In Syria, emblematic ISIS capital falls but painful memories linger
Beirut- Raqqa, the so-called capital of the Islamic State (ISIS), has fallen to the US-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
On October 17, the last of the group’s jihadist fighters clung to the blood-stained rubble of what remained of their disintegrating capital. Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported that the city’s hospital stood eerily silent, its entrance marked by swarming flies and two rotting corpses. One wore what SDF fighters said was an explosive belt.
Returning to Raqqa’s national stadium, another SDF fighter revisited the room where he had been held prisoner for seven days, along with 35 other men accused of breaking ISIS’s strict conservative rules. Standing in silence as he looked into the dark corridor, he mumbled to AFP journalists, “This is where they humiliated us. They humiliated us civilians.”
In another cell, a handwritten message scrawled in black marker on the wall read: “God save us. God help us.”
Despite their unfurling of a giant banner of jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in Raqqa’s central square on October 19, the SDF, sensitive to the Sunni Arab population’s tribal character, have been keen to place the local population at the centre of their plans, incorporating the populace into their local government schemes and policing, observers said.
In the first instance, this will take the form of the Raqqa Civil Council (RCC) established under the SDF’s auspices to provide security, infrastructure and aid to a population devastated by almost five months of bitter warfare.
In the longer term, Raqqa’s fate is likely to be more closely tied to the patchwork quilt of competing fiefdoms that comprise contemporary Syria. Principally, much of Raqqa’s future will probably be determined within the Kurdish-dominated north and by the People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia that directs much of the SDF’s activity.
However, against this will almost certainly stand Damascus, which will be unwilling to cede the key city on the Euphrates to Kurdish control. Many hope that, unable to rule it single-handedly, the Kurds will transfer power or share it with the regime, as they did with Manbij in 2016.
Whether that opposition could morph into conflict or remain a bargaining chip in negotiations over potential Kurdish autonomy remains a matter for speculation.
“Whoever leads us, Kurd or Arab, we want them to provide us with services,” a man from Raqqa, speaking outside the RCC headquarters in Ain Issa, north of the city, told Reuters. “Safety and security is the most important thing,” said the man, a government employee before the war, who cited lingering fear of the Syrian state as his reason for wanting to remain anonymous.
Raqqa was among the last Syrian cities to fall to Syria’s rival jihadist groups. As late as June 2012, Syrian President Bashar Assad prayed at one of its mosques before its capture by Jabhat al-Nusra, on the anniversary of Baghdad’s collapse to the United States in 2003.