After years of fighting, the so-called Islamic State has finally been driven out of Raqqa, its main stronghold in Syria. This is a major victory for those fighting the group, but Raqqa is now a ghost town, strewn with rubble and unexploded bombs. As winter approaches, the city’s new rulers are in a race against time to make it habitable once again.
Central Raqqa’s Naeem roundabout has become emblematic of IS rule: The group’s gory propaganda films delighted in showing black banners fluttering over crucified bodies and severed heads at the traffic circle.
That’s all over now. Today, the roundabout is draped in the yellow flags of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-Arab coalition fighting to destroy IS, aided by the United States and dozens of other countries.
For the SDF and its allies, taking Raqqa was a harbinger of victory and cause for great celebration. But in the process of eliminating IS, Naeem roundabout and everything around it was reduced to rubble.
“One hundred and thirty-five days of clashes created huge destruction in the city,” SDF media official Perwar Mohammed Ali told IRIN by phone from Ain Issa, north of Raqqa, describing a wasteland of collapsing buildings strewn with land mines and unexploded bombs.
“As of now, we cannot tell civilians to come back to Raqqa, because it’s dangerous.”
A city without people
Since the SDF offensive began in June, the US-led coalition has reportedly dropped some 20,000 munitions on Raqqa. According to the monitoring group Airwars, in August alone the city was pummelled with 10 times more bombs than all of Afghanistan over the same period.
Airwars counts US bombing as responsible for most of the 1,800 civilian deaths it recorded during the Raqqa offensive, although the coalition disputes these numbers.
Echoing SDF estimates, a UN official told IRIN that at least four fifths of Raqqa city is now uninhabitable, partly because of material destruction, but also due to unexploded ordnance and a lack of electricity and water.
The UN says more than 312,000 people have fled Raqqa province as a whole, and many of the city’s former inhabitants are now stuck in camps in the barren, SDF-controlled countryside north of the city. Conditions there are “miserable”, according to Save the Children, which warns that many of the displaced could be trapped in makeshift camps for “months or years to come”.
That’s why aid workers insist there’s no time to lose in creating the conditions for a safe return to Raqqa.
“The camps are overcrowded and we need to be thinking about that now,” Christy Delafield, spokeswoman for Mercy Corps – an aid group that was shut down by the government in Turkey but still has some operations on the ground in Syria – told IRIN. “The timeframe that we’re really looking at is weather. At this particular moment, everybody is keeping an eye on the approaching winter, and nobody wants to spend this winter under a tent.”
In the meantime, the UN is already distributing “winterisation kits” across Syria – these include insulation, floor mats, waterproofing, and a heater for tents.
Bombs under the rubble
The security situation in Raqqa is extremely precarious. SDF sources told IRIN that IS fighters are still thought to be hiding inside the city, claiming to have caught one as recently as Friday.
Apart from flushing out the last few IS snipers, the SDF’s to-do list is topped by the need to clear out landmines and unexploded US bombs – or at least figure out where they are. Landmines have already killed members of least nine families that have tried to return to Raqqa, coalition sources say.
“IS had years of time to prepare and place booby traps in buildings,” Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway, a Pentagon spokesman, told IRIN.
Delafield said there are “quite a few unknown dangers in terms of unexploded ordinance and other kinds of explosive devices, such as booby-trapping,” in Raqqa.
“People need to be given accurate information about what clearance has been done in their neighbourhoods and their homes, to ensure that people are not moving into harm’s way when they are trying to return,” she added.
And once the tough job of demining has been completed, there’ll be the not-so-small matters of governing and rebuilding to worry about.
The Raqqa Civil Council
The SDF has said it will hand power over to the Raqqa Civil Council, a group set up in Ain Issa last April. Like most SDF-backed organs, and in stark contrast to the values enforced by IS, the council has a gender-balanced double presidency: Leadership is shared by Leila Mustafa, a Kurdish woman from the border town of Tel Abyad, and her male Arab counterpart Mahmoud al-Borsan, a former member of the Syrian parliament and a leader of the Walda tribe, which is influential in Raqqa.
Co-opting tribal figures to win Arab support is a tried and true tactic of the SDF, and it has worked fairly well elsewhere in northeastern Syria.
The Raqqa Civil Council seems to be an attempt to draw on those experiences: Mustafa even served in a similar council set up to govern her hometown Tel Abyad, which is also majority Arab, when that city was taken from IS in 2015.
But Kheder Khaddour, a Syrian scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center, warns that Raqqa – a city at least 10 times larger than Tel Abyad – is a very different social landscape than the SDF has dealt with in the past.
“Raqqa is a city of [around] 200,000, where you have educated middle classes and traders who operate in autonomy from their tribal belongings. A legitimate local governance body cannot function without involving this largely displaced educated middle class,” Khaddour told IRIN by email.
According to Khaddour, the Kurdish factions that dominate the SDF have faced trouble before in co-opting educated urban elites, even in cities like Qamishli, which has been under their control for more than five years.
It is an open secret that these Kurdish groups are the real power behind the Raqqa Civil Council and the SDF, and that they are affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought a long insurgency against the government in Turkey.
Huge portraits of PKK founder Abdullah Öcalan were on display in the Naeem roundabout as a group of female Kurdish fighters staged the first round of victory celebrations, and their commanders dedicated the victory to him.
It drove home the point: For all the councils and front groups created to obscure it, there’s no doubting that Raqqa, like much of northern Syria, is now under de facto PKK control.
The politics of reconstruction
Though the PKK’s Syrian affiliates are known to run a tight ship – they have proven themselves far more adept at administering territory than most of Syria’s armed groups – they lack the resources and trained cadre necessary for launching a major rebuilding programme on their own. The SDF will have to depend on foreign allies to fund the reconstruction of Raqqa, and that’s where things start to get complicated.
In the best of worlds, reconstruction supplies would already be flooding in across the Turkish border, paid for by an international community eager to get the Raqqa Civil Council up and running and demine residential neighbourhoods in time for winter.
Humanitarian aid does cross Syria’s northern border regularly – but the SDF’s PKK connection means Turkey may block anything headed for Raqqa.
Ankara views the group as a major threat to its national authority, and seems more likely to attack Kurdish-ruled regions than help them rebuild and recover.
Neighbouring Iraqi Kurdistan is not necessarily a reliable conduit for support to Raqqa, either. The president of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, Masoud Barzani, is a fierce rival of the PKK and, most of the time, a close ally of Turkey.
Plus, Barzani’s decision to stage an independence referendum on 25 September prompted both Turkey and Iran to put his autonomous area under blockade, while the Iraqi central government moved to recapture swathes of disputed, Kurdish-controlled land, including border regions that might otherwise have been used by the SDF to supply reconstruction efforts in Syria.
So what about the Americans? The US government has been a reliable ally of the Syrian Kurds on the battlefield, and it has already given some aid that can be used in the post-conflict phase.
“During the clashes, the coalition provided the SDF with mine sweepers and some machines to clear the mines, but the amount of destruction is huge and we need much more,” insisted the SDF’s Perwar Mohammed Ali.
Yet Washington has repeatedly signalled that there are limits to how much non-military assistance it will provide, and that it won’t engage in long-term nation-building. “We're not here forever to fix everything. We have no money or desire to spend 20 years here demining the homes,” a US State Department official told AFP last week.
The US State Department did not respond to IRIN’s request for comment by publication.
The Americans are also constrained by their need to balance investments in the SDF against a much older relationship with NATO member Turkey. Ankara is already outraged by US military support for the SDF, and any hint of American backing for Kurdish civil governance and state-building efforts in northern Syria would strain ties further.
The issue is divisive and controversial inside the US government, and Thursday’s Öcalan shindig in Naeem roundabout did nothing to help the SDF’s allies in Washington.
“There is a very active debate right now within the US government about whether the SDF, or the Kurdish components within it, can actually pull off sustainable post-IS governance,” said Nicholas Heras, a Washington-based fellow at the Center for a New American Security who is regularly in touch with US policymakers on Syria.
He told IRIN the Naeem roundabout episode “came unexpectedly and at the wrong time”, embarrassing key Pentagon officials who have advocated for continued US support to the SDF.
A role for Riyadh?
But there may be ways to bypass the political blockages in Washington: The US-led coalition has reportedly tried to get Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to step in and pay for Raqqa’s reconstruction.
On Tuesday, Saudi Gulf Affairs Minister Thamer al-Sabhan visited the Raqqa Civil Council in Ain Issa alongside the US special envoy to the anti-IS coalition Brett McGurk. According to both council officials and the Dutch journalist Wladimir Van Wilgenburg, who was on site in Ain Issa, the meetings dealt with reconstruction funding. But al-Sabhan’s visit seems to have been a first contact, and no clear indication of Saudi support has yet materialised.
“McGurk came and some Saudi Arabian officials came, but still we have seen nothing,” said the SDF’s Perwar Mohammed Ali. “We expect in the coming days they will help us, but so far it is only promises.”
While getting the Gulf Arabs to fund reconstruction efforts sounds like a jackpot for the SDF, it would come with its own set of risks and strings attached.
The conservative Sunni Arab regimes in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have traditionally taken a dim view of Syrian Kurdish aspirations, and they seem to view the PKK’s feminist and socialist guerrillas with particular distaste. Nevertheless, their interests are temporarily aligned, as it just so happens that the PKK’s arch-enemy Turkey has lined up behind the Gulf states’ local rival Qatar, and the Syrian regime is tightly allied with their regional foe, Iran.
Any Gulf money to northern Syria would have to hinge on the SDF’s continued ability to serve as a thorn in the side of Turks and Iranians, and it could dry up if the Saudis and Emiratis were to reconcile with either the Qataris or the Turks, or if the Gulf royals were to conclude that the SDF was too cosy with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus.
Hurdles on the road to Damascus
This is a bit of a problem for the SDF, which seems to view cooperation with al-Assad as a necessary evil to ensure the survival of their project in northern Syria.
As the Syrian regime drives east, gobbling up desert cities in the dying days of the IS “caliphate”, it has mostly avoided clashes with the SDF. Russia and the United States are of course working hard to prevent friction between their respective allies, but that could change now that Syria is visibly moving toward some form of endgame, with al-Assad still in uncontested control of Damascus.
With Turkey an implacable enemy, and northern Iraq an unreliable ally at best and another enemy at worst (but mostly just a weird mess), and the United States unwilling to put both feet down and nation-build, Damascus represents the Syrian Kurds’ only window on the world. Al-Assad holds the keys to the rest of Syria’s borders, airports, roads, and infrastructure, to accessing the state bureaucracy and the Syrian economy, to public sector services and salaries, and to a significant portion of UN aid.
The SDF leaders might not like it, but they know it, and they seem to have decided that it would be better to lay out their case while they still have the US Air Force at their back.
“We will negotiate in the future with the Syrian regime,” said the SDF spokesman, Perwar Mohammed Ali. “If they attack us, of course we have a right of self-defence, but we are ready for talks and negotiations with everybody.”
In the coming days, Damascus-allied Moscow will organise a round of talks between the Kurds and the al-Assad government at the Russian-run Hmeymim Air Base in western Syria.
“Let’s see what the other parties to the conflict say,” said Perwar Mohammed Ali. “It will be good to sit down and listen to each other. It’s better than fighting.”
Indeed, shaped by Russia’s intervention and fading foreign support for the anti-regime insurgents, the Syrian war now appears to have settled into a logic where all roads lead to Damascus.
Yet much could still change. If the SDF moves too quickly or too close to al-Assad and his Iranian allies, it can kiss its hopes of Saudi and Emirati reconstruction funding goodbye. Following Russia down the road to Damascus might also trigger pushback from the American government, whose main goal in Syria, which is to smash jihadis and ignore the rest, is a poor match with its main goal in the Middle East more generally, which is to hurt Iran. And finally, how do you deal with a regime whose overriding instinct seems to be to not compromise about anything ever?
A slew of questions remain to be answered before we’ll know how all this will play out. Syria’s local politics have a tendency to get snagged in international rivalries. Raqqa’s reconstruction will clearly be no exception.
(TOP PHOTO: Ain Issa camp in August, some 50 km north of Raqqa. Ingy Sedky/ICRC)