Middle East

Syrian social media fears Raqqa campaign backlash

Fighters from the Islamic State group ride tanks during a parade in Raqqa, Syria in 2014 Image copyright AP
Image caption IS has been in control of Raqqa since 2014

The Kurdish-led operation north of the Islamic State (IS) stronghold of Raqqa has received scant coverage in Syrian mainstream media, but attracted sharp criticism from users of social networks.

Some critics say the campaign should be led by Arabs, not the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and many highlight the ordeal of Raqqa residents.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Fighters from the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) control parts of Raqqa province, including here in the village of Fatisah

News of the Kurdish-led campaign against IS has caused disquiet among social media commentators, many of who fear a backlash against ordinary people in Raqqa.

'Fear prevails' 

"The ongoing talk of 'liberating Raqqa'", tweeted prominent opposition journalist and activist Hadi Al-Abdallah, "actually means a re-occupation of the city".

He argued that "the SDF is more radical than ISIS [IS]."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Activists say Raqqa residents fear attack from coalition or Russian aircraft

A spokesman for the anti-IS activist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), Mohamed Al-Saleh, said that "a state of fear prevails among civilians" in the city.

"Civilians fear that the international coalition's warplanes or Russian aircraft may carry out massacres inside the Raqqa city similar to what happened in Aleppo," he said, alluding to air strikes on rebels in the Syrian city.

Similar views were expressed on Twitter.

"People in Raqqa have embarked on a trip into the unknown, just like what happened in Aleppo countryside - neither life nor death, we have no one but you God," one user tweeted.

In fact, expressions of fear have been the dominant trend among tweets commenting on the Raqqa operation.

Analysis of 23,154 Arabic tweets written between 24 and 25 May showed that about half of the sample were circulating news, while almost a quarter of the remaining posts expressed fear.

The rest of the comments were critical of the operation, with very few expressing support for it.

'$400 per person' 

On 25 May, IS was reported to have closed down bus stations in Raqqa to completely prevent residents from travelling outside the city.

Mohamed Al-Saleh said IS was "trying to tighten the noose on civilians".

According to activists, this has left residents with no choice but to seek the help of smugglers, who reportedly charge $400 per person.

Image copyright Twitter
Image caption This tweet apparently shows a leaflet urging residents to leave Raqqa

On the other hand, the US-led international coalition's warplanes have reportedly been dropping leaflets asking residents to leave to avoid getting caught in the fighting,

According to the RBSS, the leaflets say: "This is the time you have been waiting for, it is time to leave Raqqa."

Startled by the news, one Twitter user commented: "Don't they know Daesh [IS] has closed the roads and the bus stations?"

'Burn ISIS'

In the past, Kurds have been accused of carrying out atrocities against Arabs in areas that fell under their control.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption IS have posted their own images of Raqqa on social media, like this one from 2015 allegedly showing damage done to buildings by air strikes

"We have not forgotten the desecration of dead bodies, dragging rebels across the streets and displaying them on the back of trucks. We have not forgotten the occupation of Sunni Arab areas, displacing their people," one user tweeted, commenting about the start of the Kurdish-led operation north of Raqqa.

Although outnumbered on social media, supporters of the campaign said it would deal a blow to terror.

"Burn ISIS, burn terrorism, liberate Raqqa," tweeted one user, who described himself as a supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Another suggested that the campaign only "annoys ISIS members in the area and those who follow them."

BBC Monitoring reports and analyses news from TV, radio, web and print media around the world. You can follow BBC Monitoring on Twitter and Facebook.