Three and half years after the jihadi group known as the Islamic State seized the Syrian city of Raqqa, its black banners are being torn down.
Kurdish, Arab, and Syrian fighters of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, are now moving into the last jihadi-held neighborhoods of the city. “We assess at the moment that the SDF have captured roughly 90 percent of the city,” Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway, a Pentagon spokesperson, told me in a phone interview on Tuesday. SDF leaders have already declared victory, but the Pentagon thinks roughly 100 Islamic State fighters may remain in the city, although that number is down from 300–400 a week ago and 3,000–4,000 before the offensive started in early May. Major Rankine-Galloway appeared confident that things would be wrapped up very soon. “I’m reluctant to give you a precise day,” he said, “but we’ll get there.”
Often described as the capital of the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate in Syria, the loss of Raqqa matters no less symbolically than militarily. Just as it came to epitomize the group’s brutality and thirst for territorial expansion in 2014, it now symbolizes the Islamic State’s slow, painful collapse back into the role of an underground insurgency.
What we’re witnessing is the end of an era. But what will follow remains uncertain, and it may be no less violent—can Raqqa be rebuilt, and who will ultimately rule eastern Syria?
Attacked on All Sides
That Raqqa would fall was no surprise, in and of itself.
SDF forces have been assaulting the city since June, and the U.S. Air Force has generously flattened every obstacle in their path. The Islamic State itself has been in decline for far longer, almost absurdly outmatched by the myriad forces it challenged to a fight in 2014—turns out that if you declare war on the world, you’re then at war with the world.
Just as the Islamic State’s importance peaked in late 2014, the United States and its allies launched a massive counter-offensive that would eventually include operations in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan. In the core region of Syria and Iraq, U.S.-backed forces have slowly squeezed the jihadis out of all their main strongholds: Mosul, Fallujah, Ramadi, and most recently Hawija in Iraq, along with rural territories and towns like Tell Abiad, Manbij, Tabqa, and now Raqqa in Syria.
A parallel Russian- and Iranian-supported Syrian government offensive has taken place further south, seizing first Palmyra and then areas along the Euphrates river in Deir al-Zor and Mayadeen. Iraqi troops are now preparing for a mirror offensive on their side of the border.
In short, the Islamic State is out of luck.
What’s Next in Raqqa?
As the Syrian Democratic Forces assume control over Raqqa, three challenges stand before them: rebuilding a ravaged city, finding internal and regional support to govern it in a sustainable way, and finishing off the Islamic State’s holdings further east.
It won’t be easy. After 134 days of nonstop fighting and devastating bombardment, Raqqa is a city of ruins.
“More than 80 percent of the city is estimated to be uninhabitable as a result of the fighting,” I’m told by Linda Tom, a Damascus-based official with the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA, who was contacted by email earlier on Tuesday. Nearly 300,000 people were displaced from Raqqa during the fighting, says Tom. Now trapped in camps in SDF-controlled areas where material conditions are very poor, or drifting around other parts of Syria without homes or stable income, they will have little to return to unless the city’s new rulers can quickly restore basic services and rebuild bombed-out housing, hospitals, and schools.
Members of the SDF’s Raqqa Civil Council warn that reconstruction will not be easy and that it will certainly be slow, not least because the Islamic State has peppered the rubble with land mines and explosive traps.
“This is a huge challenge—we can’t do anything else before getting rid of the mines,” council member Ibrahim al-Hassan recently told AFP. “The second phase is restoring the water and electricity networks. After all that, we can turn to the schools.”
The Raqqa Civil Council has received bulldozers and other equipment from the United States, but Washington has so far refused to promise long-term support or commit to a project of nation-building in the SDF-ruled parts of Syria, which are known as Rojava. “[W]e’re not here forever to fix everything,” a U.S. official told AFP. “We have no money or desire to spend 20 years here demining the homes.”
As mine-clearing proceeds, the Raqqa Civil Council will also have to extend its writ to govern tens or hundreds of thousands of civilians. They will soon start trickling back into the wasteland that used to be their hometown, and, seeing the destruction, they won’t necessarily be inclined to trust their new rulers.
Civilians will soon start trickling back into the wasteland that used to be their hometown, and, seeing the destruction, they won’t necessarily be inclined to trust their new rulers.
“The SDF’s model so far has been to co-opt members of local tribes to create affiliated bodies within and through which they can govern the liberated areas,” I’m told by Kheder Khaddour, a Syrian scholar with the Carnegie Middle East Center who has written several reports on eastern Syria. The Raqqa Civil Council is one such body, but Khaddour argues that it cannot simply copy previous experiences.
Small cities like Tell Abiad could be governed by council made up of tribal figures, Khaddour says, but Raqqa “will represent the SDF’s first attempt to manage a large city with complex layers of population.” It will need to involve educated middle classes and traders that won’t respond to tribal sheikhs. “Beyond the Kurdish-Arab mistrust, the challenge will be to find the right social channel to legitimately govern the city,” says Khaddour, arguing that the Kurdish party that forms the spine of the SDF has “already struggled in Kurdish-populated cities like Qamishli with integrating educated middle-class figures within their administration. In an Arab city far from the Kurdish hinterland the task is even taller.”
Without a steady flow of money and state resources at their back, this could be harder still, and America’s apparent lack of interest in a long-term relationship leaves the SDF with few alternatives.
The Turkish border would of course seem a natural window on the world, but Ankara is aggressively hostile to the SDF, given that the group has strong ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey.
SDF leaders may lean on nearby Iraqi Kurdistan, but that’s also an option with serious drawbacks. Much of that region is dominated by anti-PKK Kurdish groups and they, too, have recently come under assault after staging a controversial referendum on independence, which provoked Iraqi government forces to move into both Kirkuk and the Sinjar region of northern Iraq.
If Americans and Turks won’t help and the Iraqi Kurds can’t—who’s left? Well, Damascus.
Assad and the Kurds
Prodded by Russia and very possibly also by the United States, SDF officials have started signaling that they are willing to seek accommodation with an Assad-ruled central government. Not only does he present a potentially existential military threat to them, he also holds many of the cards they would need to make their slice of Syria function without major U.S. assistance: access to airports and non-hostile borders, a bureaucracy able to administer civil records and passports, salary and subsidy payments (that have been savaged by inflation but continue to flow), a reasonably developed economy with major companies and international trade, entry-points for foreign aid, and a road network that reaches all the way to the isolated Kurdish enclave in Efrin in northwestern Syria.
Little feelers are being put out from both sides. “Our essential objective is to negotiate with the central government and get a certain status for the areas we liberated,” said the Kurdish commander Mazloum Kobane in a recent interview with al-Monitor, a Middle East-focused news site. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem also noted that although he opposes any talk of independence for the Kurds of Iraq, he’d be fine with discussing some form of self-rule for the Kurds in Syria.
Moallem’s remarks have since been praised by Russia, which clearly hopes for an Assad-dominated Damascus-Rojava cohabitation as the quickest and most painless way to wrap up the war.
Whether a deal is possible is another matter, and that may depend on what comes now, as all sides continue to gnaw away at the crumbling Islamic State holdings in eastern Syria.
Though the United States does not appear hugely interested in hanging around Syria for the foreseeable future, Washington’s need to balance allies against each other and the sheer inertia of politics, as well as, perhaps, a desire to roll back Iranian influence from eastern Syria, could well lead to a situation where America settles in for a more permanent presence as protectors of the SDF in eastern Syria.
As Assad and the SDF move east along the Euphrates, there’s no shortage of land to quarrel over. The area is full of oil fields—which, although partially depleted, still represent valuable hard-currency income—and it also controls access to Iraq and Iran.
Khaddour sees no scenario in which Assad would relinquish the east and its riches. “If Syria loses its east and Deir al-Zor, a domino effect will start that will split Syria’s integrity,” he tells me. “Losing control over the borders with Iraq will create a playground for regional interference, that will engulf the north and eventually leave Damascus cornered in the west.”
Both Americans and Russians are eager to avoid direct clashes between their allies. “We communicate with the Russian forces with the expectation that they will pass it on to their ally,” says Major Rankine-Galloway, but he stresses that this process, which he refers to as “deconfliction,” is not a plan to divvy up Syrian territory—just a way to handle the sometimes dangerously short distances between Russian and American forces. Who ultimately gets what is often not up to either Moscow or Washington, he says. “The variable here is ISIS, which is still an enemy that is resisting very hard.”
Still, once the fall of Raqqa frees up thousands of troops, the SDF and its American allies will need to decide where to head next—and who lunges for which territory in eastern Syria may, in turn, come to color Damascus-Rojava relations for the foreseeable future.
A Comeback for the Caliphate?
In these hints of future conflict and ethnic strife rests the Islamic State’s hope for a comeback. Though the fall of Raqqa signals the end of the group’s bid for real statehood, it is not the end of its political project as such.
In these hints of future conflict and ethnic strife rests the Islamic State’s hope for a comeback.
The would-be extremist caliphate will now be forced to mutate into something else—something less ambitious, less terrifying—but like its former parent group and current rival al-Qaeda, which lost its territorial base in Afghanistan some sixteen years ago, the Islamic State will go on. Like al-Qaeda, it could fall back to virtual warfare, becoming an entrepreneurial investor in insurgencies that wins by connecting the dots between violent radicals. Or it could wait for the right moment to resurface again in Iraq and Syria, or anywhere else that wars rage, sectarian passions flare, borders crumble, and central governments are weak and illegitimate.
As the most immediate jihadi threat subsides, we’re already witnessing a fraying of ties between Baghdad and the Iraqi Kurds, and who knows what twists and turns the war in Syria may take? Division was what allowed the Islamic State to grow in 2014, and division is what could allow it to return—in some form, some day.
Cover Photo: U.S. Marines fire an M777A2 howitzer in Syria, June 2, 2017.