With the war with Islamic State's army drawing to a violent and tragic conclusion in Raqqa (at-least in the eyes of the mainstream media outlets) and the destruction of the terrorist organisation's other enclaves in Syria and Iraq, the next phase of the Arab Revolutions and Middle Eastern conflicts is beginning.
Raqqawis have been caught between twin barbarisms. The first is the horrific rule of IS, a reality which has led to the deaths of hundreds of civilians, and now thousands as the city buckles under a second barbarism, the punishing air raids, Syrian, French, U.S, Russian, Belgian, and British. From the outset of Syria's revolution, Raqqa has exchanged hands between factions fighting in the Syrian War. In March 2013, the Syrian Army relinquished control of the city perched on the Euphrates River to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and the Free Syrian Army. The loss of Raqqa, while a blow to President Asad's regime, did not strategically impact the integrity of the Syrian state.
After a three to four day battle, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the Syrian Islamic Front and the Free Syrian Army emerged victorious and proceeded to rip down the golden statue of President Bashar Asad's father, Hafez Asad in the city square. The military expertise of the jihādists and their firepower bolstered the Syrian revolutionaries and overwhelmed the four-hundred Asad loyalists garrisoning Raqqa. In 2013-2014, IS leader and the Shura Council proceeded to attempt to absorb Jabhat Fateh al-Sham into its organisation, an act which was met with fierce opposition by the Syrian branch of Al-Qa'ida, its leader Abu Mohammad al-Julani and international members of the Al-Qa'ida. As the intra-jihadist competition broke out into open war between Al-Qa'ida, IS and other ultra-violent/extremist Islamist, Salafi, Sunni and Wahabbi cells, IS seized control of Raqqa and absorbed other towns and cities such as Deir-ez-Zor, Palmyra, Mosul, Ramadi, pockets of Aleppo, Fallujah, Tikrit, and Sinjar into their blooming caliphate.
In the tale of three cities, Aleppo and Mosul dominated headlines as Raqqa took the back seat in the Western countries' war with IS and international community's focus was fixed on President Asad and President Putin's destruction of the Islamist-dominated military opposition in Aleppo and their cleansing and incarceration of Syrian moderates, activists and journalists. Both the sieges of Aleppo and Mosul created major refugee crisis displacing tens of thousands and appalled the international community, battles which became the flagship for Syria and Iraq's descent into chaos and appalling violence.
As these crises unfolded IS consolidated its grip on Raqqa, its army expanded across the Middle East, and civilians - men, women and children alike - were some the first to suffer on a daily basis under the occupation of the terrorist group and its warped vision of a caliphate. Sharia (Islamic) law was effectively declared when Jabhat Fateh al-Sham began its occupation, however once the intra-jihadist civil war began, IS were quick to liquidate extremist and moderates who opposed their ideological blueprint. Rule under the jihādists became increasingly vicious as IS and Baghdadi's subordinates such as Abu Saraqeb el-Maghribi (head of security), Abu Jandal al-Mari (head of information), and Abu Muhammad al-Jazrawi (head of secret police) imposed control over every aspect of Raqqawis lives.
The fundamentalist police, Hisbah, executed people by public beheadings and crucifixion, whipped dissidents and even those who cursed, tortured and mutilated smokers and stoned women to death. Women were forced to wear the niqab and male doctors were forbidden to treat female patients in IS Raqqa as rule by terror sought to segregate men, women and children's lives entirely. The sexual enslavement of women and young girls, which drew horror across the world in Iraq as IS attempted to wipe out the Yezidis with genocidal intent, has been a feature of life in Raqqa since 2013. The fate of hundreds who disappeared into IS prisons remains unknown and rape, extortion and looting became a common feature of IS's Syrian capital. At the same time, IS were unable to protect civilians from air raids by the Syrian Air Force which shelled families in their homes and damaged Raqqa's critical infrastructure.
IS's elite also has a back-up plan as its current generation of fighters buckles under the onslaught of U.S firepower; child soldiers. Recruiting child soldiers is a war crime and IS has shown no qualms in using Raqqa's children - indeed the children across the world - as pawns in their war against takfiri regimes, Middle Eastern countries and Western states. The promises of reward, in this life and the next, have been used to lure teenagers and children to their cause, a chance to run away from issues of unemployment, marriage, family troubles and desperate poverty in the sparsely populated region and an opportunity to channel those grievances against different ethnic groups, women, and innocent civilians.
The insidious propaganda videos and Dabiq magazine offered an escape. The reality, of course, was different as advanced warfare erased IS's promises and children's dreams melted away in bombs, bullets and bloodshed. Child soldiers were used as cannon fodder, utilised as suicide bombers, malnourished, and even raped by fellow fighters on the battlefield. The "Cubs of the Caliphate", trained to glorify jihād and death for the cause of Allah have lost years of proper schooling, are traumatised and broken by armed conflict, and are a generation without hope unless the international community rallies to address the socio-psychological damage done to the fabric of families and communities in cities and town such Raqqa displaced and ripped apart by ethnic, sectarian and tribal violence. If the world ignores the plight of the Middle East's children, Raqqa's children, the ranks of children radicalised by the missiles of U.S aircraft, the brainwashing of IS's doctrine and effects of war will transform them into a future threat to their own countries and the outside world and swell the ranks of extremists such as Al-Qa'ida.
Life under the occupation of IS has been extremely violent and their conduct on the field of battle in Raqqa has appalled civilians and cost thousands their lives. As with a string of cities, towns and villages occupied by IS, the terrorist organisation's form of asymmetrical warfare and indiscriminate urban combat skills has put innocents in the line of fire, exposed them to further targeting by air-raids and sparked a refugee crisis.
Improvised explosive devices; wiring homes with sensors and bombs which detonate when they detect the movement of approaching infantryman or civilians; drones; sniper fire; trucks laced with explosives; suicide bombers; child soldiers; utilising armour piercing weapons to destroy tanks and Humvees; ideological trained units of hard-core soldiers; these are all part of the package which SDF and YPG forces faces in the street to street fighting and rubble-strewn Raqqa, a war zone whose pictures throw an onlooker back to the most horrendous battles of the Second World War such as Stalingrad, Dresden, or Warsaw.
Civilians, by IS foot soldiers occupying their homes, hospitals, mosques, and schools, have been regularly used as human shields, a tactic replicated from defensive operations in Mosul, Aleppo and Fallujah. Attempts to flee Raqqa have been made difficult, if not impossible by IS who have frozen all movement out of the city as U.S sponsored forces advance. Those who attempt to flee, families or deserters, face execution and are cut down by coalition airstrikes and IS sniper fire in no man's land. Thousands have escaped and the majority are located in Ain Issa and Alkarama camp for IDPs where airstrikes thunder in the distance, deserters from IS languish, and uncertainty reigns. These camps are not far from fighting as the SDF advance south and Asad's militias supported by Syrian and Russian airpower and artillery mop up Islamist fighters on the outskirts of eastern Raqqa.
The second challenge facing Raqqa's civilians, as detailed by local NGOs such as Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, is the coalition and factions taking back the city and opposed to IS. The so-called "War of Liberation" has created more questions than it has solved. "Everywhere we go, the airstrikes follow." says Iraqi refugee in Ain Issa, Abu Jassem who fled Fallujah, Iraq. These airstrikes alluded to by the Iraqi refugee are a problem which Israeli military intelligence has honed in on as a geopolitical and military problem, not simply a humanitarian one. According to one of the region's most battle-hardened armies, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), the U.S and its coalition have handled the Islamic State group (IS) in completely the wrong way.
The consequences of the military campaigns, from Fallujah to Raqqa, will lead to further disasters in the the Middle East. In an interview with Politico Magazine, an Israeli military intelligence officer criticised the U.S-led bombing campaigns of cities in the region: "The bombing sometimes is causing more damage than it helps, you are also perceived as one of the guys blowing things up." In Raqqa, this bombing campaign has been ferociously displayed as Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and its supporting Kurdish YPG militias assembled by the U.S push deeper and deeper into the IS-held parts of the city.
Airpower is a useful asset in a military context, but it does not solve the multilayered political problems plaguing the city or solve the poisonous ideology of IS. Instead, the bombing of Raqqa by coalition aircraft to create a blanket for advancing allied forces has levelled what's left of Raqqa.
Personal testimonies and photographs by civilians, journalists and international and local activists bury claims by the Pentagon, Russia, Syria and NATO allies that their airforces are conducting the most accurate bombing campaign in recent history. According to U.S allies, the Kurdish peshmerga and intelligence, 40,000 civilians were estimated to have been killed in the fighting to recapture Mosul and it is almost certain the counterinsurgency tactics of the Iraqi Security Forces and the coalition assembled contributed to this appalling death toll. In Raqqa, after a mere six days of exploring the ravaged city and reporting on the frontlines, BBC journalist Quentin Sommerville in an article for The Newstatesman questioned the statistics being churned out by the Pentagon in the war against IS as the SDF, YPG and U.S.A.F destroy the entire city.
Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, an underground NGO dedicated to raising awareness on the cruelty of the IS occupation, have repeatedly condemned Western-led attacks on the city. "We are not against the expulsion of ISIL from Raqqa, but we reject the crimes the international coalition and its allies have committed against the civilians." stated Omar al-Hawidi , a Syrian activist and journalist from Raqqa to Al Jazeera in March, 2017.
Short-term geopolitical and military considerations do not consider long-term questions which have to be answered. Is there a plan to rebuild Raqqa and other cities destroyed across the region by the coalition? Where will the financial resources come from by countries gutted economically, physically and culturally after years of war? Where will IS fighters and followers go once they have fled Raqqa? Who will control post-IS Raqqa? The YPG reviled by Turkey's government? President Asad reviled by the Western powers? The disenfranchised Sunnis of Iraq and Syria? The remnants of IS's army are already building new bases and training camps closer to Israel and Jordan, scattering towards Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Turkey, northern and eastern Lebanon, scantly protected cities, towns and villages in Syria and Iraq, a broken, near anarchical Libya and the rest of North Africa while foreign fighters are returning to Europe and the Caucasus or Central and South Asia to launch new campaigns of terror. "IS is much like a cancer, it is easy to cut off the tumours. But how do you prevent the small cancer cells expanding." stated another IDF official to Politico Magazine.
Thus far, the bombing campaign has not given an answer. IS-sponsored attacks across the world have steadily increased, not decreased since its dramatic explosion onto the scene in northern Iraq in 2014. Other jihādists groups have expanded and honed their capabilities while the western states, Russia, China and regional actors training programs and the supplying of weapons to different factions fighting in the Syrian, Libyan, Yemeni and Iraqi wars have left a multiplicity of equally dangerous groups (some such as Hizbollah's armed wing are even more dangerous for regional security than IS) armed to the teeth. These groups vary from Salafi-jihādist cells such as Al-Qa'ida and IS to Kurdish separatists to Shiite militia and paramilitary groups loyal to Iran to warlords, bandits and criminals flourishing in the blackhole of the Middle East's Thirty Years War.
The result is opening up a new phase of conflict. IS is one actor out of potentially 400-500 operating in Syria and Iraq alone, many of whom are hostile, if not openly militant, to Western interests and values. It is also unlikely under a contradictory, chaotic Trump administration breaking faith on diplomatic deals, blocking refugees and migrants access to the United States' and withdrawing from an assortment of global commitments that the country will help rebuild the cities and towns they have bombed in the region, or support those whose lives have been destroyed by the conflicts.
In Afghanistan in the 1980s, once the United States had accomplished its primary objectives of undermine the Soviet Union's occupation, the Bush and Clinton administrations' did little to help rebuild Afghan society. Instead, the superpower left a sprawling mess of competing warlords, mujahideen, Taleban fighters, Al-Qa'ida's emerging jihadists, and different ethnic and sectarian groups to fight over what remained of the country in the 1990s. This, ultimately, helped contribute to the devastation seen on September 11, 2001.
A similar attitude, that of apathy to the average civilian's suffering, may be adopted in Syria where the western powers will prefer to see President Asad weakened and the country divided. Economic rehabilitation for Syria, as supposed to punishing sanctions, are unlikely to be the preferred option in the Washington playbook. The coalition bombing campaign has left thousands in Raqqa and the surrounding region homeless, radicalised segments of an already alienated and angry Sunni population in Syria and Iraq and scattered IS loyalists into countries across the Middle East, Central Asia, the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa and Europe. The jihādists who may believe IS is finished may simply defect and join another Islamist militant groups harbouring visions of global jihād or replenish the ranks of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the Taleban, the Haqqani Network or Al-Qa'ida various sub-cells dotted across the world.
The cauldronisation of the Greater Middle East, the chaos of the Arab Revolutions and the post-Cold War politics affecting the region and the emerging consequences of the 2003 Iraq War are turning the Arab World into a malaise. Countries such as Iraq and Syria are now collapsed states comparable to Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan, Somalia and Pakistan where state power is fiercely contested by a wide-range of non-state actors. The so-called War of Liberation for Raqqa is not a success. It is an unmitigated disaster for Raqqa's people and the Arab Middle East, a microcosm of the chaos which has engulfed the region in a tidal wave of blood.
Matthew C.K Williams