Syria's Jihadists face test of government in eastern city

Tue Apr 9, 2013 7:34am EDT
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By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

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.   Continued...

A member of an islamist group holds a flag in Raqqa province, eastern Syria, March 12, 2013. The flag reads "There is no God but Allah and Mohammad is the messenger of Allah". REUTERS/Hamid Khatib