The battle to liberate Raqqa from ISIS has started and reports of areas that are being taken back from the terrorist organization are already emerging. The United States and its allies are presenting the campaign in positive terms, saying that stripping the so-called ‘caliphate’ from its capital will be a significant blow to ISIS. But the liberation of Raqqa faces a number of significant challenges that the international anti-ISIS coalition needs to pay attention to, lest the gains from the campaign be overshadowed by a new wave of tension.
Ethnic tension remains a likely problem. The US-led air campaign in the area is being supported on the ground mainly by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which despite having Arab fighters within its ranks remains dominated by fighters affiliated with the Kurdish YPG. The US has made statements that areas liberated from ISIS at the hands of the SDF would be handed over to Arabs to govern and not Kurds, in an attempt to alleviate potential ethnic tension. But the extent of cooperation between the SDF and local residents in liberated areas remains unclear. Early reports, such as one by Haid Haid published by the Atlantic Council in May, seem to indicate that the SDF is using a local governance approach in Raqqa that is similar to the one it used when it liberated Manbij last year. This approach centres on involving Arabs in self-administration councils but without giving them real authority. Such a model paves the way for Kurdish-Arab tension in the near future.
Tribal tension is another concern. The US along with Jordan, the UAE and other external forces have mobilized tribes to act as local partners in the campaign against ISIS. Those international actors have created a ‘clan army’ that is taking part in the fight in southern Syria as well as in the east. However, relying on clans to hold areas post-ISIS is not a model that can be applied uniformly. There is a difference between rural and urban dynamics in this regard as well as one between different regions: Clans play a more prominent social role in Deir Ezzor and rural Raqqa than they do in urban Raqqa, and therefore those two areas are likely to see more successful implementation of a ‘clan council’ than in Raqqa city.
Moreover, because clans often ally themselves simply with whoever offers them protection, some tribes in eastern Syria have gone back to supporting the regime. This is the case of the Sheitat tribe that was almost obliterated by ISIS in 2014 and whose members subsequently joined the Syrian army in a bid for protection. Therefore, relying on clans to hold Raqqa after its liberation carries the risk of tribal clashes.
The campaign is not helped by how the competition between external powers is being translated on the ground. Since March, around 700 civilians are estimated to have been killed in over 150 anti-ISIS coalition strikes and in ground battles, and 160,000 have fled their homes and become internally displaced. The UN has described the coalition’s strikes as having caused a ‘staggering loss of civilian life’.
But the coalition’s Director of Public Affairs Col. Joe Scrocca has strongly rejected the UN’s account, saying that it effectively put the international coalition on equal footing with ISIS. Scrocca accused the media and non-governmental organizations of inadvertently reproducing ISIS propaganda in their reporting on civilian casualties in Syria. Such a statement risks hurting the coalition’s credibility rather than bolstering it.
Another contest concerns the implementation of ‘de-escalation areas’ as agreed in the Russian-led talks in Astana in May 2017. The agreement states that such areas would allow international aid agencies access to deliver food and medical services. Aid agencies have reported not having such access and the persistence of shortages of food and medical supplies. Additionally, some residents are being evacuated from their areas in what the UN has noted is an increase of ’evacuation agreements’ – in reality, Russian-blessed population transfers that are ‘primarily motivated by the strategic considerations of the warring parties that negotiate them,’ according to the UN’s independent commission of inquiry for Syria.
There is also a contest between Russia and the US and their respective allies regarding who is achieving the most results in fighting ISIS. The SDF have so far taken seven districts in the Raqqa governorate from ISIS and have made several public statements about their victories in order to showcase the achievements of the US-led coalition campaign. Russia subsequently announced that it ‘may have killed’ ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in one of its air strikes on 28 May. But there is no evidence that Baghdadi has indeed been killed in this strike, or that he is inside Syria. The last audio statement by Baghdadi was released in November 2016 and his whereabouts are unknown. Even if Baghdadi is killed, this will not lead to the collapse of ISIS, as it is led by a number of figures whose identity remains anonymous, while the group often creates public personas of supposed leaders in order to divert attention away from the actual dynamics through which it operates.
All those tensions, whether between local actors or international ones, mean that the Raqqa campaign is not going to bring stability to Syria. It will simply transform the conflict. The campaign’s limited aim, to defeat ISIS militarily, also means that it ends up ignoring one of the key drivers of instability, which is the Syrian regime. After the US, for the first time, downed a Syrian fighter jet that was attacking the SDF, the Combined Joint Task Force issued a communique on 18 June in which it said that ‘the Coalition’s mission is to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The Coalition does not seek to fight Syrian regime, Russian, or pro-regime forces’, and concluded by calling ‘on all parties to focus their efforts on the defeat of ISIS, which is our common enemy and the greatest threat to regional and worldwide peace and security’. It is this inaccurate characterization of the conflict in Syria that will be the biggest cause of on-the-ground tension in the future.
Dr Lina Khatib is head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House.