Raqqa’s Suffering Won’t End with the Defeat of ISIS

The city of Raqqa and its inhabitants have suffered enormously over the past half-decade. Most obviously, they have languished under the rule of the Islamic State group.

Life under IS has been extensively documented by groups such as Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently. The people are repressed in forms both grandiose and mundane, with routine acts of political control giving way on occasion to rarer episodes of almost theatrical violence – stylised violence of the sort which IS has a special expertise in orchestrating.

There are public executions, bodies left out in the sun. Minor crimes are punished with real brutality. The ‘morality police’ dictates good behaviour, interfering in the business of daily life. It is impossible to have a private life under IS. It is impossible to have much of a life at all.

For five years, the people of Raqqa have hoped to be free of the Islamic State group. But the prospect of liberation carries its own problems, its own potential harms.

First and foremost, there is great concern over who is to do the liberating. After that, there are other issues to be resolved, monumentally important questions regarding the way Raqqa will be governed, the manner in which must be reconstructed – and even the territory to which it will belong.

Raqqa, like many other cities, saw protests against the Assad regime in the course of Syria’s uprising. The people demanded the end of the regime. Those who protested demonstrated the desire for a positive future, one built upon the extension of individual rights and the respecting of human rights.

And the city was captured by a coalition of rebel factions in the course of Syria’s civil war. Raqqa was liberated, part of what looked to be a new Syria.

Footage exists of Raqqa’s exuberant protests, extensive even in the context of the Arab Spring, and it shows the excitement in the streets of the city at being freed from the regime.

But this situation, though it could have lasted, did not. The agents of IS, skilled at infiltration of this sort, slowly assumed positions of power and influence in the city. And eventually, at the same time as its dramatic offensive in Iraq, IS seized control of the city of Raqqa.

The fate of civilians trapped inside has deteriorated ever since.

Now the city expects a second liberation. IS is retreating in both Iraq and Syria. Mosul is falling and Raqqa remains IS’ last major urban stronghold in Syria.

The question is not if it will fall, but when, and to whom.

This should be a positive development, one welcomed by the world and one which will benefit those inhabitants of Raqqa who have suffered for years under IS control. But this is not the case. This liberation is not seen that way.

Kurdish-directed units, in the shape of the multi-ethnic Syrian Democratic Forces, are most likely to mount an offensive to take Raqqa which will receive international support. The SDF offensive will be the ‘official’ Raqqa campaign. This presents some problems.

In effect, the SDF is not politically independent. Rather, it is allied to the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which has itself been linked with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed group listed by most western powers as a ‘terrorist’ organisation with which Turkey has been at war for some four decades.

This offensive is not something which the largely Sunni Arab residents of Raqqa can expect to go smoothly.

As in Mosul, there will be civilian casualties. But even more worrying for many is the prospect of PYD rule after IS is defeated.

Although often Kurdish politicians are sensibly modest when discussing their own territorial ambitions, this rule is not adhered to at all times. According to Reuters, Saleh Muslim of the PYD has stated that he would like to see Raqqa included within a broader autonomous Kurdish region, to become part of a distinct federated entity.

It cannot be doubted that this is not what those who live in Raqqa, and who have endured IS with great fortitude, would wish to see happen. To pass from one sort of imposed rule to another: it would feel like the occupation had been extended, but by new faces with new flags.

Across much of Syria, there is widespread fear of Kurdish expansionism. It is seen not to herald liberation but rather a new form of rule from outside.

There is a sense among many Sunni Arabs here that they are being betrayed, or at the very least marginalised – a view which appears to gain credibility given the extent to which the international community and forces within Syria do not care whether they live or die.

The policies of the United States have made this possible. In the case both of the previous administration and the current one, there is little real interest in the fate of Raqqa and its denizens. This is coupled with an unwillingness to act. It is easier to turn things over to the PYD, and to surrender the responsibility and the burden of capturing Raqqa.

There has even been the suggestion that Raqqa, after its capture from IS, could be handed over to regime forces, another plan reportedly mooted by American authorities. This would be a terrible betrayal of a region which has been free of the regime since early in the revolution.

The citizen journalists of Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently initially began documenting the abuses carried out by the regime. For American officials to even suggest returning the city to regime control is remarkable and callous.

Syrian rebels, of the sort which helped to liberate Raqqa from the regime, could have had a greater role in the coming Raqqa offensive. Supported by Turkey, forces associated with its Operation Euphrates Shield have had great success and captured much territory from IS. But this offensive has been prevented from making a push for Raqqa.

Instead, America, and the world, has thrown its weight behind the SDF. We must hope reason prevails, and that the Raqqa governate is not liberated from IS only to be included among the burgeoning territories of another unwanted statelet.

This piece was originally published at The New Arab.