After months of fighting, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have conquered Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate and its last major stronghold in the Middle East.
But the victory by no means indicates that ISIS is defeated, and enormous ethnic challenges still lie ahead for the embattled country.
Here’s how the Raqqa campaign was won, and what lies on the horizon for Syria:
The campaign to retake Raqqa from ISIS (which seized the ancient Syrian city in early 2014) officially began in November 2016, several weeks after the campaign to retake Mosul, the group’s stronghold in Iraq, was announced.
Source: The Independent
SDF spokesman Talal Sello said the campaign would consist of “first liberating the countryside around Raqqa and isolating the city, and second taking control of the city.”
As per Sello’s description, the SDF advanced south from their territory in northern Syria, capturing ISIS-held villages east and west of Raqqa all while buoyed by American airstrikes. In addition, a key target was the Tabqa Dam on the Euphrates River, which the SDF also seized in May.
Although the Syrian Democratic Front is dominated by Syrian Kurds, the units deployed to fight in the Raqqa campaign were 70% Arab, according to the SDF. This was done to foster ethnic solidarity between soldiers and the majority-Arab city and environs of Raqqa.
The Syrian Democratic Forces that led the Raqqa campaign is a coalition of various militias, however it has always been led by the Kurds.
John Moore/Getty Images
The undisputed leaders of the SDF are the Popular Defense Units, or the YPG, a Kurdish militia with ties to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) in Turkey, along with their all-female companion force, the YPJ. The YPG first gained US support during the Battle of Kobane in 2014, when the group handed ISIS its first battlefield defeat while defending the Kurdish town on the border between Syria and Turkey.
The SDF was created in order to bring non-Kurdish groups that live in northern Syria, including Assyrian Christians and especially Sunni Arabs, into cooperation with the Kurds to create a single, moderate coalition to defeat ISIS. Yet inter-ethnic problems remain.
Despite SDF’s secular, democratic nature and US backing, the group has been accused of war crimes. Although the YPG has denied such allegations, The Nation has reported that the group has expelled Arabs from conquered villages at gunpoint. The United Nations also disputes these claims, saying that these expulsions were for civilians’ safety and did not constitute ethnic cleansing.
In addition, clashes have occurred between the YPG and Assyrians in Kurdish-held territories.