Taking Back Raqqa -Kurds Seek to Expand Reach in Northern Syria

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By Christoph Reuter

The offensive to take Raqqa back from Islamic State has begun. Kurdish fighters are leading the charge in the hopes of eliminating the Islamist scourge — but they are also hoping to expand their power in northern Syria.

The chirping of a few birds can be heard, but they are instantly drowned out by the squawking of the radio. “Clara to Guevara, come in please! Guevara! Here, Clara base. Please come in!” If you keep listening, Rosa Luxemburg also reports — as Clara Zetkin continues waiting for Che Guevara.

It sounds as though the revolutionary idols of a bygone era have arranged for a reunion in the ether — in the middle of the steppes of northern Syria not even 10 kilometers from Raqqa, which in January 2014 became the first large city conquered by Islamic State (IS). It is also the only city the radical Islamist group still controls — in contrast to Mosul, Iraq, where IS is now holed up in one last neighborhood of the city center.

It is the end of May and Kurdish fighters are preparing for the assault on Raqqa. It still doesn’t sound much like war here, but jihadist radio traffic — in which they used to regularly announce their intention to slaughter all infidels — has become more sporadic, says a Kurdish radio operator. “They’re too concerned about being geo-located and by the airstrikes by the Americans,” he says. He then tries once more to reach Che Guevara. “We love revolutionaries,” he says before listing a number of them. He pauses and, without being asked, says: “Stalin isn’t among them!”

Men and women in camouflage walk through the courtyard of the farmstead they have seized while pickups disguised with mud take munitions and meals to the front lines and bring exhausted fighters back to camp. Men and women sit smoking in the shade of the terrace, most of them armed with Kalashnikovs.

Just a few days ago, they were still slowly approaching Raqqa, but on Tuesday of last week, the long-planned, large-scale attack on the most important Islamic State bastion in Syria began. Several units conquered areas in the city’s eastern outskirts last week, including most recently the al-Mashlab district. It is a motley group that has assembled to drive out IS. Officially, they all belong to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a military alliance that was founded in October 2015 with the aim of bringing together Arabs and Kurds.

In addition to SDF insignia, though, one can also see the shoulder patches of other Kurdish militias and, on occasion, the Syrian flag with three stars, the symbol of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), some units of which joined the SDF. Around a tenth of the fighters are Arabs, with the rest comprised of Syrian Kurds. Several of the officers and specialists don’t even understand Arabic and, aside from Kurdish, speak only Turkish.

Omnipresent Öcalan

There is only one logo that is missing completely: that of the tightly organized fighting force that looms over everything here in northern Syria, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. Founded in 1978 as a Marxist-tinged separatist group in the Turkish city of Diyarbakir, it has managed over the decades to create an effective power apparatus that exerts it’s influence far beyond Turkey’s own borders.

All groups are under the control of the same Kurdish leadership that has holed up in the expansive Qandil Mountains since the 1990s, from where they provide military and, of particular importance, ideological training to volunteers from Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. All of them revere PKK founder Abdullah “Apo” Öcalan, who has been locked away on the Turkish prison island of Imrali since 1999 and whose portrait is omnipresent.

Gigantic images of Öcalan hang behind officers’ desks at headquarters while many fighters wear tiny portraits as an amulet around their necks. A silhouette of the PKK founder is stuck to the windshield of the military pickup as we bounce along hardly recognizable roads on the way to the front. “We have stay on track no matter what,” says our female driver. “There are mines.”

IS lays them everywhere: in the sand, hidden in artificial rocks, in wells, door thresholds, generators, toilet doors and even corpses. Sometimes the detonations are triggered by almost invisible filaments, others are set off by pressure or movement sensors. A mine somewhere is almost sure to go off after every heavy shower. “It always happens after rain when mud is splashed onto their sensors,” the driver says. “You can’t make any false step!”

For Kurds on the Syrian side of the border, the brother of the imprisoned PKK leader founded a Kurdish party and military arm in 2004, the People’s Protection Units, or YPG. Since 2011, the party and its militia have demonstrated significant flexibility as they seek to negotiate the convoluted Syrian civil war. First, the YPG entered into a tacit agreement with the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad according to which the Kurdish force would refrain from participating in the rebellion. In return, they were allowed to take control of all Kurdish regions of Syria in 2012 without a fight. Then, when IS besieged the Kurdish enclave of Kobani in 2014 — only failing to conquer the city due to help from the U.S. Air Force — YPG became a perfect partner for U.S. President Barack Obama’s Syrian strategy. Obama wanted to fight IS, but not Assad, something that Syrian rebels refused to agree to. YPG, though, proved a willing partner.

Tenacious Ignorance of Reality

Since then, the Kurds have joined forces with both the U.S. and Russia. Among those forces assembled under the SDF umbrella, they are the only American ally worth mentioning. They receive air support, weapons and ammunition deliveries and battlefield assistance from U.S. Special Forces, which have several bases in Kurdish-controlled areas. In tenacious ignorance of reality, U.S. generals praise the Syrian YPG as their most reliable ally — while in the same breath pledging Turkey their support in the fight against the terrorists of the Turkish PKK.

Turkey, meanwhile, has sidelined itself since 2012 with its focus on fighting the Kurds. For years, Ankara allowed IS supporters to cross the Turkish border to Syria unhindered because Islamic State targeted the Kurds. But IS ultimately became the world’s Enemy No. 1 and the U.S. lost trust in its NATO ally.

Öcalan’s pliable military, meanwhile, soon had the strongest military in the world on its side — a ludicrous ascendency, and one which, if the party leadership has anything to say about it, isn’t over yet. The Raqqa offensive, though, is an advance into foreign territory for the Kurds. That’s why their use of revolutionary names from the past to refer to battlefield positions also has a practical reason: “We aren’t familiar with the villages here at all,” says the officer next to the radio operator prior to the launch of the offensive. “Few of us have ever been in this area.”

The SDF front line to the west, north and east of Raqqa stretches kilometer-for-kilometer through the gently undulating steppe-land in an endless chain of modestly sized outposts. Hardly any of them are larger than a dozen fighters, sometimes nestled in an apricot orchard, other times on the roof of a farm building, protected by a sniper surveying the surrounding area while lying on a foam mattress — armed with a self-made, 1.5-meter-long weapon called a Zagros, which can fire large-caliber, 12.7 mm ammunition at a distance of up to 2 kilometers.

Every outpost commander has a tablet with a constantly updated map of skirmishes. Mines are cleared from every new position. Reconnaissance teams or those who recently fled provide a rough description of the situation at each site: How many IS troops are there and where can they be found? Which paths are mined? Are there tunnels?

One Step in a Larger Conflict

U.S. Special Forces, which operate just behind the front, occasionally fly camera drones to keep an eye on the IS side of the front. Several units then advance in a pincer movement and, once they have conquered an IS position, they set up camp, defuse mines and blow up tunnel entrances. It has been the same procedure for almost an entire year.

The conquest of Raqqa is just one step in the larger conflict, says a commander who has named herself after Clara Zetkin, the German women’s rights activist and communist who died in Moscow in 1933. “We aren’t just seeking to liberate the country, we also want to change the mentality of the men here. We don’t just want to be a Kurdish women’s organization, but a power for all women in the world! There have been so many revolutions, but nothing has changed.” The diminutive woman in her late 30s speaks of the difficulties of growing up as a woman in an arch-conservative society under Arab and Kurdish influence and says that she is also fighting for their freedom.

The Kurdish project of expansion, though, is not without its shortcomings. It does, in fact, aim to liberate women from the brutal patriarchy of IS. But those liberated go from an oppressive system to an air-tight and cleverly disguised regime of party dominance. And the more powerful the Kurdish fighters become, the more rigorously they pursue this goal. Even as Washington, in early May, officially announced its intention to provide significant military support to democratic forces in Syria, YPG secret service units stormed the last remaining offices belonging to Kurdish opposition parties in Qamishli, the largest city in northeastern Syria, and arrested 11 people.

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.”

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!”

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