Expelling ISIS from Raqqa Does Not End ISIS–or Syrian War
The U.S.-backed SDF has declared victory in Raqqa after a long battle that left the city in ruins. But the loss of Raqqa does not mean the end of ISIS, says Charles Glass
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. The so-called “Islamic State” has suffered a major defeat with the loss of its capital, Raqqa. The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, declared victory in Raqqa this week, after a long battle that left the city in ruins. But the loss of Raqqa does not mean the end of ISIS, and nor does it mean the city’s fate is resolved. The Kurdish-led forces who control Raqqa will face a Russian-backed Syrian government that wants to retake all of Syria, and also a Turkish government that opposes Kurdish self-rule. Meanwhile, although the U.S. helped the Kurds take Raqqa, the Kurds will need U.S. support to maintain control.
Charles Glass is a veteran journalist and author of several books, including most recently, ‘Syria Burning: A Short History of a Catastrophe.’ Welcome, Charles. Let’s start with the civilians of Raqqa, what they’ve faced over these years under Al-Qaeda and then ISIS rule, and then in the last several months, with this brutal battle to retake Raqqa that has left the city in ruins.
CHARLES GLASS: Well, the people of Raqqa have suffered a double danger. First, the occupation by ISIS, which was brutal, in which there were many executions and severe punishments for minor infractions of Sharia Law. Then the successful attempt to take it back, which took a long time and involved massive aerial bombardment, artillery fire, and then the actual entering of the city with the Kurdish forces backed by the U.S., in which apparently thousands of people have died. Many of the people of Raqqa had left when Raqqa was occupied, but many were forced to stay, and it was almost impossible for them to leave during the fighting because ISIS would not let them leave.
AARON MATÉ: Right, and can you talk a bit about how ISIS managed to put up a fight for so long? There are reports that they’ve built an extension network of underground tunnels, as one tactic to be able to withstand the onslaught from the SDF.
CHARLES GLASS: I hadn’t been in Raqqa myself since this fighting erupted. However, I have been in Mosul, and I was in Palmyra, both of which were occupied by ISIS and in both places, many underground networks that they had dug, more like trenches that they then covered up with corrugated iron and then put earth on top of the corrugated iron so it could not be seen from the air, and they would fight from out of those tunnels, and they would also plant improvised explosive devices, booby traps, landmines, making it very, very costly for anyone coming into the area that they controlled. I assume they were using the same tactics in Raqqa, which lead to heavy casualties for the people who were trying to throw them out.
AARON MATÉ: Right. So Raqqa was the certain of the so-called “ISIS caliphate.” They used it to help plan attacks locally and also overseas. What does its loss mean for ISIS now?
CHARLES GLASS: It’s an important symbolic loss, because that was the capital of the caliphate. The loss of the capital means that the caliphate more or less doesn’t exist anymore. They’re now a bunch of guerrillas wandering around the Syrian desert, looking for shelter as and where they can find it. But that doesn’t mean that they are ineffective. It just means they have lost their territorial base, and they can become, as Al-Qaeda became, an underground network that does what it can around the world.
AARON MATÉ: Right. I mean, although they’ve lost that capital, there are Sunni communities, especially in neighboring Iraq, that are still sympathetic to them, and that might be willing to host them?
CHARLES GLASS: In Iraq, especially, because the previous Iraqi government was so harsh on the Sunnis, they saw that ISIS was at least Sunni, as they were in their areas, and they welcomed them, but many people had misgivings once they had to live under them. Some didn’t mind, and some were very badly oppressed and resented it and were happy to see them leave.
AARON MATÉ: Right, okay. Let’s talk about what this means, then, for the Syrian proxy war. Right now, you have the SDF, a sort of multi-ethnic militia, mostly Kurdish, controlling Raqqa. But to maintain that control, and correct me if I’m wrong, they’re gonna need U.S. support, but that U.S. support is by no means guaranteed. Meanwhile, you have a Syrian government that has vowed to retake all of Syria, and you also have a Turkish government that is not very happy about the Kurds having self-rule anywhere. So can you talk about what you think the future holds for Raqqa, and some of the issues that have been raised now, with ISIS being defeated?
CHARLES GLASS: Well, I just left Damascus, and it’s obvious when you’re there that the government feels it has basically won the war, and now it’s a matter of taking back the outlying areas, the less-populated areas, and mainly desert areas in the northeast, a few pockets in the south, and then Idlib province in the northwest, which is where most of the Jihadi and other opposition forces have gathered. The Turks have gone in there, and there are two views on what the Turks are doing. One, that they’ve gone to see the group that they’ve been supporting from early on in the war, Jabhat Nusra, and to work with them; and others that they’ve come to eliminate, Jabhat Nusra, because they don’t want those Jihadi fighters coming back into Turkey and then doing operations against the Turkish army in Turkey. But I don’t know, really, which the Turks are in fact doing.
As far as the Kurds go, they’ve taken much more territory than is inhabited by Kurds in Syria, and I think that as time goes on, the Arab communities there will want to reassert control. The government has maintained links with the Kurdish forces in the northeast. Although they’re supported by the U.S., the Kurds have agreed that the government institutions, the city halls, the rubbish collection, the electricity, the basic services, can still be run by the Syrian state. So you do have the Syrian state there present, although you have Kurdish U.S.-backed forces there controlling the area militarily.
AARON MATÉ: But how much hinges on the extent to which the Trump administration wants to follow through, wants to pursue its animus towards Iran? Because if they do, then using the Kurds would be a very effective proxy for that, but it would mean that they have to double down on support for them, because Iran is gonna back the Syrian government, in its attempt to retake Raqqa, along with of course the Russian government, which backs Assad.
CHARLES GLASS: Well, as you saw with the capture of Kirkuk by the Iraqi government, backed by Iran and the U.S., when the U.S. sees it’s in its interest to go along with the Iranians, it does, and it’s willing to betray its Kurdish allies in the process. I expect that, given the U.S.’s long history, and this goes back at least to 1975, of betraying the Kurds, they’ll probably betray the Kurds of Syria as well.
AARON MATÉ: And so, Kirkuk, you’re referring to the Kurdish city in Iraq that …
CHARLES GLASS: Kirkuk is an important oil center, but it’s also an important Kurdish symbol, or Kurdish cultural center, which the Kurds were able to take back when ISIS was threatening the city in 2014, and the Iraqi army cut and run, leaving behind its equipment for ISIS to capture. It was only the Kurds moving in that kept Kirkuk and its oil fields out of ISIS hands. But now with the Iraqi Kurds having had a referendum in which they voted overwhelmingly for independence, the Iraqis felt that they should take Kirkuk back, and they did very successfully and very handily, without much fighting.
AARON MATÉ: Here’s why I asked that question about … The question over what Trump is gonna do with Iran inside of Syria, because the U.S. has shown a willingness to confront both Iran and Russia inside Syria, if it’s meant confronting or sort of rolling back Iranian-backed gains. The U.S. has attacked Iranian-backed militias, and even Russian forces have come under threat, along with of course, Syrian government forces. So what I’m wondering is, whether that willingness to confront anything to do with Iran will extend now to Raqqa.
CHARLES GLASS: Well, as is so often with the Trump administration, the signals are mixed. On the one hand, Trump announced that he was cutting the CIA program to arm and train opposition forces in Syria that were trying to overthrow the regime, presumably because most of them were Jihadists. That was a signal to the Russians and the Iranians that the U.S. had lost interest in regime change in Syria, and was simply going to play a game with the Kurds in the northeast and take as much territory to get rid of ISIS. But once ISIS is gone, I don’t think that the people in northeast Syria are going to welcome a Kurdish-American occupation. Eventually, it will probably go back to government sovereignty, unless the U.S. is willing to fight a prolonged underground war in Syria just to keep the regime preoccupied fighting at a time when it should probably be consolidating and rebuilding the country.
AARON MATÉ: Right, but the U.S. has also shown no willingness to rebuild the country unless Assad goes, right? Isn’t that the sort of U.S. and Western position, that we’re not gonna help the reconstruction of Syria unless Assad leaves office?
CHARLES GLASS: Well, the issue of Assad leaving office is gone. No one is talking about that anymore, neither in Washington nor in London nor in Paris, nor even in Ankara. That’s no longer an issue. In terms of rebuilding Syria, the Iranians have promised money. The Syrian business community is already coming back to rebuild. The civilians themselves are coming back to rebuild their houses. It’s gonna take a long time to reconstruct the infrastructure, but they’re already making gains. For example, within the last six weeks, Syria and Damascus has restored 24-hour electricity. And Iraq, which we all know was invaded by the U.S. in 2003, still doesn’t have 24 hours of electricity per day.
AARON MATÉ: Alright, so if that question has been settled, then let me ask you: Is the Syrian proxy war, is that over as well?
CHARLES GLASS: Probably not. I expect that the U.S. and the Turks will go on fighting in these outlying areas, or at least helping people to fight in those outlying areas, keeping a sort of low-level insurgency, to keep the Russians and the Syrian government and the Iranians preoccupied, in a similar way that the Israelis in south Lebanon for many years maintained a presence in south Lebanon, but primarily to cause problems for Hezbollah and the Lebanese government, and the Palestinians earlier, without actually continuing an all-out war.
AARON MATÉ: Okay. Finally, Charles, what to you are the big questions or big issues going forward as this stage of the Syrian War winds down and we move onto what’s next, after the fall of ISIS?
CHARLES GLASS: Well, there are a number of things. One, how many refugees are going to come back and what they’re coming back to. Whether the U.S. can come to some accommodation with the Russians to allow Syria to rebuild without a permanent low-level confrontation in the northeast and in Idlib and those pockets in the south near the Israeli border. The nature of the relationship between Iran and Syria in the future, and the nature of the Russian presence in Syria in the future, whether it will be maintained at a high level, which it probably will be if the fighting goes on, but will be reduced significantly if the fighting stops.
AARON MATÉ: We’ll leave it there. Charles Glass, veteran journalist, author of several books, including Syria Burning, a Short History of a Catastrophe. Charles, thank you. And thank you for joining us, on The Real News.