It may be a bit premature, but it does seem like the brutal fight against the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is nearing its end. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by American and allied air-forces, took ISIL’s (Islamic State in the Levant) ‘capital’, the Syrian city of Raqqa, after a four-month siege that left the city in ruins. Simultaneously, to the east, the Syrian Arab Army and its allies are on the offensive against the group’s remaining holdouts in the province of Deir Ezzor.
Although many analysts warn that ISIL has now become a brand that has spread to Africa and south Asia, the leaders of the core group, pejoratively called Daesh in Arabic, will not for the time being be able to control much, if any, territory in the Levant, a promise contained in their very name. The physical ‘caliphate’ was one of the main things that differentiated it from other Salafist groups like the original Al Qaeda.
As reported by the U.K. Guardian earlier this month, what’s left of the leadership of the group, possibly including its ‘Caliph’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has retreated to three main towns, Mayedin and Sukhna on the Syrian side of the border and Bukmal on the Iraqi side.
As an unnamed regional official explained to the paper of the Euphrates valley, where these towns are located, “The people there are traditionally conservative and many are allied to the ISIS cause. They will be hard to oust.”
Reconstruction and the Kurdish Question, Again
The first problem of reconstruction in Raqqa, as in other cities that fell to ISIL and other salafist groups, will be removing the vast amounts of ordinance, including unexploded coalition bombs and artillery shells. As elsewhere, Islamic State fighters also mined and booby-trapped much of the city, including private residences, making it too dangerous for Raqqa’s displaced residents to return to assess the damage to their homes and places of business.
As Ibrahim al-Hassan, an engineer who was preparing to work with the Raqqa Civilian Council (RCC) on the reconstruction of the city told AFP shortly after the battle had ended, “This is a huge challenge – we can’t do anything else before getting rid of the mines.”
Thus, the almost 300,000 people who once called Raqqa home won’t be able to return with winter fast approaching; the lucky ones will remain abroad but the majority will live rough in camps like Ain Issa, north of the city.
“The camps are overcrowded and we need to be thinking about that now,” a spokesperson for the aid group Mercy Corps related to IRIN News, “The time frame that we’re really looking at is weather. At this particular moment, everybody is keeping an eye on the approaching winter, and nobody wants to spend this winter under a tent.”
While the United States is providing some immediate aid, the current administration in Washington has made it clear that it isn’t interested in ‘nation building’ over the long term. The massive amounts of money that will be needed to rebuild so many cities in Iraq and Syria will probably lead most of the country’s coalition partners to take a similar position, if more quietly. This leaves the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces), the main ground force that took the city, facing a new set of problems going forward.
Facing outright hostility from Turkey, which hosts the Raqqa Provincial Council (RPC), another group that claims it should govern the area, and a strained relationship with the leadership of Iraqi Kurdistan (which has problems of its own), the SDF will probably need to look to Damascus (and its partners Iran and Russia) for help with reconstruction or to wealthy Gulf monarchies Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who no less a figure than Hillary Clinton said were funding the very group they just displaced in an email published by Wikileaks last year.
Unfortunately for the city, there is no guarantee that either of these opposed groupings will be forthcoming with the aid that will be needed for rebuilding.
This is mainly because the SDF is essentially window dressing for the PYD (Democratic Union Party), a Kurdish party that has said that it won’t forcibly annex the city and its namesake province to its self-declared Rojava territories, which are engaged in a unique experiment based on feminist principles and direct democracy. Instead, they have said that the province and city should form part of a new decentralized and federal Syria. This has the potential to ratchet up tensions with almost every other player in a country full of heavily armed great and regional powers and their proxies.
Like most of the cities leveled in the fight against ISIL, Raqqa was majority Arab and, although the SDF is nominally a multi-ethnic coalition with Arab and Assyrian Christian members, the majority of its fighters are drawn from the PYD’s military wings: the YPG and its all female force, the YPJ. This may make some former Arab residents of the city wary of returning, especially if stories of looting and ethnic cleansing previously leveled at these militias are true.
Speaking to the website, Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered, a man named Abd from a village that once had around 15,000 residents called Big Sweidiyeh, taken earlier by the SDF, lamented the looting and dispossession that took place in the aftermath of this victory, including the burning of olive trees that had provided for the community for generations, “Why do they demolish and burn the houses? Why do they burn the trees? Are these trees ISIS supporters? Or this is only a systematic policy to take vengeance from Arabs? It is not Sweidiyeh issue, it is the issue of all the villages in Taqba countryside. What if this was made by ISIS? The whole world will be talking about it.”
It didn’t help that Kurdish fighters held a celebration in Raqqa almost immediately after taking the city, waving banners featuring the face of Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Turkish PKK, the PYD’s sister organization and inspiration, who is in jail in that country for treason, provoking a new round of saber-rattling from Ankara.
It also brought a rare rebuke from the U.S. by way of its embassy in Turkey, who released a statement that read in part, “The PKK is listed among foreign terror organizations. Ocalan has been jailed in Turkey for his actions related to the PKK. He is not a person to be respected.”
While the celebration itself was understandable after the fierce fighting that led to the loss of many of their comrades in arms, it was provocative to Turkey and other countries with large Kurdish minorities, including Iran. It also seemed a little early as one looked at the ruins of a city that has a long and distinguished history beginning with its association with the ancient Babylonian city of Tuttul.
Early on in this conflict by proxy, this writer and some others with much greater reach, looked with favor on the PYD and its ideological roots in the thinking of one of the U.S.’ most underrated political philosophers, the late Murray Bookchin, whose interest in feminism, deep ecology and direct democracy is still ahead of its time.
The roots of the PYD are in Kurdish nationalism and a cult of personality built around Ocalan, who converted from Marxism to Bookchin’s ideas while in prison. The question remains whether the idealistic experiment in Rojava can survive such a brutal conflict, which by its very nature has divided people into smaller and smaller groups, not to mention the power politics of regional and world powers on the ground.
On the other hand, the PYD do have the potential to be a game changer in the Middle East and the world if they are able to live up to their ideals. As Kimmy Taylor, a young woman from the U.K. who participated alongside the YPJ in the siege of Raqqa told Sky News during the celebration that followed city’s fall, “If women understand how to protect themselves… how to defend themselves physically and also mentally, this is how we gain freedom. It’s not just for here it’s for all over the world. We need to learn why we are protecting ourselves, what are we protecting… Our morals as women, our ethics as women, our history and our culture as women. This is what we need to protect and defend, and from this we can build something new, where we can build an equal society.”
The devastation of Raqqa was not covered in the English language press with the same vigor as the earlier battle for Aleppo. The Russian and Syrian assault there was no more acceptable to people of principle than the leveling of the IS ‘capital’ by the United States and its allies. Far too many in the West, including on the left, are willing to accept that the brutality of those they support comes is well-intentioned while accusing those they oppose engaged in similar behavior of war crimes. After more than 5 years, it should be clear that no group fighting in Syria (or Iraq) is without the blood of innocents on its hands.