ISIS tightens grip in Syrian bastion Raqqa

Residents in the village of Kfar Jales, near Idlib in north-western Syria, inspecting buildings that were destroyed in the air strikes by Syrian and Russian warplanes yesterday. The renewed bombardment has killed at least 20 people, including nine ch
Residents in the village of Kfar Jales, near Idlib in north-western Syria, inspecting buildings that were destroyed in the air strikes by Syrian and Russian warplanes yesterday. The renewed bombardment has killed at least 20 people, including nine children, in Aleppo alone, in the last 24 hours, and sparked anger from the US and UN.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Militants impose media blackout as US-backed forces draw closer

BEIRUT • Militants closed down Internet cafes, imposed travel bans and set up new checkpoints in a bid to tighten their grip on power in Raqqa as United States-backed forces edged closer to the Syrian bastion of the ISIS group.

A Kurdish-Arab alliance called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) began an operation to recapture the northern city on Nov 5 from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants.

The alliance's strongest faction, the Kurdish YPG militia, yesterday said it would pull its forces from the Syrian city of Manbij and withdraw east of the Euphrates River to participate in the campaign to liberate Raqqa.

In neighbouring Iraq, ISIS has also suffered a string of military setbacks, with more than a third of eastern Mosul - the last ISIS-held Iraqi city - retaken by Iraqi forces in four weeks.

But Mr Patrick Martin, an Iraq analyst at the US-based Institute for the Study of War, warned of difficulties in pushing ahead against ISIS in Mosul. "Fighting inside of the city is likely to grow increasingly more difficult as (Iraqi forces) progress through Mosul's more modern eastern neighbourhoods towards its older, denser centre," he said.

In ISIS' stronghold of Raqqa, the militants have tried to seal the city off from the outside world, imposing a media blackout on a population of more than 300,000, residents said.

The flow of information into and out of Raqqa had already been restricted since January 2014, when ISIS seized the city from rebels who had captured it from regime forces in March 2013. Since the militant group took over the provincial capital, only a handful of outsiders have been able to maintain contact with Raqqa residents. They include Britain-based monitor the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and activist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS).

A resident of Raqqa known by the pseudonym Musa - speaking to the media through RBSS - said ISIS was carefully controlling access to news on the US-backed campaign to oust the militant group from Raqqa.

"Because of the heavy restrictions imposed by Daesh on the Internet and satellite dishes, it's very difficult to find out what's happening in the battle for Raqqa," Musa, 31, said. ISIS is also known as Daesh.

"We rely on what we're told by people who do manage to follow the news online - but that is very difficult to do, and very dangerous."

It is risky to even discuss the battle, he said. The only rumour ISIS allows is the one that says "they are advancing and inflicting losses on the other side, which will fail to enter Raqqa, as they put it", said Musa.

Any discussion of ISIS' losses could result in arrest and even execution by the militants, he added.

ISIS has long restricted access to the Internet in territories under its control, including banning private routers and allowing only a handful of Internet cafes to function under close surveillance.

Even cafes that are allowed Internet access are frequently raided to prevent customers from accessing banned content, residents said.

Since the SDF assault began, ISIS has closed several Internet cafes in the city and erected new checkpoints, a 22-year-old activist known only as Ahmed said. "I go online now and then, and surf certain sites - but very, very carefully because of the restrictions Daesh puts on Internet cafes," he said.

ISIS imposes an extreme interpretation of Islam in Raqqa, executing those who break the group's rules.

Analysts said the fight for Raqqa is likely to be long and complicated.

Also in northern Syria yesterday, government and Russian warplanes pounded rebel-held areas, including the battered second city of Aleppo, where food aid rations were nearly exhausted after months of regime siege.

The renewed bombardment has killed at least 20 people, including nine children, in Aleppo alone, in the last 24 hours, and sparked anger from the US and United Nations.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 17, 2016, with the headline 'ISIS tightens grip in Syrian bastion Raqqa'. Print Edition | Subscribe