'Bombs alone will not beat Isil, people will suffer more'
As British MPs deliberated this week on whether to extend the British aerial bombing campaign against Isil from Iraq to Syria, I thought of the people from Raqqa who had shared with me their stories of the militants' takeover of their city. Isil has controlled the northeastern Syrian city for almost two years, declaring it the capital of their so-called caliphate that now stretches across swathes of Syria and Iraq.
Before Isil arrived, residents liked to say that theirs was the "first liberated city" in Syria, a bastion of anti-Assad sentiment. But Isil soon started to infiltrate, taking on more mainstream opposition forces in the city and targeting them with bombings, kidnappings and executions. The campaign of fear worked.
By early 2014, Isil controlled the city. They carried out public crucifixions and beheadings while imposing draconian social codes. Their black flag flew from major municipal buildings. Foreign fighters flocked to Raqqa to join Isil in its self-declared capital.
I was in contact with a number of Raqqa's residents as the city fell under Isil's sway. The group was holding several foreigners and Syrians hostage there, including colleagues of mine such as Nicolas Henin, a French journalist who, along with three compatriots, was released after 10 months in captivity. Other fellow hostages, including journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning, were killed by Isil.
As part of efforts to glean information on our kidnapped colleagues, a number of us journalists reached out to contacts in Raqqa. The stories I heard painted a terrifying picture. Stories of black-clad militants, many of them barely out of their teens, who swaggered around threatening locals. Stories of headless bodies left on public squares as a reminder of what would happen to anyone who dared defy them. "The Raqqa we knew is lost," one resident told me in early 2014. "We are living a nightmare. Fear follows us everywhere."
Raqqa has not only suffered Isil's brutal rule - the city and its environs have also been pummelled by aerial bombardment from the Assad regime, and US and Russian fighter planes. Residents claim the Russian air strikes have hit a hospital, two bridges, and a university.
It is almost impossible to get information from inside Raqqa these days. Internet access has been cut off for ordinary residents and Isil does not allow people to freely leave the city. But an activist group called Raqqa Is Being Silently Slaughtered continues to smuggle out stories of life in the city.
It reacted to the news that 397 British MPs had voted to endorse the bombing of Isil-linked locations in Syria with dismay, arguing that Britain should accept more refugees if it wished to help Syrians.
"Just bombing [Isil] in Raqqa from the sky will not defeat [Isil] but it will make people suffer more," the group said in a series of tweets. "[Isil] will use UK strikes to recruit new people in the west and new fighters," it argued. "The world all the time want to bomb Raqqa and they forget about innocent people inside the city."
The first British air strikes this week targeted oil fields in eastern Syria that have been controlled for more than a year by Isil, for whom oil is a crucial source of revenue. In hitting oil infrastructure, Britain appears to so far be attempting to sidestep questions over potential civilian casualties while disrupting Isil's revenue stream from its black market sale of oil.
Locations in and around Raqqa may be hit in future strikes. While some inside Syria support the air campaign, others argue it will do little to counter Isil's hold without a more robust and broader political strategy to tackle Syria's war, particularly the violence carried out by the Assad regime as it has tried to snuff out the four-year-old uprising against it.
A representative of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army's southern front argued in a BBC interview this week that Britain's strategy was misguided. "The Assad regime is the cancer which [Isil] grow out of. So without erasing Assad from power ... that will not make a big difference. Daesh [Isil] and Assad are two faces of one coin."
Nicolas Henin, the French journalist and former Isil hostage, insisted the bombing campaign was a trap that would only benefit Isil.
"For every single Syrian killed since the beginning of this conflict by [Isil], between seven and 10 have been killed by the Syrian regime. We have to understand that these two parallel disasters for the Syrian people, they depend one on the other, and one cannot fight one without fighting the other," he said. "At the moment, with the bombings, we are more likely pushing the people into the hands of Isil."