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Is the Raqqa Civilian Council Fit for Purpose?

  • Haid Haid

    Consulting Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House

    زميل مشارك استشاري، برنامج الشرق الأوسط وشمال أفريقيا

After the seizure of Raqqa, questions about the effectiveness of the SDF’s governance model loom.

Following the full capture of Raqqa, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) seems to have started the final phase of formalizing the de-facto governance model it has designed for the governorate. The Raqqa Civilian Council (RCC) has been, for months, slowly handling the areas seized from ISIS. But apart from its broad goals, not much is publicly known about the council’s capacity or plans for the post-ISIS Raqqa. Likewise, it is not clear how much support it will receive from the international community to rebuild the governorate. The answers to these questions are not only central to successfully stabilizing Raqqa, but also to ensure the sustainability of its successes against ISIS.

Succeeding a preparatory meeting attended by 100 delegates, including representatives from Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen, the Syrian Democratic Council, the political representative of the SDF, announced the formulation of the RCC on 18 April. The RCC consists of two co-presidents (an Arab and a Kurd, one of which is female), three deputies (a Turkman, an Arab and a Kurd, one of which is female) and 14 technical committees to cover all areas of governance. The majority of the RCC consists of Arabs, in line with Raqqa’s demography, but also includes Kurds and other ethnic groups.

The council does not have a clear structure, which is desperately needed to run post-war Raqqa. Under the RCC, there should be similarly structured councils at lower levels (city, town, neighbourhood) to share the governance burden. But according to different RCC members, most of these councils have not been established yet. The reasons vary from the rapid military gains against ISIS and the security challenges that come with that to the lack of manpower and resources needed for such efforts. Additionally, some lower-level councils (namely the Tabqa council) seem to have been established by the Syrian Democratic Council directly, instead of the RCC.

As a result, the RCC does not have much authority over the Tabqa council. The relationship between the two entities is limited to coordination more than anything else. This will likely increase the challenges facing the RCC with regards to having the structure and authority needed to establish a centrally coordinated governing model at the governorate level.

The traditional division between the legislative and the executive authorities does not seem to apply to the RCC. The council is, theoretically, in charge of issuing laws and regulations as needed. It is also the main body in charge of monitoring the implementation of these laws. While local sources are talking about ongoing efforts to separate these authorities, this current situation further limits the RCC’s chances of having a clear division of tasks or avoiding abusing the level of power it enjoys. Furthermore, the RCC committees still do not have official rules and regulations to standardize their work. Consequently, the practices of some committees might not be accepted by others, which limits the RCC’s ability to coordinate and monitor their work.

What’s more, the RCC still does not have the needed resources to rebuild the city. The leaked videos from inside Raqqa shows that the defeat of ISIS came at the expense of destroying a big part of the city. Although the exact extent of the damage remains unclear, it seems that most of the buildings, especially the civilian facilities, have been either flattened or partially knocked. Nonetheless, a number of RCC members indicated that the council has not received any substantial external funds in order to be able to provide basic needs in the areas that have been captured from ISIS. Such needs have significantly increased after the capture of Raqqa city. But there are still no strong indications that the international community will do much to help in the near future.

This does not come as a surprise; the US special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, Brett McGurk, frequently emphasized that the United States is only committed to the stabilization of Raqqa areas – i.e. establishing basic security and providing essential services – not to funding any long-term reconstruction. Some European diplomats have also expressed a similar position in conversations with the author, while others even refused to support any early recovery efforts. The town of Kobani, which was liberated from ISIS almost three years ago, is still struggling to recover due to lack of support from the West. Therefore, the situation in the city of Raqqa, which is bigger and more problematic, will likely be worse.

The expanded Kurdish influence over the RCC is sensitive to locals – although their exact percentage remains unclear – who might challenge the council’s authority. Locals who reject the RCC view it as a Kurdish tool to expand Kurdish authority over the Arab-majority governorate of Raqqa. ‘The Kurds have created the council to control Raqqa and integrate it in their Self-Administration project. The percentage of Arabs in the council will not change anything as the Kurds are the ones who are unofficially running the show,’ said Yasir Abbas, a businessman from Raqqa based in Turkey. This view is supported by a report published by the International Crisis Group that states that SDF efforts to include Arabs in the Kurdish-led ‘Democratic Self-Administration’ model have been superficial and do not amount to a meaningful share in governance. Although this resentment may not escalate to direct confrontations with the RCC, it will still likely limit its legitimacy and popularity.

Handling the aforementioned challenges is central to the success of the recently established Raqqa Civilian Council in governing Raqqa. But the essential element to stabilizing the area is the council’s ability to allow locals to meaningfully develop and run their city separately from the YPG-PYD’s Self-Administration and reflect the city’s social composition. Doing so could assure sceptical Syrians, and others, that the SDF’s capture of territory no longer means the arrival of single-party rule.


Haid Haid is a Consulting Research Fellow in the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House and Syrian columnistwho focuses on security policies, conflict resolution, Kurdish and Islamist movements.