After months of waiting, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) coalition has commenced its operation to assault Raqqa – the capital of the Islamic State.
Multiple SDF commanders spoke in their various native languages to announce the imminent commencement of a full-on assault on Raqqa, likely involving tens of thousands of troops. The SDF is a coalition made up of Kurdish, Arab, and Christian Syriac (Assyrian) militias located in northern Syria, and is unofficially spearheaded by the YPG, or the Kurdish People’s Protection Units. Reports vary as to the total size of the SDF coalition, but numbers are frequently cited in the region of 50 to 80 thousand fighters. The SDF have not announced exactly how many will be deployed in the coming operation.
The SDF coalesced out of the Kurdish YPG and various other ethnic militias originating in northern Syria. It has since swelled heavily in size as other rebel groups and militias formerly against the government have joined its ranks, but it is not hostile to the Syrian Government – instead it fights for a unified and democratic Syria, which makes it starkly different to the other participants in the conflict.
As seen in this publicity video made late last year, the SDF does not promote itself alongside sectarian or religious lines. It differs too from the FSA, or the Free Syrian Army – the rebel coalition that initially formed against the government in the early days of the civil war. The West, including the United States and Britain, supported the FSA militarily for years against the Syrian Government, but the FSA has since collaborated with the Nusra Front as well as the Islamic State. The United States has largely withdrawn support for this faction and shifted towards the SDF and the YPG, but the FSA continues fighting in some parts of the country.
The operation to retake Raqqa will likely be one of the most bloody that the Syrian War has seen yet. The Islamic State is notorious for booby trapping cities vulnerable to assault or those that it evacuates with booby traps and mines, and has done so in Iraq as well as in Syria. Furthermore, as the capital of the terrorist state, Raqqa boasts a level of defenses that are far above any areas that the SDF have taken so far, and they have had more than enough time to prepare – IS has been bracing for an assault on the capital since 2015.
One thing that may prove just as problematic as the military operation itself is the ethnic geopolitics behind the SDF. The SDF, the largest component of which is the Kurdish YPG, is about to attempt to liberate a wholly Arab area. This is capable of generating discord not only when the Kurds move in to the city and its environs, but also back at home. The politics surrounding the deployment of Kurdish forces, which were originally mobilized for the purposes of self-defense, outside of their home territory has been problematic in the past. The KRG (Iraqi Kurdistan) for a long time refused to entertain the idea of using KRG forces, such as the now famous Peshmerga, to retake Mosul despite it being right on their doorstep. Mosul is the unofficial capital of IS in Iraq – but is an Arab city, and the idea of Kurdish blood being spilled in order to retake a city that would not accept KRG governance is something that many in Kurdistan were hostile to. Signs of change in the KRG policy only began to emerge in this very month, when Iraqi Kurdistan announced it would be willing to launch an assault to retake Mosul, but only if three politically taxing conditions were met by the central Iraqi government.
It is unknown what concessions might have been were requested (or granted) to Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava) by the Syrian government, but the speed and suddenness of the operation suggests that a backdoor deal may already have been made. Rojava, which only came into existence around 2013, was not around before the Syrian Civil War, and with the Islamic State and other Islamist militias on the way towards extinction, it would make sense for Rojava to try to secure official recognition from Syria in exchange for the deployment of troops to crush IS. Whether or not such a deal has been made, and if so, whether the government will uphold it, is something that remains to be seen.
One other thing of critical importance is how the people of Raqqa will respond to the assault by the SDF. Organizations like Raqqa is being slaughtered silently, a civilian journalism initiative to show the world the brutality and horror of a lived existence under the Islamic State regime, have shown to the world the depravity of the regime. But the Islamic State does not govern in a vacuum of power. They rule over a populace that accepts, to varying extents, their governance, and consents to their rule. A 2015 survey reprinted in the Washington Times confirmed the extent of this, in which a staggering one in five Syrians stated that they though the rise of the Islamic State was a good thing. One can only imagine that the figures would be significantly higher if the survey was carried out in the Islamic State itself.
The fact is that the Islamic State engages in mass brainwashing of the citizens under its control, using warped education curriculums among other methods to inculcate into its citizens its radical Islamist ideology. The fact that this goes on is undisputable – Raqqa is being slaughtered silently themselves have written on the indoctrination of children, as have many other Western outlets. Many didn’t even need brainwashing in the first place – consider the fact that tens of thousands of foreign volunteers willingly left their homes to join the Islamic State, knowing well what that would entail. Moreover, the fact that the Islamic State was able to rise in the first place and achieve so much success with so many joining its ranks is a sign of precisely that. Islamic State is popular. It does have the support of the majority of the populace it rules over – or at least it did at one point in time.
There is, then, a larger issue even than that of the casualties to be occurred by the assault on Raqqa or the subsequent ethnic tensions which will undoubtedly rise in its wake. There is the issue of how on earth the Syrian government, the SDF, or anyone else is supposed to reintegrate into society hundreds of thousands of people who have for years been supporters of the very worst and depraved brand of Islamic fundamentalism. When one considers how the democracy and freedom espoused by the SDF is in polar opposition to the Islamism of ISIS, the problem becomes more difficult still. To this, there may be no easy answer.
Will TG Miller