Syrian Democratic Forces enter destroyed Raqqa city in early June 2017. Photo: Delil Souleman | AFP
Even before the main battle to remove Islamic State (ISIS) from the Syrian city of Raqqa began, the United States made it clear that it is not going to contribute to post-ISIS humanitarian and stabilization efforts there. This may prove problematic as such efforts are essential to solidify the battlefield defeat of the militants.
“In terms of administrative services [in Raqqa], teachers, hospitals, who pays those salaries, that is something where Syrians are going to have to work that out,” Brett McGurk, the US presidential envoy to the US-led coalition against ISIS, previously has said. “We are not in the business of, as I said, nation-building operations.”
It's in the interests of the US to ensure an SDF victory over ISIS in the near future is solidified, which will require investments to bolster the security and stability in that volatile region. They are, to their credit, training a holding force, called the Raqqa Internal Security Forces (RISF), to help stabilize Raqqa following its capture. To date 50 RISF members have already been trained by the US. This is surely not an adequate number to effectively control an unstable war-torn provincial capital like Raqqa but a, albeit small, step in the right direction nonetheless.
The SDF also announced the creation of a civilian council, made-up of locals from Raqqa, to run the city. A committee meeting in April reportedly consisted of “important tribal figures of Raqqa to find out their opinions on how to govern it.”
Past failures to implement sufficient post-conflict contingency plans have negatively affected the United States. The prevailing aversion to nation building espoused by McGurk and many others nowadays stems from US blunders and shortcomings in Iraq where, after a swift military campaign that deposed Saddam Hussein in 2003, indecisive post-invasion planning led the United States into a costly and unpopular eight year quagmire.
Then-President Barack Obama, who had withdrawn all US forces from Iraq by December 2011, pledged he would put “no boots on the ground” when formulating his plan to “degrade and destroy” ISIS after war with the group began in August 2014. While the US has since deployed substantial numbers of ground forces to fight the militants, its heavy reliance on air power has reduced the Iraqi cities Fallujah and Ramadi to piles of debris and displaced tens-of-thousands of civilians in the process.
Failure to rebuild and stabilize these areas after ISIS is defeated on the battlefield will leave open the possibility that they, or a similar group, could exploit the lingering humanitarian crisis directly caused by the devastation of these major urban centers, to either rally support or sow more chaos and instability.
In Mosul in neighbouring Iraq analysts expressed cautious optimism
that the city can be sufficiently stabilized after ISIS, but pointed out the immense difficulty involved in stabilizing such a large metropolis. Raqqa is a much smaller case. However, unlike in Iraq the US does not work with the authorities in Syria — as underscored by McGurk's opposition to the Syrian regime retaking control over Raqqa — which makes the post-ISIS situation there much more complicated.
While Iraqi officials boast that Mosul's recapture will mark the end of ISIS — since it was from there that the group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the formation of the caliphate — Raqqa is of significant secondary importance since it was the first major Syrian city that fell to the group and from where they've launched many of their murderous rampages across the region.
Last summer the United States provided Iraqi Kurdistan $415 million to help it pay its Peshmerga soldiers, who fought off ISIS for months while not receiving their salaries for months on end due to the financial crisis afflicting the region. That move was likely done in recognition that it was in the interest of the United States to help prop up that ally.
The incumbent administration in Washington should also recognize that the successful stabilization and governance of post-ISIS Raqqa will serve to insure against the possibility that it will once again become a stronghold for terrorists. Therefore aiding such an endeavour would be in Washington's self-interest as opposed to some purely altruistic effort.
None of this is to say the US lack planning, the RISF and other measures adopted by the SDF and US are indicative of foresight to upcoming post-ISIS complications, but may not prove sufficient in dealing with the upcoming burden of stabilizing this key city.
Consequently, the Trump administration needs to reevaluate its aversion to a small nation-building exercise in Raqqa by viewing it as more of an investment against the possibility that US forces may soon have to return to that troubled region to fight yet another terrorist group.