A rebel fighter of the Kurdish Front during the Battle of Raqqa (2017). Source: Wikimedia Commons
On October 17, 2017, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced the liberation of the Syrian city of Raqqa. Formerly a hub of cultural and social diversity situated along the Euphrates River, Raqqa became the center of standoffs between government forces and civilian protestors demanding fundamental freedoms and rights more than seven years ago. The severe clampdown by state security and regime affiliates turned the uprising into a bloody conflict with both civil and regional elements. In 2013, Raqqa was seized from government control by rebel forces, only to be ousted by the terrorists of ISIL, who declared the city the capital of their “caliphate.”
Raqqa was the last major city held by ISIL in Syria and Iraq, and its liberation seems to mark the end of the terrorist organization’s rule in the Middle East. Intelligence sources estimate that there are only 3,000 to 5,000 fighters left scattered around the Euphrates and deserts along the Iraq-Syria border. Analysts are cautiously optimistic, but warn that the group could potentially be preparing for a new phase by retreating back into the type of underground organization that they started as.
Today Raqqa lies in ruins, devastated by years of fighting and thousands of US-led airstrikes. While the residents of Raqqa celebrated the end of ISIL’s horrific rule over the city, photographs of the city are daunting, nearly apocalyptic. The city is a ghost town of destroyed building, deserted when around 300,000 residents—nearly the entire population—fled from the fighting, some vowing to never return. Those internally displaced are living in makeshift refugee camps without electricity or running water. The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has reported that around 80 percent of Raqqa is uninhabitable. Standing in the way of the reconstruction of the city are hundreds of bombs and mines that ISIL has planted in the ruins.
The United States has given bulldozers and other construction equipment to the SDF’s Raqqa City Council, but has refused to commit to a long-term reconstruction plan. “We’re not here forever to fix everything,” said a U.S. official interviewed by AFP. “We have no money or desire to spend 20 years here de-mining the homes.” Alternative options for reconstruction are also likely to be obstructed by regional dynamics. Turkey views the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), with which the SDF is closely affiliated, as a threat to national security which suggests that it is more likely to hinder the rebuilding of Raqqa and the consolidation of SDF authority through the local city council. A similar situation prevails in Iraq’s Kurdistan where animosity toward the PKK persists.
With little money or resources and a lukewarm relationship with the United States, the SDF has indicated that they are willing to work with the central government of Bashar al-Assad to manage Raqqa and restore services to the city. Along with clearing the mines and service provision, the Raqqa City Council will also have to find a way to govern the civilians who will soon start flocking back to their city from other areas of Syria. Previous wars such as in Iraq have made it clear that establishing a strong government as soon as possible is imperative to prevent the tenuous peace from collapsing. The situation has the capability to grow very tense.
If reconstruction is stalled, Kurdish dominance over a predominantly Arab city may stoke simmering ethnic tensions with locals. And even though the SDF have attempted to co-opt local tribal leaders in the governance of the city and ensure the representation of its different communities, the educated middle classes that are fundamental for the rebuilding of Raqqa have yet to be involved.
ISIL fractured social networks during their rule, and trust between residents has been damaged. Promoting social cohesion is crucial to ensure that the crisis does not deteriorate even further. Addressing these faults is critical in the larger battle against extremism and to prevent the potential radicalization of populations traumatized by seven years of conflict and by the extreme violence of ISIL. Taking advantage of an uneasy situation such as this one is how the terrorist organization rose in the first place. In short, while the liberation of Raqqa from the yoke of ISIL is to be celebrated, the hard work of governing the city in a sound and inclusive manner has just begun.