The liberation of Raqqa in Syria marks a watershed in the campaign against the Islamic State. Both a symbolic and strategic defeat, the fall of the capital of the group’s self-proclaimed caliphate further diminishes its dwindling territory and deprives it of a core element of its defining narrative. Yet the group’s ultimate defeat is far from assured, and the United States can play a critical role in precluding the emergence of Islamic State 2.0.
Military victory is often fleeting unless good governance is promoted to form a bulwark against the return of violence and extremism. The battlefield victory over the Islamic State can only be sustained if anchored in a strategy that ensures that governance is inclusive, accountable and responsive to the local population. Recall the group’s phoenix-like rise from the ashes of al-Qaida in Iraq, fostered by Sunni disaffection and rooted in longstanding grievances with Baghdad.
Post-liberation Raqqa will be exponentially harder, and not just because of the physical challenges of rebuilding a leveled, mine-littered city. As witnessed recently in Iraq, the Islamic State’s ejection will expose overlapping strategic, ethnic and tribal conflicts — particularly in the absence of a political settlement to Syria’s civil war. Control of the city is likely to be contested by various local and foreign forces, some aligned with the Syrian regime, others with the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State. Ethnic tensions could be stoked by the Kurds’ leading role in the liberation of this Arab-majority city, which they want to add to their semi-autonomous region. (Already, Kurdish forces have raised flags and a massive poster of Kurdish PKK leader Abdallah Ocalan.) Finally, Raqqa’s strong tribal character heightens the possibility for revenge killings, property disputes, and other communal conflicts.
Addressing these challenges and fostering the kind of governance that can forestall the return of extremism will require U.S. help. While officials have said that the United States will not support reconstruction efforts in Syria, essential support for stabilizing Raqqa can be catalyzed by maintaining U.S. engagement and its light footprint in eastern Syria.
For example, Washington should lean on the Kurdish-led, U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces that recaptured Raqqa, and insist on inclusive governance structures that devolve significant authority to the local Arab population. The Raqqa Civilian Council, currently based in Ayn Aissa, should be expanded to represent all tribal elements from Raqqa and exiled members of the city’s previous local council; these Arab elements should wield real power rather than serve as window dressing for Kurdish rule.
Washington also should continue to help coordinate international donor efforts, particularly in the absence of United Nations representatives in Syria. It should, for example, boost the capacity of the multi-donor Syria Recovery Trust Fund it helped establish; and should summon the members of its own anti-ISIS coalition, particularly Gulf states, to a pledging conference focused on humanitarian and de-mining needs. The United States also could work with other donors to develop more creative approaches.
Finally, U.S. diplomats could support grassroots efforts at dialogue and reconciliation that might begin to heal the city’s badly frayed social fabric. Over the past three years, the Islamic State’s brutal rule disrupted local social networks and seriously undermined mutual trust among residents. In some cases, traditional tribal ties have been damaged by Islamic State operatives who exploited tensions to recruit new members. Rebuilding social cohesion in Raqqa will take time, but efforts should start now, even before residents return. Some avenues for this include: facilitating dialogue among Raqqa’s displaced populations in surrounding areas; engaging and training local civic, religious and tribal leaders on mediation techniques and conflict resolution; developing new mechanisms for resolving tribal conflict and heading off revenge killings of tribe members suspected of aligning with the Islamic State.
Raqqa’s liberation, along with Mosul’s fall in July, is a critical opportunity to begin to define the post-Islamic State landscape. To be enduring, these battlefield victories must be accompanied by a political strategy that addresses the underlying popular grievances that initially fueled the rise of extremism. The urgency of these challenges—and the ever-present threat of a rebirth of the Islamic State—demands that the work to address these issues begins today. The United States should play a leading role in that effort.
This article is adapted from a new Special Report from the U.S. Institute of Peace, “Governance Challenges in Raqqa after the Islamic State.”