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The lost opportunity of the Syrian opposition powers

The lost opportunity of the Syrian opposition powers

AL-RAQQAH: from Al-Assad tyranny to ISIS sword/terror

Khalaf Ali Alkhalaf


Mr. Anwar AL-BUNNI, director of the Syrian Center for Legal Researches and Studies.

Dr. Youssef SALAMA, the academic director at the Democratic Republic Studies Center.

Brief introduction about understanding the failure

The regime terminology has always referred to AL-RAQQAH (along with Der ez-Zor and Al-Hasakah) as an “underdeveloped province”. Such classification meant only a minor benefit: sort of deducted percentile for high school graduates of these provinces, who wish to join Syrian universities. However, its citizens call this “underdeveloped province” of AL-RAQQAH as the “plundered province”!

Decades have passed without any political activity in this city as well as in the entire country. The regime saved no endeavor and expense to paralyze/neutralize all sources of any political activity in this country. Therefore, when the revolution burst in March-2011, the city found itself in a situation where it lacked competent patriotic leaders to direct the political activity and civil peaceful movement against the tyranny of the regime. With the first demonstration in the city dated 25-March-2015, it did not take AL-RAQQAH long time to join the Syrian revolution. However, its anti-regime activity did not continue and remained limited and intermittent until shortly before its liberation (4-March-2013). This liberation was quite unexpected in a province where the peaceful movement was less recurrent than in other provinces.

Lacking any authority in the province, citizens and opposing powers were supposed/expected to make every effort to produce a practical strategy to fill the gap of absence of power! But later facts show the large-scale failure of such endeavors and inability to produce and administration for the provinces. Therefore, instead of establishing an example for the liberated areas, AL-RAQQAH broke the yoke of Al-Assad regime only to wear the shackles of ISIS which announced the city as its first capital.

This study briefs the facts and reasons of this “failure” in an attempt to enable the reader to answer questions, wildly shared between Syrians, about it. “AL-RAQQAH” failure was a lost opportunity for the powers of revolution and opposition to present themselves, to Syrians and to the world, as competent powers capable of establishing an administration to a city liberated from control of the regime. Needless to say that such administration should be in accordance with the objectives of the Syrian revolution.

Were the reasons of this failure related to AL-RAQQAH citizens? Were they a result of opposition powers not making enough efforts to help citizens run their own city? Since AL-RAQQAH cannot be detached from the regional and international influences on the Syrian revolution, we can ask: were such influences the decisive factor behind this failure?

We acknowledge that even if the regional and international influences on the Syrian revolution may not have led directly to its defeat, they still would be an obstacle to its full success! Now, was ISIS an inevitable output of the developments in AL-RAQQAH? Or its control over the province was just a result of the opposition disorder handling the situation and failure to run the city?

This study is particularly necessary as it presents/discusses a repeated scenario that might be named “dispersion strategy”. It refers to the military MO of opposition where the military formations fight to liberate and gain control over separated areas. Therefore, these regional areas remained disunited by the either the regime or ISIS later. This regional liberation is followed by failure not only to produce a civil administration of the liberated areas, but also to fit these areas in a bigger picture/puzzle of a united Syria. Opposition failed to capitalize on the liberated areas to establish an integrated vision to liberate Syria from the regime control.

This study is limited to the province of AL-RAQQAH. Such limitation is in accordance with the objective consideration that it is one geographic entity. Other reasons for this limitation relate to understanding the city shift from Al-Assad tyranny to ISIS sword. Besides all that, we believe this specific city is a suitable field to examine how different parties react to a “liberated area” geographically connected and demographically consistent. It important to mention that “different parties” include local powers, Syrian National Coalition of revolution and opposition powers, other opposition powers and the General Staff of the Free Syrian Army, the latter is the military division of the Coalition which, at the time, gained international legitimacy and support.

This research might make a theoretical reference that can be used where “AL-RAQQAH scenario” is likely to be repeated. It presents how this shift happened, includes/implies answers to questions related to this “failure”, and analyzes the facts in such a way that does not compromise their neutrality. Needless to say that these facts were brief and without details that would require hundreds of pages to cover, if we mentioned them.

We must stress that the narrative structure of the facts that took place in the city, is the result of the close observation – and sometimes participation – of the writer. These efforts included careful verification of some information received orally from participants in certain activities. The footnotes provide a kind of support to these facts rather than quotations from or explanation of them. In this specific respect, difficulties lie in finding referential resources quite close to or well-informed about the topic. The writer took longer time working on the footnotes than on research material itself! They make a detailed material that covers all aspects of this topic; especially that AL-RAQQAH did not obtain enough coverage in reliable and widespread media, to say the least.


The time gap that separate us from the liberation era is sufficient for us to see those events clear enough to conclude the reasons of that failure. First, local powers and citizens did not have any experience that enables them to face similar situation. Second, because of the general Syrian condition under Al-Assad regime, those local powers and citizens were not qualified to manage the political and civil activity. Third, all parties rushed to reap the harvest before maturity! Finally, narrow-mindedness resulted in an incapability to realize a historic moment in the course of the Syrian revolution, along with the attempt of some local powers to take advantage of the situation.

Besides all that, the National coalition and other opposition powers did not show enough concern with the events that took place in the city. In fact, they reacted to such events as though the city was in “faraway land” and not a Syrian city where a historic moment is observed. They failed to take advantage of this moment to show that the Syrian revolution has some sort of “representation” (not to use the word ‘leadership’) that would step up to take responsibility. Not only that, but this “representation” would work as hard as it takes to enhance democratic activity, and enable Syrian citizens to build administrative capabilities; such steps would contribute in establishing the future Syria.

US Government and other international partners in the coalition (to fight ISIS) did not provide enough support to local communities; this matter would remain unexplained mystery. Especially that these local communities along with non-Islamic formations, would have resisted the very establishment of ISIS! Not only that, but they would have established their own civil authorities and administration long before ISIS dominated wide areas of Iraq. The cost of one air-strike by the coalition would have been enough support to prevent the very existence of ISIS!

This US-led coalition adopted the same old strategy to fight ISIS: air-strikes and ally formation of the citizens of the targeted area. However, it was too late to apply such strategy for ISIS has gone too far in enforcing its Sharia including espionage! ISIS executed many tribesmen (from Al-Shaitat tribe which controlled oil wells) who opposed its influence and control over their territory. It also forced others to leave their home land, and allowed them to return later only on its own conditions dictated by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The most important points in these conditions were two: to declare that who fights ISIS is a renegade, and to inform against anyone who fought ISIS and hid any weapons.

Thus, AL-RAQQAH was a lost opportunity to achieve two goals: first, to establish local authority of the opposition and revolution. The second goal was to provide a pattern for other liberated areas. But none of the concerned parties seemed to care! The Coalition and its government lacked the will, sense of responsibility, national awareness, and the strategy to manage liberated areas on a mature basis that responds to the local features as well as the latest developments. They have always relied on international powers without any confidence in local powers to influence the Syrian condition with it complexities. This condition has become too mysterious to be understood by Syrians themselves and not only from people in remote parts of the world. Such people would show greater concern towards fish dying from unknown reasons, than towards Syrians dying from very well-known ones!


Brief introduction about understanding the failure

Preface to understanding the failure

AL-RAQQAH: demographic background

AL-RAQQAH after liberation: brief description

Tell Abyad: turning point

Al-Tabqa: testing point

The city of AL-RAQQAH: the moment the statue fell down

Military map between the liberation and domination of ISIS

Civil administration after liberation

Youth and professional organizations

Ahrar Al-Sham agenda


Coalition and its international allies: non-continuing observation of the fate of AL-RAQQAH province

International coalition to fight ISIS


Available in Arabic

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