Last week, a joint force of US marines and predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) staged airborne entries into villages in the environs of the city of Raqqa, claimed by the Islamic State (IS) group as its capital in Syria.
Simultaneously, another force seized control of Tabaqa, a city in the vicinity of Raqqa, and its military airport. In the course of the battle, US forces staged intensive aerial assaults that destroyed 70 per cent of the city, killed dozens of civilians and displaced the remaining inhabitants, thereby facilitating the entry of the Kurdish forces.
IS control quickly collapsed before the onslaught as most of the group’s fighters withdrew, and medical and other services ground to a halt. After seizing control of the Tabaqa airport, Kurdish ground forces backed by US air cover advanced towards Raqqa in accordance with plans that some believe reflect a US desire for the Kurds to take control of the city.
During the clashes, the Kurds killed Syrian Arabs and committed acts of vengeance. Syrian opposition forces have interpreted these actions as a way of spreading terror among local residents, causing them to flee their homes so that these can be taken over by Kurds as part of the demographic engineering of northern Syria.
In tandem with the advance of the US-led Coalition and its Kurdish partners on the outskirts of Raqqa, forces loyal to the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad made significant advances towards the city. These were assisted by the Kurds, who no longer conceal their collaboration with the Syrian regime and have made it clear that they are prepared to go further than military cooperation.
The Kurdish advance could not have happened without US support, especially given that Turkey considers Kurdish advances towards areas near its borders as a red line and a threat to its national security. A segment of the (Arab) Syrian opposition has grown convinced that some Kurds want to secede from Syria and sever a chunk of the north of the country for the creation of a Kurdish state, while others are close to the Syrian regime.
Some weeks before the joint Kurdish-Coalition assault on Raqqa, IS foreign fighters fled the city into the desert stretching towards the Iraqi border. The local fighters that remain have sensed the flaws in the group’s structure and the approaching end of its presence in the city. Gangs of thieves have proliferated, breaking into stores and vacant houses as IS loosens its strict control over behaviour.
The “Hisba” or anti-vice cars that once patrolled the streets of Raqqa, intimidating people and women in particular, have now vanished. Surveillance of the remaining Internet cafes has also grown laxer.
However, while IS control is growing looser, Arab-Kurdish animosity and tribal feuds among urban or village dwellers are growing in importance. IS also began to prepare for the battle of Raqqa over a month ago, heaping up earth mounds in front of buildings, sandbag barricades at street entrances, and tunnels around the city in preparation for street warfare.
It forced all men to wear the Afghan-style clothing that the jihadists have adopted so that the invading forces would not be able to distinguish civilians from combatants.
The sudden withdrawal of IS fighters from Raqqa has aroused suspicions among the armed and political Syrian opposition. These withdrawals have occurred before, and they have seemed to be staged operations whether to hand over vacated town to regime forces, as occurred in Palmyra, or to Kurdish militias, as occurred in the area around Hasaka.
The opposition fears that a similar scenario is planned for Raqqa: A handover to US-supported Kurdish militias without a fight or without a battle of any magnitude.
Rumours of the near collapse of the nearby Hasaka Dam also triggered panic in Raqqa. As the evacuation of a large portion of Raqqa’s inhabitants will facilitate the task of the incoming forces, it has not been difficult to determine the source of the rumours.
Before their march on Raqqa to liberate it from IS, the Kurds formed municipal councils, saying that they would impose these when the city is under Kurdish administration and include it in a Kurdish federal entity in northern Syria. Less than three per cent of the inhabitants of Raqqa are Kurds and 97 per cent are Arabs.
The Americans have tried to argue that the Kurdish militias, referred to as the SDF, are 75 per cent Arab. However, Arab forces have been excluded from the battle of Raqqa and the SDF contains no more than five per cent Arabs, most of whom have been recruited through coercion.
Turkey also stands to lose if the US allows the Kurdish militias to take control of Raqqa, allowing them to gain control of the whole of northern Syria and enabling them to connect the regions they plan to include in an autonomous Kurdish administration preparatory to secession or to an imposed federal system.
The 10 km that now separate the Kurdish militias from Raqqa will shape the path of the future of northern Syria. They will also define the US role, which the White House has not explained in spite of US President Donald Trump now passing the 100-day mark in office.
Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly from Raqqa, Syrian opposition member Salem Haj Khalil said that “after the Kurds took control of Tabaqa airport thanks to US air cover, the US asked for the area to be turned into a ‘friendly zone’. The location of the airport makes it an excellent place for a US military base between Iraq, Turkey and Iran, however.”
He added that in order to turn the area into a “friendly zone” for US military aircraft, the Kurds would need to “forge alliances, whether through inducements or intimidation, with local Arab clans from Raqqa.”
One thing is clear from the developments on the ground, and that is that Turkey is now officially out of the game. The US and Russia have prevented it from curtailing the role of the Kurds and have only allowed it to control a small part of northern Syria containing border crossings between Syria and Turkey.
As for the Kurds who are allied with the Syrian regime, they will play a larger role, but one that serves primarily to partition Syria into zones of influence. This role, supported by the US, will have major repercussions on the conflicts and will pave the way to social and perhaps geographical divisions between the Syrian people and perhaps long-term conflict between the Syrians and the Kurds.
Syrian opposition member Samer Saifan explained the situation from the perspective of Arab Syrians when he said that “the Kurdish militias are at the heart of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a misleading name and a disguise for the Turkish-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) forces. The Arabs in the SDF are there to fill out the ranks – a few hundred Arabs enlisted in order to provide cover for the Kurdish goals of the militias.”
“The militias want to gain control over areas of northern and eastern Syria, areas where there are currently no Kurds. The departure of IS without a fight from many towns and villages in favour of the militias is suspicious, especially when this group has put up fierce resistance to the armed opposition.”
“The [Kurdish] forces have begun the assault on Raqqa to take the place of IS, while other Kurdish fighters are being brought in from Turkey, Iraq and Iran. This project is supported by the Americans and the Russians through the provision of arms, funds, training and air cover. It is a project for a grueling Kurdish-Arab war in the offing,” Saifan said.