Syrians say airstikes only aiding destabilization program

American airstrikes on the Syrian city of Raqqa, the vaunted capital of the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate, have scattered its fighters and disrupted the harsh system they had imposed, residents and visitors there say. But they see no gratitude toward the United States.
Rather, they suggested in interviews, many people are angry at the Americans. Food and fuel prices in Raqqa have soared, power blackouts have prevailed, and order is now threatened by a vacuum of any authority.
For all their violence and intolerance toward disbelievers, the fighters of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, at least functioned as a government, providing basic services and some semblance of stability.
“People don’t want some outside power to attack,” Khalid Farhan, a Raqqa resident, said during a recent trip to Turkey.
The anger in Raqqa underscored the potentially destabilizing consequences of the United States-led military campaign, in a place where there was little desire to see the Syrian government or other rebel groups return to power. The campaign also risks further alienating Syrians in opposition areas in the north who were already angered by the Obama administration’s narrow focus on destroying the Islamic State and refusal to counter attacks by the Syrian military.
It was not that the militants were popular in Raqqa, according to nearly a dozen residents, who spoke in interviews in the city or across the border in Turkey. Rather, the Islamic State had become an indispensable service provider.
Some people in Raqqa said they had seen a benefit from the American aerial assaults, which seemed to have halted the indiscriminate bombings by the Syrian Air Force. But for the most part, the American strikes had shaken “a sense of calm,” especially among conservative Sunni Muslims in northern Syria, who, despite their unease with the militants, had adapted, said Hassan Hassan, an analyst of Syria based in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates.
The rule of the Islamic State militants in Raqqa contrasted sharply with the chaos that had existed before, when there was “infighting between rebels, or shootings, or warlords controlling oil fields,” Mr. Hassan said. After the Islamic State exerted its control, residents spoke more frequently about receiving their “rights,” he said.
“People say ISIS is the first group that is able to take complaints seriously” — for instance, arbitrating old property or financial disputes, Mr. Hassan said. The group also won favor by occasionally punishing its own members, and even leaders, who had been accused of abuses, Mr. Hassan and residents said.
As a result, “People have started to regard the airstrikes suspiciously, or they sympathize with ISIS,” Mr. Hassan said.
Reflecting how civilian life in the area has become intertwined with the militants — who paid salaries, ran schools and directed traffic — 10 civilians were killed in a coalition airstrike on Sunday that hit one of the oil facilities run by the Islamic State, where many people had found work.
Acceptance of the Islamic State in northern Syria contrasts sharply with Iraq, where the group’s ascendance has been more contested and its response more brutal. Many Iraqis clamor for a return of the government, despite its unpopularity, especially in Sunni regions.
In other regions of Syria, like the Kurdish city of Kobani, people have welcomed the American airstrikes, perhaps in the hope that the city would return to its experiment in self-rule that had followed the Syrian government’s withdrawal.
Even among the residents of Raqqa, it is hard to find sympathy for the militants, known for brutal public punishments and onerous restrictions on lives and even simple pleasures. Thousands of people, including those fearful of the Islamic State militants, have fled the city and the surrounding province.
The extremists have killed young activists as well as members of tribes who opposed them, sometimes in public executions. The Islamic State has also stoked divisions in society, recruiting rural tribesmen to run the state when many among Raqqa’s urban population refused to cooperate with the group.
Those who stayed behind lived with an uncomfortable bargain, under the Islamic State’s rules, and accepting its dominance. In return, many were left alone. Mahmoud Safrani, 20, a former rebel fighter with an Islamist militia that had
fought the Islamic State, said that he repudiated his former allies and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. Now, he lived more or less happily in Raqqa, shuttling back and forth between Turkey for work.
“If you don’t start any trouble,” he said, “they won’t come to you.”
Another resident, Abu Abdullah, 37, a fuel distributor, said that he saw a woman receive 30 lashes in the street, after she lifted her face covering, for an instant, to wipe away some sweat. He expressed horror but said he had avoided any trouble.
In fact, he said, he had even decided to bring his family back to live in Raqqa, from their exile in Turkey. The Islamic State seemed especially eager to facilitate the work of business owners, and there was money to be made.
Residents short of cash, in turn, were “ready to work with devils,” Mr. Abdullah said. But his business plan — to transport fuel from the city to nearby villages, working in the lucrative oil network run by the Islamic State — was imperiled because of the airstrikes, which had targeted the oil fields. “People are against the coalition,” he said.
In recent weeks, Islamic State fighters have started to vanish from Raqqa streets.
Many headed to Kobani and never returned. At first, the Islamic State sent its hardened fighters, including foreign jihadists, to fight in the Kurdish town, but as they have been killed in growing numbers, it has also sent local Syrians who had taken jobs as police officers in Raqqa because of the generous benefits package, which in some cases included a hefty salary and a sport utility vehicle.
Those fighters included Abu Omar, 28, who said in a recent interview in Raqqa that he had been given the order to “join the Mujahedeen in Ayn al-Islam,” using the Islamic State’s name for Kobani. “I put myself in a hard position,” he said, saying he would be killed if he refused the order. “I have no other choice.”
It was not only the police officers who were becoming scarce. Other municipal workers, fearful of the airstrikes, had stopped coming to work.
At the electricity company run by the Islamic State in Raqqa, engineers were staying home, according to a 35-year-old employee who only gave his first name, Mohammed. The company’s cars could not move safely between provinces, to
maintain dams, electricity cables or repair transformers, he said. “The Americans are destroying our infrastructure,” he said. “It is hard for the
Islamic State to supply, fix and maintain the electricity networks in Raqqa province while the American warplanes and rockets attack any position, anytime,” he said.
Electricity was available for only six hours on some days, and the price of cooking gas had tripled, said Yasser Awad, 40, a house painter. He said that he wanted to move his family out of Syria, but could not afford to.
“We just want someone who will bring justice, stability and safety,” Mr. Awad said. “God knows who that is.”

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