Almost half of Raqqa has yet to be recaptured from Daesh. But plans for the city's future are already on the table.

A battered mosque seen through a hole in the wall on Wednesday, July 26, 2017. US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are on the front lines of the fighting on the eastern side of Raqqa, Syria,
A battered mosque seen through a hole in the wall on Wednesday, July 26, 2017. US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are on the front lines of the fighting on the eastern side of Raqqa, Syria, (TRT World and Agencies)

In Syria, recapturing a city from Daesh doesn't mean returning it to the Assad regime.

American-backed forces have made significant advances in their battle to take the northern city of Raqqa, Daesh's de facto capital in Syria since 2014.

But what would the fall of Raqqa mean for the city's future?

Who will govern Raqqa?​

In Raqqa, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a group dominated by the PKK's Syrian affiliate the PYD, and its armed wing the YPG, have taken the lead in reclaiming the city, despite Turkey's objections.

The PKK has fought Turkey for more than 30 years and is listed as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US, and the European Union. Turkey has long criticised US support of the YPG in Syria; in Turkey, in the last year alone, almost 300 died in PKK attacks.

In late 2016, more than half a year before the operation began in the mostly Arab-populated Raqqa, Turkey offered to participate in the operation along with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), an umbrella coalition of opposition groups from throughout the country, in order to prevent the YPG gaining more territory.

But the US chose to back the YPG again in its battle for Raqqa, reassuring Turkey that the YPG would not be in a position to take over, and that only Arab forces in SDF would enter the city centre. The YPG alongside with SDF has, however already entered the city.

But the US hasn't just chosen to enter into the fight. Two months before the offensive began, US-allied forces announced the formation of a council which they say will administer Raqqa and its surrounding provinces after the overthrow of Daesh.

At least fifty percent of Raqqa still remains under Daesh control, but the SDF has already handed the administration of recaptured areas over to the Raqqa Civilian Council (RCC), co-chaired by a leading PYD figure, Layla Mohamed.

Arab self-rule and broken promises

The US promises to leave the administration of Raqqa to its own people once Daesh is defeated, and says the relationship with YPG is only temporary and tactical. But the SDF is seeking long-term support from the US for their role.

Indeed, it found it in Manbij, another northern city where the SDF fought to defeat Daesh in 2016, later creating same type of a council where they still retain control. The US also supported YPG forces to defeat Daesh there – and also promised their withdrawal afterwards – a promise that has never been kept.

Some civilians in Manbij who suffered under Daesh rule still haven't found their long-awaited freedom.

"After Daesh, people thought that SDF would be better. They were happier with them because they could get their freedom back, " a 21-year-old opposition activist and refugee who fled Raqqa told TRT World, speaking condition of anonymity.

But instead he says, he was detained almost for a month alongside many others and forced to join SDF, as was the case with many of his friends.

"They are arresting anybody who has any kind of connection with the FSA," he says. "Once, they arrested from 70 to 80 people just because their brothers or cousins are from the FSA."

Another concern for Raqqa is the administration of a mostly Arab populated city by a YPG-dominated force.

The US guarantees the independence of the RCC, which promises to establish 14 committees that represent every community living in Raqqa. A report by International Crisis Group (ICG) said "the expansion of YPG control to additional Arab population centres could strain its governing capacity to breaking point."

It's not clear yet if the council will work with Raqqa's Arab tribes to reach an agreement or if the US will eventually pressure them to leave the administration to them.

Has YPG got bigger plans for the region?

But for both Arab-dominated cities, Raqqa and Manbij, that are to be administered by SDF councils, the YPG has another goal.

Co-chair of the YPG, Saleh Muslim, says he expects Raqqa to join a decentralised system of government being set up in northern Syria.

"We expect (this) because our project is for all Syria ... and Raqqa can be part of it," Muslim told Reuters.

He previously expressed his desire for Manbij to form a part of his self-administrated project.

The group, which had the US' support since 2014, took control of most of the northern Syria after defeating Daesh with military support of the US. Now the US has bases on these territories. The PYD currently claims three cantons in Syria: Afrin, Kobane and Jazira, which are seen as first steps in the group's ultimate aim of autonomous administration in the region.

Source: TRT World