KOBANI, Syria (AP) — The Kurdish-led effort to secure Raqqa once it is liberated from the Islamic State group will require long-term U.S. political and financial support for the battered city’s governance and reconstruction, a senior Syrian Kurdish official said Tuesday.
In an interview with The Associated Press in the Kurdish-administered town of Kobani, Ilham Ahmed said the U.S. role in the fight against ISIS must not end with the liberation of the Raqqa but should continue as a guarantor of stability until a political future for the war-torn country is charted.
Ahmed is the co-president of the Syrian Democratic Council, the political wing of the U.S.-backed Kurdish-led force currently fighting to liberate the Islamic State group’s self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa from the militants. She is also a senior politician in the increasingly powerful Kurdish group that declared areas of self-administration in northern Syria last year, sparking the ire of Turkey, another U.S. ally.
Ankara considers the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, the Kurdish militia that forms the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces, as linked to the outlawed Kurdish insurgency in Turkey and fears their expansion along its borders.
“If the Americans want to protect the security of these areas and protect their (own) country from terrorism, they must continue until a democratic system is built in Syria,” Ahmed said. She said the U.S. should recognize that the crisis in Syria is not only about defeating ISIS but also about building a democratic system that protects against radical groups taking over again.
Kurdish forces have gained confidence in light of open U.S. support to their forces, particularly as the battle for Raqqa took off. Despite Turkish protests, the U.S. sent new weapons and vehicles to the YPG to enable it in the fight against IS.
The U.S. has up to 1,000 troops in Syria mostly involved in training and advising the local forces against ISIS. The U.S. administration has made clear it does not intend to be engaged in post-liberation governance or rebuilding. U.S. officials say once Raqqa is liberated, the SDF will hand over local governance to the Raqqa Civilian Council, a local group of primarily Arab locals who will govern and administer essential services.
“Raqqa has been subjected to destruction of its infrastructure,” said Ahmed, highlighting the beating the city has taken in the effort to retake it from ISIS.
“There are no more institutions. (Raqqa) is destroyed. This council has to be supported to reconstruct and to secure the daily needs of its residents so they can remain in their homes without having to migrate.”
When asked when US forces currently offering advice and training to the Kurdish-led troops in the battle will leave, Ahmed said she did not know, but added that they must continue to have a role until the contours of a future Syria take shape.
She said the Kurdish-led efforts to establish civil administrations in areas liberated from ISIS will offer “a model” for other areas in Syria, by allowing local groups to elect civil councils to administer themselves.
Raqqa, a predominantly Sunni Arab city, was the first city in Syria to be controlled by the ISIS militants, who declared it their de-facto capital in 2014. The Kurdish-led effort to form a new administration could inflame tribal and Arab sensitivities.
Ahmed said the current Raqqa council will be re-formulated once the city is liberated to include tribal notables not represented yet because they are still under ISIS control.
Ahmed said her group’s effort needs U.S. political and financial support for the reconstruction of Raqqa but also for the legitimacy of her group’s effort in creating the new political structure.
Ahmed’s group has been campaigning for a federal system in Syria, arguing it will ensure representation and autonomy for ethnic and religious groups. She said Syria’s Kurds, long ostracized before the war, can no longer be ignored in any future serious negotiations over the country’s future.
The campaign for Raqqa city began on June 6, with swift advances from the east and west. But two weeks later, the campaign stalled amid stiff resistance from ISIS militants. Ahmed said it is normal for the campaign to slow down “as the battle nears its end.”