US-backed forces in Syria earlier this month launched the final phase to liberate the city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS).
Only few hours after the announcement, the forces entered the city limits and advanced nearly half a mile into ISIS-held territory.
So far, at least five neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city have been liberated.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-led coalition of which the People’s Protection Units (YPG) is the main element, have isolated Raqqa after months of fierce battles with the terrorist group in the countryside of Raqqa.
The final phase of the assault came immediately after the US announced a shipment of weapons and ammunition directly to Syrian Kurdish fighters of the YPG.
But as these US-backed forces continue their final push for Raqqa, several significant issues come to surface that are relevant to the intricacy of the battle and to the post-ISIS period.
In wake of recent changes to US President Donald Trump’s strategy vis-à-vis ISIS, US commanders in the field have been granted greater authority to press the fight without approval from Washington, and a tactical shift to “annihilation” from a war of attrition has thrown ISIS fighters onto “their back foot,” as US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis put it recently.
Thus, the battle to capture Raqqa seems much less complicated than the ongoing battle in the Iraqi city of Mosul. And that’s mainly because the initial plan was to choke ISIS inside Raqqa, while US-backed Iraqi forces chose to leave the western front of Mosul open to allow ISIS fighters to flee toward their territories in Syria.
But despite these positive changes, one shouldn’t overlook the cautious approach the local Syrian fighters have been taking as they inch closer to Raqqa.
Since 2014, Raqqa has been a major stronghold for ISIS militants, who have entrenched there.
ISIS fighters will undoubtedly put up a tough fight in the city for strategic and symbolic reasons. An SDF adviser recently told me that ISIS “will fight until the last fighter because for them, the loss of Raqqa would mean the demise of their caliphate.”
The crumbling of the so-called caliphate doesn’t mean ISIS will surrender Raqqa easily. In fact, the group has reportedly planted a substantial numbers of explosive devices across the region to hinder SDF advances and to allow ISIS to regroup inside Raqqa.
Another factor that has occasionally slowed the liberation process is the use of civilians as human shields – something ISIS has done in battles throughout Syria and Iraq.
According to US intelligence and local reports, they are approximately 200,000 civilians in Raqqa who aren’t allowed to leave. ISIS counts on the fact that civilian losses, whether caused by coalition air strikes or ground attacks by the SDF, will pressure incoming forces to move slower and thus complicate their calculations.
Moreover, ISIS will likely use the civilians as a bargaining chip to guarantee the exit of its fighters once a complete takeover of Raqqa by SDF becomes inevitable.
Syrian government forces too have made some advances against ISIS militants in the western part of Raqqa province, which could result a showdown with the SDF near Raqqa.
Syrian government artillery reportedly hit an SDF position in the area. Regime forces seem determined to return to some of these areas; similar to what happened near Manbij when Russian and Syrian troops positioned near the town, that was liberated by the SDF and the US-led coalition.
But the battle for Raqqa also carries a sociopolitical dimension that is both complex and delicate.
With an Arab-majority population, the Kurdish-led SDF will undeniably face a governance challenge in the post-ISIS Raqqa.
And although the force that will be entering the city is largely made up of ethnic Arabs, many believe that having a Kurdish force take the lead in the city would only bring further tensions between local Arabs and Kurdish forces.
The SDF has founded a civilian council that will be in charge of local affairs in Raqqa when the city has been freed from ISIS. The new council already has been providing assistance to internally displaced people in Raqqa’s countryside, in an attempt to market itself as the future civilian ruler of the city. While these moves may be important, they don’t suffice for the numerous governance challenges that will come in the post- ISIS era.
Raqqa is a largely tribal region where traditional tribes have historically played a significant role.
Even during the rule of Syrian President Bashar Assad, certain powers were delegated to tribal leaders that allowed them to keep civil peace and prevent any sort of rebellion against the Damascus regime.
Therefore, it is imperative for the Kurdish forces to recognize a visible status for Raqqa’s tribes, not only in the ongoing military campaign but in the following phase as well. Having influential tribes on the Kurdish forces’ side will only help to make a smooth transition in a city that has experienced ISIS atrocities for more than three years.
For the Kurds, liberating Raqqa from ISIS isn’t only the right thing to do; it’s also important as Raqqa represents a strategic depth for the Kurdish-held region in northern Syria. A stable and effectively- ruled Raqqa would positively reflect on Kurdish autonomy in the war-torn country.
The writer is a Washington-based journalist and author.