‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” says Shakespeare’s Henry V. Its characterization of a small group fighting against incredible odds could have been written three years ago in October 2014 when Islamic State laid siege to the Kurdish city of Kobani in Syria. It was defended by a small group of men and women of the People’s Protection Units (YPG). At that time ISIS was at the height of its powers, its black clad legions of fighters with their slaves in tow and riding US Humvees they had captured from the Iraqi army, were conquering swaths of the Middle East. On October 17th their Syrian capital of Raqqa fell to the Syrian Democratic Forces and the YPG.
It is now the SDF that is the major power in eastern Syria. With help from the US-led coalition it has cleared tens of thousands of square kilometers of land and liberated hundreds of villages. The US has launched more than 12,000 airstrikes in Syria, according to estimates compiled from its strike updates posted by the US Defense Department. In a coalition Operation Inherent Resolve press briefing on October 17th US Col. Ryan Dillon said that three thousand civilians had been rescued in Raqqa in the last week. 350 ISIS fighters had surrendered. A traffic circle where ISIS had once celebrated in 2014 and held public executions, the SDF did donuts with an armored vehicle. It was a symbolic victory as men and women fighters celebrated, a stark contrast to ISIS chauvinist world of religious extremist male dominance. The coalition estimated that up to 6,500 ISIS fighters may remain in the Syrian and Iraqi desert areas straddling the border southeast of Raqqa. But the writing is on the wall, ISIS will be defeated soon.
Human rights activist and anti-ISIS campaigner Macer Gifford who has fought in Raqqa alongside the SDF’s Syriac Military Council, says the next months will be a greater challenge. “What will come next? What sort of country do we want to see emerge from this crisis? The SDF is the military umbrella that brings together all the communities in Northern Syria,” he wrote in an email. “They have proven themselves effective and reliable, the politics and ideology that underpins their struggle is also making strong progress. It’s heartwarming to see a secular and democratic federation emerge after years of tyranny.” He argues that it is important the fight against ISIS continues and the West continues to support its allies. But he also wants to see humanitarian aid to rebuild the country.
The battle for Raqqa is a great victory for the SDF but thousands have been killed and wounded in the struggle against ISIS in Syria. This includes dozens of foreign volunteers who came to aid the Kurds and others in their time of need. Chris Scurfield’s son Konstandinos Erik Scurfield, often called “Kosta” for short, was one of those. “I am shocked as it shows the fundamental differences in Kurdish politics,” his father Chris Scurfield said from the UK. “Personally I am relieved my son’s sacrifice has resulted in putting Kurds’ issues onto the world stage and has led to the sustainability of a model democracy in the Middle East.” He hopes that the concept of democratic confederalism put forward by the SDF and its political equivalent will emerge in Syria.
There is still fighting to be done. The SDF’s southern frontline now rests on the Khabur river from south of Al-Shaddadi toward the town of Al-Busayrah on the Euphrates. Wladimir Van Wilgenburg, an analyst who is on the ground in eastern Syria wrote in The Daily Beast that US Special Envoy Brett McGurk met with the Raqqa Civil Council on Tuesday. Saudi Arabia Minister for Gulf Affairs Thamer al-Sabhan also visited the area, scoping out opportunities for donor countries to aid in rebuilding. Saudi Arabia has been an implacable opponent of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Wilgenburg says Raqqa is a symbolic victory that leaves future uncertainty. “The ramifications of the SDF defeat of ISIS is the problem of what the Syrian government will do. Is it going to accept a federation or autonomy or work with Iran and Turkey as we saw what happened in Kurdistan in Iraq?” The affect of watching the Kurds in Iraq lose area they conquered from ISIS to the central government and US actions to support Baghdad have cast a shadow over what happens in eastern Syria. The US has not articulated what its long-term strategy is beyond the defeat of ISIS.