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Analysis: Future of Post-ISIS Raqqa Remains Unclear

With the caliphate crumbling under the swift advances of U.S.-backed forces, the Syrian Democratic Forces have put forth a plan for local governance after ISIS. Yet, without a financial backer, the city may have to rely on the state to restore services.

Written by Wladimir van Wilgenburg Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
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Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces, made up of an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters, walk in a neighborhood on the eastern front of Raqqa after seizing the area from ISIS. AFP/DELIL SOULEIMAN

ERBIL, Iraq – The battle to push the so-called Islamic State out of Raqqa is well underway in northern Syria, and the question of who will take on the daunting task of restoring order and public services after years of militant rule is becoming urgent.

The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Arab and Kurdish fighters spearheading the campaign against ISIS in Raqqa, have already installed a local governance plan for the embattled city in northern Syria. However, it remains unclear who would fund a Raqqa administration, or who would provide basic services and salaries.

While its military commitment to the anti-ISIS campaign is unquestionable, President Donald Trump’s administration has not expressed any intent to support local forces in Raqqa after the militant group is expelled. Some analysts said that lack of planning and designated resources will push Raqqa back into the lap of the Syrian government.

“Whoever ends up in charge of Raqqa after liberation may well be forced to rely on Damascus to run basic services and governance – regardless of Washington’s strategy,” defense analyst Tobias Schneider told Syria Deeply.

‘There Is No Place for the Syrian Regime Here’

A remote oil-rich city with a pre-war population of more than 220,000 people, Raqqa has been the seat of ISIS’ self-styled caliphate since 2014. Located on the north bank of the Euphrates River, it served as an important militant hub for trade, smuggling and the movement of foreign fighters.

The SDF announced the formation of a civilian council to administer the region in April and has since elected two co-chairs, one Kurdish and one Arab, and established 14 committees. The formation of a military council is expected to follow, in line with the same governing arrangements set in place in Manbij city, which the SDF captured from ISIS last year.

The Manbij precedent, however, raises some concerns. Roughly seven months after liberating Manbij from ISIS rule, the Kurdish-led force handed over some surrounding villages to the Syrian and Russian armies, to deter attacks by Turkish troops and allied rebels. This raises the question of whether the SDF will do the same after ISIS is driven out of Raqqa.

However, Nasr Haji Mansour, an adviser to the SDF, rejected the possibility of collusion with the Syrian government. “The Raqqa council is now being rebuilt to represent all groups in Raqqa, and there is no place for the Syrian government in the city,” he told Syria Deeply.

“Raqqa will be handed over to a civil council that represents all the social components [ethnic and religious groups] of the city and [those] whose hands have not been stained with the blood of these people,” he added.

Layla Mohammed, the female co-chair of the Raqqa civilian council, also overruled the possibility of ceding control to loyalists of President Bashar al-Assad.

“Our council has been formed from the people of Raqqa with all its ethnicities, and they believe in the democratization of the society and elimination of all forms of exclusion and marginalization, and building a democratic pluralistic decentralized system,” she told Syria Deeply.

“It has no relation with the regime, and refuses the presence of the Syrian regime,” she added.

The Harsh Reality of Local Governance

While local officials may reject the possibility of working with Assad, the highly centralized nature of the Syrian state will make it difficult for the local council to administer services and pay salaries without at least starting a dialogue with the government, according to Ghadi Sary, the author of a Chatham House report on Kurdish self-governance in Syria, who added that talks between Assad and the SDF are already “overdue.”

In fact, the Syrian state continued to administer certain services to the city even after it was captured by ISIS militants. For example, the country’s two main mobile phone operators still worked in Raqqa, and, as of 2015, the companies would reportedly send engineers to ISIS-controlled areas to repair damages at the towers, according to Time.

On the other hand, Nicholas Heras, the Bacevich fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said that the Raqqa civilian council can administer the city without the Syrian government by using the U.S.-led coalition’s logistical support of the SDF to “provide security, services and an administrative structure that can establish the conditions for a federal Raqqa region, like the northern federal region in core SDF areas in northeastern Syria.”

This possibility is not far-fetched. Washington over the past year has displayed unwavering commitment to the SDF by providing military training, aerial cover and a steady supply of weapons in support of the campaign to push ISIS out Raqqa. The U.S. also supports the idea of a local council and has already begun training hundreds of recruits for a Raqqa police force.

However, Washington has made it clear that it would not be carrying out the nation-building missions that have accompanied its counterterrorism operations in the past.

“In terms of administrative services, teachers, hospitals, who pays those salaries, that is something where Syrians are going to have to work that out. We are not in the business of, as I said, nation-building operations,” Brett McGurk, special presidential envoy for the U.S.-led coalition battling ISIS, said in a press briefing last month.

‘Difficult Choices’ Ahead

However, Schneider said, Washington’s aversion to these open-ended commitments will put forth “some difficult choices” for the U.S. administration: pulling back from the SDF, risking “the creeping return of the Assad regime’s government” or supporting the new governance structure in order to “stand their ground … and defend a U.S. zone of influence against regime or Iranian interference.”

This decision became more urgent in the last 10 days as tensions escalated between U.S.-backed forces and Syrian forces, who have been pushing against ISIS on Raqqa province’s western flanks, and who last week reached within roughly 34 miles (55km) of the city. On Sunday, the U.S. shot down a Syrian jet for the first time since the Syrian conflict broke out. U.S. Central Command said the jet “dropped bombs near SDF fighters south of Tabqa,” adding that pro-government forces also “attacked” the SDF-held town of Ja’din, south of Tabqa.

While the U.S. is not working toward re-establishing Assad’s writ over the entirety of Syria, a U.S. official who spoke to Syria Deeply on the condition of anonymity suggested that it would be in Raqqa’s interest if Damascus is allowed some kind of role in the city.

“I don’t think anyone can rationally argue that it is not in the interest of a future Syria to have the Syrian state institutions and tissue reconnected across the country,” he said, explaining that the Ministry of Finance could take care of state salaries, and essential services like water, electricity and telecommunications could be restored.

“Ideally those local service providers that have emerged in the absence of the Syrian state can be connected back to the state so that Syrians capitalize on existing resources and expertise,” the official said, adding that “Syria’s future is for the Syrian people to decide, and it should be done so via Geneva. … But we are not going to force a top-down regime change.”

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