Battle of Raqqa
The Battle of Raqqa was a battle for control of the northern Syrian city of Ar-Raqqah during the Syrian civil war between rebel insurgents and the Syrian Army. Rebel forces launched the offensive in early March 2013, and declared themselves in "near-total control" on 5 March 2013, making it the first provincial capital claimed to come under rebel control in the civil war. The battle, on the opposition side, was primarily led by the Islamist jihadist group Al-Nusra Front.
Ar-Raqqah was not initially a rebel stronghold. The city itself saw several small protests at the beginning of the uprising, but these soon subsided. The anti-Assad elements within the city also remained peaceful until the end of 2012. Furthermore, previous pro-government tribal coalitions and the presence of more than a half million displaced Syrians, mostly from Idlib, Deir ez-Zor and Aleppo, served to strengthen the Syrian government's opinion that Ar-Raqqah was relatively safe. Because of this view, President Bashar al-Assad visited the city to pray in one of its mosques for Eid al-Adha in June 2012.
Armed opposition groups began to spread through eastern Syria, leading to violence being perpetrated by both government and anti-government groups. Dozens of people were killed in the Qahtaniya region outside the city in incidents blamed by the government on terrorist groups. Shelling also reached a petrol station in the town of Tell Abyad, with the pro-government Syrian media calling the region a terrorist hub.
By early 2013, the Syrian opposition had secured much of the north of Syria, but had yet to seize control of a major city. The rebels planned an offensive to seize control of Ar-Raqqah where government forces were in control, effectively giving the opposition control over a much greater portion of northern Syria.
Rebel forces, including mostly Islamist brigades, based in the countryside surrounding Ar-Raqqah launched a surge into the city between 3 and 5 March, advancing from the north and overrunning army positions at the city's northernmost entrance. They engaged forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad in heavy fighting around key state buildings, eventually driving out the army. Rebels seized control of the main square in the city on 4 March, and symbolically tore down a large golden statue of Syria's former president Hafez al-Assad, late father of the current president.
Although, according to al-Akhbar, the city (which had been surrounded on four sides by checkpoints) did not fall militarily, pointing out that, despite not having a formidable Syrian army deployment, it was not normal that Ar-Raqqah fell in hours. The Lebanese newspaper reported that the morning of the attack Syrian forces manning the eastern checkpoint pulled out, handing over the city’s eastern entrance – and the entire eastern district – to the fighters of the Muntasir Billah Brigade and al-Nusra, while officers of the Syrian military police and the Hajana – the border guard – were seen moving their equipment, without any harassment from the opposition fighters, from the center of the city to the headquarters of the 17th division, before the opposition brigades advance.
Rebels also stormed the residence of the provincial governor Hasan Jalali, reportedly capturing him along with the head of the Ar-Raqqa Governorate branch of the Baath Party, Suleiman al-Suleiman.
Government forces retreated from the city westwards and eastwards, and also remained 60 km from the city at the provincial airport. The Syrian Air Force carried out airstrikes against rebels in the city after its fall.
On 5 March, footage emerged of both Hasan Jalali and Suleiman al-Suleiman surrounded by jubilant rebel fighters.
The jihadist organisations Jabhat an-Nusra, Ahrar ash-Sham (part of the as the Syrian Islamic Front) and the brigade of Huthaya bin al-Yaman were the ones taking the city, while the secular Free Syrian Army hardly had any role in the battle.
Among those killed in the fighting were also the top al-Nusra commander for Ar-Raqqah governorate, as well as the main provincial Ahrar ash-Sham field commander. Ar-Raqqah's police chief was also killed. Some residents pleaded with rebels not to enter the city, fearing it would bring retribution from government forces.
The last pockets of loyalist resistance in the city were eliminated on 6 March, when rebels seized several key security buildings where loyalist troops were hiding, prompting the activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights to officially declare that Ar-Raqqah was fully under rebel control.
Following the rebel capture of Ar-Raqqah, 25 air-strikes were conducted against the city, in an attempt by the military to dislodge the opposition forces. In total, 39 people were killed, including 17 in a strike on a square. At least 10 of those killed were confirmed as rebel fighters.
Some of the captured government troops were publicly executed by the Islamic factions after the takeover, with their bodies put on display or dragged through the city streets.
On 10 March, further air strikes on the city left another 14 people dead.
On 4 April 2013, it was reported that rebels of the Free Syrian Army besieging the 17th Division base outside Ar-Raqqah city were in control of three quarters of the base with the Syrian Army holding the command centre. A Syrian Army source at the base reported that 80 soldiers had been killed and 250 injured in the fighting, and that many injured troops had died of gangrene.
On 20 May, Syria's Ar-Raqqah opposition chief was kidnapped[by whom?], according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. "The Observatory condemns in the strongest terms the abduction of opposition lawyer Abdallah al-Khalil, and demands his immediate release," it said.
As of 28 May, air raids and artillery strikes continued against rebel lines on the outskirts of the city, but government forces were still unable to break through the lines.
On 17 August, the Islamic State announced a few days before that they would stop participating in the siege of the 17th Division, one of the two last remaining loyalist bases in Ar-Raqqah. They wanted to focus on civil administration instead, in building an Islamic state, and so they would withdraw fighters from the most urgent battlefields.
On July 25, 2014, the Islamic State took control of the 17th Division away from the Syrian Army.
In August 2014, the Battle of Tabqa air base resulted in the loss of the base to Jihadists with significant losses on both sides.
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