With Daesh under mounting pressure in the battle for al-Raqqa, the group will be seeking new ways – in other locations and abroad – to uphold the caliphate and export terror. By Lauren Williams.

Stakes high in the battle for al-Raqqa

A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces watches as smoke rises from al-Raqqa  this month.
A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces watches as smoke rises from al-Raqqa this month.

Evrim Rojin only just caught sight of the black-clad figure in the window frame before he shot her in the leg. But then, the Kurdish military commander got her own back.

“I killed all his friends, ha ha ha,” Rojin says, using a laughing emoji on the messaging service WhatsApp.

The 25-year-old is now incapacitated, holed up in the city of al-Malikiyah, 360 kilometres from the new front line in al-Raqqa, managing media liaison for the Kurdish women fighters there. 

She will most likely not be able to use her leg again, after coming up against Islamic State fighters in the battle for Kobanî, liberated from Daesh in 2015. But that’s not why she describes herself as “sad and angry”.

“I just want to fight more,” she says.

Rojin is among the thousands of battle-hardened and highly ideologically motivated, secular and largely communist, female Kurdish forces involved in the fight against Daesh in Syria. The Kurdish women form a highly symbolic chunk of the United States-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of Arab and Kurdish fighters with the YPG, the militarised arm of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), and an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. 

Intent on liberating Daesh’s female slaves, the Kurdish female fighters relish the fact Daesh fighters believe they will not go to heaven if martyred by a woman. 

The SDF, advancing with assistance from US air support, this week made headway into the outer city suburbs of the Daesh “capital” of al-Raqqa. On Monday, the Arab–Kurdish coalition seized the neighbourhood of Al-Romaniya to the west of al-Raqqa and advanced all the way to the Old City walls. Al-Romaniya is one of several neighbourhoods to the east and west of the city seized since the offensive began on June 6.

The US coalition estimates Daesh has between 3000 and 4000 fighters holed up in the city, which is now surrounded on three sides. The SDF comprises about 55,000 soldiers, although not all are engaged in the al-Raqqa offensive. An estimated 160,000 civilians are also trapped, prevented from leaving by Daesh, who have shown a penchant for using human shields in Mosul and a willingness to execute any civilians attempting to flee. About 10,000 people who have managed to do so are languishing at makeshift refugee camps north of the city. 

“We have positions to the east, north and west that are physically manned by SDF forces, so there is an isolation of Raqqa,” US Colonel Ryan Dillon, the spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, said.

The Euphrates River forms a natural obstacle for fighters fleeing south, and US forces say they have targeted and struck more than 20 boatloads of fighters attempting to escape in that direction.

As Kurdish and Arab forces gain a foothold on the edges of the city, they are faced with the now tried and tested tactics of Daesh. The pathways and buildings leading into the city are littered with mines and improvised explosive devices.

“We have seen ISIS using everything at their disposal: mines, booby traps, rigged static vehicles, IEDs,” Dillon said.

“That’s what makes things so difficult for the SDF.”

Rojin says more than a hundred Daesh fighters have already been killed, and while she admits there have been Kurdish casualties, she would not put a number on them.

Daesh fighters are believed to be hiding in the vast network of tunnels they have built across their territory.

“They are cowards, they fight with IEDs, not guns,” Rojin says. “This is not a normal fight.”

Despite these setbacks, the battle for al-Raqqa is expected to be relatively short-lived, especially in comparison with the drawnout nine-month-long battle for the sister city of Mosul in Iraq where Daesh is on the brink of defeat. There, they enjoyed a greater degree of local support in a city almost 10 times the size.

US forces have not been willing to speculate on the length of the al-Raqqa offensive, but one commander of the Christian militia, the Bethnahrin Women Protection Forces, Nisha Gewriye, posited a fight that would last three months. Some now say the city could even roll over in a matter of days or weeks, as thousands of Daesh fighters flee.

But while a victory in the city will be a symbolic blow to the self-proclaimed caliphate, it does not spell the end of Daesh, neither geographically nor ideologically. Nor is it clear who will administer al-Raqqa once it is liberated, and the potential for ongoing conflict in the city is real.

When Daesh is removed from the al-Raqqa heartland they overran and have ruled with an iron fist since 2014, a new front line looms further south along the Euphrates, in the sprawling region of Deir ez-Zor. The sparsely populated desert region borders both Iraq and Jordan and is home to Syria’s oil reserves, making it a valuable source of revenue and geographically important hub for ISIS.

“Obviously Raqqa is very significant. It will be a blow to their [Daesh’s] prestige and ability to recruit. But they still have Deir ez-Zor,” Colonel Dillon said.

“We are targeting their ability to finance their operations through oil revenue there.” 

The city centre by the same name is controlled by Syrian government forces aligned with Iran and Russia. Hosting an estimated 200,000 civilians, mostly tribal Sunnis, the city is surrounded by Daesh fighters.

It presents the main artery connecting Iran to Damascus and beyond to Lebanon in the west, making it an important transport hub for weapons sent from Iran to their proxy militia in Lebanon, Hezbollah. Just like Daesh, the Syrian regime is unlikely to give up Deir ez-Zor without a fight. 

Rodger Shanahan, Middle East analyst with the Lowy Institute, says it is unlikely the Kurds will be able to extend themselves to take the lead in that battle.

“You would think that Islamic State will put up some fight around Deir ez-Zor, there are significant numbers of fighters there, but there is also Syrian army there. Somebody would have to take them out.

“It won’t be the Kurds. It may well be pro-Assad military groups.”

In al-Raqqa itself, questions over who will administer the city once liberated also present significant risk. Kurds there lead the offensive, but the city itself is Arab Sunni and mistrustful of Kurdish forces who are trying to expand their semi-autonomous zone along the north-eastern Syrian corner. Turkey, at war with the PKK, is also unlikely to tolerate Kurds holding the city. 

Dillon says the plan is to hand the city over to the opposition Arab council, established to prevent a power vacuum in exactly this scenario.

“We believe the liberation of Raqqa should be done by a force that looks a lot – meaning demographics – like the area that is being liberated,” he said.

But as Shanahan points out, the Syrian regime and its Russian allies are unlikely to hand over the city to opposition forces in the long term. Shanahan believes the Arab councils lack the state support or resources to administer the city. The US, meanwhile, has made it clear it will not provide administrative support beyond the targeting of Daesh. 

Shanahan believes that, eventually, Damascus will regain control of the city.

“The US has made it clear that they are not about governing inside Syria. US support is temporary and tactical. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were skirmishes but there is only one outcome and that is a negotiated settlement with Damascus.” 

Meanwhile, as Daesh-held territory contracts geographically, the group will likely turn to the export of terror in a bid to uphold its motto: “Islamic State will remain”. The caliphate may be disappearing, but the ideology continues to inspire.

Terror, Shanahan says, “has always been one of their aims”. 

“It’s a complementary line of operation. Their capability of doing more spectacular attacks might be constrained, but their intent hasn’t changed. As we have seen, people still feel inspired to carry out terror attacks in the name of Islamic State.

“Islamic State was never going to survive as a physical entity but the people that they have trained, they are the longer-term issue and nothing has changed.” •

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 17, 2017 as "‘Not a normal  fight’".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription