Monday’s images of a huge statue of former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad being pulled down in Raqqa, a provincial capital 160 kilometres east of Aleppo, are some of the most dramatic to emerge since Syria’s revolt began almost two years ago.
Rebels including the Islamist group Jabhat al-Nusra have succeeded in ousting government forces from most parts of the city over the past few days. A spokesperson for the Syrian National Council declared the city independent on Monday.
Being a provincial capital, the regime will not likely give up Raqqa easily. Indeed, shortly after gaining control of Raqqa yesterday, civilians celebrating in a central city square were subjected to a mortar attack, probably by the regime forces. Further government assaults from the air are likely.
But how important is Raqqa in the broader fight against the Assad regime? The answer: not much.
The taking of Raqqa, a city of about 250,000 people and now home to hundreds of thousands more internally displaced persons, and with little economic or military value, is just the latest in a wave of rebel victories across the north.
In early February, rebels headed up by jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra took control of the country’s largest dam located 30 kilometres to Raqqa’s west. A battle for Raqqa, one of the quietest cities during the two-year revolt, had been on the cards since then.
But let’s not forget rebel fighters have taken control of dozens of towns around the country over the past 15 months only to be swiftly driven out. The districts of Midan in Damascus, Baba Amr in Homs and central Aleppo have all met this fate.
The central town of Rastan has been taken – and lost – by anti-Assad fighters at least four times over the past 18 months. This strategic town situated between the cities of Homs and Hama and that has seen some of the most ferocious fighting of the uprising, remains contested.
The Syria conflict will be won or lost around a small patch of real estate in western Damascus – the areas that host several presidential palaces, the military’s fourth division and Republican Guard, not Raqqa or anywhere else. Raqqa stands as a symbolic victory for the forces battling Assad, and the largest city to have been completely taken by rebel groups. But that’s about it. In the halls of regime power in Damascus few tears will be shed for, what it sees, a backwater desert outpost.