Lights in the City: The Road to Recovery in Northeast Syria
by Janey Fugate
On the night of October 5, 2020, a dark street in the Northeastern Syrian city of Raqqa flooded with light. For the first time in more than five years, streetlights illuminated places once nearly impossible to navigate at night for fear of crime.
These lights were some of the last of over 4,700 lights installed in Raqqa by Al Rashad+, a program funded by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs working to bolster security to Northeast Syria. Spread along more than 56 miles of roads, the lights are also symbolic of a slow return to normalcy in a city torn by 10 years of war.
“The streetlights have made it significantly safer for both civilians and businesses in important parts of the city, signaling new growth in Raqqa,” says Manal Chafik, Al Rashad+’s Chief of Party.
The Syrian Revolution erupted in 2011 and has evolved into a major humanitarian crisis. Violence from the Syrian government, militant groups and ISIS has resulted in the displacement of half of Syria’s 2011 population of 22 million, the largest displaced and refugee group in the world.
The Northeast succumbed to ISIS’s control in 2014, with Raqqa becoming the jihadists’ stronghold. Even after ISIS was pushed out, the region has struggled to rebuild and provide basic services to its citizens and returnees.
Opening in 2018, Al Rashad+ supports local councils and authorities to implement essential services that lay the foundation for growth. Located on the Euphrates River, Raqqa has been the primary focus of Rashad+, though it is also working in the rural region of Deir Ezzor further east, also devastated by conflict.
Celebrating in Al-Sheitat
In Al-Sheitat, another former ISIS stronghold in Deir Ezzor that suffered large-scale destruction, civilians had gone even longer without streetlights than Raqqa’s residents. Before the revolution, the Assad regime had long neglected services and infrastructure in the city, which left it insecure and vulnerable to violent extremists. In Al-Sheitat and the neighboring town of Hajin, streets have been dark for more than a decade.
Partnering with the DCC, Al Rashad+ worked with government committees, contractors and the community to build and restore more than seven miles of streetlights.
In March 2021, fireworks in the sky reflected those illuminating the streets as residents celebrated the restoration of the streetlights in Al-Sheitat. These celebrations were as much about what the lights signified as the lights themselves.
For local businesses, the lights mean increase sales. In Raqqa, since the streetlights have lit Main Street, as well as 39 other streets in critical parts of the city, shop owners are able to keep their stores open longer as residents now venture out at night.
“Sales have improved a lot, especially after street lighting has allowed us to work at night, as well as people’s nightly shopping is safer than before,” says Muhammad Mur’ei al-Hess, a clothing shop owner in Raqqa. “We no longer have to set up night watches for our stores after the markets are closed.”
The lights are also located at important junctures for commerce, government buildings and hospitals. Local councils identified the need for light as one of the most urgent steps to take in rebuilding the city for citizens’ sense of safety and for the economy. In a survey conducted by Rashad+, the streetlights increased the percentage of women feeling safe outside at night from 34 percent to 96 percent.
Since 2019, Al Rashad+ has partnered with local councils to train security forces in community policing techniques, transitioning formerly military men and women into different roles. The project has trained more than 8,000 people on policing best practices.
“The police officers all come from a military background,” says Jihan Diwan, Deputy Chief of Party for Al Rashad+. “Those were the people who liberated the area. [Their mentality] is not oriented to community policing. And that’s why this work is important– building the capacity of those people.”
A priority for the Rashad team has been equipping women security officers. The project has trained 580 women officers and has opened two women’s police centers where female Internal Security Forces officers offer services to women. The program has also been critical in supporting the security forces as they responded to COVID-19, spreading awareness campaigns on best practices to prevent the spread and providing PPE.
“This is where the role of the community security program is important because we try to work with the community on prioritizing their security needs and concerns, and then we empower their security providers and their service providers to address those needs and gaps,” says Diwan.
This investment in security has seen some important success. Crime statistics provided by the Internal Security Forces in Raqqa show a significant decrease in crimes between 2019 and 2020. The number of reported murders has fallen by a third from 27 in 2019 to 18 in 2020, while reported thefts have more than halved. Robbery, the most prevalent crime, has also fallen by a third from 2019 to 2020.
Similarly, the number of reported traffic accidents and injuries and deaths from accidents has halved over the course of 2020.
This momentum is a testament to local authorities’ willingness to take steps to create an environment of peace in Northeast Syria and to the effectiveness of community policing strategies and techniques, which strengthen civilian oversight and depend on community involvement.