Jenny McCartney: Syria’s own ‘immigrant problem’

Rasha Abdoullah, 24, was one of the lucky ones who were able to flee Raqqa. (AP)

The British attitude to refugees is hardening, a recent poll suggests, even as the desperate emptying of Syria has accelerated. In January, 41 per cent of people surveyed said that Britain should take fewer refugees from Syria and Libya. Last September, the figure was 31 per cent. That shift is likely to be connected to the sexual assaults on women in Cologne and Stockholm, and the misogynist values that some groups of young, male North African and Middle Eastern migrants – not specifically Syrian refugees – have brought with them.

It is also linked to a fear, following the ISIS attacks in Paris last November, that ISIS fighters may enter Western Europe under the guise of refugees (all of the known Paris attackers, in fact, were EU citizens.) Such concerns cannot be dismissed, even though the many stories of law-abiding Syrian families stoically trying to rebuild a life outside Syria are unlikely to be deemed news. It did leave me wondering, however, about the reverse: how an ordinary citizen in Raqqa, Syria, say, might be expected to feel about immigration and foreigners in general.

By “ordinary citizen”, I mean one of the average Syrians who lived there before the ISIS takeover, who like us went freely to cafés and bars, took the family out for ice cream, worked as dentists and doctors, teachers and shopkeepers. About 10 per cent of the city’s population were Christians, most of whom have fled: the Armenian Catholic Church of the Martyrs was seized by ISIS for use as its headquarters. The Karnak Hotel – with its swimming pool and satellite television – now houses foreign fighters and their wives.

A small group of underground Syrian journalists and activists, opposed to both Assad and ISIS, call themselves Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently: at unimaginable personal risk, they use social media to tell the world about life in the city under ISIS rule. In response, ISIS regularly murders the group’s members or associates. In an interview with The New Yorker, one such activist described how Raqqa changed after ISIS declared it the capital of its self-styled caliphate: “Then these guys started coming in from all around the world. It was like New York! A second New York! People from Australia! From Belgium! From Germany! From France! A global tide.”

Last year the Soufan Group, a security consultancy, found that 27,000 fighters from 86 different countries had gone to join ISIS in Iraq and Syria. In its early stages, ISIS was funded by wealthy donors in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and even Turkish sources: all ostensibly “allies” of the West. Assad, meanwhile, is buoyed by Russia and foreign Shia militias. The Raqqa activists described the privileged status of “Western recruits” within the city, with their jars of Nutella and cans of Red Bull.

Then there is the all-female Al-Khansa Brigade, home to Syrian enforcers but also a large number of gun-toting European-born women who are the wives of jihadis. Their job, among others, is to flog local women who transgress the restrictive dress code imposed by IS. Public crucifixions, beheadings and forced marriages are commonplace. It is forbidden to leave the city: as one female resident put it: “Raqqa is a giant prison.” The prison is also under attack from the air. The Coalition air-strikes on ISIS  targets met with some support from residents, who despite the risk saw a chance of dislodging their tormentors.

But Russia has joined the fray like a madman steaming into a brawl, using cluster bombs indiscriminately on both fighters and civilians in Raqqa, and beyond in its assault on Aleppo, destroying hospitals, schools and market places. International condemnation of Russia has been notably confused. Indeed, last November Vladimir Putin and Francois Hollande shook hands on “the fight against ISIS”. Civilians in Syria correctly say they are “trapped”. In Raqqa, they have been taken hostage by ISIS just as surely as French citizens were during that terrible night in the Bataclan concert hall. Yet their safety is no one’s priority.

Instead, Syria has become the miserable vessel for wider conflicts, and home-grown Islamist psychopaths of every nation have travelled there to fuel what was already an appalling war. The world and his wife have helped to wreck a country. Yet if one day a Syrian civilian should find a way to escape this shattered homeland alive, they will arrive at a status which – had they any time to reflect – they might find as ironic as it is painful: that of an unwanted immigrant.

Jenny McCartney is a writer and reviewer