Thousands of new security personnel are being trained by U.S. special operations forces to keep the peace in Raqqa after the Islamic State, but is a week of training enough?
- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
As the Islamic State crumbles, American special operations forces and their Arab and Kurdish allies have been working quietly to establish a force of about 3,500 militiamen to help secure Raqqa, Syria, according to U.S. military and State Department officials.
In April, a 100-member Raqqa Civilian Council was formed in the city of Ain Issa just north of Raqqa, and U.S. troops have been training, equipping, and paying a growing security force that will be given responsibility for keeping the peace once the Islamic State is defeated. The current plan, outlined for Foreign Policy by several government officials, calls for the security forces to go through a weeklong training program that includes human rights instruction, crowd control techniques, and guidelines in setting up checkpoints.
The Americans insist that the Raqqa Internal Security Force, as it is known, will be manned by vetted local fighters that reflect the ethnic makeup of the the city and will be overseen by the civilian city council. But questions remain over long-term plans for the city of over 200,000 civilians, who are facing weeks of grinding street-by-street fighting, airstrikes, and suicide bombings before the Islamic State is driven out, leaving parts of Raqqa in ruins.
The plans in motion are based on confidence in U.S. military circles over the eventual outcome of the fight for the city, the self-declared capital of the Islamic State. U.S.-backed Syrian Arab and Kurd fighters have been punching holes in the city’s defenses over the past several weeks and have surrounded it on all sides. Most of the terrorist group’s leadership have long since fled, moving into rural areas along the Euphrates River Valley, where U.S. airstrikes have taken a heavy toll on some of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s top lieutenants.
About 250 men have already been trained by American commandos in northern Syria, some of whom are now acting as instructors for follow-on classes, U.S. military officials said. The Syrian commanders must go through the same vetting requirements — having no human rights violations in their background — as the U.S.-trained Syrian Arab element of the Syrian Democratic Forces, which are battling to take Raqqa, Col. Ryan Dillon, spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Baghdad, told FP.
The question remains, however, whether these freshly trained forces can secure the city. Members of the security force are being given just seven days of training, after which they’re equipped identically to the Syrian Democratic Forces, meaning AK-47s, uniforms, pickups and other vehicles, and some medical supplies.
“We’re trying to build a sustainable solution because the Coalition is not going to be in Raqqa forever,” said a government official with knowledge of the program who asked to speak anonymously. “In Syria, as opposed to Iraq, we don’t have a central government with whom we can partner.”
The U.S. military’s experience building local security forces has met with mixed success. In Afghanistan, a local police program showed early promise by providing a solution for security in remote areas that overstretched government troops couldn’t reach. While the program has grown to include about 30,000 Afghans operating in small groups throughout the country and has been effective in some places, it has been hounded by charges of theft, rape, harassment, and corruption.
“You don’t want the new security forces to lack credibility more than the old occupiers,” said a former State Department official with experience in post-conflict environments. “The locals are fearful, and going into a setting where you’re still doing clearing operations, interrogation and detention are tools for control that must be carefully watched.”
One U.S. government official with knowledge of the program said the plan is for the security force to at least “provide a permissive security environment” that would allow humanitarian aid to begin to flow into the city. As residents of the city begin to take responsibility for their governance, the official said, “the coalition will seek to support legitimate civilian security structures.”
What those might be remain a matter of debate. Already, USAID and the United Nations have shipped food, water, medicine, and power generators to areas around Raqqa to meet some immediate humanitarian needs, but it will eventually fall to the Raqqa Civilian Council to manage the city and return essential services.
Brett McGurk, the U.S. special envoy to the coalition against the Islamic State, traveled to Ain Issa on Wednesday, where he met members of the Raqqa city council in waiting.
He said the U.S. mission is to ensure that any foreign fighters who came to Raqqa “will die here in Syria. … If they are in Raqqa, they are going to die in Raqqa.”
The council has tried to build some bonds, pardoning 83 low-ranking members of the Islamic State captured by the SDF — all locals from Raqqa — as a goodwill gesture to mark the Eid al-Fitr holiday.
The new security force and city council will have a tall order ahead of it. The council, which includes Arabs, Kurds, and other smaller ethnic groups, could be viewed with suspicion by Syrian Arabs.
“Arabs seen as picked by and answering to Kurdish authorities may be perceived as unreliable at best, and agents of sorts at worst,” said Faysal Itani, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. “So the specific identity of the Arabs in question and their relationship with the [Kurdish] authority are key.”
The population of Raqqa may also question the authority of the new security forces, who, like the council, have not lived in the city for some time. And there is no guarantee that whoever ends up governing the city won’t turn to Damascus for assistance and seek to cut deals with the government and Moscow for more protection, much like some Kurdish groups in northern Syria have done.
Both Iran and Hezbollah, which are fighting on behalf of the Syrian regime, have an interest in waiting out the fight for Raqqa, Itani said, while “determining the exact bounds of U.S. ambitions and strategy in Syria.”
Iran and Hezbollah “would not accept” a situation where the United States attempts to establish a permanent military presence in areas taken from the Islamic State, Itani said. They would turn to asymmetric warfare against U.S. troops and their proxies in Syria,” he said, “much as they did in Iraq.”
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