Outside Atma camp in Syria’s northern Idlib province, Abu Mokhles has been sleeping on the street for two days. It is the second time in two months that he and his family have had no shelter.
His ordeal began in Raqqa province in late May, when the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) advanced on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) in the town of al-Mansoura.
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As aerial bombardment of the area intensified, he and his family fled from their home on the outskirts of town. They spent the first days of the holy month of Ramadan hungry and terrified, sleeping out in the open in a nearby grove.
Eventually they fled to Ain Issa camp, 50km north of Raqqa city, in SDF-controlled territory. But the deplorable conditions in the camp – which Abu Mokhles described as a “prison” – forced the family to leave for Idlib.
“I wish death would come to me so I could rest,” Abu Mokhles said in despair, noting that he spent his meagre savings to pay his way through SDF and Syrian rebel-held checkpoints towards Idlib. When he arrived in Sarmada, Idlib province, he had no money left to buy bread for his family.
Two weeks into their stay at a camp there, fighting broke out between the rebel group Ahrar al-Sham and the al-Qaeda-linked Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham, forcing the family to flee north to Atma, where they were told there was no space for them.
The 32-year-old father of two, who used to earn a modest living as a farmer before the war, said the perilous flight from Raqqa has taken a toll on his children, aged six months and three years. Both are severely dehydrated and malnourished, and his baby boy suffers from a heart condition. He has frantically searched for medicine in Sarmada and Atma, but to no avail; clinics had only emergency-related medication.
Abu Mokhles is one of more than 200,000 people who the United Nations estimates had to flee their homes in Raqqa province amid heavy fighting between the SDF and ISIL in the past three months. Like Abu Mokhles, many of these displaced people face dire conditions.
Amid a looming humanitarian disaster in Raqqa, the international operation is getting closer to expelling ISIL out of the province and its de facto capital. But unlike Mosul, where the central Iraqi government took over, Raqqa faces an uncertain future.
Questions about who will govern the city and its province, and who will be responsible for the extensive reconstruction, are still unanswered. Likewise, the fate of Raqqa’s displaced and their chances of returning home remain uncertain.
‘Staggering loss of life’
As Abu Mokhles spends his days looking for shelter and medicine for his children in Idlib, his land in Raqqa lays bare, riddled with holes from the US-led coalition bombardment and planted with ISIL-made mines. He says the profit from the wheat he used to grow was enough to provide for his family.
Ain Issa, the main camp for internally displaced people (IDPs), has struggled to accommodate the large influx. Mustafa Bali, the SDF’s head of media relations, told Al Jazeera that conditions in the camp remained bad because of a lack of funding. The UN has also expressed concerns about IDPs’ freedom of movement being restricted in Ain Issa by local authorities.
Beyond the displacement issue, the intensified coalition air strikes in support of SDF efforts to push ISIL out of Raqqa have already claimed hundreds of civilian lives. In mid-June, Paulo Pinheiro, the chairman of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, said that aerial bombardment carried out by the coalition had resulted in a “staggering loss of civilian life“. Between March and mid-June, the UN documented the deaths of 300 civilians, including 200 in al-Mansoura, Abu Mokhles’ hometown. Twenty were his relatives who died in an air strike on a school sheltering IDPs, he said.
Between June 1 and July 25, the Syrian Network for Human Rights confirmed the deaths of 391 civilians in Raqqa at the hands of the coalition and the SDF.
Many of these deaths were caused by air strikes, which have intensified since June 6, when the SDF announced its operation to capture the city from ISIL. In the span of less than two months, the international coalition has bombarded Raqqa more than 1,200 times. Since January, the total number of air strikes on Raqqa has been more than 2,500.
Under this intense aerial bombardment, between 20,000 and 50,000 people remain in Raqqa, whose pre-war population numbered 300,000. Those remaining face a dire situation, as SDF forces have completely surrounded the city, cutting off supply routes.
Hamoud al-Mousa, a Raqqa native and member of the citizen journalist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, says the conditions in the city are deteriorating, with the remaining population having no access to electricity, potable water or medical supplies, and almost no food. “If the situation does not change, we are expecting [those remaining in] Raqqa to die of air strikes, hunger, disease or thirst.”
The UN estimates that in the coming weeks, 40 percent of those trapped in the city will leave. But escaping Raqqa is fraught with danger. Zaid al-Khalid, who managed to flee the city with his mother and four sisters in early June, said that ISIL fighters continue to arrest and torture people for trying to escape or smuggle others out.
Al-Khalid, a 25-year-old former engineering student, said that he made six attempts to escape, but retreated each time amid fears that he would be arrested by ISIL fighters. He succeeded on the seventh try, fleeing to Idlib province.
More than a month before the SDF launched its offensive on Raqqa, it announced the formation of the Raqqa Civilian Council (RCC) in Ain Issa to take over after ISIL was expelled.
The core of the SDF is the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish armed group with a political outfit (the Democratic Union Party – PYD) that has taken over most of northeastern Syria and is the main US ally on the ground in its fight against ISIL. As the YPG, along with Arab allies, has pushed into Raqqa province, some have questioned its ability to govern Arab-majority areas.
Like other SDF-sponsored councils, the RCC has joint Arab-Kurdish leadership. The Arab co-chair is tribal leader Mahmoud al-Borsan, and the Kurdish co-chair is Layla Mohammed, who used to be the co-mayor of her hometown of Tal Abyad on the Syrian-Turkish border.
Borsan heads the Walda tribe, which was forced to move to Hasakah province from the area near the city of Tabqa in Raqqa province, after their lands were flooded in the construction of the Euphrates dam.
“The council that was formed by SDF quickly contains some personalities who don’t represent Raqqa,” said Abdel Aziz al-Hinnedi, a Syrian activist from Raqqa who fled to Germany after ISIL took it over in 2014.
He says the main strength of the RCC is that it functions on the ground, as opposed to its rival, the local council formed by the Syrian opposition in Turkey. In mid-May, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the main political organ of the Syrian opposition, elected Saad Shuwish as new council head and vowed to start working on the ground in Raqqa as soon as ISIL was pushed out.
Another contender for post-ISIL legitimacy in Raqqa is Qamishli-born Ahmed Jarba, the former SNC president and leader of Syria’s Tomorrow Movement, founded in Cairo in 2016. Earlier this year, Jarba announced that his armed group, the Syrian Elite Forces, numbering 3,000 US-trained Arab fighters, would participate in the Raqqa battle. Jarba is said to have close ties with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
According to Hinnedi, the SDF is not very comfortable with the presence of Jarba’s forces in Raqqa. Jarba has been trying to recruit young men from Raqqa’s tribes to join his Tomorrow Movement and the Elite Forces. Although he does not currently enjoy much popularity in Raqqa, he may have a role to play in the military control over the city after ISIL, Hinnedi said.
The United States has so far thrown its weight behind the SDF-sponsored council, but according to Yezid Sayigh, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, this could prove problematic.
“The Americans don’t want to have to deal with [Raqqa], but if they just hand it over to the Kurdish-led council, this may cause political difficulties. The Turks might get even more upset,” Sayigh told Al Jazeera. For that reason, he said, the US may choose to delay the operation or the announcement of Raqqa’s liberation.
It is unclear whether Raqqa, with its SDF-backed council, will become part of the Kurdish autonomous project of Rojava, which has worried Turkey. Ankara has been embroiled in a bloody conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), in which more than 1,700 people were killed between 2015 and 2016, and considers YPG its sister organisation.
In March, Saleh Muslim, the PYD co-chair, told Reuters that it was likely that Raqqa would join Rojava.
Responding to a question on the subject, Bali said: “Raqqa is part of Syria and Rojava is also part of Syria … The councils formed in those [liberated] regions will decide what form their administration will take.”
It is also unclear whether the YPG’s main international backer, the US, would support an autonomous Kurdish project. The US State Department did not respond to an inquiry on the subject.
Yet another potential player on the political scene in post-ISIL Raqqa is the Syrian regime. The YPG has not sought to openly fight regime forces, although in the past they have clashed a number of times. In late February, its forces withdrew from territories they held in northern Aleppo province in favour of regime forces, which stopped the advance of Turkey-backed rebel groups.
Forces loyal to Damascus already hold parts of southern Raqqa province. Their advance further north has so far been curbed by a buffer zone, which the US-led coalition solidified with the downing of a Syrian regime plane in June.
According to Noah Bonsey, a senior researcher at the International Crisis Group, while it is unlikely that the regime would have a military presence in Raqqa after it is captured, it may pay for some services or state employee salaries, as it has done in other areas under YPG control.
“[However], that won’t amount to a whole lot of direct leverage there,” he told Al Jazeera.
Security and reconstruction
The SDF estimates that it will take months before the city is fully captured. Bali says that 45 percent of the city is already under their control and its liberation will be announced before the end of the year, after which the SDF will undertake its transfer to civilian rule.
But according to Bonsey, the transfer could be rocky if the YPG maintains influence over the Raqqa council. “In YPG-held areas, a lot of times the local officials with major roles on paper, in practice don’t actually have a lot of influence, and we’ve seen aspects of governance basically managed by cadres within the YPG and the PYD. That has been a source of tension in some areas,” he said.
After years of conflict and suffering, Hinnedi said, Raqqa residents just want security and stability. “Raqqa is doomed, in the full meaning of the word. In the city and the countryside, there are no medical or educational services, no economy. There are no people there who can organise a project of resistance,” he said.
Tribal leaders are also unlikely to resist, as some are either already rallying under the SDF’s flag (such as Daham Hadi Jarba, head of the Sanadid Forces, leader of the Shammar tribe and cousin of Ahmad Jarba), or would be willing to enter some form of an arrangement, Hinnedi said.
“You would not find a tribal leader who carries the national interest and that of the Syrian people,” he said. “They seek power and money and personal protection.”
The coalition has already started training a security force that is supposed to secure the city once fighting is over. A statement to Al Jazeera from the media office of Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), the name of the international coalition’s operation in Iraq and Syria, said that the Raqqa Internal Security Forces (RISF) consist of 500 coalition-trained and vetted officers, and their number is expected to grow to 3,500. In June, Reuters reported that a Kurdish man had been appointed as head of the RISF.
Bonsey said that to achieve the stability necessary to secure the city, reconstruction and service provision must also be addressed.
A World Bank report estimated that as of January 2017, the city had been hit by more than 2,000 air strikes, damaging or completely destroying around 17 percent of Raqqa’s housing units. Aid agencies have still not been able to estimate how much damage was caused by the 2,500 air strikes launched since then and how much more destruction there will be until Raqqa is captured.
According to Mousa, Raqqa’s infrastructure is almost completely destroyed, as the coalition strikes have destroyed schools, bakeries, phone switchboards, water stations and the electric grid.
While the US-led coalition is spending about $13.2m daily to run OIR, it has not formally allocated funds for the reconstruction of areas it has bombed in Syria. Reuters reported that the RCC has told the coalition it needs $10m a year to restore basic infrastructure in Raqqa, but it has not received a commitment for the funds.
In March, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told a meeting of the 68-nation coalition: “As a coalition, we are not in the business of nation-building or reconstruction.”
According to Sayigh, the US and the European Union are unlikely to commit funds for reconstruction until a transition deal is in place for the whole of Syria.
“The Americans might provide a bit of money to help the local council [of Raqqa] if one takes over, but I don’t think they want to get involved in a systematic way,” he told Al Jazeera.
And reconstruction efforts may not be enough to bring back some of the more than 250,000 residents who fled Raqqa over the past six years.
Al-Khalid says he will not return to Raqqa under the RCC’s rule. Services in Kurdish-controlled areas are much better and prices are lower, he said, but he does not trust the Kurdish authorities.
“SDF and the council and all that are going to rule Raqqa, they are the regime with another face,” he said. “They don’t want us to live in dignity.”
Abu Mokhles, meanwhile, wishes he could go back, but for now he has no money to go anywhere. “My heart is burning to go back, to my house, to my land, to everything I owned, so I could feed my family.”