Obstacles the SDF Faces to Liberate Raqqa

Photo: A Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) fighter prepares his weapon near Manbij, in Aleppo Governorate, Syria, June 17, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced a military campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS) at the end of May, aiming to gain control of the northern countryside of Raqqa. This campaign has raised many questions surrounding these forces’ intentions as well as their ability to reach Raqqa and destroy the Islamic State’s presence there. Opposition to this strategy has emerged among Arabs and Kurds alike, with each party holding a different opinion about the best course of action. While the question of fighting ISIS is not controversial in and of itself, the steps SDF intends to take have raised many concerns.

The first among these is the concern among some SDF members and particularly the Kurds that extremist groups may perceive the ouster of ISIS as a war against Islam, which could in turn attract more recruits to the group. This concern is especially salient if the Kurds, backed by international support, were the main ones to take the city. Some organizations such as al-Qaeda consider the overthrow of the Ottoman Empire to be a war against Islam, and continue to reference this idea in their speeches. Ayman al-Zawahiri did so during his “The Idol of National Unity” speech where he likened the Pakistani army’s cooperation with the United States to the support “provided by the forces of Sherif Hussein, who launched the Arab Revolt, stabbing the Ottoman Empire in the back in order to win Britain’s crusade.” Such radical groups continue this tactic despite strong opposition, not to mention the revolutions, that took place against the Ottoman Empire throughout the Muslim world at the time.

Some factions’ positions on the matter are quite complex, as is the case for the Ahrar al-Sham movement, which said of ISIS that “the Mujahid has a religious duty to destroy this faction.” However, at the same time, in a film titled Ahrar al-Sham published by al-Jazeera, Mahmoud Taiba, the Grand Mufti of the movement, said that some of their members are not able to battle those who fight in the name of Islam, What Islamists call “brothers in doctrine.” Hashem al-Sheikh, former commander of the movement, said that “most of the brothers lay down their weapons and do not want to get involved in shedding the blood of Muslims.”

Similarly, the notion of assaulting Raqqa with forces comprised mostly (especially in the Eastern Euphrates) of Kurds could pose a significant risk in terms of ethnic sensitivities, especially following reports published by human rights groups about the Kurdish forces committing violations against and displacing residents of Tel Abyad and the surrounding countryside. Several days after the news was published that the SDF hoped to liberate the northern countryside of Raqqa, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces issued a statement that, without directly naming the SDF, mentioned “exploiting the notion of fighting terrorism in order to achieve personal goals, not the will of the Syrian people,” describing it as a “project of occupation.” At the same time, Kurdish nationalist activists raised many questions about the feasibility of predominantly Kurdish troops moving in on a large city that is home to an overwhelming Arab majority.

There is no doubt that the issue of liberating Raqqa is highly symbolic in the war against ISIS. Raqqa was one of the first major cities ISIS took control of, later naming Raqqa its capital. It was the first province to fully break free from regime control for a brief period before ISIS took over, and ISIS committed some of its most heinous massacres against revolutionary and civilian forces there. Raqqa was also considered an important prize after the Obama administration made efforts within the international-Arab alliance to roll back ISIS and halt their spread in Syria and Iraq. Although the symbolism runs deep, liberating Raqqa does not mean that the group will be defeated in Syria. ISIS would still hold major pockets in the north and south of the city from which attacks could be launched on Raqqa. These areas could also be used to institute a siege. A group as sturdy and flexible as ISIS cannot be stamped out through one symbolic act such as liberating Raqqa.

There are also risks associated with the smaller wars being waged between the various forces involved in this plan, which has been called in the media a race to Raqqa. All of these factions are acting in the name of the fight against terrorism and overthrowing ISIS, including the Syrian regime and its allies, who moved on the city of Tabqa at the beginning of June, as well as opposition factions and extremist groups such as the Nusra Front, which clashed with Kurdish forces after the outbreak of the civil war. Some members of the Nusra Front and nationalist opposition groups consider the Kurds establishing autonomous administration to constitute a threat to Syrian national unity. If these smaller wars break out after Raqqa is liberated, it is highly possible that the SDF will be in a position of weakness after having depleted both their energy and their resources in liberating the city. The SDF also lacks heavy, advanced weapons which would allow them to fight the tanks and planes possessed by other parties to the conflict in Syria. The group almost entirely relies on the international coalition, whose role is limited to fighting ISIS, save for bombing the Nusra Front on several occasions. The international coalition also avoids targeting the Syrian regime. All of these factors would leave the SDF exposed in sub conflicts broke out after taking the city.

In addition to the above, these forces’ urgent need to first liberate the areas in northern Syria controlled by ISIS should not be ignored. These areas constitute a reservoir of human resources which feed the recruitment operations undertaken by ISIS, in addition to the significant number of SDF members and leaders who are originally from this area. The official spokesperson of the SDF, Colonel Talal Silo, was formerly a military leader in an opposition faction in the village of al-Rai, as was Abu Laila (Faisal Saadoun), the leader of the Northern Sun Battalion who fights to liberate his hometown of Manbij. A major portion of Arab SDF members are concentrated in the areas of Afrin and northern Aleppo, which cannot make effective contributions to liberating Raqqa because they are blocked by ISIS-controlled areas in northern Syria.

A number of factors could assist the effort to liberate Raqqa. These include widespread participation on the part of Arab forces in the battle and creating a plan to govern the city after it is recovered to ensure residents’ rights and assuage fears of ethnic cleansing. Providing heavy weapons to the SDF to ensure their ability to defend Raqqa after driving ISIS out, and a plan must be established to defend the city from ISIS, the regime, and any extremist groups.

Daryous Aldarwish is a civilian activist and independent journalist.