The ‘Operation Wrath of Euphrates’ to liberate Raqqa from the Islamic State (IS) was announced by the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on 6 November 2016. The first phase to isolate and seize areas around Raqqa was followed by another three phases in which areas such as Tabqa, the Raqqa-Deir Ezzor highway and important villages to all four sides of the city were taken. The final phase of the operation to liberate the city itself began on 6 June 2017 and is now in its 73rd day. Although an official figure hasn’t been announced, some 200 Arab, Kurdish, Syriac and foreign fighters have already died in the final phase. The SDF is in control of about 60% of the city, with a reported 1,500 IS fighters out of 5,000 still holding out. Thousands of civilians have been evacuated from Raqqa by SDF fighters and more than 1,000 have joined SDF ranks to contribute to liberating the city.
The Raqqa campaign and approaches of various actors
When talk began of a People’s Defense Units (YPG)-led operation to liberate Raqqa from the Islamic State [IS] in 2016, some circles - almost entirely made up of short-sighted and what we might call ‘narrow’ nationalist Kurds, as well as pan-Arabists or anti-Kurdish individuals, groups and states, such as Turkey and Syria - said, “Why is the YPG going to Raqqa? It’s not Kurdish land.” Their reasons and rationale were different, but the sentiment and root of their approach was the same; nationalism and statism.
‘Narrow’ nationalist Kurds, not limited to one party or ideological grouping, argued over social media that they did not want ‘Kurdish blood’ to be ‘spilled for Arab lands,’ and that the YPG should concentrate on defending the predominantly Kurdish Rojava-Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS). Meanwhile all anti-Kurdish individuals and state actors, primarily Turkey and Syria, chimed in that the YPG were going to ‘cleanse’ the area of Arabs and install Kurdish rule. Turkey also didn’t forget to employ its most oft-used argument that the YPG was nothing more than an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and therefore a “terrorist group.”
What they forgot to mention was that the local and tribal leaders of Raqqa had made open calls and held meetings with the SDF and officials from its civil sister organisation, the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), for them to liberate the city. They also forgot to add that although predominantly Arab, Raqqa also had a 20% Kurdish and 10% Armenian Christian population amongst its 220,000 inhabitants (2004 census). Also almost all of the Kurdish and Christian population were persecuted and forced to flee when in 2013 the Islamist jihadist Al-Nusra Front (Al-Qaeda in Syria) took control of the city. In early 2014, IS, which had built presence in Raqqa with the toppling of the regime, took complete control of the city. Later in the year, after it had stormed Mosul over the border in Iraq and carried out a genocide against the Kurdish Yazidis in Sinjar, IS militants brought thousands of women and children they had enslaved to their self-declared capital and operation base in Syria, many of whom are still thought to be there.
These would have been sufficient reasons for the YPG-led SDF, which was formed in 2015 under the leadership of the YPG, and is the only multi-ethnic, multi-religious fighting force in Syria - predominantly comprised of Arab and Kurdish but also Syriac, Turkmen and Armenian militias – to launch an operation on Raqqa. But what the analysis and accusations at the time also lacked or tried to cover-up, was the historically strategic importance of the city for the Islamist jihadists (we’ll come back to this) but also for the future security and success of Rojava-DFNS. Furthermore, it was also an ‘ideological duty’ of the YPG and SDF to liberate Raqqa due to their project of creating a decentralised and federal Syria not limited by ethnicity/religious categorisation or to predominantly Kurdish areas in the north. If the operation hadn’t been launched, then IS would have continued being an immediate threat to the relative peace and stability achieved in the Rojava-DFNS and also an obstacle in the way of a solution to the Syrian crisis.
In turn, this would have further emboldened Turkey in its ‘Operation Euphrates Shield’, which it launched in August 2016 to sabotage the gains made by Kurds in northern Syria. Ankara wanted Islamist Free Syrian Army militias it is supporting to lead the charge on Raqqa and unsuccessfully pressured the US-led coalition until the last moment to end support for the YPG-led SDF’s advance on the city. Turkey’s main gripe was that the SDF was formed mainly of Kurdish fighters and that Arab forces were non-existent or negligible. This allegation was rebutted by the SDF and Pentagon, who said some 60% of the force was comprised of Arab fighters. Ankara, as a last resort and a little contradictorily, tried to divide the SDF by saying it could carry out the Raqqa operation with the Arab fighters in SDF ranks. These anti-Kurdish moves by Turkey mostly played a positive role in the speedy recruitment of Arab youths to the SDF, who flocked to the force ahead of the operation as a response to Ankara’s meddling in Manbij and other predominately Arab areas.
The void – without a YPG-SDF operation - could also have resulted in the Syrian regime, which is currently at the gates of another IS stronghold Deir-Ezzor (to the southeast of Raqqa), launching an offensive on the city, thus again weakening the federal project for a resolution of the Syrian conflict. Furthermore, the regional and global repercussions of either a Turkish or regime advance on Raqqa would have been manifold and likely further complicated negatively an already chaotic war.
Raqqa’s rich cultural and economic history
Located on the northeast bank of the Euphrates River, and with important roads leading to Damascus, Palmyra and Iraq, Raqqa is an oil-rich city with a history that spans back to the Hellenistic period (244BC). The city played an important role as a trading post between the Byzantines and Sassanid Persia and was also the site for clashes between the two hegemonic powers well into the 6th century. Shortly after the rise of Islam, Raqqa was conquered by one of Mohammad’s companions, General Iyad Ibn Ghanm in 1639 or 1640, and given its current name. Upon surrendering the city, the Christians signed a treaty with Ibn Ghanm that allowed them to continue living and worshipping in the city, but forbade them from building any new churches. Many indigenous Christian groups and Jews also aided the incoming Muslims to evade heavy taxing by the Byzantines and Persians. The minority groups continued using their own laws and courts in the city even after the Muslim conquest.
Raqqa’s immediate surroundings also bore witness to some of the most important developments in Islamic history, hence why it is important for organisations like IS. The Battle of Siffin, which would sow the seeds for the sectarian Shia-Sunni divide within Islam, happened just 28km west of the city. In 769 the caliph Harun al-Rashid chose it as his imperial residence, making Raqqa the capital of the Abbasid Empire. In the following centuries Bedouins, Kurds, Turkmens and Chechens also made Raqqa their home; the city experienced declines and booms, most recently in the 1950s with the cotton trade, but has remained an important hub for trade and culture in the country.
The Raqqa Civilian Council and post-IS hopes
This brief overview of the city’s history is enough to highlight the strategic importance of Raqqa geographically, but also its rich cultural and economic past and present. It is also important in comprehending Raqqa’s sociology but also the positive example and prototype - with the right type of administration - the city can become for a democratic federal Syria. This was highlighted by Ilham Ehmed, the female co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), just after the Raqqa campaign was launched.
“Such an administration could provide a good example for democratic change in Raqqa, especially that the city has been for years a de facto capital for the IS terrorist group. This accomplishment would be a major change in the overall situation in Syria, and would help the country move towards stability, democratic change. Raqqa will be an example for the whole country,” Ehmed said.
The Raqqa Civilian Council is comprised of some 120 people, including a feminist Kurdish female co-chair and male Arab counterpart, and was formed by the SDC in April 2017. It is representative of Raqqa’s local population and has the participation of all the ethnic and religious groups present in the city, as well as members from local tribes. It has already been working tirelessly to assist civilians rescued from IS and been making plans to rebuild life in post-IS Raqqa. In a meeting with officials from the U.S.-led coalition in July, delegations discussed ‘demining, reconstruction, rehabilitation, relief and humanitarian work,’ with the coalition showing political recognition and support it has previously withheld from the Rojava-DFNS. The appointed council has also committed to holding an election as early as May 2018 so that Raqqa’s citizens can democratically elect their representatives. A decision on whether Raqqa will join the DFNS or remain an autonomous area will also be taken around the same time. It is expected that the decision will be in favour of joining the democratic federal project, officials say, but much of the hard work lies ahead.
In conclusion, the liberation of Raqqa will be just as important and strategic as that of Manbij, another culturally diverse and historically rich area the groups mentioned at the beginning of article tried to block from being liberated from IS in mid 2016. So far, the federal project and implementation of local democracy there has been reported as an important success. With its history, geography, resources and sociological reality, Raqqa can become another of the pillars of a federal, secular and democratic Syria. Provided that the diverse peoples of Syria can work together around the framework that was first formulated and drawn up by Rojava’s Kurdish revolutionaries and then shared with the other peoples of the country to become the DFNS, Raqqa can enjoy security and build the foundations for a communal, gender-equal and ecological society. Just as the liberation of Rojava from the Assad regime and reactionary groups is now leading to the liberation of Raqqa and ultimate defeat of IS in Syria, the freedom and democratisation of Raqqa will safeguard the Kurds and Rojava from future attacks and divide-and-rule policies, while also strengthening the possibility of a solution to the Syrian war. This will be the biggest blow to IS and the reactionary, nationalist mentalities of the other states and groups in the region, which constantly feed instability, war and destruction.