Taking Back Raqqa Kurds Seek to Expand Reach in Northern Syria
Part 2: A Steadily Expanding PKK
Even before that, opposition activists in their own ranks were arrested, beaten and deported to Iraq. Their offices were closed or burned down. Demonstrators who protested the arrests were shot. Freedom, it seems, ends where the party's absolute hold on power is questioned.
The same is true when it comes to the liberation of Raqqa: Only those who display obedience are allowed to take part. The result is that one rebel group -- which has fought against IS longer than any other, doesn't belong to the Islamist camp and took part in extended negotiations for American support -- is being kept away from the fighting by force of arms.
"Things actually began quite cooperatively," says Abu Isa, a leader of Raqqa Revolutionaries' Brigade who is basically under village arrest in the Kurdish region of Syria. He can receive visitors, but he isn't allowed to leave. "We set up a joint operations headquarters together with the Kurds, just as we had done with the Free Syrian Army. But following the victory in Kobani, everything changed. The YPG officer with whom we had negotiated our cooperation was transferred and his successor said he knew nothing about it and was just following Öcalan's orders. The Americans wanted to support us, but they then changed their minds. Sorry, they told us, but our only allies now are the Kurds."
The final break came when Abu Isa and others demanded that Raqqa be liberated by rebels from the city and that residents be allowed to choose their own city council. "That's why we took to the streets in 2011, for freedom and rights," Abu Isa says. Everybody in Raqqa knows, he adds, that the Arabic-Kurdish military alliance, the SDF, is just a guise for the PKK-allied Syrian Kurdish party and its militia, the YPG. "How do the Kurds hope to control Raqqa? It's an Arab city. It won't go well."
But one of the rebels' weaknesses is now becoming a significant problem. Like Abu Isa, they also took to the streets in 2011, but they had no plan. They were unified by the idea that Assad had to go, but even today, they still don't have a well-practiced apparatus, an administrative team or resources to replace the state whose dictator they wish to topple. The PKK, on the other hand, has all that in the form of decades of experience as a united, disciplined group that can both conquer and administer. And they have a strategy -- for Raqqa as well. And there are several reasons to believe it might work.
'We Began Hating Islam'
One of those is the fact that the war has displaced fully 100,000 people in Raqqa and its immediate surroundings. There are refugees everywhere and often there isn't enough room for them in the camps, leaving them to sleep in the steppe with their overloaded pickups and tractors. Tired and afraid, many of them are from Raqqa, while others have been on the run for years -- having fled from Assad's bombs in 2012, been overrun by Islamic State, been taken into custody or been used as human shields. "Our children have had to drink cow urine. We don't have anything left," says one father.
"We are from Salamiyah in western Syria," says another, "and have been on the run for four years, from place to place. When we wanted to flee from Raqqa, IS shot out our front tires. We bought a new tire with the last of our money. Now we are here and the Kurds have been friendly to us." A third man says that it's only here that he started praying again. IS "pushed us so far that we began hating Islam, hating prayer. Anything, anything at all, is better than Daesh," he says, using the local acronym for Islamic State.
Most only managed to escape just a few days ago, with the men often still working on helping each other shave off the scraggly beards that IS forced them to grow. Until recently, the only women they saw were completely veiled in black, from head to toe. Now, they are suddenly encountering female Kurdish fighters in fitted uniforms, Kalashnikovs slung around their shoulders and cigarettes dangling out of the corner of their mouths. It is surprising, they say, "but totally okay, really completely okay."
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No matter what comes after IS, it can only be better. The inordinate violence meted out by the jihadists makes the Kurdish party look almost saintly by comparison. As such, the sense of relief people now feel at being liberated from Islamic State is currently smoothing the Kurds' path to power.
Manbij, which in summer 2016 became the first large Arab city to be taken by the Syrian Democratic Forces, is governed by a military council installed by the Kurds. When asked who used to administer the city, council co-chairwoman Zainab Qantar answers, "Daesh, of course!" And before that? "Oh, there was a revolutionary council of some sort. But they are all dead, or have disappeared."
Filling a Political Vacuum
She doesn't mention that Manbij had a democratically elected city council as early as 2012, made up of lawyers, business leaders and teachers, all of whom fled the advancing Islamic State in 2014. Now, they are being prevented from returning and their homes have been seized.
The economy in Manbij is flourishing. You can find grain, potatoes, fruit and olives along with consumer goods from regime-controlled areas in Syria and from Iraq. Goods are even smuggled in from Turkey. There is bread and electricity and people are even allowed to smoke again. In the self-proclaimed IS "caliphate," smoking was punished either with lashes or with the breaking of fingers.
Öcalan's party, with its numerous acronyms, has effectively filled a political vacuum: After over six years of war, perpetual bombing and over three years of IS dictatorship, many people are simply exhausted and prepared to accept any political power as long as it leaves them alone.
The battle for Raqqa has almost nothing to do with the beginning of the conflict, which saw Assad's troops up against the Syrian rebels. Today, the fragmented groups that grew out of that original conflict are fighting against each other. Islamic State had hoped that it could, with a disciplined and brutal intelligence service and military apparatus, defeat the rest of the world. That plan is failing right now.
The Kurdish party is similarly obsessed with control, but it has taken the opposite approach: It is seeking out cooperation with the West and has exhibited as little brutality as possible. That strategy could result in the control of large swaths of northeastern Syria. "Manbij is our model for Raqqa," Commander Clara and other officials say openly. Some are even willing to go further: "First Raqqa and then Deir al-Zor," says one official while attending the funeral of eight fallen fighters.
The town, further to the south, isn't home to any Kurds at all anymore. But as PKK, with new groups and new acronyms, has established itself in the background as the central power of the Kurdish ethnicity, it has also lost its Kurdish core. The goal is no longer merely the long-propagated establishment of Rojava, a Kurdish state covering western Kurdistan and carved out of what's left of Syria. Now, the new name for the Kurds' growing sphere of influence is the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. And a city council is already standing by for Raqqa to take over the administration of the city once it is conquered.
As the party has become more successful, its ultimate goal has become less clear. And perhaps, given the uncertainties of the entire region, it is smarter to avoid having an overly predetermined plan. Or, at least, to avoid communicating that plan.
Still, one young fighter voiced his own enthusiastic version of the future prior to the storming of Raqqa. "We will liberate everyone, first from Daesh and the former Nusra Front, from the FSA and the from the regime, from Hezbollah, from the Iranians. Everybody, out!"
- Part 1: Kurds Seek to Expand Reach in Northern Syria
- Part 2: A Steadily Expanding PKK