By: Yasmin Faruki, Columnist
Photo Credit: Al-Jazeera
The recent ousting of Daesh from Raqqa by the Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) is a welcome victory for the US-led coalition, but upcoming challenges underscore the lack of a clear US strategy in Syria. As Daesh’s former de facto capital in Syria, Raqqa enabled the organization to carry out its most essential functions, including deploying a political administration, training for foreign fighters, and plotting transnational terrorist attacks. In light of recent setbacks, including the loss of its Iraqi capital in Mosul, Daesh is now on its back foot. The US-led coalition should seize the opportunity to solidify coalition gains against Daesh by addressing Raqqa’s post bellum reconstruction and governance, or it will not be able to sustain victories on the ground.
The United States faces many challenges in this regard. The first is defusing tensions over who will control the immediate political administration of Raqqa. The Raqqa Civilian Council (RCC) is currently poised to take over because its sponsor, the SDF, handily retook Raqqa from Daesh. However, the RCC’s ascendancy is worrisome for several indigenous Syrian groups due to its overriding loyalty to Kurdish interests. While the SDF and RCC are technically multi-ethnic organizations, both have predominantly Kurdish constituencies and work closely with the Syrian Kurdish political and military entities, known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Democratic Union Party (PYD), respectively. In light of their contributions to the fight against Daesh, Syrian Kurds are likely to seize this unique opportunity to push for territorial expansion and greater political autonomy, further irritating Raqqa’s native Arab residents.
The RCC’s rise also concerns the Turkish government, which strongly associates the YPG-dominant elements of the SDF and RCC with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a terrorist organization that has fought a three-decade insurgency and claimed 3,000 Turkish civilian lives in the past two years.[i][ii] Their preferred alternative—the Raqqa Provincial Council (RPC), backed by a Syrian opposition party based in Turkey—remains in exile. And while the United States was correct to prioritize the ousting of Daesh over its relationship with Turkey in the short term, continued US sponsorship of the SDF and RCC could increase tensions. The United States needs to maintain a cordial relationship with Erdogan to maintain access to Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base, which the coalition relies upon for air combat operations.
The second challenge is ensuring the RCC is a truly inclusive political administration. The SDF’s spokesperson insists Raqqa will be part of a decentralized federal state in Syria, mirroring the governance plan for Manbij, which committed to Arab political inclusion. Indeed, the RCC boasts a diverse membership and includes an Arab co-president, but reports suggest that the Kurds are unofficially in charge.[iii][iv] In the words of one Syrian activist, the RCC functions on the ground and provides services, but does not represent the city’s demography.[v] Sporadic instances of SDF-led retribution against Syrian Arabs and Daesh-affiliated families in the form of arbitrary arrests and mandatory conscription threaten to undermine stability by recreating local grievances that would empower groups like Daesh to reclaim the mantle of resistance. Concerns about retribution aside, the RCC is not likely to succeed in governing non-Kurdish-dominant areas; reports of pro-Kurdish and secular reforms to school curricula, for example, reveal how deeply incompatible a Kurdish-leaning government would be with a Sunni Arab constituency.[vi]
The third challenge is ensuring long-term funding for Raqqa’s reconstruction, a responsibility that no country wants to take on. According to the humanitarian organization REACH, less than one percent of the city’s prewar population of 300,000 remains in the city.[vii] There is no functioning electricity or water system. The Syrian Network for Human Rights reports that 900 civilians were killed in the course of the four-month operation to retake the city, including at least 570 by coalition air raids.[viii] Though enthusiastic about funding the military operation to oust Daesh, US officials have wavered on committing to the city’s reconstruction. For example, Brett McGurk, the US Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, tweeted pictures of ongoing stability operations, like IED clearing, but has insisted that long-term restoration of Raqqa’s essential services is an “international problem.”[ix]
Absent an inclusive RCC or comprehensive plan for reconstruction in Raqqa, the US-led coalition could unravel the temporary stability it has just achieved. The United States should press for an inclusive RCC by making military support to the SDF contingent on equal treatment of all Raqqa’s residents, and by holding the SDF accountable for grievance-producers, such as arbitrary arrests. Publicizing this commitment could help signal to Raqqa’s native Arab residents that the US-led coalition is committed to a fair and inclusive political structure.
The US should also commit to the long-term reconstruction of Raqqa. Invoking Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn rule, when it comes to war, “if you break it, you fix it.”[x] The United States undoubtedly holds responsibility for the destruction of Raqqa. It cannot enthusiastically support the SDF and spend $13.6M daily on military operations against Daesh, and then waver when it comes to Raqqa’s reconstruction.[xi] Secretary Tillerson is right to call on other coalition partners to help fund rebuilding efforts, but the United States should take on this responsibility if coalition funding falls short. Stability operations may constrain the ability of a group like Daesh to reconquer territory in the short term, but these efforts will be a waste unless someone commits to developing Raqqa’s long term governance capacity, including training security forces and providing municipal services like food, water, and electricity. As the US military knows all too well, clearing territory is much more straightforward than holding it. The United States would be wise to further define its role in the political future of Syria and ensure that post bellum challenges are dealt with or it will face dangerous repercussions.
[i] Mariya Petkova, “What will happen to post-ISIL Raqqa?” Al Jazeera, October 17, 2017. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2017/10/sdf-captures-syria-raqqa-city-isil-171013110014050.html
[ii] Berkay Mandıracı, “Turkey’s PKK Conflict Kills almost 3,000 in Two Years,” International Crisis Group, July 20th, 2017. https://www.crisisgroup.org/europe-central-asia/western-europemediterranean/turkey/turkeys-pkk-conflict-kills-almost-3000-two-years.
[iii] Haid Haid, “Is the Raqqa Civilian Council Fit for Purpose?” Chatham House, October 2017. https://syria.chathamhouse.org/research/is-the-raqqa-civilian-council-fit-for-purpose
[iv] (1) Enwer Omar, “Multi-ethnic committees to run post-ISIS Manbij city,” Aranews, March 15, 2017. http://aranews.net/2017/03/multi-ethnic-committees-run-post-isis-manbij-city/
(2) “Fighting ISIS: The Road to and Beyond Raqqa,” International Crisis Group, April 28, 2017. https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/eastern-mediterranean/syria/b053-fighting-isis-road-and-beyond-raqqa
[v] Petkova, “What will happen to post-ISIL Raqqa?”
[vi] “Syria’s Kurds led the advance on Raqqa, but now may fracture,” The Economist, October 21, 2017. https://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21730387-kurds-after-caliphate-syrias-kurds-led-advance-raqqa-now-may
[vii] Petkova, “What will happen to post-ISIL Raqqa?”
[viii] James Denselow, “Who will pay for the reconstruction of Raqqa?” Al Jazeera, October 23, 2017. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/pay-reconstruction-raqqa-171022074510240.html
[ix] “Devastation in Raqqa raises questions about cost of victory,” The Washington Post, October 17, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/us-backed-syrian-force-expected-to-declare-victory-in-raqqa/2017/10/20/010d5a78-b56c-11e7-9b93-b97043e57a22_story.html?utm_term=.a1faa943b72d
[x] William Saffire, “If You Break It…” The New York Times, October 17, 2004. http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/17/magazine/if-you-break-it.html.