(Originally published on Osservatorio Mashrek)
After months of aerial bombardment, recent skirmishes outside Raqqa have indicated that the city will face an impending ground operation in the coming weeks and months. The aerial campaign against Raqqa has been sustained since Barack Obama authorised air-strikes in Syria against ISIS in 2014 and have intensified following the destruction of a Russian airliner, the second wave of attacks in Paris, and the attacks on Brussels. Since these attacks Britain, France, Russia and Belgium have joined the sorties over Raqqa.
The future of ISIS’s caliphate is under threat and it is unlikely that ISIS will be able to hold back the combined onslaught of ground forces supported by international air-power. However recapturing Raqqa from ISIS presents immense challenges to international policymakers.
Firstly, local forces will be a potential headache for policymakers as they assemble different rebels groups with different objectives and agendas into a effective front against ISIS. The coalition pieced together by the Pentagon is more than likely to clash with the interests of Assad, Erdogan, Putin and other rebel groups and will be an underlying factor which may complicate the Raqqa offensive, cause it to stutter as local and regional forces fight for the claim to ISIS’s scalp in Raqqa. This has already been on display in Iraq as Kurdish groups have frequently exchanged fire with Shiite militias despite Washington’s desire for a unified front for the push towards Mosul, ISIS’s main stronghold in Iraq.
Secondly, the utilisation of the Kurdish people’s Protection Units (YPG) and it Arab allies, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) will present problems when the major offensive to recapture the city commences. According to Amnesty International, the YPG have been committing war crimes in northern Syria and cleansing Arab villages and towns of Sunni Arabs. Kurdish officials have rejected these accusations arguing that these civilians were evicted from militarised zones for there own safety. However the demolition of houses and reports of civilians being evicted at gun-point contradict official statements. They also come into question when the conduct of the YPG parallels reports emerging from northern Iraq that the PKK, Assyrian Christians, and Yezidi militias (ethnic Kurds) were conducting cleansing operations against Sunni Arabs in 2014 and 2015. The ethnic cleansing perpetrated by peshmerga units and paramilitary groups have been justified as revenge for the genocidal violence perpetrated against the Yezidis following the discovery of mass graves and the enslavement and rape of hundreds of Yezidi women and children. Ethnic cleansing and resettlement is not a new phenomenon in the region and demographics have rapidly become politics in the Middle Eastern wars. However to many militant Kurdish groups these operations represent the next phase in the narrative of establishing Kurdistan after a century of persecution, genocide and statelessness.
In the context of the impending offensive on Raqqa this matters. The people of Raqqa should not only be liberated from ISIS, ‘they should be provided with guarantees against falling under the control of another extremist organisation (the Yellow ISIS) which the people of Raqqa used to call the YPG…who do not see the YPG as a lot more different from ISIS.’ It is dilemma for the Obama administration as the Kurds are the most effective fighters available on the ground against ISIS for Western policymakers. Whether they are reliable allies in the long-term remains to be seen as the YPG have been happy to work with both rebel groups and the Assad regime. This ambivalent stance makes them politically unreliable, despite their recent military efficiency. It cannot be forgotten that the YPG and PKK have maintained radical ideologies, sanctify suicide bombers and legitimise the targeting of civilians which have come into conflict with moderate Kurdish political and military groups.
In Raqqa and Mosul, ISIS holds considerable support from its population which stands in contrast to other operations in Kobane, Sinjar, Palmrya, and Tikrit. The conduct of the YPG and rebel forces and bombing of predominantly urban areas suggests that the counterinsurgency operations in Raqqa will incur high civilian casualties. The siege of Raqqa, similar to the siege of Aleppo, Homs and Hama or the battle of Ramadi, Tikrit, and Fallujah in Iraq, will be extended battles of attrition which have defined the Syrian War.
ISIS will be cleared out house by house, street by street and civilians who remain behind will face starvation and be targeted indiscriminately by ISIS, rebel forces and air strikes while Raqqa's civilians who flee the city are likely to become part of the wider refugee crisis affecting the Middle East. Displacement of civilians will inevitably creates conditions for further violence. According to journalists and media activists from Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, the U.S-led coalition’s bombardment of Raqqa is causes immense damage to residential areas and infrastructure. The suffering of Raqqa’s population will be catalysed by ISIS’s determination to hold onto its main stronghold in Syria which will prolong the siege of Raqqa and the suffering of civilians.
While destroying Raqqa may convince the population to eject ISIS from the city, such a tactic (adopted by Areil Sharon in Beirut in 1982 and Assad in Syria since 2011) will breed long-term resentment. If the political grievances and economic benefits which led to many of Raqqa’s population to support ISIS in the first place are not addressed, northern Syria will remain a key area for ISIS’s military operations. Combining these economic and political factors to the draconian international bombings and vicious conduct of local forces, the offensive on Raqqa will exacerbate the refugee crisis and embed ethno-nationalist and sectarian narratives. Such an outcome will not make European civilians any safer in the short-term or long-term, nor will it will bring Syria any closer to peace. The Raqqa campaign must be carried out delicately as both a military and political enterprise, and policymakers in Washington must ensure that U.S Special Forces operating on the ground with Kurdish forces restrain actors such as the YPG. This remains unlikely as Washington has had little control over its different partners on the ground whether it be the Free Syrian Army, the YPG and Islamist factions (moderate or radical).
It cannot be denied that ISIS’s capacity to establish a state will be dealt a significant blow. However this was always going to be the case despite the alarmism which gripped media organisations when ISIS declared itself as a caliphate. ISIS has made too many enemies too quickly and ruled some of the most impoverished parts of Syria and Iraq. However whether or not it holds territory will mean little as ISIS’s main strength has come from its tribal networks, oil smuggling and its decentralised economic, social and military approach. ISIS’s coalition will remain a major geo-political actor for years so long as Syria and Iraq (two theatres of war which are inevitably linked) are destabilised. Despite ISIS's sectarian narrative, its roots go beyond Sunni grievances against the Assad regime which is one factor in its rise across the Middle East. Addressing Sunni grievances will not solve the ISIS question as multiple state actors have a vested political and economic interest in using the ultra-violent cell as a proxy in geo-politics.
The eradication of ISIS’s presence in Raqqa will be a step in destroying it as a sub-state, but a far cry from defeating its venomous ideology nor will it deter the group from waging conventional terrorist attacks against Middle Eastern and European targets. This was demonstrated throughout May by a series of suicide attacks against government strongholds in the coastal cities of Jableh, Tartous and Baghdad which combined has left nearly 200 dead and hundreds more wounded.
ISIS remains one actor in an immensely complex conflict and for all its horrific violence, portraying the terrorist cell and Bashar al-Assad’s regime as the sole villains in the war is an oversimplification. The intra-rebel civil war will continue and act in conjunction to the opposition’s war against the regime. The West’s reliance on the Free Syrian Army (if such a thing really exists anymore) for years has been subject to severe scrutiny as the FSA is split into dozens of different sub-factions some of which are sympathetic to or allied to Al-Qaeda or are simply to weak to deal a decisive blow to Assad’s regime. The displacement of ISIS from Raqqa by YPG and SDF forces will invite retaliation from the Turkish military who will not want to see the militant Kurdish group benefit from more military success. In recent days Turkey has also hit out at U.S policymakers over images showing US special forces in Syria wearing insignia of Kurdish militia.
The cooperation between U.S and Kurdish forces in the war against ISIS is one Turkey has strongly contested. As a U.S intelligence document stated, Turkey was included in the coalition of powers which supported the possibility of the emergence of ISIS in 2012 to destabilise the Assad regime. Alongside territorially isolating Damascus, the emergence of ISIS also presented an opportunity to isolate the Kurds and thwart attempts for militant groups to push for Kurdish autonomy and federalism in northern Syria from Assad's government. Under the pretext of fighting terror, Erdogan’s government has waged war on domestic and foreign Kurdish groups (moderate and radical) with bombing raids in northern Iraq and Syria and viciously attempting to suppress a new insurgency unfolding in Turkey.
Raqqa's fall to a YPG-led offensive would be a major blow to Erdogan's government which has sponsored and turned a blind eye to the rise of ISIS between 2012-2014. Turkey has even benefited economically by funnelling black market oil sold by ISIS across the porous Syrian-Turkish border. This has also been an avenue through which foreign fighters have been able to join radical groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS. The strategy, however, has backfired on Turkey as the country stands on the brink of civil war, faces domestic insurgency, is swamped by refugees and continues to be targeted by suicide bombings while ISIS and the YPG hold more territory than ever before in northern Syria. These factors have led to widespread international condemnation in the West while Turkey's relationship with Russia has deteriorated.
The siege of Raqqa and fall of ISIS’s strongest citadel in Syria will not herald the end of the regional war or spell the end of the terrorist organisation. The fall of Raqqa will represent a new stage in the conflict and the evolution of ISIS as a geo-political force (capable of perpetrating atrocity and hijacking international, regional and local efforts to establish peace in Syria) as year by year the Syrian War becomes more lethal, consequential and devastating for Syria’s civilians and security of the region.