Abstract: The operation to dislodge the Islamic State from the northern Syrian city of Raqqa comes at a time of considerable change in the country’s conflict. As the Syrian government and allied forces make steady gains throughout the country, regional and international backers of the opposition have shifted focus away from the original goals of removing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and toward dealing with the dangers emanating from militias, which they perceive as a greater threat to their national security. The Syrian rebels are locked in northwestern and southwestern Syria, while al-Qa`ida’s offshoot is increasingly tightening its grip on Idlib, the main rebel stronghold. In this context, the areas that once constituted the caliphate of the Islamic State are emerging as a critical battlefield for various forces vying for expanded influence. Raqqa and the Kurdish-dominated forces fighting in the city are now the epicenter of a new chapter for the Syrian conflict.
In November 2011, Bashar al-Assad made a rare visit to Raqqa, the first for a Syrian president since 1947 when Shukri al-Quwatli visited it as part of a country tour. Before he became president in 1953, Adib al-Shishakli had traveled to Raqqa in 1945 to visit the Afadlah clan, whose current members are known to have joined the Islamic State in large numbers, in recognition of the tribe’s role in defying the French occupation of Syria. However, since the advent of the Assad government in 1971, Raqqa—much like the two other provinces that make up the eastern region, namely Hasakah and Deir ez-Zor—has been marginalized, despite its rich history.a
The choice of Assad’s visit presumably reflected the government’s belief that Raqqa,b despite its marginalization, was a city that was to a significant degree loyal to the regime. Even though protests took place in the city in 2011 and 2012, opposition activists attributed the quiet in Raqqa to three reasons at the time: the city had a large number of intelligence informants; tribal leaders were too invested in the regime to allow a rebellion against it; and the protest movement there was relatively weak. At the end of December 2012, local tribes also organized a major tribal conference in support of the regime under the slogan, “We will continue to confront the conspiracy against Syria, condemn terrorist acts that target innocent Syrian lives, and reject economic sanctions.”1 Three months after what some regarded as a mass oath of allegiance to Assad, Raqqa fell to a consortium of rebel groups led by Ahrar al-Sham and then al-Qa`ida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra at dawn on March 4, 2013.2
The fall was abrupt, with government defenses collapsing within three days.3 The fighters who took over Raqqa were primarily outsiders,4 hailing mostly from the eastern countryside of Aleppo. Although civil society flourished for a few months after the “liberation” of Raqqa—the first provincial capital to be controlled by the anti-government forces—jihadis then began to dominate the scene inside the city and throughout its countryside. As with Aleppo, Raqqa was the unusual case of a population center captured from the outside, rather than an organic anti-regime pushback by the town’s residents. This created a degree of distance between the armed groups and the population, which kept the new rulers’ hold on the city relatively weak.
When it came to developing ties to the local population, Jabhat al-Nusra was an exception to the weak social links. The group had recruited dozens of hardliners from Raqqa and its countryside, utilizing tribal and Islamist networks to co-opt individuals and their relatives.5 One example was the Iraqi-born Toubad al-Berayj, a member of the prominent al-Berayj clan, which is part of the Afadlah tribe.6 Toubad’s father lived in exile in Iraq7 during the 1980s because of alleged links to the Iraqi branch of the Ba’ath Party. Jabhat al-Nusra exploited its contacts in Iraq to connect with Toubad and recruit him.8 c
The exploitation of links to Iraqi families was a familiar recruitment tactic by Jabhat al-Nusra. Its founders were members of the Islamic State of Iraq before they were dispatched to Syria to establish a Syrian branch by reaching out to local tribes after the armed insurrection began there. Around 35 of the most notable early members of Jabhat al-Nusra came from rural Raqqa,9 and they recruited dozens of their relatives into the organization. After hostilities erupted between Jabhat al-Nusra and its former patron, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—who in April 2013 unilaterally announced a merger between the Iraqi and Syrian groups—most of these members joined the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. In November 2013, exactly two years after Assad’s historic visit, representatives of 14 Raqqa tribes appeared in a video pledging allegiance to al-Baghdadi—including the same tribes that made the same oath to Assad a year earlier. And in January 2014, Raqqa became the first city in either Syria or Iraq under the sole control of the Islamic State. The city had again fallen abruptly, after a brief period of fighting between the Islamic State on the one side and Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra on the other.
The story of Raqqa has thus been one of unpredictable developments. The calm in the city throughout 2011 and 2012, in contrast to the other provinces of eastern Syria, hid the Raqqawis’ profound sense of social, political, economic, and educational marginalization. The fall of Raqqa in March 2013 was also unexpected and revealed the regime’s frail grip on a city perceived by both sides of the conflict to be loyalist. Raqqa was known at the time for its social conservatism but not its religiosity. That the city would become the nominal capital of the Islamic State’s caliphate in 2014 was almost inconceivable for those in Syria familiar with society in the city and its countryside.
Raqqa was also where some of the faultlines of the Syrian conflict created deep reverberations, more so than they did in places like Aleppo. Preparations for the battle to expel the Islamic State, for example, brought the United States and Turkey—the latter being NATO’s second-largest army—on a collision course over the Kurdish YPG’s lead role in the U.S.-led coalition efforts. The Kurdish YPG, the People’s Protection Units, is a group that Ankara considers a branch of the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Whereas Damascus and its allies in Tehran and Moscow had kept their distance from the U.S.-led coalition previously, they jostled for a role in the Raqqa operation. Jordan had also grown concerned that the defeat of the Islamic State in eastern Syria and Anbar would see the militants try to regroup in the Syrian Desert and the Qalamoun region in southern Syria, adjacent to the Jordanian border.10
This article explores the political, social, and military circumstances surrounding Operation Euphrates Wrath—the battle to dislodge the Islamic State from its most significant stronghold in Syria. Based on extensive conversations with individuals from Raqqa and with figures representing the various parties of the conflict in Syria, there seems to be a consensus that while liberating Raqqa will be hard, the harder challenge still will be providing security and stability after the expulsion of the Islamic State. Sustainable success will also be contingent on whether social and political tensions are adequately addressed. The article first examines the composition of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and its evolving relations with Sunni Arab rebel groups in Syria, before assessing the challenges it will face in retaking and securing the city.
Until recently, the U.S.-led coalition has pursued an Iraq-first strategy to defeat the Islamic State.11 Tribal, Kurdish, and professional forces in Iraq were trained and equipped to expel the group from the third of Iraq it captured in the summer of 2014. In Syria, an expensive effort to train a contingent from within the opposition factions to oppose the Islamic State failed.12 The United States came to rely heavily on an effective but inadequate Kurdish militia, the YPG, until October 2015 when the Kurds announced the establishment of the SDF,13 partly to satisfy a U.S. desire not to alienate Turkey, which views the YPG as a terrorist group.
A multi-ethnic 50,000-strong coalition,14 the SDF includes around 30,000 Arab fighters organized under the Syrian Arab Coalition, forming around 60 percent of the SDF.15 Besides organized factions and individuals, the SDF recruits military-age people from the region. While Arab recruits constitute a large percentage of the force, the YPG remains the backbone of the SDF. The alliance relies on the leadership and fighting capabilities of the YPG fighters, especially battle-hardened PKK veterans who were based in the Qandil Mountains in Iraq before the Syrian uprising.16 The SDF has been seen by some as a vehicle for the YPG, and the PKK, to expand its influence in predominantly Arab areas.17 The Syrian opposition have also accused the YPG, and by extension the SDF, of collaborating with the regime and serving as a fifth column, facilitating the return of the regime to areas liberated from the Islamic State.18
Although the Syrian rebels assert that American reliance on the YPG since 2014 was a deliberate choice, the arrangement was arrived at in an ad hoc way. The battle in Kobani triggered a tactical alliance that later expanded into a strategic one in the fight against the Islamic State. John Allen, who served as the special presidential envoy for the U.S.-led coalition until October 2015, said the alliance was accidental.19 During the battle of Kobani, the persistence of Kurdish volunteers fighting with some Arab rebel factions against the Islamic State, which was then at its peak, impressed U.S. policymakers and led the United States to establish a working relationship with the YPG. The Kurdish force helped liberate all of Hasakah in the spring of 2016,20 making it the first Syrian province to have been almost fully controlled by the YPG-aligned forces, apart from a small regime presence.
The failure of the U.S. program to train and equip the Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State coincided with the growing influence of the YPG beyond Kurdish areas. This put the United States in a difficult position as Turkey began to see the expansion of the Kurdish militia as a threat to its national security. Turkey also feared that weapons given to the YPG could be used against it by the PKK.21 The reluctance of the Obama administration to ally itself with the Syrian Sunni Arab rebels, combined with the skills the YPG developed in combating the Islamic State, enabled the YPG and allied forces to become an indispensable force in the fight, even beyond Kurdish areas.
By the spring of 2015, the United States seemingly gave up on its effort to persuade moderate rebel groups to focus exclusively on the Islamic State instead of fighting the Assad regime and the extremist group at the same time.22 After the disbanding of two of the most capable moderate forces in northern Syria, namely the Syrian Revolutionary Front and the Hazm Movement,23 after the groups endured deadly clashes with Jabhat al-Nusra, the YPG emerged as the only viable force that the Obama administration was willing to support in the effort to end the caliphate in Syria. The problem was the U.S. reliance on the YPG, and later the broader SDF coalition, became more divisive, especially as the Kurdish-dominated force began to operate in Arab or Arab-majority areas in Raqqa and Aleppo.
The core of the Syrian Arab Coalition within the SDF includes two main local militias. The first one is the Sanadid Forces, which joined the SDF in October 2015. The group, previously known as the Army of Dignity, is led by Hemaydi Deham al-Jarba, the tribal sheikh of the Shammar tribal confederation, one of the largest tribes in Syria. The group had forged an alliance with the YPG in 201324 when the two controlled areas along the Syria-Iraq border before they were expelled by the Islamic State a year later. Al-Jarba has emphasized that his group was not party to the original Syrian conflict and instead acts as a local self-defense force. He famously said “whoever rules Damascus rules Syria.”25
Al-Jarba’s tribe historically struck alliances with the Kurds in feuds involving rival tribes or powers in the region.26 Along with kinship, such ancient alliances are often effective tools in tribal areas to open communication channels among different groups or settle disputes. In 2003, al-Jarba left Syria for Iraq, where he stayed in Erbil. In an interview with BBC Arabic, he said he then spent two years mediating between Kurds and Arab tribes in Iraq before he relocated to Doha and then back to Syria in 2009.27 The Sanadid Forces is a small group in the SDF, which has, by its own likely inflated account, 4,500 fighters,28 and therefore al-Jarba’s role is more relevant as a mediator between Arabs and Kurds. However, the size of the broader Shammar tribe could also bolster post-Islamic State stabilization efforts, if it is mobilized to do so.
The other main group in the Arab Coalition within the SDF is Jabhat Thuwwar al-Raqqa (Raqqa Revolutionary Front), a rebel faction whose force dwindled over the years from around 4,500 fighters in 2013-2014 to around 1,25029 presently due to depletion and the lack of strong foreign support. Jabhat Thuwwar al-Raqqa, led by Abu Issa from Raqqa, emerged out of the mainstream anti-Assad rebellion, unlike the Sanadid, which did not participate in the initial uprising and remained largely a local armed group. In 2014, Jabhat Thuwwar al-Raqqa participated in the battle of Kobani against the Islamic State alongside the YPG and Kurdish volunteers from Iran, Iraq, and Turkey, even though the group had previously clashed with the YPG in Ras al-Ain.
In addition to these two main constituent groups, another group that operates under the Syrian Arab Coalition is the Elite Forces, a small group led by Ahmed al-Jarba, who is of the same Shammar tribe as Hemaydi al-Jarba but not a close relative. Ahmed al-Jarba is the former chief of the opposition’s Syrian National Coalition, which helped cut the last supply route into Raqqa from Deir ez-Zor on March 6.30 Additionally, the SDF also includes remnants of disbanded groups such as the Syrian Revolutionary Front and the Deir ez-Zor Military Council, a former rebel faction that was expelled by the Islamic State in 2014. The former joined the SDF by late 2015 and the latter in November 2016.31
The Growing Legitimacy of the SDF
On top of the lack of a reliable local force to fight the Islamic State, differences between Turkey and the United States slowed down the Raqqa operation.32 The territorial expansion of the YPG after 2014 increased tension between the United States and Turkey. In August 2016, as the YPG liberated much of northern Syria and edged closer to Raqqa and eastern Aleppo, Ankara intervened in Syria in a bid to prevent the Kurds from linking Kurdish cantons in northeastern and northwestern Syria. Turkey also pushed for an alternative force to the YPG to dislodge the Islamic State from Raqqa. An initial plan Turkey proposed in October 2016 envisaged the deployment of a total of 12,000 troops, including 4,000-5,000 Turkish Special Forces and at least 8,000 Arab fighters,33 approaching Raqqa either from Manbij or Tal Abyad,34 towns that had been liberated by the YPG and allied forces.35 The American assessment for the number of troops needed for the battle of Raqqa changed earlier this year, to a total of 22,000 troops.36 Turkey claimed it could organize a Syrian fighting force of this size, but the United States was not convinced Ankara could deliver.37
Turkey increasingly found its attempts to curtail the Kurdish expansion into Raqqa38 challenged by multiple sides. Turkey’s plan for rebel groups friendly to Ankara to march from the Islamic State-‘free zone’ they created was undercut by regime advances in northeastern Aleppo39 and coincided with an agreement between the SDF and Damascus to create a buffer40 between the Kurdish-aligned forces and the Turkish-backed rebels. Furthermore, after an initial effort to find common ground with Turkey, the Trump administration began to put pressure on Ankara to support the SDF. But these efforts were to no avail.41 On April 25, 2017, Turkish strikes targeted the YPG inside Syria.42 News then emerged that the United States had deployed American troops accompanied by Kurdish forces to patrol the Syria-Turkey border43 in a show of support for its Kurdish allies.44
The YPG has also faced resistance for its actions in Syria. The expansion of the YPG, including its announcement of a “federal system”45 in northern Syria in December 2016, has been perceived with varying degrees of suspicion by the Syrian opposition and local communities. Syrian armed rebel groups have been particularly outspoken against the YPG, largely due to the perception that the Kurdish militia was in cahoots with the Syrian regime and Russia. Tensions had previously spiked in early 2016, when rebels in Aleppo were concurrently under attack from government and Kurdish forces.46
Hostilities between the rebels and the YPG translated into widespread suspicion toward the YPG. These tensions increased after Turkey-backed rebels in August 2016 launched a campaign to expel the Islamic State from Aleppo’s eastern countryside, which it successfully did in approximately 5,000 square kilometers.
Many in the Syrian opposition perceived the SDF as a vehicle for the YPG and the regime. But attitudes appeared to shift just before the Raqqa operation began on June 6, 2017, for a number of reasons. One reason was the frustration felt toward Turkey, especially after the expulsion of the rebels from Aleppo in December 2016, which many saw as a result of Turkey’s “abandonment” of the rebels there, and its shift to fighting the Islamic State and the Kurdish groups in Aleppo’s eastern countryside. Such disappointment was reflected in the refusal of prominent rebel leaders to participate in the Turkish Operation Euphrates Shield west of the Euphrates River when approached by authorities in Turkey.47
Additionally, with the increased U.S. military footprint in northern and southern Syria, those within Syrian rebel groups previously opposed to joining the SDF started to see the SDF as “an American project”48 rather than a PKK project. This made rebel groups more agreeable to reaching understandings with the SDF, especially after the Turkish role in northern Syria seemed to have reached a dead end.49 For example, the SDF has negotiated with moderate rebel groups to relocate some rebel forces to eastern Syria to join the fight there as part of the SDF in the coming months, according to individuals involved in the ongoing talks.50 Some of these groups, which the SDF envisage deploying in eastern Syria if the talks succeed, during or after the Raqqa operation, include fighters previously vetted by the United States who were driven out of their areas by al-Qa`ida-aligned jihadis and the Islamic State. Former fighters of the Syrian Revolutionary Front, which disbanded51 in northwestern Syria in 2014, had already joined the SDF by late 2015.
The additional entry of rebel groups might boost the popular legitimacy of the Kurdish-led SDF coalition. The negotiations come amid a nascent trend in which rebel forces, including Ankara-aligned Ahrar al-Sham but excluding al-Qa`ida-aligned Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, are increasingly willing to turn their attention against extremist forces rather than strictly engaging in the anti-regime fight. The rebels’ discomfort with the focus on extremists rather than the Syrian regime had been a major factor for the collapse of the American train-and-equip program, but attitudes are changing.d One benefit the rebel groups see in taking the fight to the Islamic State is that areas liberated from the group by U.S.-aligned forces become difficult for the Syrian government to bomb because of U.S. involvement.52
The cautious but growing acceptance of the SDF by Sunni Arab rebel groups reflects a subtle change in how it is perceived. And as outlined, the warming toward the SDF goes beyond its central areas of operation in Hasakah and Raqqa.53 Cooperation between the SDF and rebel groups could bolster the security of Raqqa after it is eventually liberated from the Islamic State by denying the terrorist group safe havens in adjacent areas. In Deir ez-Zor, for example, the leaders of the two most powerful rebel groups expressed no reservation in operating alongside the Kurds as long as it was under sustained American leadership.54 The two groups, namely Maghawir al-Thawra and Usud al-Sharqiyyah, have been fighting the Islamic State in al-Tanf and the Qalamoun region near Jordan, respectively. In June, an official at the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) echoed the Syrian opposition’s changing sentiments toward the SDF, by suggesting that the SDF is “less Kurdish than before.”55
The Race to Raqqa
The fight against the Islamic State in Manbij in the spring and summer of 2016 was the second-deadliest battle for the YPG after Kobani, and Raqqa is set to be even deadlier. A common question about the Kurdish involvement in predominantly Arab Raqqa is what the Kurdish group might gain from the battle.56
Three main motivations can be identified. The first is a kind of race-to-Berlin dynamic. For the Kurds, involvement in liberating Raqqa forestalls the possibility Turkey might liberate the city and implant hostile forces in a strategic area for the YPG. Such a situation, from the point of view of the YPG, would create a nightmare scenario of encirclement by Turkey in the north and the Islamic State in the south.57 Participation in a successful liberation of Raqqa, on the other hand, would constrain Turkish influence to eastern Aleppo.
The second Kurdish motivation in participating in the battle of Raqqa is that securing the city would pre-empt any move by the regime to recapture Raqqa. Even though the regime has struck deals with the YPG and tolerated Kurdish self-administration, the return of regime control in northeastern Syria is seen by the YPG as a threat. Here, their current perception of American intentions in Syria is important. The relatively assertive current U.S. policy provides the Kurds with the incentive to expand their influence in eastern Syria, while they see the return of the regime as both threatening and limiting to their ambitions.58 In May 2017, leaks from Kurdish leaders in Hasakah indicated that the YPG anticipates a confrontation with elements loyal to the regime and Iran in northern Syria.59 The Kurds are determined to maintain control of the three dams on the Euphrates River60 near Raqqa and Manbij,e in addition to a fourth dam on the April 17 Lake,f and thus control vital sectors such as electricity, constraining the influence of the regime in the region.
Finally, senior Kurdish leaders know the liberation of Raqqa will be the most notable achievement in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria and will serve as a hammer blow to its caliphate pretensions, thereby strengthening the YPG’s relationship with the United States. The Syrian Kurds see the United States as not only key to constraining maneuvers by the Turkish and Syrian governments, but to gaining local and international legitimacy for their ambition to control what they see as Kurdish ‘historical lands’ in eastern and northern Syria and asserting their ethnic, cultural, and political identity.61
Raqqa vs. Mosul
Operation Euphrates Wrath, spearheaded by the YPG-dominated SDF, has been conducted in five operational phases, the first of which was announced on November 5, 2016, three weeks after the offensive on the city itself of Mosul. The initial phases involved ‘shaping operations,’ which took seven months, and focused on isolating the city of Raqqa and clearing rural areas to the north, east, and west of the city. The fifth and final phase—to storm the city—began on June 6, 2017.62 SDF forces have since entered the city and expelled the Islamic State from several neighborhoods in the northern, eastern, and western sides of the city.
Before the SDF entered the outskirts of Raqqa city on June 7, the Islamic State seemingly pursued a slightly different strategy to the one in Mosul. When the Iraqi forces mobilized in Nineveh, the group’s tactics had focused on deploying a barrage of suicide bombers to delay the advancing forces.63 In Raqqa, the group deployed far fewer suicide bombers as the SDF advanced on the city.g A rebel commander, speaking from within a mile from the city of Raqqa, said the group showed no resistance in those areas.64 As SDF forces advanced on Raqqa, the Islamic State also withdrew abruptly from Tabqa, west of Raqqa, after it agreed to terms of surrender to the SDF.65 h
These moves by the Islamic State were in stark contrast to the way it fought in Mosul and can be attributed to several factors.i Unlike in Mosul, where most Islamic State fighters were local Iraqis, many of whom were die-hard and longstanding members of the group, the Islamic State had fewer local fighters with deep-rooted loyalty in Raqqa. Tribal figures from Raqqa say66 that the majority of those who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in its de facto Syrian capital did so out of fear and opportunism, rather than ideological commitment. As evidence for this, Abdullatif al-Jasim,67 a tribal figure and a rebel spokesmen who currently lives in Urfa, Turkey, pointed out the little resistance to SDF advances in former strongholds of the Islamic State, such as al-Karama,68 a town east of Raqqa where dozens of individuals from certain clans, like the aforementioned Berayj tribe, had joined the group.j
Given the fact that local fighters are proving less than committed to the caliphate, the Islamic State will likely have to rely on the city’s still likely large population of foreign fighters as well as a new generation of young fighters brainwashed by the group’s ideology who typically fight viciously to the end. Officials and activists stated that senior leaders and administrative staff of the Islamic State evacuated69 the city several months before the battle began, eastward along the Euphrates in the areas in and around Mayedin.70 (See map). However, other reports71 indicate that the Islamic State dispatched fighters from Homs, Deir ez-Zor, and Iraq before the three-pronged encirclement of Raqqa in April. The group is thought to have about 4,000 fighters currently present in the city of Raqqa, though the real figure judging by their defensive efforts so far is likely lower.72
It is unclear how long it will take to liberate Raqqa, a city around one-tenth the size of Mosul, both in terms of population and geographic size. These factors may make the Raqqa operation faster than the nearly nine-month offensive on Mosul. Nevertheless, American officials expect the battle in Raqqa to be long and deadly. The Islamic State is poised to fight until the end and could pivot to a campaign of guerrilla warfare and terrorism after it is expelled. In an editorial73 published in its al-Naba newsletter two days after the launch of the Raqqa operation, the Islamic State vowed to turn Raqqa into a long “battle of eradication” against the SDF. The editorial summed up the group’s assessment of the Raqqa battle, claiming that the SDF was not ready to fight a Mosul-like operation inside the city, that the SDF fighters are “poorly trained,” and that it would be hard to replenish its force if the battle dragged on as happened in Mosul. The authors compared Raqqa with Manbij, a smaller town with fewer Islamic State fighters, where fighting continued for around two months. A speech by the Islamic State’s official spokesman, Abu al-Hassan al-Muhajir, in June 201774 also suggested the group would stand and fight in Raqqa.
This image, captured from a video entitled “Purifying the Souls” released by the Islamic State’s Wilayat Raqqah Media office on June 19, 2017, allegedly shows an Islamic State fighter during a battle in Raqqa province, Syria.
Senior U.S. officials involved in the Raqqa battle say75 that the group might rely on tunnel systems dug below houses to prolong the fight to a greater extent than it did in Mosul, especially because Raqqa generally has low-rise buildings. High-rise buildings and densely populated areas make it easier for snipers, on whom the Islamic State relies heavily during its urban battles, to slow down advancing forces.76 Raqqa, much like Fallujah, is more exposed than cities like Mosul, hence the need for tunnels.
As elsewhere, the Islamic State is set to utilize tunnels in Raqqa to ambush ground forces, resupply, and hide. In Mosul, dozens of Iraqi soldiers were killed after they were ambushed in this manner in the al-Salam hospital as the army advanced deep in the city.77 Such attacks, if they happen, will likely have greater effect on the militia groups fighting to liberate Raqqa, unlike in Mosul where forces are better trained and more professional. In previous engagements, the SDF has had a tendency to be stretched thin78 and will likely face fierce resistance as they edge closer to the city center.
The pace of the campaign in Raqqa might also be affected by streamlined decisionmaking processesk for U.S.-led coalition airstrikes in crowded areas where there is a risk of civilian casualties.79 A week into the offensive to take back the city, U.N. war crimes investigators reported “staggering” civilian toll caused by airstrikes.80 More than 600 civilians were killed in coalition attacks between March and May 2017 in Raqqa, according to estimates by the United Kingdom-based Airwars, while the U.N. documented at least 300 civilian deaths in the city.81
As has been well documented, the Islamic State used human shields to slow down Iraqi advances in Mosul. It will also likely do the same to slow down the SDF in Raqqa,82 which is home to an estimated 300,000 civilians.83
An uprising from within did not materialize to any significant degree in Mosul, and it is extremely unlikely to occur in Raqqa, partly because the population did not have an organized resistance before the Islamic State took over. Since 2013, the city changed hands with little fighting and with no popular involvement. Additionally, there has been no precedent of a popular uprising from within the Islamic State areas in Iraq or Syria. One explanation why has been the group’s extreme brutality in reaction to any dissension.
The Islamic State in Raqqa is set to rely on small combat units for mobility and to minimize damage on its remaining forces. As the SDF moves into Raqqa, past defensive campaigns by the Islamic State suggest it is also set to rely heavily on snipers and suicide bombers to inflict damage on and slow down advancing forces. Its tactics in urban areas have also included counter-attacks and night ambushes. The group has also utilized weaponized drones to monitor and attack enemy troops, for example in Mosul.84 Locally manufactured weapons have also enabled the group to sustain itself inside besieged strongholds.85
Overall, however, most of these tactics might be undermined by the small size and sparse layout of Raqqa, compared to the larger and more densely inhabited Mosul. Conversely, the lack of professional counterterrorism forces like the Iraqi counterterrorism service deployed in the battle might enable the group to prolong the fighting in Raqqa for several weeks or even months.
There is a consensus view in interviews the author has conducted with individuals in or from the Raqqa area that while liberating Raqqa will be hard, the harder challenge still will be providing security and stability after the expulsion of the Islamic State. Sustainable success will be contingent on whether social and political tensions are adequately addressed. An understanding of tribal dynamics and the urban-rural divide will be key to preventing a jihadi comeback in the region.
The Tribal Factor and the Urban-Rural Divide
Syrian tribes have their highest concentrations in four provinces—Deraa, Deir ez-Zor, Hasaka, and Raqqa—where they constitute around 90 percent of the population in each.86 Overall, tribes account for 30 percent of the country’s population but inhabit more than 60 percent of its territory.87 Rural areas in Hama, Aleppo, Idlib, and Damascus also have a heavy tribal presence.
The Islamic State sought to entrench itself in all of these tribal areas with some success. Raqqa, and the eastern countryside of Aleppo province to a lesser degree, was its clearest success. After its takeover of territory in these two areas in 2014, the Islamic State was able to control the population with little to no resistance. In the case of Raqqa, one key reason was arguably the fact that mainstream rebels had not entrenched themselves in the city by the time the Islamic State overran them there, so a local resistance was not yet fully formed, unlike in areas such as Idlib, Aleppo city, and Deir ez-Zor where a full-fledged resistance had formed.
Given the lack of a solid support base for its rivals, the Islamic State was able to dedicate more time to building alliances with the local communities in Raqqa rather than having to pacify a rebellious population, as happened in Deir ez-Zor.88 As will be outlined below, the Islamic State’s focus on tribal outreach in the city and rural areas should be understood in context to avoid myths about how tribes work and how jihadis operate in tribal areas.
Unlike other state and non-state actors in Iraq or Syria, the Islamic State has an organizational branch dedicated to tribal outreach, underscoring the importance the group attaches to the task. According to accounts by locals who met him, the Islamic State “minister” in charge of these efforts is a Saudi national identified as Dhaigham Abu Abdullah.89 He has overseen the group’s “Public Relations bureau”l and has received tribal delegates to address grievances. The bureau purportedly has dispatched delegates to various tribes and has often handled old disputes among tribes that remain unresolved or were resolved according to tribal codes the group views as un-Islamic. Some of these disputes were several decades old and often involved the deportation of entire families because a relative killed a member of another tribe or committed adultery.90 m
In the early phases of its expansion, the Islamic State followed a divide-and-rule approach to control tribal areas and subjugate them to their laws by aligning itself with and cultivating particular members from each tribe, typically young leaders. In an era of increased restiveness, young tribal figures tended to have more credibility and initiative than tribal elders who once worked with the regime. The Islamic State cultivated such members from various tribes.91
As Raqqa and other Islamic State strongholds come under attack by militias from outside areas, it is important to point out a common misconception in commentary about tribes, which is to suggest that entire tribes join jihadi groups or that a tribal leader who joins such groups commands the loyalty of his entire tribe. This is seldom the case, and one would be hard-pressed to find a single example of an entire tribe with loyalty to a jihadi organization. The distinction is important to grasp in order to understand the local dynamics as strongholds of the Islamic State, like Raqqa, come under attack by militias from outside areas. Tribes are essentially pragmatic institutions and tend to seek to protect their tribal members from bad outcomes.n
In Raqqa, the Islamic State recruited members from various tribes. Where the group had a large number of a certain tribe, it was often because a member of the tribe was more effective in recruiting more of his relatives than others. As such, no one tribe could be regarded as entirely, or even largely, loyal to the Islamic State.
The Islamic State has often expressed how it hopes to win tribal loyalists. One notable example is its discussion of how useful tribes are in a defining document written by the Islamic State’s predecessor group, the Islamic State in Iraq, in 2010, just as the previous incarnation sought to reconstruct itself after its defeat at the hands of American troops and tribal fighters. The document, titled the “Strategic Plan for the Consolidation of the Political Standing of the Islamic State of Iraq,”92 assessed that most of those who joined the Awakening Councils did so out of solidarity—to stand with their relatives rather than any personal convictions to fight the jihadis. “Tribal solidarity is well known, and does not necessarily indicate a flaw in the policy of the Islamic State,” the document reads. The authors then explained that jihadis should exploit the same virtue, “the tribal principles that regard collaboration with foreign occupiers against their countrymen as criminal and treason.”
Understanding the jihadi-tribal relationship is crucial to building local rapport, establishing credibility for the liberating forces, and avoiding continued jihadi infiltration of these communities. Some locals, for example, fear that a Kurdish expansion into their areas would change the demographics of the population and would see the Kurds even scores for the Syrian Ba’athist regime’s settlement of Arab families in Kurdish areas near the Turkish border after the creation of Lake Assad and the Euphrates dam in the 1970s. Kurds claim that tens of thousands of Kurds were displaced from their home areas by the regime for the resettlement of Arab families, known as the Arab al-Ghamr (the Arabs affected by flooding).
Another source of tension in the liberation of Islamic State-controlled areas in both Iraq and Syria has been how the liberating force determines which residents were members of the Islamic State.o This becomes even more complicated in tribal areas where informing on relatives or neighbors to “out-of-towners” is frowned upon. Many government employees continued to work, either because the Islamic State pressured them or because they saw their work as service to their town. If such people in Raqqa are ill-treated or killed by militias operating under the YPG’s command, it risks inflaming ethnic tensions. The tendency of anti-Islamic State forces on the ground in Syria and Iraq to view residents who continued to live under the Islamic State as fellow travelers or family members of jihadis as complicit could complicate efforts to prevent the Islamic State or other jihadi groups from winning back influence in Raqqa. Tribal pragmatism, embodied in the popular tribal proverb “the wolf shall not die, nor shall the sheep perish,”93 keeps the door open for a working relationship with any force in control of the city, regardless of its ethnic or political orientation. It is not impossible that a Kurdish-dominated force could be accepted if it successfully reassured the population about its long-term intentions.
Tribal alliances are not static, as demonstrated by the swift shift of Raqqa tribes from ostensible allegiance to Assad in 2011 to Jabhat al-Nusra in 2013 to the Islamic State in 2014. “We tribes do not go after anyone who does not go after us,” Abu Nasser, an elder of the Abu Shaaban tribe in Raqqa told the author last month, “If the devil itself liberates our areas from the Islamic State, we do not have a problem. Just give us our rights. Even if the Syrian army comes, we will provide it with logistics. We do the same with the [SDF].”94
Besides its experience dealing with tribes, the Islamic State has also exploited rural-urban divisions to gain a foothold in certain areas. Focus on rural areas has been a hallmark of the Islamic State’s work. In Mosul, for example, residents reported a heavy presence of Islamic State recruits from Tal Afar, a town north of Mosul and a long-time stronghold of the group and its previous incarnations. Moslawis tend to look down on people from Tal Afar as coarse and less educated, and locals of Tal Afar in turn exhibit rancor toward those from Mosul,95 even if other factors such as sectarian and ethnic tensions are more decisive in creating tensions between them.
A similar dynamic has played out in rural Syria in the countryside around Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa, where at least two members of the Islamic State cited96 a desire to “keep urban dwellers subservient” in justifying their membership in the group. Such explanations are unlikely to be a deciding factor for their membership, but the Islamic State uses such sentiments to strengthen what a 14th century Arab historian called asabiyyah, or social solidarity that ensures loyalty to a ruler. Additionally, rural areas are typically more impoverished and rural people are less educated than city dwellers, providing the Islamic State with opportunities to win their loyalty by promising social and economic advancement. The presence of such rural recruits in the city of Raqqa may stiffen opposition to the SDF advance because some may feel they have everything to lose.
The dynamism of tribal alliances is an opportunity and, at the same time, a problem for the forces advancing on Raqqa. While former strongholds of the Islamic State like Fallujah, Ramadi, Tikrit, and Hasakah have since shown few signs of resistance to the liberating forces, the lessons from Iraq after the 2007 troops surge suggest that post-conflict calm and population fatigue could be temporary. Judging the success of a campaign based on the lack of an immediate rebellion,97 especially in tribal areas, is short-sighted. The Islamic State is already regenerating98 in places like Diyala.99 Tribal structures have also fragmented under the Islamic State with traditional leadership either sidelined or discredited, which could complicate efforts to hold and secure Raqqa.
The Islamic State could make something of a comeback after the liberation of Raqqa if the regime returns to areas the rebels liberated before 2014. The return of a distrusted regime, and likely its repressive tools, will make it easier for jihadis, whether the Islamic State or al-Qa`ida, to build new influence in those areas.
Despite the likelihood that Raqqa tribes will seek a modus vivendi with the SDF, some, like a member of the activist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently interviewed by the author,100 believe that the Islamic State’s monopoly over propaganda in its areas might have also altered people’s attitudes towards the Kurds. This could increase the possibilities of conflicts if the liberating forces commit future abuses or fail to govern effectively. Others counter that Raqqawis have continued to flee Islamic State areas into Kurdish areas and that locals, because of these travel flows and continued communication with those who have fled, tend to be aware of the reality around them (contrary to the Islamic State’s propaganda claims). Moreover, townspeople who fled to these areas are likely to return after Raqqa is liberated.101 On balance, the Islamic State propaganda, political or religious, will likely have a lasting effect on some in communities it controlled. The resulting deficit of trust between the Kurds and Arabs in some areas could be a faultline that jihadis exploit to try to return to liberated areas.
However, interviews with residents of the Raqqa area102 leads the author to conclude that Kurdish-Arabic conflict is not inevitable. In areas newly liberated from the Islamic State, there seems to be an opportunity to win over the local communities that feel relieved to be freed from the group. And although the Islamic State could launch a campaign of guerrilla warfare and terrorism after being ousted from Raqqa, it may face less fertile territory for doing so than in some parts of Iraq. In areas of mixed Sunni Shi`a population in Iraq, the Islamic State has exploited sectarian faultlines to launch terror attacks on Shi`a as part of a strategy of inflaming sectarian tensions so that it can cast itself in the role of the defender of Sunnis. But the area around Raqqa is overwhelmingly Sunni, making such a strategy difficult. Set against this, it should be noted that with the continuation of the Syrian conflict, and any emerging ethnic or political tensions between Arab tribes and Kurds in the process, tensions could rise over time.
The Raqqa battle is likely to take at least several weeks, which is around the same time it took to expel the Islamic State from Manbij and Fallujah. But the battle will likely be bloodier, considering the symbolism of Raqqa to the Islamic State, the commitment of the group to fight until the end, and the dearth of professional forces like the U.S.-trained counterterrorism service in Iraq.
The lack of a clear-cut plan for the future of Raqqa, including which forces will administer the city, and the uncertainty over future relations to the Syrian regime and rebel forces is damaging to the overall fight against extremism in eastern Syria. However, for now, the priority for individuals living under the Islamic State is liberation. A word frequently used by Raqqawis to describe the general mood in the city and its countryside is taraqqub, or eager anticipation. Raqqawis are generally encouraged by the lack of regime bombing in areas liberated by the U.S.-backed groups, after earlier doubt. As the Islamic State’s self-styled caliphate collapses in much of northeastern Syria, the emergence of an alternative to the group could bring peace to communities that have greatly suffered from bombardment by the Syrian regime and the savagery of the Islamic State. In this sense, Raqqa, once a neglected province in Syria’s hinterlands, now stands at a crossroads not only for the overall fight against the Islamic State but for the future of the country. CTC
Hassan Hassan is a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, focusing on militant Islam, Syria, and Iraq. He is the co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, a New York Times bestseller chosen as one of the Times of London’s Best Books of 2015 and The Wall Street Journal’s top 10 books on terrorism. Hassan is from eastern Syria. Follow @hxhassan
[a] Raqqa was once home to the 9th century Abbasid rulers Haroun al-Rashid and his two sons, who mostly ruled from Baghdad. It was also home to 12th century Muslim rulers Imad Ad Din Zangi and his son Nour who marched from Raqqa to conquer Aleppo and later establish a dynasty rule linking Aleppo to Mosul.
[b] Raqqa and its countryside are situated along the two banks of the Euphrates River, locally known as Jazira (part of historical Mesopotamia, east of the river) and Shamiyah (part of historical Levant, west of the river).
[c] Another high-profile recruit is Abu Ali al-Sharii, a relative of Toubad and a former prisoner of the notorious Syrian Sednaya prison whose nom de guerre is Fawaz al-Kurdi. Toubad had a major role in recruiting individuals from his own tribe and other tribes by virtue of his role within the Islamic State as an official in charge of tribal affairs. Author interview, Abdullatif al-Jasim, a spokesman of the Raqqa Revolutionary Front and a tribal figure, May 2017; Ahmed Ibrahim, “Tribes: caught up between the Assad regime and the Islamic State,” Aljamhuriya, May 26, 2015, http://aljumhuriya.net/33481.
[d] An audio message that circulated on social media in June 2017—which featured a rebel aligned with Maghawir al-Thawrah, a Pentagon-backed rebel group from Deir ez-Zor—offers insight into changing attitudes toward the U.S. policy in Syria. The rebel urged people from eastern Syria to join the U.S.-sponsored groups in the fight against the Islamic State. In the message, he spoke of previous widespread criticism of a rebel commander for joining forces with the YPG to dislodge the Islamic State from Kobani in 2014. He said the criticism was short-sighted and that the YPG managed to liberate much of Syria with the help of the United States. He said that failure to join the U.S.-backed effort may mean that pro-regime militias, including from Iraq, will liberate Deir ez-Zor instead of the rebels with the help of the United States. “America has become the mother of the revolution,” he said, suggesting that the liberation of their areas and the prevention of a regime expansion could only be achieved by working with the United States. See https://www.facebook.com/Albukamalnews/videos/1132609863550314/?pnref=story.
[e] The three dams are Tishrin Dam, near Manbij; Tabqa Dam; and Baath Dam, near Raqqa.
[f] The lake, in the Kurdish-dominated Afrin, is known locally as Midanki Lake.
[g] Another likely reason the Islamic State has not done more to block the SDF’s march on Raqqa is that in Mosul the group faced a relatively professional Iraqi counterterrorism force in addition to tens of thousands of army, federal police, and militia forces participating in the battle. In Syria, although YPG fighters are battle-hardened, no such force exists, making it less imperative from the Islamic State’s point of view to block the SDF’s approach.
[h] A senior U.S. Department of State official involved in the campaign against the Islamic State confirmed to the author in May 2017 that the group surrendered after a deal with the SDF, and the terms of surrender were favorable to the SDF.
[i] After an initial focus on suicide attacks outside Mosul, the Islamic State reduced its reliance on the tactic, presumably because the Iraqi army and the international coalition learned how to reduce their effect. This could have factored into the Islamic State’s decision not to rely on suicide bombers outside Raqqa, especially given that Raqqa and the surrounding areas are more exposed and sparsely populated. “Iraqi forces see reduction in suicide attacks after adapting tactics in Mosul,” Rudaw, December 1, 2016.
[j] Another town that saw the same collapse in tribal support for the Islamic State was Suluk, a former Islamic State stronghold north of Raqqa that prior to its recapture saw a sizeable tribal support for the group.
[k] While acknowledging a mounting toll of civilian deaths, the United States military says there has not been a relaxation in the rules of engagement for such strikes. “Coalition and Iraqi forces not adequately protecting Mosul civilians, says Amnesty,” Airwars, March 28, 2017; Ben Hubbard and Michael R. Gordon, “U.S. War Footprint Grows in Middle East, With No Endgame in Sight,” New York Times, March 29, 2017.
[l] Several residents from Deir ez-Zor confirmed to the author the identity of Abu Abdullah in 2014 as tribal delegates from the area visited him in Qai’m, Iraq, to resolve disputes with the Islamic State. Steve Negus, “‘ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror,’ and More,” New York Times, April 1, 2015.
[m] The Islamic State has also regularly produced propaganda videos showing it negotiating settlement of old tribal disputes. Residents living under the Islamic State also confirm that the group warns against resolving disputes according to tribal codes rather than Islamic sharia, including enforcing inheritance laws. Steve Negus, “‘ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror,’ and More,” New York Times, April 1, 2015.
[n] Even in Iraq, where tribes are more organized and coherent than in Syria, it was armed members of the tribes who had already been involved in the insurgency that turned against al-Qa`ida-affiliated jihadis amid the U.S. troop surge in 2007, rather than a collective tribal effort. In other words, local insurgents rather than the tribes as a whole took action. These “sons” of tribes turned from anti-American insurgents into American allies, and their credibility among their tribes helped deepen the social reach of U.S. forces undertaking a new strategy to gather intelligence and resolve disputes.
[o] This could be a bigger problem in Raqqa and Syria than in Iraq, where there is a relatively functioning state system to handle the interrogation process. In Mosul, whole families were reportedly rounded up by formal army officers for interrogation for days because a relative was accused of being a terrorist. Mohamed Mostafa, “Mosul council deports IS fighters families, cites need for rehabilitation,” Iraqi News, June 20, 2017. In an interview with Al Sharqiya TV, Mashaan al-Juburi warned against violations against the families of individuals who joined the Islamic State. Specifically, he accused the head of Salaheddin operations, Major General Inad al-Juburi, of rounding up the families of Islamic State members in a detention facility, which he said was violation of human rights. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vlcj8E4UZWs. In an interview with Alsumaria TV, Shaalan Al-Karim, a member of parliament from Salah Ad Din, described the families of Islamic State members as “malignant disease.” See http://www.alsumaria.tv/news/201980/alsumaria-news/ar.
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 Author interview, Abdullatif al-Jasim, a spokesman of the Raqqa Revolutionary Front and a tribal figure, May 2017.
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 Author interview with Abu Saleh al-Shayti, a field commander of the SDF’s Elite Forces, from Deir ez-Zor, May 2017.
 Author interview, Salamah of Usud al-Sharqiyyah and Muhannad al-Talla, leader of Maghawir al-Thawra, May 2017. Both factions are vetted groups from Deir ez-Zor.
 Author interview, U.S. Department of defense official, June 2017.
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 Author interview, Abu Saleh Al-Shayti, a field commander of the Elite Forces, an SDF group, May 2017.
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 Author interviews, Abdullatif al-Jasim, a spokesman of the Raqqa Revolutionary Front and a tribal figure, and Abu Ali, a tribal figure from the Abu Shaaban tribe, May 2017.
 Author interview, Abdullatif al-Jasim, a spokesman of the Raqqa Revolutionary Front and a tribal figure, May 2017.
 Author interview, Abu Ali, a tribal figure from the Abu Shaaban tribe, May 2017.
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 Author interview, Mohamed al-Neser, who monitors the Islamic State and the SDF from Aleppo, June 2017.
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