Three weeks ago, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces announced the beginning of the long-anticipated offensive to take over ISIS’ de facto capital, Raqqa. Since then, the coalition of Kurdish and Arab militias — spearheaded by the YPG Kurdish militant group — has achieved a slow but steady advance, capturing villages as close as 19 miles from the city.
The people of Raqqa, who’ve been living under the brutal rule of ISIS for over two years now, know that they want the militants out of their city. But what the predominantly Sunni Arab population is not sure of is whether they want the Kurds and other militias anywhere close.
When I was in Raqqa last January, people were gossiping about a possible offensive involving the Kurds. Ali al-Jasem (not his real name), a friend of mine and a former ISIS prison detainee — guilty of using his cellphone to film the aftermath of an attack — was thrilled at the possibility of the coalition taking over the city from ISIS. He believed ISIS’ days were numbered. In July 2015, the Kurdish forces liberated his hometown, Serrin, a village near Tishreen dam. “They treated people just fine, believe me,” he told me. “They only went after suspected Daesh members.”
But as with most Syrians, the residents of Raqqa are polarized over many issues, including the Kurdish-led coalition. And as a proof of how dramatic the division could be, the very same coalition al-Jasem supports had killed his own cousin, who worked as a photographer on the front lines for the ISIS propaganda Amaq Agency. Al-Jasem felt no sorrow for his cousin’s fate. He eventually snuck out of this crazy place at the first opportunity.
With both the Mosul and Raqqa offensives underway, and as ISIS begins to shrink, all eyes are focused on the post-ISIS era. Both cities, like the rest of ISIS territory, are inhabited by a Sunni Arab majority, which is under-represented in the coalition forces and is often blamed for the atrocities committed by the jihadist group, who dubs itself as a champion of the Sunni cause. The fact that ISIS fighters tend to hide among civilians and use them as human shields makes it harder to distinguish between a fighter and a civilian.
The liberation forces on the Raqqa front are predominantly Kurdish. On the Iraqi front, they are mainly Kurdish and Shia — a fact that raises fears among the population of both cities of potential ethnic cleansing and sectarian retaliations following ISIS’ ousting. The fleeing of some Iraqi civilians from Mosul all the way to Raqqa, crossing hundreds of miles, as opposed to staying in liberated areas in their home country, is only telling of the mistrust toward their liberators. It’s worth mentioning that before ISIS came to being, Raqqa was home to thousands of Kurds who lived side by side with Arabs. War shattered that sense of community.
Thus getting rid of ISIS without putting in place a viable governance alternative will only stir tensions. And renewed instability will only pave the way for the return of ISIS, a group that prospers in times of violence and chaos.
While still in the early phases of the Mosul offensive, reports of war crimes began to emerge. Earlier this month, Amnest International claimed that men wearing Iraqi police uniforms were committing acts of torture and unlawfully killing villagers “in cold blood.” The Iraqi federal police denied any involvement in unlawful killings.
This was followed by a report last week in which Human Rights Watch accused Peshmerga forces of destroying Arab houses in an effort to claim the area as part of the Kurdish autonomous region. Kurdish officials issued a strong denial of these claims.
The US and other entities supporting the coalition must put pressure on their allies on the ground to act responsibly in order to prevent such dangerous violations, which threaten to fuel a wider ethno-sectarian war. The brewing of this ethno-sectarian strife in the region is no secret to officials and policy makers. Ignoring it won’t do any good. When locals celebrate the end of ISIS’ brutal rule, they should be assured that they can finally live in peace.
Marwan Hisham is a Syrian journalist who reported from the city of Raqqa until January 2016. He now lives in Istanbul and writes for a number of international publications.