Who Will Control Raqqa After Islamic State?
Chances are, the U.S.-backed SDF—but the fighters will need help keeping it
The Syrian Democratic Forces, a U.S.-backed coalition of Arab and Kurdish paramilitary fighters, are tightening the siege on Raqqa, Islamic State’s main city in Syria. The city is isolated and SDF forces are also on the offensive against the Islamic State in the nearby town of Tabqa—where U.S. helicopters airlifted them into battle, enabling the SDF to capture the Damascus-to-Raqqa highway.
As the operation picks up momentum it remains unclear what the future of Raqqa will be after the city’s capture. In neighboring Iraq, the future of Mosul and the wider Nineveh Province is, while far from completely straightforward, much more clear-cut. The Iraqi government will seek to reimpose its authority over the city and the region.
Raqqa was the first of two Syrian provincial capitals the Assad regime lost total control over—the other being Idlib, which fell to anti-regime fighters in early 2015. Islamic State took over Raqqa in January 2014 after purging opposition groups in the area.
From the vantage point of today it appears the SDF has the best chance of driving Islamic State from Raqqa. The Kurdish fighters who lead the SDF have already suggested that Raqqa could become part of their region’s federal system.
Turkish Pres. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, meanwhile, is pressuring the United States to sideline the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, and launch a joint U.S.-Turkish operation into the city. Turkey has intensified this pressure in recent days by bombing the YPG in Syria.
The YPG is the main group in the SDF and the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party, which Turkey considers to be little more than an extension of the PKK.
Both the U.S. military and Russia have criticized Turkey’s air strikes.
— Seth Frantzman (@sfrantzman) April 29, 2017
It may be too late for Turkey to stop the SDF’s advance. The group’s Arab fighters will also enter Raqqa following its capture to mitigate any potential Arab-Kurdish ethnic tensions.
The SDF/YPG applied a similar federal model in Manbij. Since the fighters captured that northwestern Syrian Arab city from the Islamic State in August 2016, the group has governed it under the Manbij Military Council, and established other councils for the nearby cities of Jarablus and Al Bab.
However, Turkish-backed proxy fighters captured those cities during Operation Euphrates Shield—which officially ended in March 2017—before the SDF could.
The SDF set up a “civilian council” for the post-ISIS administration of Raqqa on April 18. The SDF’s General Command issued a statement that the council “will be charged with administering Raqqa and the surrounding province after liberation.” A spokesperson for the SDF’s Raqqa operation also said that this “council is made up of people originally from Raqqa province.”
And not to neglect another potential prize, the SDF set up a military council which will govern the eastern city of Deir Ezzor if Islamic State can be driven from that city as well—or at least if the SDF reaches it before the Syrian Arab Army does. This SDF council is reportedly made up of fighters who hail from the Deir Ezzor and Hasakah provinces.
It’s unclear if the Syrian government will acquiesce to long-term SDF control over Deir Ezzor or Raqqa.
Prof. Joshua Landis from the University of Oklahoma, an expert on Syria, said in a recent interview that Assad is “the obvious person to take it back,”—“it” being Raqqa and the wider Euphrates River Valley, which includes the entire provinces of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor—since “he has an army, he’s backed by the Russians, he’s the legitimate ruler according to the U.N. and this is going to be taken by him if the Kurds don’t take it.”
Landis also believes the Kurds have common cause with the regime insofar as both don’t want an “irredentist Sunni state created in the middle of Syria that is funded by Saudi Arabia and Turkey.”
Above and at top–YPG fighters. Photos via Kurdishstruggle
Nevertheless, sharing a common cause with Assad doesn’t mean the SDF will easily give up its newly-won territory.
“The SDF will likely try to establish a military council with local tribes [in Raqqa] that are at least not antagonistic to the Kurdish-YPG/PYD ambitions of establishing a united Kurdish territory,” Hossam Abouzhar, an associate director at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center, told War Is Boring.
“Whether or not they will cede control of it back to Damascus is a more long term question,” he added.
Abouzhar recently co-authored an article for the Atlantic Council which observed that: “The PYD is determined to gain some autonomy from the regime, which requires a de-facto border agreement (likely along the Euphrates River area).”
He also points out that the ruling Kurdish authorities in northern Syria have “effectively repressed internal competition, but the regime still pays public sector salaries in Kurdish areas, forcing the PYD to depend on it.”
Even though the PYD maintains cordial relations with Damascus—it never joined the uprising against Assad—the regime is still reluctant “to share Syrian land.”
“The question of whether or not the U.S. will push the SDF to keep control of the city is one of how the U.S. is willing to use its influence,” Abouzhar told War Is Boring. “Pushing the SDF to retain control could be a way for the U.S. to put pressure on the Syrian regime to concede on certain points, but doing so would antagonize the regime and its Russian and Iranian backers, something that the U.S. avoided until the recent military strike against Shayrat Air Base.”
Abouzhar is therefore uncertain if this longstanding U.S. position in Syria will change.
“However,” he concluded. “if the U.S. decides to be involved in reconstruction in Syria, it might be willing, and even need to, use Raqqa and other tools at its disposal to put non-military pressure on the regime to implement political changes.”