The Need for Local Support to Defeat ISIS

International coalition air strikes Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) ground assaults have weakened the Islamic State (ISIS), forcing it to fall back in northern Syria. ISIS is adapting as best it can to combination of air and ground assaults and changing its strategy by playing on the inability of Kurdish forces to advance into the Arab tribal areas of Raqqa, taking advantage of conflicts among Arab tribes, and destroying the territory from which it retreats to slow the advance of the opposing ground forces.

ISIS recently launched broad attacks on the countryside around northern Raqqa and the outskirts of Hasaka. These attacks followed recent statements from US and French officials saying SDF forces on closing in on Raqqa, ISIS’ main stronghold in Syria.

But ISIS, in a preemptive strike, launched a counterattack on the outskirts of Ras al-Ain, west of Hasaka, and Suluk to the east of Tel Abyad. It also took control of parts of Tel Abyad for a short period time until SDF ground forces with international coalition air support drove it out. However, ISIS fighters remained nearby, and the group then took over a Turkmen village near Tel Abyad and fortified itself there. The group began its advance with a four-car suicide bomb attack, followed by a detachment of fighters who snuck behind the Turkmen enemy’s lines to engage them and then blow themselves up. This allowed ISIS units to cut off the Raqqa-Hasaka road linking the SDF-held territories.

The ISIS attack failed to retake Ras al-Ain and Suluk, but it showed the SDF’s vulnerability. SDF forces had difficulty defending territory around which they had set up fortifications without coalition support. If SDF forces have difficulties defending their own territory, it raises the question of how feasible it is for them to advance into the heart of ISIS territory in Raqqa without constant air cover from coalition forces. Before its withdrawal under coalition attacks, ISIS booby-trapped houses, urban installations, and roads to delay the SDF’s advance and deny them the benefit of these territories and the spoils of war.

ISIS has exploited popular disaffection to launch its latest attacks on Turkmen villages and Suluk. The discontent is largely a result of SDF violations against local Arab and Turkmen residents on the pretext that they were cooperating with ISIS. SDF fighters evicted many locals from their homes, saying that the Arab residents have collaborated with ISIS, sharing information about the area and its defending forces and supplying them with fuel and food. The Kurdish fighters do not conceal their contempt for the Arabs. One Peshmerga fighter in Iraq, for instance, said he wanted to expel all the Arabs from the area, adding, “99 percent of Kurds are now dedicated to the same brutality towards Arabs as they showed to us. We want to destroy those dogs.”

Leaders of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and international coalition officials have realized that the ethnic differences may prevent the YPG’s advance and delay the expulsion of ISIS from the area. For this reason, they formed the SDF, which is supposed to consist of Arab and Kurdish factions and other groups considered native to the area so that fighters will enjoy local support. Yet ethnic conflicts have hindered the success of this project.  More than 90%—around 51,000 of the 56,000 SDF fighters—are Kurds. The Arabs of the area, where the tribal affiliations predominate, say that Kurdish forces prevented them from forming their own force, what they call “the Army of the Tribes.”

Ethnic and tribal differences also prevented the incorporation of the Raqqa Revolutionaries’ Brigade into the SDF. The local population strongly supports the Brigade. Without incorporating the brigade, the SDF will have difficulty expelling ISIS and then controlling and governing the area.  ISIS’ fear of the Brigade’s influence and support in Raqqa prove the Brigade’s strength and popularity. Moreover, the Raqqa Revolutionaries’ Brigade is one of the few factions that places liberating Raqqa as one of its priorities, rather than fighting the regime first and then expelling ISIS from Syria, as most opposition factions hold. One of the reasons that the Brigade refused to join the SDF because the latter includes groups such as the Arab al-Sanadeed militia, whom the Raqqa Revolutionaries Brigade accuses of collaborating with the regime. The Brigade says it was formed from the start to fight and overthrow the Syrian regime, and still considers fighting the regime a core military tenet of its organization. From its perspective, any alliance with the regime or with collaborator forces damages its important popular and tribal base in the area.

ISIS exploits the Kurdish forces’ goal of uniting their territories in northern Syria and forming a Kurdish entity, especially the Kurds’ expulsion of some Arab residents. It broadcasts propaganda that the Kurdish forces will expel all Arab natives of the area and that Raqqa Revolutionaries’ Brigade fighters and their leader have become mercenaries of the SDF. ISIS has exploited the lack of fighting between the regime and groups within the SDF, in particular the YPG and al-Sanadeed, to accuse the SDF of being regime supporters. In its broadcasts ISIS encourages Arab combatants to stop fighting it.

ISIS will make every effort to prevent the siege of its key stronghold in Raqqa, and exploit every possible division between the SDF and local Arabs. Right now ISIS is working to reinforce its entrenched positions in Raqqa and the surrounding area, laying traps on every road, checkpoint, and building in the path of those forces. Air operations will not be of much use, since it is difficult for planes to target small groups fighting at close range and interspersed with civilians. The presence of fighters like the Raqqa Revolutionaries’ Brigade that enjoy local support will be necessary to retake Raqqa from ISIS.

Muhammad Adnan is blogger and activist from Raqqa. 

Image: Photo: A rebel fighter sits on a look-out point with his weapon in Al-Lataminah village, northern Hama countryside, Syria March 5, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah