On 17 October 2017, the Kurdish-dominated, US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights announced that the city of Raqqa had been liberated from the Islamic State (IS). The next day, the US-backed forces was already clearing main roads and removing land mines from the devastated city.
The first images show the extent of the destruction. In an interview published by Public Radio International, a resident said: “I don’t believe that the city has been liberated today. It’s just a new occupier taking the city … [The US-backed coalition] killed thousands of civilians by artillery and air strikes. They destroyed about 80 per cent of the city. They want to capture this city no matter the cost.”
Russia has already accused the coalition of “barbaric” bombing of the city, comparing it to Dresden in 1945, the German city destroyed in Allied bombing raids just before the end of World War II.
Indeed, it took four months of fighting and more than two years of heavy bombing for IS to be defeated in Raqqa, which the terrorist group seized in January 2014 and established as their capital. However, this battle is not the end of the war nor the end of IS. In the eastern Syrian province of Deir ez-Zor, the SDF is redeploying fighters and fighting different battles from the Syrian government but with the same objective: ousting IS from their final stronghold before the Iraqi border.
In Syria Deeply, Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute, wrote, ‘Beyond the governance angle … the group continues to conduct military operations … Furthermore, the [IS] of today is stronger than the group’s previous incarnation in 2009-12, with violence in Iraq currently three times more deadly than during the roughly four-year period following the surge. The bureaucratic apparatus might be dormant, but the insurgent capabilities remain formidable.’
In the military surge in 2007, additional American troops were sent to Iraq to help Sunni tribal militias combat al-Qaeda in Iraq. Al-Qaeda was initially defeated but regrouped and returned as IS.
Yet more than the question of the defeat of IS, the future of Raqqa is at stake. “I am frustrated with the usual angle of whether IS is dead. Does that mean that miles away, we Western people will be safe? It is a secondary question,” Mauritanian American activist and consultant Nasser Weddady told Fanack Chronicle. “For me, what is interesting is how this place will be put back together and become functional again. And here, I don’t see any plan in place that seems credible, with proper political support and funding. What I can see is that the SDF and the YPG [Syrian Kurdish militia] will come and try to run the place and fail, locals will revolt. There is no happy ending here. Media showed pictures of women dancing. That’s great, but who will get them running water, aid and medicine tomorrow? [The situation] could change with a political agreement, but without it, it will end just like a game of ping-pong, which is a waste of time.”
In the days following the liberation, YPG fighters credited their Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan with the victory. For their part, the SDF said the people of the city and province would decide their own future “within the framework of a decentralized, federal, democratic Syria”, an indication of their plan to tie the future of Raqqa to the Kurdish-led autonomy plans in Syria. “The SDF, especially its main constituent the YPG, are likely looking east of the [Syrian] border at what has been unfolding between Erbil and Baghdad, and how the [Kurdistan Regional Government], a US ally, has been left alone with no support as Iraqi security forces and Iranian-backed Shia militias started rolling back their territorial control to what it was in 2003,” said Rashad al-Kattan, a non-resident fellow in the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
Control of Raqqa and its future in Syria are now at stake, with no clear view of what will happen. In the meantime, more than 200,000 of the city’s residents have been displaced, according to the international organization Mercy Corps, which said in a press release on 19 October 2017, ‘During the fighting, we saw hundreds of people flee their homes each day. Mercy Corps’ teams and partners are delivering food and essential supplies, but we’re very concerned about the massive humanitarian needs … The military operation may be over, but that doesn’t mean that families are safe now or have a home to go back to.’ Other organizations such as Human Rights Watch and International Rescue Committee had raised concerns since June 2017 about civilians trapped in the city and the treatment of detainees and the displaced.
The fate of civilians seems to have been forgotten in the political and security discussions. “Raqqa has been wrecked,” said Weddady. “There is no running water and electricity, which is weird when you think that the province is the main provider of electricity for the rest of Syria. It looks like Berlin in 1945, but don’t expect a Marshall Plan for Raqqa. The objective was to destroy [IS], not to save the population. Now, they are on their own.” For him, the “over-optimism” displayed in most media and among politicians is a concern: “People would like some victory, but look at Iraq, look what happened to Fallujah in 2011. We have to break the cycle. But today, Raqqa is a pile of smouldering ashes.”
On 23 October 2017, James Denselow, the Middle East analyst for al-Jazeera, ‘Back in March, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned that while his country has led operations against [IS], stabilization and reconstruction will “require more from all of you”. There can be little argument that, in this particular corner of Syria, the Colin Powell doctrine of “you break it, you own it” will be applied.’
In the meantime, a recently formed civil council has divided the city into 16 neighbourhoods in order to coordinate the clean-up with the help of different organizations. While it relies mostly on civil associations and residents, the question of who will pay for it and who will be in charge of the actual reconstruction still remains unanswered.