A geopolitical game of thrones is taking place at the local level, with Kurds, Arabs, and the Syrian state fighting for power.
- By Wladimir van WilgenburgWladimir van Wilgenburg is a freelance journalist, currently in northern Syria, conducting a research project on Syrian Kurds for the Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies (IIST), funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC).
AIN ISSA, Syria — For three months, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have been fighting to liberate Raqqa from the Islamic State and have reportedly captured 70 percent of the city. The jihadi group will eventually be kicked out of the city, but what happens after the dust settles remains a matter of some dispute. Some reports contend that the city will be handed over to a council friendly to Damascus — a contention vigorously denied by the SDF, which says it aims to set up institutions that exclude the regime’s security branches from the city.
The struggle for Raqqa is occurring amid intense regional competition for influence in northern and eastern Syria. Russian and Iranian-backed Syrian government forces are advancing to the east in Deir Ezzor and have approached close to SDF lines south of Raqqa, briefly resulting in clashes between the regime and the Kurdish-led forces. To the west of Raqqa, Turkish troops and rebels backed by Ankara have threatened to launch further attacks on SDF positions — but have seemingly so far been held back by Russia.
The SDF has shown no inclination to hand Raqqa over to one of its rivals. The city will likely become part of the federal region in the future or will remain somehow linked to it. And that means that the best indicator of its fate is the local institutions that have been established in areas already liberated by SDF forces.
Towns such as Ain Issa, Tabqa, and Manbij are already grappling with the thorny issues of ties with the Assad regime, social divides among the different ethnic groups, and reconstruction through a network of local councils. The Raqqa Civil Council, which is co-headed by a Kurd and an Arab, has already been established and is now based in Ain Issa. It will move into Raqqa itself once the city is liberated.
Omar Aloush is a senior Kurdish member of the Raqqa Civil Council and also has helped establish other councils for towns such as Tal Abyad and Manbij. He told Foreign Policy that after the liberation of Raqqa, the residents of the city will decide if they will join the decentralized federal system established by the Kurds in three regions of northern Syria. This is also what will happen in Manbij, which so far is not part of the Kurdish-led administration that plans to hold elections this year and the next.
“The people of Raqqa are those who will manage it, and we will not allow the intervention of the regime in its affairs,” Aloush said.
The councils that were established in cities like Tabqa, Manbij, and Tal Abyad have a multiethnic makeup, corresponding to the demography of the city. They “self-govern” the cities through committees that focus on education, reconciliation, security, and the provision of services like electricity and water. The majority of the members are Arab, although Kurds play an important role in advising and setting up the councils.
Accepting regime funding, denying regime control
Some municipality workers in the liberated areas continue to receive a salary from the regime, a dynamic that local officials are willing to let continue. But they draw a line at allowing the regime’s security services to re-establish a foothold in the area.
“When it comes to the army, intelligence, courts, police, they are forbidden,” Aloush said. “[Regime militias] are coming for theft, destruction, and the torture of people. These militias cannot enter the liberated areas.”
An anonymous U.S. official told FP that the Syrian regime continued to pay salaries in areas that fell out of its control since 2012 in order to retain influence there. The same will most likely happen in SDF areas.
“So it is conceivable that the regime would seek to re-establish such connectivity elsewhere in Syria,” the official said. “What is clear is that many Syrians do not seek a return to a pre-2011 Syria. On the other hand, there may be a degree of connectivity to the Damascus government that some Syrians could tolerate and benefit from — such as civil service or teacher salaries and administrative services.”
Civilians and officials in towns such as Manbij and Tabqa were also unanimous in saying they opposed the return of the regime.
“We regard the regime as a ruling gang, and the people reject it, but there are some people that receive a salary from the regime, and this is normal,” said Mahmoud Stud al-Tay, 45, a member of the Manbij Civil Council.
However, he also drew a line at the return of the state’s security apparatus — or their proxies — to Manbij. “I met with Iranian militias in the west of Manbij, who do not speak Arabic. They are not acceptable to us,” Tay said.
Now that President Bashar al-Assad’s survival is clear, the Syrian regime is trying to convince some Arab tribes to help pave the way for their return to SDF-controlled areas. That’s another pitfall that SDF-aligned officials are trying to stop in its tracks — including by threatening those trying to reconcile with the regime with arrest.
“They can go to Damascus and publish their propaganda there. It’s forbidden to publish any of the propaganda of the regime [in the liberated] areas here,” Aloush said.
Education and women’s rights
The local administrations’ problems extend far beyond issues of security. They have also been forced to contend with difficult issues surrounding school curricula and the differing views about women’s rights held by the Kurdish and Arab populations.
The schools in Manbij, Ain Issa, and Tabqa will continue to follow the Syrian government curriculum. Tay, the Manbij official, said less than 20 percent of teachers still earn their salaries from the regime, while the rest are appointed and receive their salary from the local council.
“The curriculum will be in Arabic following the old system, but we will remove racist materials and expired material from the curriculum,” Aloush, the Raqqa official, said.
While there is a strong focus on gender equality in the Kurdish-led areas, the conservative Arab tribes in the region often have different views. The towns of Manbij and Tabqa have not yet banned measures like polygamy, fearing a popular backlash, though Tal Abyad has made the practice illegal.
“Women would be happy with this decision, but men do not accept this rule, so they protest against this decision,” said Farah al-Hussein, 28, who works on education for the Tabqa council.
In the town of Manbij, which was liberated from the Islamic State more than a year ago, polygamy is also allowed. Tay said the issue is a “matter of personal freedom.” Referring to two predominantly Kurdish cities, he added, “Our laws are not like the laws of Qamishli and Kobani.”
The daunting task of reconstruction
While the local administrations can handle some reconstruction tasks, they still require international aid for the big-ticket items — support, they say, that has not yet been forthcoming.
In Tabqa, for instance, much work remains to be done. Ahmad Sulaiman, a tribal leader from the Nasr tribe and the new deputy head of the Tabqa Civil Council, said all of the council’s members were volunteers and did not receive salaries or any perks of office. Those who help provide services for the municipalities, he said, are paid salaries that range from $50 to $100 per month.
Sulaiman said the council has restored electricity, bakeries, and basic services — but that repairing all of the damage wrought by the war was beyond the local council’s capabilities. He stressed that there was not enough support for reconstruction and that the nearby Tabqa Dam still sat unrepaired and full of mines laid by the Islamic State.
Reconstruction will be a particular challenge for Raqqa upon its liberation. Local officials estimate that it has suffered far greater damage than the other towns in the Kurdish-led areas — and while they welcome international help in rebuilding their region, they say American assistance has yet to be forthcoming. President Donald Trump’s administration sent a small team of only seven people into areas liberated by the SDF this summer to assess immediate humanitarian needs.
“What we want is for international organizations to rebuild the infrastructure, such as hospitals, power stations, and drinking water plants,” Sulaiman said. “The Americans come here and hold meetings, but we have not received any help from them.”
After the Raqqa operation is over, the SDF-linked council will face several challenges. Will it be able to maintain the loyalty of Arab tribes, and will it be able to provide services and jobs in the newly liberated areas? The regime could attempt to use these issues to undermine and supplant the council — but, so far, it has met with limited success.
Shifts in the regional powers’ Syria policy could also affect Raqqa’s fate. The SDF’s dependence on the United States makes it weak: If Washington chooses to withdraw from Syria, the SDF could be forced to make a deal with Russia and the Syrian government. Without U.S. backing, the SDF-held areas could also easily be attacked by Turkey. Kurdish officials say Iran also operates several militias on the ground that oppose any form of federalism in northern Syria.
“The Assad government is shifting into an active policy of undermining the U.S. military presence on the ground in Syria, and Russia is fully on board with this plan,” said Nicholas Heras, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “Russia does not want to see an indefinite U.S. military mandate in Syria, which Assad fears is being built.”
However, Kurdish officials believe they have a commitment from the United States to support them in the years ahead. “America’s presence in the region is not temporary, because it has interests here,” said Abdulselam Ahmed, a Kurdish official in Qamishli. “The U.S. does not want to leave the region to Iran and Russia.”
Even if the United States isn’t interested in confronting Tehran or Moscow, its interest in preventing a resurgence of the Islamic State isn’t about to fade anytime soon. As they sit on the brink of capturing the group’s de facto capital, Kurdish officials believe that they have positioned themselves as Washington’s preferred partner to keep the terrorist organization down for the foreseeable future. As Ahmed put it, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State, “Even if Daesh is militarily broken, a danger will remain, and the U.S. will try to minimize this danger.”
Photo credit:DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images