Syria rebels captured Raqqa on Monday as crowds toppled a statue of President Bashar al-Assad’s father. The report came from opposition sources and a resident.
This is the first time the Syrian opposition has claimed to capture a provincial capital. If the claim is true, it would be a significant development in their quest to topple Assad’s rule.
Rebel fighters reported that loyalist fighters were still holding out in the city’s provincial airport about 40 miles from Raqqa, according to Reuters.
One resident of Raqqa revealed that a Syrian military intelligence compound was not in rebel hands, though it had been surrounded by anti-Assad fighters. The news comes on the same day as the Syria conflict spilled into neighboring Iraq.
Officials reported that gunmen killed more than 40 Syrian soldiers and government employees as they headed home. They fled an incoming Syrian rebel advance last week.
Iraqi authorities were taking the group to a border crossing when gunmen ambushed the convoy. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack. A senior Iraqi officials stated of the attack:
“The incident took place in Akashat when the convoy carrying the Syrian soldiers and employees was on its way to the al-Waleed border crossing. Gunmen set up an ambush and killed 40 of them, plus some Iraqi soldiers who were protecting the convoy.”
Al Jazeera notes that Raqqa used to be home to 240,000 residents. But more than 800,000 people who fled other parts of Syria during the two-year conflict have taken refuge in the provincial capital.
In their lead up to capturing Raqqa, the Syrian rebels cut off the army’s supply routes and escalated attacks on checkpoints and other loyalist positions.
The rebels have released photos and video of Raqqa. Photos showed men ripping down a poster of Assad and a fallen statue of the president’s father, Hafez al-Assad. A video posted on the internet showed an abandoned prison, which rebels say was in the the center of the city.
Raqqa is just 100 miles east of Aleppo, Syria’s economic hub. The events in Raqqa cannot be independently confirmed, because of media restrictions in the country. The news of Syria rebels capturing Raqqa comes as US Secretary of State John Kerry and other diplomats are considering direct aid to the rebels.
Kerry stated last week that the United States will provide direct aid to the rebels in the form of medical supplies and food. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are believed to be providing the opposition with weapons. The United States does not want to provide arms out of concern that they will fall into the hands of Islamist extremists.
During a joint news conference with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal on Monday, Kerry stated:
“There is no guarantee that one weapon or another might not at some point in time fall into the wrong hands. Believe me the bad actors regrettably have no shortage of their ability to get weapons, from Iran, from Hizbollah, from Russia unfortunately, and that is happening.”
More than 70,000 people have been killed in the Syria conflict and almost a million have fled the country, according to the United Nations. If the report that Syria rebels captured Raqqa can be verified, it would mean a blow to the Assad regime and a positive step for rebels.