Most of Islamic State Leaders and personnel responsible for administrating the caliphate and plotting attacks have evacuated the city of Raqqah. They have moved to a Syrian town on the Euphrates River, east of Raqqa called Mayadin, as per coalition officials privy to intelligence reports.
The fighters, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, who are backed by the United States have surrounded the northern city of Raqqa, in a bid to round up 2500 or according to some reports about 5000 battle hardened Islamic State militants defending the capital of self-proclaimed caliphate. Syrian Democratic Forces are made up of Syrian Kurds and Arabs and they have received crucial support from the American led coalition fighting the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. As Iraqi forces are mopping up the last pockets of Islamic State resistance in the Iraqi city of Mosul, the battle of Raqqa gives the American led coalition and the Trump administration – an opportunity to deliver a blow to the Islamic State by conquering its most visible territorial claim to a caliphate. The United Sates is providing much of the firepower in support of the Arab and Kurdish forces, using artillery, Himars satellite-guided rockets, Apache attack helicopters, armed drones and warplanes.
However, freeing Raqqa from ISIS faces pertinent challenges that are to be addressed immediately after the battle. Anti ISIS coalition needs to pay attention to these challenges if they truly want to benefit gains from the campaign and not be over shadowed from the new wave of tension.
The Syrian Democratic Forces, despite the fact have Arab fighters, remains dominated by fighters affiliated with Kurdish YPG. It is supported by the US led air campaign in the area and an Ethnic tension seems to remain a likely problem. A clear message from the US, that areas freed from ISIS at the hands of SDF would be given under control of Arabs and not Kurds, somehow is an attempt to reduce the potential ethnic tension. However, the level of cooperation between the local residents and SDF remains unclear if and when they get liberated from ISIS. According to a report published by the Atlantic Council in May, indicate that SDF is using a local governance approach in Raqqa that is similar to the one it used when it liberated Manbij last year. This approach encompasses involving Arabs in self-determination council but without giving them real authority that could give rise to Kurdish-Arab tension in the near future. Ethnic tension would not be the only concern. Tribal Tension is imminent challenge as well. According to Lina Khatib, The US along with Jordan, the UAE and other external forces have mobilized tribes to act as local partners in the campaign against ISIS. Those international actors have created a ‘clan army’ that is taking part in the fight in Southern Syria as well as in the east. However, relying on clans to hold areas post-ISIS is not a model that can be applied uniformly. There is a difference between rural and urban dynamics in this regard as well as one between different regions: Clans play a more prominent social in Deir Ezzor and rural Raqqa than they do in the urban Raqqa, and therefore those two areas are likely to see more successful implementation of a ‘clan council’ than in Raqqa city.
There is another angle to tribal allegiances. Tribes tend to ally themselves simply with whoever offers them protection; some tribes in eastern Syria have gone back to supporting the regime. This is the case of the Sheitat tribe that was almost obliterated by ISIS in 2015 and whose members subsequently joined the Syrian army in a bid for protection. Therefore relying on clans to hold Raqqa after its liberation carries the risk of tribal clashes.
The competition between external powers is another problem. It does not translate well on ground. Since March, around 700 civilians are estimated to have been killed in over 150 anti-ISIS coalition strikes and in ground battles and 160,000 have fled their homes and become internally displaced. The US described the coalition’s strikes as having caused a ‘staggering loss of civilian life’ by United Nations. But the officials from Coalition have strongly rejected the claim of UN, saying that it effectively put the international coalition on equal footing with ISIS. Coalition’s Director of Public Affairs Col. Joe Scrocca accused the media and non-governmental organizations of inadvertently reproducing ISIS propaganda in their reporting on civilian casualties in Syria.
In the Russian-led talks in Astana in May 2017 an agreement on ‘de-escalation’ was reached but its implementation is a major challenge till now. According to agreement, such areas would allow international aid agencies access to deliver food and medical services. However it is reported by Aid agencies of not having such access and the persistence of shortages of food and medical supplies. Additionally, some residents are being evacuated from their areas in what the UN has noted is an increase of ‘evacuation agreements’ – in reality, Russian blessed population transfers that are ‘primarily motivated by the strategic considerations of the warring parties that negotiate them,’ according to the UN’s independent commission of inquiry for Syria.
There is also a battle going on between Russia and the US and their respective allies regarding who is achieving the most results in fighting ISIS. The SDF have so far taken seven districts in the Raqqa governorate from ISIS and have made several public statements about their victories in order to showcase the achievements of the US-led coalition campaign. Russia subsequently announced that it ‘may have killed’ ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in one of its air on 28 May. But there is no evidence that Baghdadi has indeed been killed in this strike, or that he is inside Syria. The last audio statement by Baghdadi was released in November 2016 and his whereabouts are unknown. Even if Baghdadi is killed, this will not lead to the collapse of ISIS, as it is led by a number of figures whose identity remains anonymous, while the group often creates public personas of supposed leaders in order to divert attention away from the actual dynamics through which it operates.
All of this leads to a possible conclusion that the conflict will not end but transformed. Tensions between local actors or international ones mean that Raqqa Campaign is not going to bring stability to Syria. Focusing of Raqqa Campaign is defeat to ISIS, ignoring the primary driver of instability, the Syrian Regime. The confirmation came from a communique on 18 June by the Combined Joint Task Force after the US downed a Syrian fighter jet that was attacking the SDF, in which it said that ‘the Coalition’s mission is to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The Coalition does not seek to fight Syrian regime, Russian, or pro-regime forces’, and concluded by calling ‘on all parties to focus on their efforts on the defeat of ISIS, which is our common enemy and the greatest threat to regional and worldwide peace and security’. It is this inaccurate characterization of the conflict in Syria that will be the biggest cause of on-the-ground tension in the future, according to security expert, Lina Khatib.