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The battle for Raqqa begins

Delil Soulaiman/UNICEF

The assault on Raqqa officially began on Tuesday morning with the announcement of a “great battle”, but many fear that the Syrian city, which for three years has served as the de facto capital of so-called Islamic State in Syria, won’t fall easily.

“We expect a really tough battle,” IRIN was told by Jesper Söder, a Swedish volunteer who serves as a Syria-based spokesman for the the Syrian Democratic Forces, the group that now seeks to end IS’s reign in Raqqa.

An avowedly secular alliance of Kurdish and Arab groups, the SDF is supported by the United States and other members of an international coalition looking to oust IS from the areas it seized in Syria and Iraq in 2014 – although Turkey is outspoken in its opposition to the group.

The coalition has proved almost unstoppable on its slow march to Raqqa. Backed by US air support, the SDF has captured some 6,000 square kilometres from the jihadis since early 2015, including 350 in the last week of May alone. Its forces crossed the Euphrates in March and have since been preparing for an assault on the city itself. But they don’t expect an easy time ahead.

“Daesh has gone door to door, forcing men to take up arms to protect the capital of the caliphate,” Söder told IRIN, using the Arabic acronym for IS. “It is hard to tell how long it will take.”

Quick work or a drawn-out battle?

SDF commanders and their international allies have been wary of promising quick win. At a 6 June press conference in Syria, SDF spokesman Talal Selo denied having any set timetable for capturing Raqqa. Soon after, Lieutenant General Steven Townsend, who commands the coalition forces, warned that the fight could be “long and difficult”.

In nearby Iraq, a US-backed campaign to retake Mosul from IS has lasted more than seven months and displaced more than 800,000 civilians, amid enormous suffering for the city’s inhabitants. Some fear Raqqa too could turn into a drawn-out siege with urban fighting, and that civilians will suffer the brunt of the violence.

In many respects, however, the equivalence between Raqqa and Mosul is a false one. The two cities are often juxtaposed in the media as the IS “capitals” of Syria and Iraq, but this obscures the fact that Mosul is much bigger. The Iraqi city reportedly had close to 1.4 million inhabitants before IS took control of it in 2014, while the resident population of Raqqa may have been less than 300,000. These figures do not include the surrounding provinces.

IS is also weaker now than when the Mosul offensive began in late 2016, and, for all of the city’s symbolic importance, the group may decide to cut its losses instead of making Raqqa the scene of a grand last stand.

American officials and other sources claim many IS administrators and leaders left Raqqa over the spring to relocate in Mayadeen, a city in the lower Euphrates region between Deir Ezzor and the Iraqi border. If true, this may facilitate the SDF’s retaking of the city.

And yet, the jihadis have had years to prepare their defenses. Even a small garrison would suffice to draw SDF troops into dangerous street fighting at close quarters and increase their dependence on US airstrikes, which could be devastating to the city and its inhabitants.

Rising civilian death toll

The US government says its airstrikes are very precise and that civilian casualties are very rare. The coalition says its operations caused at least 484 “unintentional civilian deaths” since the first bombs were dropped as part of a US-led, multi-nation counterattack against IS in September 2014. This seems a very low number for two and a half years of bombardment, and other sources give less flattering estimates. For example, the Syrian Network for Human Rights, a monitoring group close to the US-backed Syrian opposition in exile, tallied 1,256 civilian deaths from coalition strikes between September 2014 and May 2017 in Syria alone. And Air Wars, an NGO that tracks civilian casualties from airstrikes, says it found credible reports of between 3,817 and 6,025 non-combatant deaths over the same period in Syria and Iraq.

All sources agree, however, that the civilian casualty rate has been climbing fast since the SDF began to home in on Raqqa. The Syrian Network for Human Rights listed April 2017 as the first month when the international coalition killed more civilians than the Russian Air Force in Syria, and says this pattern still held in May. The coalition itself listed only 118 “credible” reports of civilian deaths before April 2017, followed by 132 in that month alone. If true, those statistics would seem to mean three quarters of all civilian killings acknowledged by the coalition since 2014 took place in April, May, and June 2017.

As the battle moves into Raqqa itself, these numbers will undoubtedly rise further.

Deteriorating conditions and fears of displacement

The situation inside Raqqa has been deteriorating steadily over the Syrian spring, as electricity grid and clean-water pumps break down, food prices rise, and inhabitants of the city and its suburbs are forcibly moved around, on order of both IS and its enemies.

Delil Soulaiman/UNICEF

The SDF has called on civilians in Raqqa to leave the city and, although the numbers are conflated with people fleeing other areas of Raqqa province, there are now some 200,000 uprooted people moving around inside coalition-held territories north of the city. Around half have been driven from their homes since April. Some 90,000 are reportedly housed in camps, where conditions appear to be very harsh, while the rest have found temporary lodging in cities and villages elsewhere in the region, or have crossed over to areas outside SDF control. The UN and other aid groups do their best to provide shelter and aid in all these areas but face growing restrictions working out of Turkey and are generally unable to work in IS-held regions.

See: Turkey expels Syrians working for Danish NGO

Speaking to a reporter in a Turkish-controlled part of Syria, some displaced Arab civilians said SDF commanders had prevented them from returning home, reinforcing fears of Kurdish-Arab ethnic strife or land grabs. The UN also reports that the SDF places restrictions on fleeing Syrians, including by confiscating identity papers or cell phones at some camps or checkpoints and banning people from entering certain areas unless they can get a local sponsor to vouch for their right to be there.

However, the SDF argues that IS tactics, which include hiding among civilians to stage suicide bombings, require them to monitor civilian movement, and coalition representatives vehemently deny any intent to discriminate on ethnic grounds.

“This is done for safety reasons,” SDF’s Söder told IRIN. “We’re checking with all the sources we can to figure out who these people are and what connections they might have to Daesh. You need to remember that this city has been inhabited by the most faithful of the caliphate.” He also stressed to IRIN that any restrictions are intended to be temporary.

Still, northern Syria is a volatile place and it remains to be seen how much top-down discipline can be enforced by SDF commanders on lower-tier leaders over time. Parochial rivalries – ranging from local warlordism and economic competition to ethnic, tribal, and family feuds – have become inextricably conflated with the war. Propaganda, prejudice, and fear itself could easily become drivers of displacement and sources for continued instability, whatever the intent or planning of the actors involved.

After Raqqa, what next?

Once Raqqa falls, there will be much celebration – expect a long line of journalists touring Raqqa to tell the story of the IS caliphate. But SDF leaders seem well aware that their problems will be far from over. IS will still control large areas along the Euphrates, and, of course, in Iraq. It will probably retain underground networks and local support in areas lost and among some members of displaced communities, which could allow the group to stage bombings and perhaps even retake some areas, when or if an opportunity presents itself.

Governing Raqqa in a stable fashion may prove difficult. The SDF set up a council in April that will be tasked with organising civilian affairs there, but if the council and its allies fail to secure local buy-in, they could easily be forced to rely on coercive policing and may provoke renewed resistance. Kurdish-Arab tension or conflicts between Bedouin clans, civilian displacement, and material destruction could further complicate the situation.

If destruction is very severe, the city may have trouble absorbing returnees after the battle winds down, which could leave tens of thousands of people from Raqqa stranded in camps or nearby towns for an extended period of time. With resources scarce and humanitarian aid in short supply all over Syria, that alone could be a cause for conflict.

The situation is further complicated by the looming threat to Syria’s Kurdish areas from Turkey, to the north. The government in Ankara is fuming over US support for the SDF, in particular over a recent White House decision to send arms directly to the group’s dominant Kurdish component, which is tightly linked to Ankara’s arch-enemy: the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.

Friction along the Syrian-Turkish border has consequently increased as the SDF has moved closer to Raqqa over the past few months. The Turkish government has no special love for IS, which is responsible for gruesome attacks inside Turkey, but Ankara does not want to see its Kurdish foes tear down the black banners over Raqqa and gain international accolades as an anti-terrorist force; the Turks fear this would help the PKK gain international support and legitimacy for its cause inside Turkey, too.

Compounding Turkey’s frustration, a PKK-linked militant group known as the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, or TAK, released a statement just as the Raqqa operation was announced in which it promised more attacks inside Turkey, including against tourist installations. Ostensibly an independent PKK offshoot, the TAK is often accused of serving as a cut-out to ensure plausible deniability for PKK bombings in Turkish cities.

A TAK bombing or assassination could easily provoke Turkish retaliation against Kurdish positions in Syria, Iraq, or both, and some form of Turkish riposte to the Raqqa operation may well come anyway.

The taking of Raqqa also feeds into longer-term rivalries over eastern Syria, an area that contains valuable oil wells and farmlands along the Euphrates and which controls road access to Iraq and beyond. President Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian goverment and his Iranian and Russian allies recently launched a multi-pronged eastern offensive, hoping to forestall advances by US-backed groups like the SDF and small Sunni Arab rebel factions in the south of the country. While the Syrian government is hardly in a position to retake Raqqa militarily if blocked by the US Air Force, it may still put pressure on the SDF-ruled areas and look to exert its influence through local supporters.

As the noose tightens around Raqqa and IS, only one thing is really clear: The swirling chaos of the Syrian war won’t be over anytime soon.

(TOP PHOTO: Displaced children and adults flee IS-controlled areas in rural Raqqa in November 2016. Delil Soulaiman/UNICEF)


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