After suffering grievously under ISIS, and during the battles to defeat it, Raqqa is being rebuilt. The calm is tenuous, however. The U.S. and partners should work toward long-term stability in Syria’s north east, through investment and talks about sustainable governance and security arrangements.
What’s new? Two years after an abrupt withdrawal of U.S. troops followed by a Turkish incursion, Raqqa is largely quiet. Yet the stability of this Kurdish-controlled predominantly Arab province in north-eastern Syria is precarious and hinges on U.S. deterrence of military moves from Turkey and/or Russia in tandem with the Damascus regime.
Why does it matter? Raqqa’s trajectory and fault lines provide insight into the challenges ahead in Syria. Regional and international forces use the area to project power and pursue their security interests. Any sudden shift in the balance of power is liable to lead to violence, severe humanitarian crisis and mass displacement.
What should be done? The Biden administration has signalled that it will maintain U.S. forces in Syria for the time being. While the deployment continues, the U.S. and other anti-ISIS coalition members should promote steps to stabilise the north east, including areas like Raqqa. They should seek diplomatic arrangements to avert further disruptive offensives.
Raqqa, the former de facto capital of the Islamic State (ISIS), today is among the more stable areas in Syria. Yet this relative success rests on wobbly foundations. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who control Raqqa city as well as the majority of the province govern efficiently, but high-handedly as some perceive it, fomenting occasional unrest. The province in which the city sits remains divided and contested among Turkey, Russia and the Syrian regime, while ISIS remnants exploit porous internal borders to move around. Tit-for-tat confrontations between Turkey and the SDF keep the northern border on edge and could escalate. Crucially, Raqqa’s stability depends on the U.S. troops stationed further east, whose presence deters what otherwise could be a violent free-for all. While this deployment continues, the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition should carry on investing in stabilising the area; encourage the SDF to adhere to ceasefires and reduce its monopoly upon local governance; and work toward negotiating sustainable arrangements sufficient to avert potentially destabilising military moves.
In the battles leading to ISIS’s defeat in Raqqa, the city and its immediate surroundings underwent destruction on an almost unimaginable scale. Today, the area has come back to life. With support from the coalition, the SDF established an array of institutions to secure, rebuild and administer the province, with a particular focus on the city of the same name. Despite the abrupt partial withdrawal of U.S. forces from Raqqa in October 2019 and the subsequent Turkish military incursion, security, economic conditions and governance practices are better in Raqqa than elsewhere in Syria, including in adjacent regions that equally suffered under ISIS rule but were reclaimed by Damascus.
Yet the potential for renewed destabilisation and conflict remains. Raqqa governorate is divided into three areas, distinctly controlled by rival powers, each with its own limitations. Most of the province, including the city, is under control of the SDF, a non-state actor with connections to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish militant group fighting an insurgency against Turkey since 1984. The northern part along the Turkish border is in the hands of Syrian factions ushered in by Turkey’s October 2019 incursion. Small pockets on the south-western edge are controlled by the Syrian regime, which has proven unable or unwilling to provide basic services and security to the population there. Russian forces also are on the ground; they do not hold territory, but they have established bases from which they conduct joint patrols with Turkish troops and, separately, with SDF and regime units under the terms of the 2019 ceasefire.
Any number of developments could violently upset the status quo. Resilient ISIS elements could exploit the lack of coalition presence in Raqqa, local Arabs’ alienation from SDF rule or deteriorating economic conditions to make new inroads with the hope of staging a comeback. Frictions between the SDF and the regime over governance, security and resource streams in areas where they uneasily coexist or are immediate neighbours could bring the two sides to blows. Turkey, which sees the SDF’s links to the PKK as a threat to its national security, could go on the offensive again, for example in response to attacks originating from SDF-controlled areas on its forces or the factions it backs in the north.
For now, these scenarios are kept at bay by the presence of a small contingent of U.S. forces further east and the support it provides for SDF control of the area. Absent an agreement between these actors and the SDF that provides credible guarantees against violent competition over territory and resources, there is a high probability that, were the U.S. to withdraw troops precipitously, north-eastern Syria would descend into chaos liable to trigger a severe humanitarian crisis and massive displacement. The Biden administration has signalled that it does not intend to withdraw U.S. forces for the time being; the criticism it has received for the chaotic pullout from Afghanistan makes such a move even less likely.
While the U.S. deployment continues, Washington and other anti-ISIS coalition members should use the leverage their presence in the north east affords to keep investing in the area’s stabilisation, encouraging negotiations among the parties and working in parallel to reach diplomatic understandings that would avert military moves by Ankara or Damascus if and when the U.S. does leave. Such efforts are key to addressing governance gaps and grievances that ISIS could exploit. Assistance should be contingent on the SDF both adhering to ceasefires and reducing its monopoly upon governance, including by enabling more substantial participation by non-SDF-affiliated Arabs and Kurds in the autonomous administration and local government’s decision making. The U.S. should push the SDF to restrain insurgent attacks on Turkish-controlled areas in the north, while seeking to dissuade Ankara from escalating on its end. At the same time, Washington should signal to all involved parties – Damascus, Moscow, Ankara and the SDF – its interest in exploring arrangements that could stabilise the area in a sustainable way.