The Kurds’ greatest challenge may still lie ahead
Tunis- With fighting between the Islamic State (ISIS) and the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said to be within 4km of ISIS’s self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa, what looks to be the most significant battle in the long war against the jihadist group appears imminent.
That the US-backed SDF will ultimately prove successful against the 4,000 or so militants within the city seems inevitable. Ahead of the group’s expected summer assault on Raqqa, the SDF called on ISIS members in Raqqa to surrender. Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, a group of independent journalists tracking human rights abuses by ISIS and other forces, instructed civilians in the city on how best to withstand a protracted siege.
Beyond the immediate fighting, however, a further problem faces the SDF, namely that of a secular Kurdish group administering a Sunni Arab-dominated city.
The SDF was founded in October 2015, with the title initially serving to provide diplomatic breathing space between Washington and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, (YPG), which is designated a terrorist organisation by the United States’ NATO allies in Ankara.
However, the brand has proven a powerful recruiting tool. US officials said 23,000-25,000 of the SDF’s 45,000 or so multi-ethnic fighters are described as Syrian Arabs, assembled along with Turkmen and Caucasians under the broad banner of a Kurdish leadership and framework.
Speculating on Raqqa’s future under SDF control during a telephone briefing in late March, the commanding officer of the US-led coalition, US Army Lieutenant-General Stephen Townsend, said: “I don’t see a Kurdish state. I see a multicultural, multiparty, multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian Syrian region being liberated from ISIS.”
However, though the SDF may have grown in accordance with the United States’ aspirations for the region, for observers such as the Crisis Group, it remains wholly subservient to the YPG command structure and entirely reliant upon the far-left Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s trained fighters who administer its every action.
YPG domination of the SDF was all but accepted by the United States, when the White House agreed to ship arms directly to Kurdish fighters, despite their internal politics and Turkish objections. A statement from the White House described the group as “the only force on the ground that can successfully seize Raqqa in the near future.”
However, like their opponents within Raqqa, much of the YPG’s military success has been fuelled by an ideology that has both served to propel the group across northern Syria and provided the model for the consolidation of its territorial gains.
A Crisis Group paper said that SDF officials, trained by the PKK, are typically appointed to key positions within the “Democratic Self- Administration.” Though ostensibly designed to foster broad political inclusion within captured territory, it is “best understood as mechanisms that co-opt locals through access to services.”
Despite much local chaos and complaints, within Kurdish territory, the model has proven successful, with the report acknowledging: “YPG-held areas are far safer and better administered than those controlled by opposition factions and the security services are much less brutal than those of the regime and ISIS.”
However, outside of the Kurdish-majority territory, the model appears less secure. Despite the influx of Arabs, the SDF remains determinably secular, something that within Arab-dominated areas, runs counter to local norms. Arabs participating within the Democratic Self-Administration are left to enjoy grand titles but little actual power.
Ultimate power, the report notes, continues to rest with the PKK.
While victory in Raqqa likely remains some way off, some indication of SDF intentions towards the traditionally Sunni-dominated city was gained in April with the appointment of the SDF’s Raqqa civilian council, co-led by Kurdish feminist Layla Mohammed.
“The civilian council of Raqqa will be charged with administering Raqqa and the surrounding province after liberation,” the Syrian Democratic Forces’ General Command said in a statement.
That the SDF is ready to attack and likely to occupy Raqqa is certain. That Raqqa is ready to be occupied by the SDF is perhaps less so.