Within the next month, the Islamic State (IS) will likely lose its grip on its Iraqi capital, Mosul, and the operation to drive it from its Syrian capital, Raqqa, will begin. The destruction of IS’s caliphate, however, is not even close to the end of the road for the movement, not least because of the manner in which it is being accomplished.
At its core the IS movement is waging a revolutionary war, and as Craig Whiteside, a fellow with The International Centre for Counter-Terrorism has explained, this means that the focus is on legitimacy. Military victories come and go but if IS is, over the long-term, gaining acceptance—whether from support, resignation, or fear—among the population it hopes to govern (the Sunni Arabs), then it is winning. It is for this reason that IS tries to embed political victories within its military defeats.
A classic case is Fallujah. The American Marines killed many hundreds of IS jihadists to clear the city in 2004, but the battle raised the profile of the organisation, and the destruction damaged the Coalition’s cause. IS captured the city again in January 2014 and last June, when the operation against Fallujah finally arrived, IS resisted long enough to allow Iran’s proxy militias to commit sectarian atrocities, then withdrew to preserve its forces. Many in the area are now more frightened of the militias than IS.
In Mosul, at least, the U.S. kept the militias out of the city itself. Ditto the Kurdish Peshmerga. Yet there are dangers ahead. The fact that the militias have been kept out of the fighting, while the professional forces like the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) have been severely eroded, leaves open the possibility that these radically sectarian forces that answer to a foreign master might be positioned to swoop in afterwards, which would create a near-perfect political set-up for IS. Still, the CTS is a professional force that can break through IS’s defences in Mosul and there are some sprigs of optimism that a national compact can be put together in the aftermath. Neither of those things are true in Syria.
Barring an eleventh-hour reversal of policy, the U.S. will be pushing IS out of Raqqa City using the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a force totally dominated by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), with some Arab units attached. The YPG is the name under which the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) operates in Syria. Despite the tactical proficiency and decades of experience gained from the war waged by the PKK against NATO member Turkey, as well as the unifying ideology centred on the cult of personality around its imprisoned leader, the PKK is a relatively small militia, and the casualties in Raqqa will likely be horrendous. The political fallout of sending the PKK into Raqqa is worse—even in the narrow terms of the anti-IS mission.
The problem with using the PKK-dominated SDF in Raqqa is often framed around the question of Turkey. This is a real and serious problem: the Turks have already demonstrated that they can and will disrupt an American-PKK offensive at Raqqa. The PKK seizing the city could trigger a broader war between Arabs and Kurds, and/or between the PKK and Turkey on Syrian territory, which potentially spills back into Turkey itself, multiplying the number of fissures that can be exploited by the jihadists. But Turkey is not the main problem with using the PKK in Raqqa.
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