Veiled women walk past a billboard that carries a verse from Koran urging women to wear a hijab in the northern province of Raqqa
Veiled women walk past a billboard that carries a verse from Koran urging women to wear a hijab in Isis-controlled Raqqa Reuters Pics

Women have defiantly shed their veils and people are smoking cigarettes on the streets as Isis loses its grip on its Syrian stronghold in Raqqa, residents said.

According to several residents of the city interviewed by the Financial Times, Isis officials have fled with their families, hospitals have been stripped of equipment, and the Hisba religious police no longer patrol its streets, as the jihadist group braces itself for attack by US-backed Kurdish forces that encircle the city.

Residents said that the group's presence in the city shrank after rumours circulated in March that Tabqa dam, upriver from the city, was about to break following a Coalition airstrike, sparking panic.

"I suddenly noticed they barely have a presence. There was no more hisba [morality police], and all their prisoners were released. The street cleaners, electricity workers, the zakat [tax] office — all of them had stopped," a local shopkeeper who gave his name as Omar told the publication.

Another resident, who gave his name as Ahmad, said that residents were defying the group's ban on smoking, and rules compelling women only to appear in public wearing head-to-toe black robes.

Isis seized control of Raqqa in 2014, and swiftly imposed its brutal interpretation of Sharia law, publicly executing many who defied it. Residents said those caught smoking have been flogged, had limbs amputated, and even been executed. Women could face beatings and their male guardians also faced punishment if women defied the dress code of a two-layer black veil and black robe.

In recent months the group has lost swaths of territory in northern Syria to US-backed Kurdish forces, which in December seized the strategically vital Tabqa dam.

The group has also been driven from large sections of Iraqi city Mosul by US-backed Iraqi government forces, with the group now facing the loss of its two chief bases of power in its 'Caliphate'.

On Tuesday, the US military announced that it was establishing its first airbase in northern Syria, which will be used as a support headquarters for an offensive against Isis in Raqqa later this year.

Residents who have fled Raqqa ahead of the US-led assault told Reuters that checkpoints from the city had been abandoned as fighters were redeployed to the front line or withdraw to strongholds in the south. One refugee told the news agency that Isis had recently executed a man who smuggled people from the city to deter others from fleeing, while fields have been mined on routes leading to Kurdish lines.

It is unknown how many people remain in the city, whose pre-civil war population stood at 200,000.