A massive offensive on the capital city of Daesh (Isis/Isil) territory has now begun. But it won’t be British forces leading this battle. Instead, left-wing fighters ignored and isolated by the West for years will be at the forefront of this game-changing ground attack.
On 24 May, around 30,000 fighters from a multi-ethnic and multi-religious coalition in northern Syria – known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – began an offensive aimed at pushing Daesh out of the northern parts of Raqqa Governorate and, eventually, out of Raqqa itself. While the SDF wants to protect the territory it controls from Daesh attacks, it also claims its operation comes in response to requests for liberation from Raqqa residents.
There are thought to be roughly 5,000 Daesh fighters inside Raqqa, which the group seized in 2013 and has considered its capital since 2014.
SDF spokesman Tajir Kobanî recently said, referring to the symbolic value of taking the city, that:
Raqqa’s liberation will be a serious blow to Daesh positions in Syria.
Rojava, the SDF and international dithering
The SDF is led by the gender-egalitarian, secular and largely-Kurdish YPG, which began life as the defence force of the pluralistic and directly democratic cantons of Rojava in northern Syria. It is vehemently opposed to Daesh and other jihadi groups in Syria.
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Rojava first asserted its autonomy from the Syrian regime in 2012, and was soon blockaded by western allies in both Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan. It is yet to receive any official international recognition or political support.
deeply committed to reaching a political settlement through peaceful, multilateral negotiations, with the aim of creating a political system with a separation of powers and separation between religion and the state.
But even without firm international support for Rojava’s political project, the SDF has been making massive gains against Daesh and other jihadis (with air support from Russia and the US-led coalition) ever since its formation in October 2015.
Preparations for the Raqqa offensive are finally over
On 10 May, SDF troops and weapons were said to be concentrating in the Rojavan canton of Kobanî, and reports soon emerged that Daesh had declared a state of emergency in Raqqa, moving personnel around and preparing for the city’s defence. The Telegraph then revealed on 15 May that Daesh had built tunnels, bunkers and trenches – and even moved headquarters underground – in preparation for the SDF offensive.
There were also unprecedented visits to Rojava from US officials in May. While one was unconfirmed, another was so high profile that even journalists were invited along. On 20 May, a day after fliers asking civilians to leave Raqqa were dropped over the city, the USA’s Central Command chief, General Joseph Votel, visited SDF camps just 50 miles away.
An official from the PYD – the most influential political party in Rojava – said:
The US State Department, Pentagon and White House have repeatedly pointed out that the YPG and YPJ [the female YPG], the central forces in the SDF, are the most effective force which can be depended on as strategic partners in the fight against terrorism
Collaboration between the YPG and the USA initially began in late 2014. In the previous two years, the militias had been defending Rojavan territory from invading jihadis while completely isolated and ignored by international powers. In fact, the USA still hasn’t officially recognised Rojava, which is a strong reminder that the cooperation between the SDF and the US-led coalition in the battle against Daesh is more a temporary alliance of convenience than a permanent US commitment to the region’s progressive political process.
The complicated context of Syria’s war
The Syrian conflict is far from being black and white. But there are some key facts which must be stressed.
First of all, US plans to destabilise Syria date back to at least 2006, so the superpower was almost certainly involved in egging rebels on after 2011. Because of the disastrous invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, however, the USA relied heavily on allies like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar to lead the campaign to overthrow the Assad regime from 2011 onwards. Extremist groups like Daesh and Jabhat al-Nusra – which have ideological and funding links to the US allies mentioned above – soon came to dominate the anti-Assad opposition as a result. And when the CIA intervened in 2013 in an attempt to bolster more ‘moderate’ Islamist groups, it was too late. Around 60% of anti-Assad fighters today are thought to have similar extremist views to Daesh.
But the destructive effects of foreign interference don’t mean Assad should be let off the hook. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, pro-Assad forces killed 109,347 civilians between 2011 and 2014. And in October 2015, The Syria Campaign released a damning survey in which 70% of 1,000 refugees interviewed said they had fled the violence of the Assad regime, while only 32% said they had fled from Daesh.
There are many reasons for the growth of groups like Daesh. They have definitely been fuelled by the Saudi and Qatari missionaries who have pushed their intolerant ideology of Wahhabism into marginalised, oppressed and devastated communities in the Middle East. But they have also been strengthened by Assad’s stubborn authoritarian instinct to repress all dissent by violent and indiscriminate means.
Defeating Daesh once and for all
There are a significant number of ways to defeat Daesh and end the Syrian conflict which do not involve airstrikes. The UK’s intervention in the war was never going to make a big impact, and effective anti-Daesh fighters on the ground like the SDF were always going to hold the key to defeating jihadi occupation in Syria. But the British government continues to ignore this reality. It still refuses to recognise the important role of Rojava in defeating Daesh, and British citizens who have fought with the SDF have been treated like criminals rather than heroes.
Regarding the Raqqa offensive, victory would clearly be a major setback for Daesh. But it would not automatically destroy the group. There are reportedly 50,000 civilians still in the city and, however hard the SDF ground forces try to avoid it, the coalition’s airstrikes will no doubt kill some civilians. Although a number have fled already, the fact is that many haven’t, particularly as Daesh has banned them from leaving.
If civilians die, Daesh leaders will inevitably try to claim that Raqqa’s liberators are just as bad as they are. The difficult challenge for the SDF will now be to prove once and for all that it is profoundly different – as Rojava’s constitution suggests – from both Daesh and the Assad regime. But whether it is successful or not, the Raqqa offensive will be a very decisive battle for the future of the Middle East.
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