Saudi minister visits north Syria for Raqqa talks

Updated 20 October 2017
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Saudi minister visits north Syria for Raqqa talks

BEIRUT: A Saudi official has visited northern Syria with a US envoy to discuss reconstruction of Raqqa, which Kurdish and Arab militias backed by a US-led coalition, captured from Daesh on Tuesday.
Saudi Gulf Affairs Minister Thamer Al-Sabhan visited the area with Brett McGurk, the US special envoy to the coalition against Daesh, and met the Raqqa Civil Council said Amed Sido, an adviser to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance.
The Saudi Okaz newspaper also reported on Thursday that Al-Sabhan had visited northern Syria and that Riyadh and Washington had discussed the reconstruction of Raqqa.
The Saudi officials who visited Raqqa to check the area were there to listen to discussions rather than take part, Sido said, adding that they met a reconstruction committee set up by the council.
“They promised that they would contribute to construction in Raqqa in the future,” Sido said. Sido is also an SDF coordinator with the coalition.
The main priority for the city’s reconstruction now is clearing land mines and bodies, and working on water and electricity projects, Sido said.
While no concrete plans were set in motion, Sido continued, “we consider it a first visit, a first step, that could be the beginning of future relations.”

Saudi Arabia is a member of the US-led international coalition against Daesh, set up in 2014.
The SDF’s four-month battle against Daesh in Raqqa, aided by coalition airstrikes, left much of the city in ruins and forced much of its population to flee to camps nearby. International charity Mercy Corps said on Thursday that most of the city was uninhabitable.
The SDF and its allies set up the Raqqa Civil Council to run the city after the fighting was over.
The international coalition’s 73 members also include European countries, other Arab countries and Turkey. Its work includes supporting stabilization and restoration of public services to areas taken from Daesh militants.
Meanwhile, US-backed militias in Syria have detained senior foreign Daesh leaders in months of fighting for Raqqa, but it is not yet clear if they will be repatriated after facing trial, Silo said.
"We have foreign emirs ... from all around the world. They were captured in special operations, and some of them turned themselves in to our forces."
US-backed forces are combing the ruins the city for survivors and bombs.


One year after Daesh defeat, Syria’s Raqqa still in fear

Updated 18 October 2018
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One year after Daesh defeat, Syria’s Raqqa still in fear

  • While the nightmare of militant rule may be gone, most of the city still lies in ruins
  • ‘The war has worn us out. Us and our children. It has destroyed our future’

RAQQA, Syria: A year after a US-backed alliance of Syrian fighters drove the Daesh group from the northern city of Raqqa, traumatized civilians still live in fear of near-daily bombings.
“Every day we wake up to the sound of an explosion,” said resident Khaled Al-Darwish.
“We’re scared to send our children to school ... there’s no security,” he added.
The militants’ brutal rule in Raqqa was brought to an end in October 2017 after a months-long ground offensive by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces supported by air strikes from a US-led coalition.
But despite manning roadblocks at every street corner, the SDF and the city’s newly created Internal Security Forces are struggling to stem infiltration by Daesh sleeper cells.
At Raqqa’s entrance, soldiers verify drivers’ identity papers and carefully sift through lorry cargoes.
Inside the city, there are regular foot patrols and armored vehicles sit at strategic points.
Women wearing the niqab are asked to show their faces to female security members before entering public buildings.
“If there wasn’t fear about a return of Daesh, there wouldn’t be this increased military presence,” said Darwish, a father of two, speaking near the infamous Paradise Square.
It was here that Daesh carried out decapitations and other brutal punishments, earning the intersection a new name — “the roundabout of hell.”
While the nightmare of militant rule may be gone, most of the city still lies in ruins and there are near daily attacks on checkpoints and military vehicles, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Although a series of stinging defeats have cut Daesh’s so-called caliphate down to desert hideouts, the militants still manage to hit beyond the patches of ground they overtly control.
Some Raqqa residents say the city’s new security forces lack the expertise to cope.
“We are exhausted. Every day we don’t know if we will die in a bomb explosion or if we will go home safe and sound,” said Abu Younes, sitting in his supermarket near a roundabout not far from Paradise Square.
“There is no security — (the new security forces) on the roadblocks are not qualified and there is a lot of negligence,” he complained.
“There are faults that enable Daesh to infiltrate the city easily and carry out attacks.”
But despite the continued attacks, a semblance of normal life has returned to the city.
Shops have reopened and traffic has returned to major roads — albeit choked by the impromptu checkpoints.
In a public garden, children climb up a multi-colored slide and onto dilapidated swings as their mothers sit on nearby benches carefully keeping watch.
They are set amidst an apocalyptic backdrop of twisted metal and splayed balconies — the remnants of buildings torn apart by US-led coalition air raids.
Nearby, Ahmed Al-Mohammed pauses as he listens to music on his phone. Like others, he does not hide his disquiet.
“We’re scared because of the presence of Daesh members in the city,” the 28-year-old said.
“The security forces need to tighten their grip.”
Ahmed Khalaf, who commands Raqqa’s Internal Security Forces, defended the work of his men and claimed successes against the militants.
He said patrols are highly organized and that a “joint operation cell” had recently been established with coalition forces to monitor the city’s security.
“Recently we arrested four (militants) — it was a cell that took part in attacks that terrorized the city,” said Khalaf, sporting plain green fatigues.
“We are continuing our investigation to uncover the other cells,” he added.
“Daesh’s goal is to destroy the country and to not let anyone live in safety,” he said.
Security and stability are what Najla Al-Ahmed wants most for her children.
“The nightmare of Daesh follows us everywhere — whenever we try to rest, explosions start up again,” said the 36-year-old, as she shopped with her young ones.
“The war has worn us out. Us and our children. It has destroyed our future,” she said.