Battle of Raqqa (March 2013)
The Battle of Raqqa (March 2013), code named by rebels as the "Raid of the Almighty", was a battle for control of the northern Syrian city of Raqqa during the Syrian Civil War between mainly Sunni Islamist 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 al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham.
Raqqa 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 Raqqa 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 opposition forces. Dozens of people were killed in the Qahtaniya region outside the city in incidents. Shelling also reached a petrol station in the town of Tell Abyad.
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 Raqqa where government forces were in control, effectively giving the opposition control over a much greater portion of northern Syria.
Rebel forces, mostly Sunni Islamist groups, based in the countryside surrounding Raqqa 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. Most rebels who took part in the battle came from areas outside the Raqqa Governorate. 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 Raqqa 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 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.
Ahrar ash-Sham (part of the Syrian Islamic Front), al-Nusra Front, and the Hudhayfah ibn al-Yaman Brigade were the main rebel groups involved in the battle. Several groups affiliated with the Free Syrian Army were also involved.
Among those killed in the fighting were also the top al-Nusra commander for Raqqa governorate, as well as the main provincial Ahrar ash-Sham field commander. Raqqa'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 Raqqa was fully under rebel control. The Syrian Air Force conducted 25 air-strikes against the city in an attempt 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.
Following the rebel capture of Raqqa, the Syrian army sent army reinforcements from Tabqa military airport, but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported rebels had intercepted them.
On 4 April 2013, it was reported that rebels of the Free Syrian Army and allied Islamist groups besieging the 17th Division base outside Raqqa 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 Raqqa opposition chief was kidnapped, 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.
In mid-August, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) announced that they would stop participating in the siege of the 17th Division, one of the two last remaining loyalist bases in Raqqa. They wanted to focus on civil administration instead, in building an Islamic state, and so they would withdraw fighters from the most urgent battlefields.
By early November 2013, ISIL was in full control of the town. By January 6, 2014, rebels had ousted ISIL from the city as part of the Syrian opposition–Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant conflict.
On 9 January, fighting raged between the jihadists and opposition on Thursday, the Great Britain-based Observatory claimed. "The opposition forces have taken control of the strategic political intelligence building, which had been under ISIL control and is just 400 meters from the jihadists' headquarters," Abdel Rahman said. "But ISIL still controls the bridges leading into the city, so people have to take boats to get in." By 12 January, ISIL fighters had recaptured much of the provincial capital. By 14 January, ISIL secured complete control of the city.
On 25 July 2014, ISIL took control of the 17th Division headquarters away from the Syrian Army.
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