Last update: February 2023
[Main COI reference: Security 2022, 2.8, pp. 157-168; COI Update 2022, 2., pp. 3-8]
Ar-Raqqa (hereafter ‘Raqqa’) governorate is located in the north-central part of Syria. The governorate has international borders with Türkiye to the north, and borders to the west with Aleppo governorate, to the east with Hasaka and Deir Ez-Zor governorates and to the south with Hama and Homs Governorates. The governorate is divided in three districts: Ar-Raqqa, Al-Thawra, and Tall Abyad. As of February 2022, UNOCHA estimated the population in Raqqa to be of 773 026 inhabitants.
About 90 % of the population are Sunni Arabs. The vast majority live in areas controlled by the SDF.
Background of the conflict
Raqqa was the first governorate completely taken from the Syrian government’s control. ISIL got control of the city at the end of December 2013. On 29 June 2014, ISIL declared a ‘caliphate’ with its capital in Raqqa city. Towards the end of 2016, international coalition forces started offensives against ISIL in Raqqa and in 2017, Raqqa came under SDF control.
Following the Turkish-led incursion into northeast Syria in October 2019, the SNA together with Turkish armed forces was reported to be in control of the so called ‘safe zone’ established between Tall Abyad (Raqqa governorate) and Ras al Ain (Hasaka governorate). In December 2019, Russian troops moved into Raqqa, following an agreement with the SDF, to guarantee safety after the departure of the US forces. Russia, in collaboration with the GoS, also deployed forces to the Tabqa Dam on the Euphrates River west of Raqqa city.
Actors: control and presence
The major actors in the Syrian conflict are present in the governorate of Raqqa where the situation is considered as volatile and unpredictable. During the reporting period, the central parts of Raqqa, including Raqqa city, was under the control of the Kurdish led SDF.
GoS and its allies control the southern parts of the governorate. The GoS forces and/or their Russian allies have been present along the main roads in the SDF-controlled areas and in the frontlines separating the SDF-controlled parts of Raqqa from the Turkish-controlled area in northern Raqqa governorate. GoS is also present in Ayn Issa and in Al-Tabqa. In June 2022 the SAA sent troops to Raqqa’s borders with Türkiye.
The Russian forces are present in the GoS-controlled parts of Raqqa governorate and, to a limited extent, in the SDF-controlled parts of the governorate. Russia has seven military sites in Raqqa and two military bases, one in Ain Issa and one south of Raqqa city.
Iranian Forces had a total of 15 stationing points in Raqqa at the turn of the year 2021/22, mostly situated in GoS-controlled areas except for three, which are positioned in mostly SDF-controlled territory around Tabqa. Iranian-backed armed groups control the town of Resafa in southern Raqqa governorate and have influence in the Euphrates River valley in the eastern part of the governorate, near the administrative border between Raqqa and Deir Ez-Zor.
Since October 2019, the Turkish Armed Forces and the SNA have been in control of most of the territory north of M4 highway in northern Raqqa governorate, including the border town of Tall Abyad and its surroundings. At the turn of the year 2021/22, Türkiye has a total of ten stationing sites in Raqqa, all of which are located in the Operation Peace Spring area.
After an absence in Raqqa from 2019 until May 2022, the US-led Coalition against ISIL returned to a base in the north of Raqqa and the airbase at Tabqa.
ISIL has a presence in GoS-controlled southern Raqqa governorate and retained a smaller, but still active presence in the northern Raqqa.
Nature of violence and examples of incidents
Spring 2022 saw an increase in conflict events, shelling, drone strikes and rocket attacks in parts of Raqqa.
Continued fighting in and around the city of Ain Isa led to deaths, injuries and ongoing displacement among civilians living close to the front lines inside territory controlled by the SDF. SNA and SDF were reportedly frequently involved in mutual shelling and skirmishes along the line of control near Ain Issa, which at times resulted in civilian casualties. Several operations by Turkish forces in early 2022 were reported.
In March 2022, a threefold increase of abductions by the SDF for forced conscriptions was observed.
Most of ISIL attacks in Raqqa are said to have targeted security forces in GoS-controlled areas in the south. There were also several operations against ISIL in the same period.
Airstrikes, clashes, shelling and rocket fire across the frontlines continued during August and September 2022.
ACLED recorded 1 561 security incidents (average of 22.4 security incidents per week) in Raqqa governorate in the period from 1 April 2021 to 31 July 2022. The majority of the reported incidents were coded as ‘explosions/remote violence’ (912), while 395 incidents were coded as ‘violence against civilians’ and 254 as ‘battles’. In the period 1 August – 31 October 2022, 206 security incidents were recorded in Raqqa representing an average of 16.3 security incidents per week.
Security incidents were recorded in all districts of the governorate. Most security incidents were recorded in Tall Abyad district, which also had the highest number of remote violence incidents. The largest number of incidents of violence against civilians was recorded in Raqqa district.
Civilian fatalities: data
The SNHR recorded 59 civilian fatalities in Raqqa in the nine months between April and December 2021. In January – October 2022, the SNHR recorded 29 civilian fatalities. This represented four civilian fatalities per 100 000 inhabitants for the first ten months of 2022.
As of February 2022, the number of IDPs in Raqqa governorate was stated to be 114 860.
UNOCHA recorded approximately 143 IDP movements from Raqqa governorate in 2021, as well as 9 IDP movements within the governorate. Approximately 817 movements from other governorates were reported. In the first half of 2022, UNOCHA registered 157 IDP movements from Raqqa governorate and 134 displacements within the governorate.
In 2021, approximately 1 400 IDP return movements were recorded in Raqqa governorate, as well as 705 IDP return movements within the governorate. In the first half of 2022, 20 IDP return movements were registered by UNOCHA, while no IDP return movements were registered within the governorate.
Further impact on civilians
Approximately 30 % of Raqqa city is destroyed. Raqqa governorate is heavily contaminated with mines causing damage to civilians, mainly because retreating ISIL forces left behind improvised mines and other improvised devices which particularly affected Raqqa city.
A policy of ‘demographic change’ is reported to be implemented in the ‘Operation Peace Spring’ area. Specifically, the regions of Ras al Ain and Tall Abyad are repopulated with IDPs from other parts of Syria and with families of Turkmen fighters deployed to the area who take over the houses of civilians displaced from their homes or of those who were associated with SDF and forcibly displaced from the area.
Looking at the indicators, it can be concluded that in the governorate of Raqqa, indiscriminate violence reaches such a high level that substantial grounds are shown for believing that a civilian, returned to the governorate, would, solely on account of their presence on its territory, face a real risk of being subject to the serious threat referred to in Article 15(c) QD.