Wednesday,17 October, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1366, (26 October - 1 November 2017)
Wednesday,17 October, 2018
Issue 1366, (26 October - 1 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The Kurds occupy Raqqa

Kurdish militias have taken control of the northern Syrian city of Raqqa as IS fighters vanish, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus


The Kurds occupy Raqqa
The Kurds occupy Raqqa

اقرأ باللغة العربية

After a brutal military campaign that lasted nearly four months with the support of the US-led International Coalition, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an arm of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), announced on 17 October that they had taken control of Raqqa, a city in northern Syria which was once the capital of the Islamic State (IS) group in the country.

The SDF said it had “liberated” Raqqa and cleansed it of IS terrorists.

During the military campaign, the Kurdish forces said that many foreign IS fighters were trapped in Raqqa and wanted to negotiate their exit. The numbers given by the Kurds were inconsistent: sometimes the IS combatants wanted a caravan of 1,200 vehicles to leave, but at other times the figure given was 200, or even 20, and that they could take hostages as human shields.

Eventually, the Kurdish forces conquered Raqqa without resistance by the foreign IS fighters, who seem to have vanished into thin air. Local residents said the Kurds had used the excuse that foreign fighters were present to persuade the International Coalition to destroy the city with air-strikes. 

After the “liberation” of Raqqa, the Kurdish forces, considered the Syrian arm of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) listed by Turkey as a terrorist organisation, appointed a local council for the city, mostly composed of Kurds and local residents who are pro-Kurd, even though Kurds accounted for only three per cent of the population before the conflict in Syria.

The council is now taking decisions for the city after its original residents fled in their hundreds of thousands. According to the campaign group “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered in Silence”, the battle to take control of the city killed 1,873 people, displaced 450,000 and destroyed 90 per cent of the city.

A delegation of Raqqa tribal chiefs refused to attend celebrations of the Kurdish takeover of Raqqa, attended by mostly non-Syrian Kurdish fighters. They raised photographs of Turkish-Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan, the Kurdistan flag and yellow Kurdish banners, and announced that Raqqa would not return to Syria unless under “federal and decentralised rule.”

The future of the city liberated from IS is thus linked to Kurdish plans to create autonomous regions in northern Syria, meaning that it is now under Kurdish occupation with the approval of the US, Russian silence, the indifference of the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and the disapproval of the Syrian opposition and Turkey.

Washington has remained silent about the actions of the Kurdish militias in Raqqa, including violations that have included torching records, transferring land and property to unknown Kurds, giving misleading coordinates to the Americans to bombard districts packed with civilians and not IS fighters, as well as continued deception about fabricated battles, stealing property and forcibly recruiting youth.

The US has ignored the war crimes committed by the Kurds in Raqqa, unconcerned by the reports that have been flowing in as long as the Raqqa takeover can be presented as a political victory for the administration of US President Donald Trump.

US statements that it will not support separatist plans in regions under Kurdish control seem nothing more than words, as Washington assisted the Kurds in occupying Raqqa, displacing its residents, and declaring unequivocal control of the city as part of a federal plan the Kurds have been preparing for three years.

The US has supplied the Kurds with fuel, funds and oil. But it has also opened the door to further instability in this region of Syria.

Raqqa has been levelled to the ground, and the rubble sends a clear message about US strategy: that its air power is omnipresent and that it will not send ground troops to Syria as long as it has a proxy on the ground.

The US will also not withdraw from regions that were formerly terrorist strongholds, in order to avoid a similar scenario to what happened in Iraq in 2011 when its withdrawal led to the collapse of the Iraqi army, entrapping Washington in a ground war.

“There have been three main developments,” Saeed Moqbel, a member of the Syrian opposition, explained to Al-Ahram Weekly. “First, there has been the complete destruction of Raqqa and the disappearance of IS fighters. Second, there is the fact that the Kurdish militias are occupation forces and the status quo is a precursor for the regime taking control of Raqqa. Third, Raqqa will continue to be unstable. Expelling IS from the city is the prelude to a major confrontation between local and regional forces.”

Raqqa is strategically important for all parties in the conflict. It is important to IS because it is its former headquarters and its location allowed the group to move in all directions. It is important to the Syrian people because it is near the largest and most important hydroelectric dam in Syria. It is important for the Kurds as they want to see it form part of their dreamed-of independent areas.

Raqqa is important to Turkey because it blocks the Kurdish dream from reaching the Mediterranean Sea since no Kurdish areas have access to the sea. It is important for Russia and the Syrian regime because of their heavy military presence. It is important for Iran because it is a way of completing the “Shiite Crescent” in the region. 

The region between Raqqa and the Iraqi border could remain a no-man’s land for all.

“It may be time to redraw the political map of a region suffering from political and strategic mayhem,” Moqbel said. “There are many questions that have not been answered, including the present location of the IS fighters. What has been the fate of the hundreds of thousands of local residents? Will the Kurds make a deal with the regime, and if so will war break out between them and the opposition?”

The international community is now calling on the Syrian regime, the Kurdish militias and other influential parties on the ground to allow international humanitarian agencies access to Raqqa and to facilitate relief work for the hundreds of thousands displaced inside the city.

Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition wants to see an end to the Kurdish “occupation” in order to reduce the chances of a local civil war. Syrian opposition figures hope that the recent visit by Saudi Minister for Gulf Affairs Thaer Al-Sabhan to Raqqa after the expulsion of IS and accompanied by senior US officials will bring about the placing of the city under a broad Arab umbrella.

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