We talked to Varyan Khan, the editorial director of the Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium, about what effect the airstrikes are having and if we can ever really know what's going on over there.
In the days since agents of the Islamic State attacked Paris, killing 129, France has retaliated with a massive uptick in airstrikes against the group's de facto capital, the Syrian town of Raqqa, population approximately 350,000. France's initial strike on Sunday alone was its largest to date. Combined with a second French strike this Tuesday and a hail of Russian cruise missiles on Monday—likewise retaliation for the IS's downing of a Russian passenger jet last month in Egypt killing 224—the terrorists' key stronghold has been under an unrelenting rain of fire.
We have a raw, numerical sense of how effective these strikes have been. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, claimed that the past three days of strikes killed 33 militants, and other groups insist there have been no civilian casualties. Reports also indicate that strikes have hit a number of buildings and infrastructural fixtures.
Yet it's harder to get a sense as to whether or not the strikes are actually having a deep effect on life in Raqqa. Some reports claim that regions of the city are fairly damaged, that citizens live in constant fear, and that IS soldiers are running at the sound of planes while officials' families are discretely fleeing the city and regular citizens are being forced to stay. Other reports claim that militants have been girding themselves and the city for retaliations for some time, that they emptied the streets ahead of attacks (most of which were symbolic, targeting abandoned posts), and that despite constant bombardments Syrians are actually fleeing to Raqqa as a safe space.
Looking for answers about just how felt the recent bombardment on Raqqa has been, and how we should read accounts coming in on the city, VICE reached out to Varyan Khan, the editorial director of the Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium (TRAC). We asked her to use her knowledge of activist and jihadi communications channels, strategies, and analyses to fill us in on what we can and can't know about how these airstrikes are affecting the city's day-to-day.
VICE: Based on what you're seeing and hearing these days, do you think Raqqa is really feeling or suffering viscerally from the latest string of post-Paris airstrikes?
Varyan Khan: [Islamic State] photo reports from the last couple of days have all been life-is-normal—going to the laundromat, cleaning the streets, building a bridge. If they're feeling the effects of airstrikes, they're doing their best to distract us by showing us the good life, as they always love to do.
These airstrikes would probably cripple someplace like New York. If we had a couple of bridges taken out in one day, we'd be devastated. It'd take us months to get that back together. Not the Islamic State. It's like business as usual... just build up a new bridge. In areas that they control heavily like Raqqa and Mosul, they really are that efficient. They have plenty of backhoes and forklifts that they can use to rebuild things very quickly.
If [airstrikes] pound the shit out of [Raqqa], it's not going to get [the French] what they want. They're going to swing a lot of people toward ISIS, like the barrel bombs of [Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad. That swung a lot of people toward ISIS. ISIS loves to show dead babies.
Do you think we're holding back from doing the serious damage that would make the airstrikes deeply felt because we're trying to avoid human casualties?
I think that we have been cognizant about doing too much damage to the nation that they could never bounce back from. And if they take out too many civilians, it's going to get out. Think about Pakistan, how we tried with drone strikes to not make such a big deal about the collateral damage [and it didn't work]. That's always going to be your problem with Raqqa.
Do you think earlier airstrikes had more of an effect on life and stability in Raqqa?
Yet media accounts and activists say the airstrikes are leading people to flee; Raqqa Is Being Silently Slaughtered [an activist group providing information to the Western media] says IS fighters are taking cover, running scared. Do you not buy that? If so, why?
I saw a tiny couple of mentions about [people fleeing] on Twitter, but they were all rumors.
Raqqa Is Being Silently Slaughtered has always had an agenda. I'm not slamming on them. They do good work, and in many cases it's the only voice we have coming out of Raqqa that's not Islamic State. But they've suffered their own losses. They have just cause to make the Islamic State seem less than it is and the Islamic State has just cause to seem bigger than they are.
[IS fighters] might actually be running. Hell, if I was just a civilian fighter and I hadn't been paid in a while and airstrikes were coming I'd [take off] my uniform and run. Doesn't mean I'm not going to come back and fight.
Until we see photo reports about people leaving [we have to doubt those claims]. But honestly, where do they have to go? Think about the refugee crisis here. If you haven't left Syria already, you're just migrating within the country at this point. That happened a lot before the big mass migration that we're seeing now—people just shifted locations as one area became a little safer than others. That could still be happening, but I still think they don't have many places to go.
The Islamic State says everything's fine. Activists say everything's a mess. Do we have any way to verify which narrative, or in-between, is correct beyond what we've talked about?
No. Unless you start seeing things from satellite imagery, like mass migrations out of there—which I don't think you're going to see. The only other option is anecdotal evidence.
Telegram is the most reliable source of getting Islamic State information today. [ Telegram is currently trying to shut down Islamic State accounts on its site. — Ed.] You used to see a lot of selfie and grainy footage of [...] destruction on their end to prove that they were battle-hardened. But now everything's scripted. [Still,] I think monitoring Telegram and what the Islamic State's putting out—and what it's not—is always most critical in understanding where they're trying to direct your attention. Last week after [they lost] Sinjar, you saw the Islamic State trying really hard to push your attention out of al-Sham, toward Beirut and Paris.
And we're not seeing the kind of diversion you'd expect if things in Raqqa were rough?
Unless you think a [Raqqa] laundromat is distracting.
Basically, it's probably horrible living in a city at war, but you don't think the airstrikes are doing much to change the lived reality in Raqqa, which is mitigating damage well?
Yeah, bouncing back easy.
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