On May 9, as part of the effort to take back the city of Raqqa from the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS), the United States decided to arm Kurdish elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). According to representatives of the SDF, once liberated, governance will fall to the Raqqa Civilian Council, an administrative body consisting of predominantly Kurds and Arabs. While Kurdish officials have made assurances that these civilian councils will epitomize the “coexistence and brotherhood of peoples,” such overtures are easier said than done. In Syria, ethnic tensions have existed long before the 2011 uprisings, but have increased in intensity in recent years. Support for joint Arab and Kurdish military efforts alone will not be enough to quell hostility between ethnic groups in Raqqa; the international community must formulate a blueprint for post-liberation governance and inter-ethnic cooperation to obviate the potential for future conflict. As historical and contemporary conflicts demonstrate, ethnic tensions often endure well after a conflict ends, particularly if the root causes of the tension are not meaningfully addressed.
A rough history of ethnic tension
As Kurdish forces have liberated areas of Northern Syria from ISIS control, civilian councils have been established to fill the governance vacuum. These governing structures have been moderately successful. In Manbij, which was liberated by Kurdish forces in 2016, reports claim that the newly formed civilian council consists of a proportionate representation of Arab, Kurdish, and Turkmen leaders. But representative councils alone have not been sufficient to address existing social cleavages.
Historically, the Syrian government has denied rights and access to services for Kurds. A 1962 government census conducted in the Hasakeh province has contributed to the stripping of citizenship for over 300,000 Kurds. Prior to the outbreak of civil war, Kurdish political groups demanded the Syrian government remedy this by recognizing Kurds as a national identity. In October 2011, the government met this demand in part; however, approximately 80,000 Syrian Kurds remained stateless.
With the international coalition’s goal of defeating ISIS as expediently as possible, the United States and others have turned the table on previous power dynamics by supporting Kurdish forces, thereby causing resentment among Arabs living in the newly liberated areas. While some of the hostility is based on historic ethnic animosity, fear and anger has also been justified by evidence of atrocities committed by Kurdish forces; Amnesty International, for example, accused the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Asayih, a local police force, of forced displacement of Arabs and Turkmen. These land grabs have exacerbated views held by Arab tribe members that Kurds are unfairly acquiring valuable agricultural lands.
Learning from other conflicts
Overcoming the current inter-communal discord in Raqqa will not be easy but it is essential to longer term stability. While a full-scale transitional justice and reconciliation process will not be immediately possible while the conflict is ongoing, lessons learned from other post-conflict settings can be adapted for Raqqa’s particular context.
Iraq is a prime example of the repercussions of sponsoring new governance structures in a post-conflict setting without addressing historic ethnic and sectarian tensions. Beginning in 2006, the United States supported the Shi’a-dominated government led by Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki; at this time, US military objectives in Iraq increasingly shifted to the fight against al-Qaeda. Absent accountability mechanisms to monitor nepotism and investigate atrocities, Sunnis were denied government services and removed from their homes. Policy officials such as former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley brought up concerns of growing sectarian actions, yet such warnings were largely overlooked. The United States was not forceful in condemning these practices because it needed the support of the Iraqi government to carry out continued military operations against extremism – extremism which was further fueled by the central government’s discriminatory abuses. More recently in Mosul, the anti-ISIS coalition has repeatedly turned a blind eye to abuses committed by the Iraqi military and Shia militias because successfully rooting out ISIS has been seen as a larger priority. This week, Der Spiegel released shocking photos taken by a photojournalist of detainees being tortured at a facility run by Iraq’s Emergency Response Division (ERD) in Mosul.
A governance blueprint
To avoid a similar fate in Raqqa, the SDF and the civilian councils cannot act unfettered. Including both Arabs and Kurds on the council is a first step, but should not be viewed as a hallmark of inclusivity. Small-scale reconciliation programs can be instituted to begin repairing the social divide, but the biggest progress will be made when the local population feels that its needs are being addressed and that there is local accountability for discriminatory practices and human rights violations. Services must be distributed equally among the population regardless of ethnicity, and complaints must be investigated and addressed without bias. The anti-ISIS coalition will need to continue playing a role in supporting this process and monitoring the situation by vocally and unabashedly condemning bad practices.
The international community must learn from other conflicts by keeping ample pressure on Kurdish forces to allow for political participation of all civilians. Governing structures must serve as vehicles for genuine inter-ethnic dialogue and collaboration. Raqqa could potentially serve as a model for post-ISIS governance, but as challenging as the situation has been in Iraq, Raqqa will prove even more difficult given the lack of a cooperative central government in Damascus. Despite the challenges, longer term vision and careful planning are essential to ensuring that ISIS or other extremist factions do not once again take root in the area, resulting in renewed conflict.
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