Day: December 7, 2017
At the US Institute of Peace’s November 29 event titled “Raqqa After the Islamic State: Governance Challenges in Post-ISIS Syria,” moderator Sarhang Hamasaeed of USIP said of the current situation in Raqqa, Syria: “military advances and triumphs are important, but stabilization and governance, as many argue, are probably more difficult.” The importance Hamasaeed placed on development and stabilization post-ISIS was echoed in the points made by the speakers who joined him, including Mona Yacoubian of USIP, Hassan Hassan of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, and Nicholas A. Heras of the Center for a New American Security. The discussion centered around a special report, titled “Governance Challenges in Raqqa after the Islamic State” authored by Yacoubian.
Yacoubian reminded the audience that Raqqa was ISIS’s stronghold and the capital of its caliphate, as well as the where much of the planning for the group’s external operations, such as attacks in Paris and Brussels, took place. It is important that the city not get “lost in this news cycle.” The defeat of ISIS has not truly occurred, Yacoubian argued. “Ultimate defeat” can come only with the establishment of stability and governance in the city in order to prevent the re-emergence of extremist groups and improve the living standards of the population.
Yacoubian identified four “baskets” of challenges in the face of the establishment of governance. The first are strategic challenges that come with the ongoing war in Syria and the numerous actors involved, making it difficult to decide who will have control over Raqqa. The second is ethnic, considering the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is made up primarily of Kurdish members, which is not reflective of the Arab-majority nature of the city. The third basket includes tribal challenges, which result from the ISIS-induced deterioration of tribal reconciliation processes in the province and the risk of revenge violence. The final basket encompasses technical challenges due to the destruction of the city, the limited capabilities of the Raqqa civil council, the lack of basic services such as water and electricity, and the unprecedented level of trauma experienced by residents.
Hassan and Heras discussed the crucial role that the SDF has played and continues to play in the city post-ISIS. Hassan said that the SDF has been running a positive governance process and has gained residents’ trust, since it has not shown signs of corruption or mistreatment of the population. Heras added that the SDF had overcome several obstacles to create the model of governance that it currently operates, citing its experience in Tal Abyad. There the group was met with hostility and distrust, which taught it to communicate intentions clearly to residents. In Raqqa and other areas the SDF has seized from ISIS, Heras praised the group’s mobilization of local councils, the work it has done to ensure that councils have a demographic makeup representative of the population, the building of a civilian security force, and the flexibility shown.
On US policy, Yacoubian stressed
- The importance of continued engagement in Raqqa. The job is not done with the military defeat of ISIS. The US should shift from military engagement to stabilization efforts, while maintaining a “light footprint.”
- The US should ensure that the SDF transfers political authority to the local Arab population, using its influence over the group to do so. This will require a focus on developing the capacity of local councils and encouraging “skilled technocrats” who left Raqqa for Turkey and elsewhere to return and participate in the process.
It is also vital to integrate humanitarian and psychosocial services.
Hassan discussed the US role in improving the performance of the SDF. Like Yacoubian, he argued that the US should ensure that the SDF make clear its national identity as opposed to a Kurdish or PKK-affiliated identity, by emphasizing that it is a Syrian group meant for all of the country’s populations. The US should also work to prevent the regime from returning to the area, Hassan added. While many residents have voiced their desire for the return of the government, they want stability and security, not the return of the regime’s intelligence services and brutality.
Heras argued that the SDF would need the US to serve as a “backbone” in its efforts to stabilize the city, highlighting the overarching theme of the recommendations and discussion: the importance of continued US presence in Raqqa.