The United States military is not only dropping bombs over Raqqa, but also a gruesome cartoon warning Syrians against the danger of joining the ranks of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS), of which the Syrian city has become the de-facto capital.
Earlier this month, the US Air Force dropped some 60,000 leaflets illustrated with the cartoon southwest of the city.
The drawing depicts a line of young men queuing up to join the "Daesh Recruiting Office" — a reference to the Arabic acronym for the radical Islamist militant group, which is also known as ISIS and ISIL. A sign in the upper right corner says, "Now serving 6001." A man at the front of the line drops a ticket with the same number as he discovers with horror that IS militants are putting the recruits through a bloody meat grinder.
The propaganda campaign is meant to capitalize on divisions within the Islamic State's stronghold and undermine its ability to enlist fighters within its stronghold. It was devised by members of the Pentagon's Military Information Support Operations, a department specializing in psychological and information warfare, as part of an attempt to expand the effort against IS beyond attacking strategic military targets with airstrikes.
"The message of this leaflet is that if you allow yourself to be recruited by Daesh, you will find yourself in a meat grinder,"Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren remarked to the press. "It's not beneficial to your health."
It is possible that the operation is a response to reports suggesting that US-led coalition airstrikes on Raqqa and other areas held by IS might have had the unfortunate and darkly ironic effect of boosting the group's recruitment efforts, as civilians got caught up under the bombs.
"Most of the people of Raqqa are against ISIS," Abu Ibrahim Raqqawi, an activist with the group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, which documents atrocities committed by IS, told VICE News in the fall. "After the airstrikes, a few more people said, 'I will be with ISIS against these strikes.' But most in the city just want them out. They are just tired."
The activists posted photos of the leaflets found in Raqqa. But when VICE News reached out to Raqqawi — whose surname is a pseudonym that refers to Raqqa locals — to discuss the operation's reach, he said that a majority of the city's residents never saw them.
"They have no effect at all," Raqqawi stated. "ISIS took them off the streets right away."
He called the leaflets "stupid" and characterized the propaganda effort on the part of the US military as misguided.
"They think Raqqa is with ISIS, and that is not true," he said. "People laugh at the stupidity."
Though the city has been overtaken by foreign fighters and is very much under the thumb of IS leaders, Raqqawi stressed that only a small group of local residents actually support the militants. Most of them are opposed to the coalition airstrikes, however.
"They are saying, 'Why don't they bomb Assad?' " he said.
Other analysts have questioned the effectiveness of the Pentagon's strategy, suggesting that those who join the militant group are either coerced into it, attracted by the promise of salaries due to the lack of other options, or ideologically committed to it and therefore immune to US propaganda.
"They are stuck between the regime, ISIS, and airstrikes by a coalition that is now trying to discourage them from joining its enemies," Faysal Itani, a fellow at the Atlantic Center in Washington and an expert on Syria's civil war, told Al Jazeera. "Living as they do in such an environment, it is rather distasteful and absurd to discourage Raqqawis from joining ISIS by linking it to violent death."
"It's absurd to think this will in any way curb recruitment," John Horgan, director of the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, told VICE News. "And it is a damning indictment of the Pentagon's approach to countering ISIS overall — short-sighted, naive, and little more than an afterthought."
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi