time prior to the incursion and remain active in administering the city and in continuing the offensive against the regime’s remaining forces in the muhafiza. The boundaries between the Islamist groups are difficult to distinguish; the two regime prisoners who first appeared in the video with Jabhat al-Wahdet later appear in a video with Jabhat al-Nusra, extolling their virtues as cooperative captives tend to do so well.
———————————————A Note on Syria Video
The bulk of video content uploaded from Syria originates from opposition-aligned parties. The representation of video material acquired by Syria Video reflects this reality. Upon encountering this abundance of rebel-filmed footage, some initial visitors to the new (and still developing) service suggested that Syria Video is deficient as a tool for critically approaching the conflict. Let me emphasize: the element of criticism must be introduced by the user. Syria Video does not provide analysis; the user performs it.
Syria Video works with what it finds online. We hope to incorporate all relevant channels from both sides of the conflict. Making that material available in an archive does not equate the promotion of the views expressed in that material. The quantity of video from the rebels will always be greater because there’s more of it. But even if all the videos provided were exclusively from the opposition’s side, the service would still have value as a tool for historians, researchers, and others studying the conflict—and that is its primary purpose: a tool for research, not an attempt to shape opinion.
Most material that has acted in a self-incriminating fashion—on both sides of the conflict—has come from videos that those parties themselves (regime forces and rebels) have captured and uploaded. Therefore, even if Syria Video had a political agenda, it would not be a given that the service would be tilted in the favor of one side merely because of an overabundance of material originating from that side. The section above dealing with bus in Raqqa should demonstrate this fact.
A tremendous amount of fraudulent information has been propagated through deceitful videos produced by actors on both sides of the conflict—this has been a reality from the beginning. With tens of thousands of individual videos already acquired, you are certain to encounter such clips on Syria Video. Remember, the responsibility to interpret critically rests with you. Syria Comment cannot (and need not) constantly hold the viewer’s hand through the interpretive process.
In sum, for those with sensitivities about politicization of media coverage and analysis of the conflict, please realize: an archive is not a mouthpiece. This material is already out there and others are already using it. We simply want to make the vast mass of it more accessible in an organized form. It is available for you as well. Feel free to draw your own conclusions from any material you engage. We hope you enjoy.