As the smoke over Raqqa slowly clears, questions about the governance of the Syrian city and its stability will soon need answering.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces — with support from the US-led coalition — have recently announced the full capture of what was until recently the de facto capital of ISIS’ self-declared caliphate.
While some videos started to circulate showing members of the Syrian Democratic Forces celebrating the symbolic defeat of ISIS, others revealed the enormous level of destruction in the city. The two videos do not contradict one another — they simply show two sides of the same story.
The first embraces the important figurative value of seizing the base from which ISIS launched so many of its attacks and filmed many of its propaganda videos. The second reveals the scale of the challenge ahead, where too little thought has been given to what lies ahead.
Who will govern and who will rebuild Raqqa? What will happen to the former members of ISIS and its supporters? Will local residents return?
The answers to these questions are not only central to stabilizing the city but also to preventing ISIS from re-emerging in a new form.
The Syrian Democratic Council, the political representative of the Syrian Democratic Forces, has been preparing for the capture of Raqqa since April. But its plans for the city still remain largely vague.
These include the formation of a civilian council to administer the province once ISIS is pushed out. The majority of the council consists of Arabs — in line with Raqqa’s demography — but it also includes Kurds and other ethnic groups.
Despite promises to expand the council, once the city is completely captured, not all locals accept the council.
“Raqqa is an Arab-majority province. Nonetheless, the Kurdish forces want to govern Raqqa through the council they created. They want to integrate Raqqa in their self-administration project. Expanding the council will not solve this problem, as they will remain the ones running the show,” said Ahmed Hassan, a media activist from Raqqa based in Turkey.
This view is supported by a report published by the International Crisis Group, which states that Syrian Democratic Forces efforts to include Arabs in the Kurdish-led “Democratic Self-Administration” model have been superficial and do not amount to a meaningful share in governance.
Moreover, the civilian council in Raqqa still does not have the resources needed to rebuild the city. “We have not received any external funds in order to be able to provide the basic needs in the areas that have been captured from ISIS. Such needs will only increase after the capture of Raqqa city. Nonetheless, there are no strong indications that the international community will do much to help,” said Ibrahim al-Mousa, a member of the council.
The town of Kobani, which was liberated from ISIS almost three years ago, is still struggling to recover due to lack of support from Western allies. In Raqqa, which is bigger and more problematic, the situation will likely be worse.
Other than a handful of ad hoc deals with ISIS fighters, the council does not have a clear strategy for dealing with the group’s supporters and ex-fighters. In July, the council released former ISIS members whom local officials described as low-ranking militants with “no blood on their hands.”
This action was presented as a goodwill gesture to promote stability and ease tension among locals. But achieving stability requires comprehensive strategies aimed at reintegrating former ISIS fighters and supporters.
Thousands of people are family members of former — or even current — ISIS affiliates who might be discriminated against because of the choices made by their relatives. There will also be hundreds of former ISIS members who need be rehabilitated to rejoin their communities.
The absence of clear mechanisms to reintegrate former members and supporters will hinder the chances of preventing them from rejoining ISIS elsewhere or migrating to like-minded groups. Such efforts should not, however, preclude the criminal prosecution of former ISIS fighters via local courts where there is sufficient evidence to do so.
The US-led, anti-ISIS led forces — both local and international — drove local communities out of conflict areas, in Raqqa and elsewhere due to the enormous level of violence and destruction. Nonetheless, only a small number of those displaced have returned after fighting has ended.
Many will be unable to return because of security measures or will be otherwise prevented due to perceived sympathies with or ties to members of ISIS. Local communities alone cannot handle the scale of the internal displacement crisis in Raqqa. Nonetheless, the ability of the Raqqa civilian council to assure the safety of returnees and provide them with the basic services will be central to the decision of many displaced locals as to whether they go home.
The forces that drove ISIS from Raqqa can only sustain its military achievements by setting out post-ISIS mechanisms that allow locals to develop and run their city meaningfully in an inclusive manner that ensures good governance and reliable public services.