The Situation Around Northern Raqqa – Update
Over the past few weeks, FSA and YPG forces have made significant gains into ISIS territory. The capture of Tal Abyad, a crucial border crossing into Turkey, has been hailed by many as one of the largest strategic blows to ISIS yet. The taking of the city cut off a crucial ISIS supply route and led to the linkage of two previously separated Kurdish regions or cantons. With a victory in Tal Abyad, the opposition and Kurdish forces are met with several new challenges.
Before the battle to liberate Tal Abyad, there were roughly 70,000 inhabitants; today there are 10,000. Roughly half of those who left prior to the battle fled to the ISIS capital of Raqqa City. The other have fled to the neighboring Urfa province in Turkey. Those who remained in the city are now dealing with shortages of food, water and electricity. In addition, the city’s schools are being used as bases for the many fighters in the area. The refugees who fled to Turkey are largely willing to return but reluctant to do so as there is far too little aid for the large numbers of refugees. The few aid organizations present were already overwhelmed by dealing with refugees from Kobane canton and are unable to help those from Tal Abyad. The residents of North Raqqa and Tal Abyad who fled to ISIS controlled, Raqqa City, do not support ISIS per se, but find the stability of civil society in ISIS controlled areas preferable to the unknowns that come with PYD/YPG control over their areas.
The functionality of civil society is a large concern to the many people still residing in the area, as well as the refugees who are now beginning to contemplate returning. So far in Tal Abyad, a PYD police unit has been deployed to provide law and order until the local council can take over the policing (instead of policing maybe regulation?) and judicial duties. This will take at least one week and is set to include proportionate ethnic representation. So far no international or local aid groups have entered Tal Abyad or the surrounding areas since its capture. This too is the case with Kobane, as it has also lacked necessary support. This is hopefully set to change as Arab and Kurdish activists are seeking to create partnerships to rebuild their civil society, assist the future local councils and provide social services. This work will prove crucial to the stability and success of the area, as supposed ethnic tensions have cast doubt on future cooperation between Arab and Kurdish communities. The cramped conditions of refugees and suspicion have led to rumors of violations by Kurdish forces, and these areas are currently being investigated by local activists.
The military situation in Raqqa has improved significantly in the fight against ISIS over the past few weeks. Currently the YPG and FSA control the ground from the Turkish border to the M4 highway. South of the M4, the town of Ayn Essa is under ISIS control but surrounded by YPG and FSA forces. The area to the East by the border with Hasakah province remains difficult to control and is easily operable by ISIS. The YPG control the roads East and West into Northern Raqqa province, the Western Tal Abyad surburbs to the Kobane border and they are largely in control of the town of Tal Abyad. FSA forces mainly control Suluk, the Northern and Southern Ayn Essa suburbs, Marouda, Sharaqaq and the 93rd military brigade base. FSA forces are working to capture Ayn Essa and the areas around Sharaqaq. These FSA forces are represented by among others, Abo Essa’s battalion of Liwaa Thouar Raqqa.
In summary, the coalition between FSA forces and Kurdish forces are still pushing ISIS closer towards their capital of Raqqa city. The problems they face however, are not all military, as the civil society in the newly conquered areas pose great challenges. Dealing with a protracted refugee issue, sectarian tension, commodity shortages and fledgling local government will test both group’s capacity to control swathes multi-ethnic of territory.