Families of IS Leaders Flee Syria Stronghold Amid Airstrikes

The Geopolitical Response to the Attacks in Paris
  • Fighters hiding among civilian buildings in de facto capital
  • France, Russia have intensified airstrikes since Paris attacks

The families of Islamic State leaders are fleeing Raqqa, the group’s stronghold in Syria, while fighters hide among civilian buildings as France and Russia intensified airstrikes after attacks in Paris, a group that monitors the war said.

QuickTake Fighting Islamic State

Dozens of Islamic State families were headed to Mosul, the northern Iraqi city that Islamic State fighters seized more than a year ago, according to Rami Abdurrahman, head of the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks Syria’s civil war through activists on the ground. At least 33 Islamic State fighters have been killed in three days of airstrikes, drone and cruise missiles attacks carried out by France and other countries, he said.

"The fleeing families are trying not to attract attention as they leave, avoiding traveling in convoys or placing too much luggage in their cars," said Abdurrahman. Islamic State is "barring Syrian civilians from fleeing the city because it wants to keep up the impression it’s still strong and to use them as human shields," he said. "The civilians are very scared."

Military Pressure

The al-Qaeda breakaway group is coming under increased military pressure after claiming responsibility for Friday’s attacks in Paris, which killed 129 people. Russia said on Tuesday that it had doubled the scale of its attacks on Syria. The latest airstrikes are “the most intense” since world powers led by the U.S. started targeting the group, according to Abdurrahman.

Islamic State has turned the northern city of Raqqa into the de facto capital of its so-called caliphate across Syria and Iraq. The group made gains in Syria after the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011.

If the families are leaving, this “confirms that it’s a movement in decline,” said Andre Liebich, honorary professor of international history and politics at the Graduate Institute in Geneva. “It will be a real blow to its prestige because what’s been supporting it is this idea of an expanding caliphate,” he said from Vienna.

Raqqa is Islamic State’s strategic depth and "if it’s undermined there, the group will also be weakened morally because of the city’s symbolism," Abdelbaset Sieda, member of the Syrian National Coalition, the main political opposition, said by phone from Stockholm.

‘Run Like Rats’

While Islamic State fighters terrorize Raqqa’s residents, when “warplanes come they start to run like rats” and hide among civilians, according to activists running the “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently” Twitter account. No civilians were killed or injured in Tuesday’s attacks, they said.

The activists said Islamic State has shut down Internet cafes as they look for people who report about Raqqa and the airstrikes. At least five explosions were heard in the afternoon in the city as warplanes continued hitting the group, they said.

Four strikes near Raqqa struck at least three Islamic State positions on Tuesday, according to a coalition statement.

Omar Lamrani, a military analyst at Stratfor, an advisory firm based in Austin, Texas, said Islamic State fighters by now have a well-established routine for taking evasive action when bombed.

"They diffuse their men across the city, they integrate with the civilian population, they don’t really display where their main headquarters to avoid airstrikes," Lamrani said.

More Planes

Russia deployed 37 new aircraft to carry out airstrikes after security officials said the passenger plane that crashed over Egypt’s Sinai on Oct. 31 was caused by a bomb. Islamic State’s Egyptian affiliate had claimed responsibility for the attack, which killed 224 people.

Russia conducted 34 cruise missile strikes and deployed long-range Tu-160, Tu-95 and Tu-22 bombers from its bases to hit Islamic State’s heartland in Raqqa as well as other targets. Russia planned 127 sorties on 206 targets in the first 24 hours of the new campaign, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said.

Islamic State has suffered setbacks in Syria and in Iraq this month. In Syria, Assad’s troops backed by Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah militants and Russian airstrikes broke a two-year siege on the Kweiris military base in Aleppo province imposed by Islamic State militants. Separately, the U.S. has escalated its strikes on oil facilities in Syria that help fund the group’s operations, according to Army Colonel Steve Warren, spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State.

In Iraq, Kurdish Peshmerga forces entered the center of the northern city of Sinjar on Friday, driving out militants who had been holding it for about a year. At least 126 Islamic State militants were killed in the Kurdish offensive, according to the Iraqi Kurdish news agency Rudaw.

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