AMMAN (Reuters) - A month after they pulled down a statue of President Bashar al-Assad’s once feared father, people in a city in eastern Syria are living under a Jihadist regime that could be a taste of what is in store for the country if Assad himself is overthrown.
Hardline Islamist brigades patrol streets abandoned by police. A religious court has replaced a collapsed judicial system, and minorities have fled, according to civic activists in Raqqa, the largest city to fall to the opposition since the uprising against four decades of Assad family rule broke out in March 2011.
The Jihadist show of force coupled with the absence of the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition, the main grouping of the political opposition, could consolidate an Islamist sweep in the north and east of the country. But the experience of Raqqa, where there have been demonstrations and strikes, shows that Islamist rule has got off to a difficult start.
The east, which accounts for all of Syria’s oil output and most of its grain production, borders Iraq’s Sunni Muslim heartland, where Sunni Jihadists opposed to the Iranian-backed Shi’ite government in Baghdad are also active.
Since falling, Raqqa has been in effect run by Ahrar al-Sham, one of the best organized of hundreds of opposition formations fighting to oust Assad, and its Islamist allies, opposition campaigners in the area said.
They said the al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front has a strong presence in the city and cooperates with Ahrar. The Iraqi wing of al Qaeda announced on Tuesday that Nusra was now its Syrian branch and the two groups would operate under one name — the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
Activist Maen Khader said Ahrar were quick to take control of the power and water departments, which are providing a mostly uninterrupted service, largely because a main hydro-electric dam on the Euphrates River, 40 km (25 miles) to the southwest in the town of Tabaqa, had been overrun by jihadists.
Unlike the town of Tel Abyad on the border with Turkey to the north, looting in Raqqa has been minimal, Khader said.
Nusra members have tried to restrict sale of cigarettes, which they deem un-Islamic, but they and Ahrar have largely not tried to impose Islamist morals or dress on Raqqa, an already conservative tribal Sunni city, he said.
“It seems that Ahrar have learnt from Tel Abyad and prevented chaos,” Khader said.
“They are more sophisticated than al-Nusra, and their propaganda in pamphlets and posters is slicker. They don’t wear black like Nusra but they still want an Islamist state,” he added.
A spokesman for the group in Raqqa refused to be drawn on its political plans. “Our priority is to help restore services in Raqqa and continue our military effort to bring about the downfall of the regime,” he said.
Ahrar and Nusra, however, have overshadowed a newly established opposition Raqqa provincial council backed by the National Coalition, which appointed a provisional prime minister last month to run rebel-held areas, activists said.
Despite their presence in the city, Abdallah al-Khalil, head of the council, denied that militant Jihadists had any significant influence there.
“Ahrar al-Sham is a fighting unit and it has moved to the outskirts. What is being said about the presence of a militant Nusra Front is not true,” said Khalil, a lawyer who defied Assad in 2007 by demanding the right to run for president, rather than a referendum that guaranteed Assad’s re-election. He was forced to flee briefly.
He said some people from Raqqa had joined Nusra but they did not subscribe to its ideology.
Activists say jihadists made their presence felt in Raqqa last month when they raised a big black Islamist flag in the square where the Assad statue once stood, angering civic groups.
Brawls and protests broke out. The dispute was resolved when the jihadists agreed to let the other side raise the green and white flag of the anti-Assad uprising.
Another activist described the compromise as a “small victory” for a liberal core that was instrumental in the peaceful protest movement against Assad but whose influence waned when the revolutionaries took up arms.
In a further sign of discontent with the new order, several hundred state employees, who have not been paid along with the rest of the public sector since Raqqa fell, demonstrated and torched cars belonging to rebel officials last week, sources in Raqqa said.
In Syria’s socialist-style economy, the east has depended on the state, which subsidized the wheat and cotton crops and provided some employment.
Poverty and unemployment worsened sharply in the decade before the revolt, driven by a water shortage that forced hundreds of thousands to leave their homes.
Experts say wheat subsidies were a main factor behind the crisis, inviting corruption and inciting farmers to dig thousands of illegal wells that helped destroy the water table. But the subsidies brought loyalty to the Assads.
Confident that Raqqa was on his side, Assad made a rare public appearance in the city last year and was greeted by cheering supporters.
The groundwork was laid decades before by the late Hafez al-Assad, who used a carrot and stick approach to build a network of alliances with Sunni tribes in Raqqa and the rest of the east, which underpinned the minority dominated power structure.
Alawites moved to Raqqa province to take jobs in the public sector and the security apparatus when the Tabaqa damn was being built in the 1970s, and Sunnis who lived in the area before it was flooded by the damn were moved further east.
As rebel fighters advanced, Tabaqa’s Alawite community fled, as did Christians after a church was desecrated, according to activist Mohammad al-Qassem.
Qassem said there have been transgressions by some Jihadists, including summary trials in religious courts, but others have gained a reputation as effective managers.
“There is progress but I am afraid we are heading into a collision in Raqqa between civic democrats and the salafist and the Nusra Front,” Qassem said.
“We were in a process of bringing down a regime, which is easy compared with the big problem of rebuilding ... in a country where the regime has sidelined the population politically,” he added.
Seeing his base in the east diminished, activists say Assad has put the ball in the opposition’s court by apparently giving up on trying to retake Raqqa.
With loyalist forces overstretched, Assad is having to focus more on preventing the fall of major cities along the highway linking Deraa, Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo.
The military has been using air strikes and long range missiles to hit Raqqa and other towns falling to the opposition, betting this will disrupt any rebel administration and cause it to lose popular support, the sources said.
An agricultural official said the opposition will also have to deal with an agricultural sector that had “collapsed” after the disappearance of subsidized fertilizers and fuel.
“The crop this year could be wasted,” the official said.
Some relief may come from Western countries, which have pledged more support for the Syrian National Coalition, hoping the money will strengthen ‘moderate’ elements in the opposition, but activists say the jihadists appear well financed.
Western diplomats said the West wants the cash to go through the Aid Coordination Unit, a non-partisan division of the opposition coalition headed by Suhair al-Atassi.
A European diplomat said channeling aid to emerging local structures was more effective than what the grandiose plans of the provisional government.
“You have to start small. Often the opposition wants to establish a police force of 5,000 when they can start with 50. You can have an executive without naming it a provisional government and assuming the political risk associated with it,” the diplomat said.
“What is important is that to preserve the structure of government.”
Editing by Giles Elgood