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Battle over Raqqa

Karlos Zurutuza Raqqa
September 20, 2017

The battle for "Islamic State" stronghold Raqqa has reached its final stages, according to the Syrian Democratic Forces, the US-backed multi-ethnic alliance fighting IS. Karlos Zurutuza reports from Raqqa.

Ein Blick von einer der beiden Positionen der MFS in Raqqa
Image: DW/K.Zurutuza

Getting to the headquarters of Syriac fighters in Raqqa involves driving mostly across a desert. The route is exhausting and not entirely safe but, for the time being, it's the only chance to avoid the area still under the control of the Islamic State (IS).

Once in the south western outskirts of the city, you just have to follow your ear: the base of the Syriac Military Council (MFS) is right next to an American base from which mortar is launched every five minutes.

Commander Matai Hannah has just returned from there with a bit of food - his "Meat Ready to Eat" combat ration.

"Their base is just behind that wall. I wouldn't mind taking you there, but I'm sure they will not like it," Hannah told DW.

Matai Hannah (right) on a tank
Commander Hannah (right) is part of the Syriac Military Council that fights against IS Image: DW/K.Zurutuza

At 22, Hannah has generously paid for his rank with a lost kidney, the scar that criss-crosses his chest and a bullet in the head which only grazed him.

That didn't happen in Raqqa though, but in his native town of Qamishli - 600 kilometers (370 miles) northeast of Damascus - back in 2015. The enemy, however, was the same.

Pre-war censuses in Syria placed the number of Syriac Christians at around 10 percent of a total population of 23 million. But what had been a safe haven for Eastern Christians fleeing neighboring countries - especially Iraq - turned into a lethal trap for non-Muslim minorities after 2011.

It was in 2012 when the Syriacs began to organize their own armed forces. The first one was Sutoro ("security" in Turoyo, the Syriac language) - a police unit that would eventually fracture between those loyal to Assad and those siding with the Syrian Kurdish Peoples' Protection Units (YPG).

Hannah and his people opted for the second option as the political trajectory of Kurds and Syriac dissidents have run parallel in the country's northeast. Both the Democratic Union Party (PYD) - YPG's political wing and the dominant among the Syrian Kurds - and the Syriac Union Party (SUP) were founded in the early 2000s, and both were illegal, said SUP president Isho Gawriye.

Map: Territory held by armed factions in Iraq and Syria (DW)

"The Syrian constitution did not recognize the Syriacs as a nation, nor did it accept that one of us could be president. A Muslim could not convert to Christianity, but the opposite was legal," Gawriye told DW from the headquarters of the Syriac Union Party in Qamishli.

"That [regime] of the Assads' was an Arab and supposedly secular regime in which non-Arab peoples such as Kurds or Syriacs had no place," he added.

The MFS was created in 2013 as the military wing of the SUP. In 2015 they joined the then Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the US backed inter-ethnic coalition today fighting IS in the northeast. The next significant move would come in March, 2016, when delegates from various northern regions and ethnicities proclaimed the "Democratic Federation of Northern Syria."

'The enemy is just in front of us'

An armored vehicle is the only way to access Raqqa's frontline. The MFS has only one so it's always packed with replacement fighters as well as boxes of ammunition and food.

The Syriac Hummer skids through the rubble of a ghost neighborhood until it reaches the first of the two positions the MFS keeps deep inside the city.

"We are around 300 meters from each other and the enemy is just in front of us," Alexis, another MFS member, told DW while he helped unloading the vehicle.

Also in his early twenties, Alexis is already another veteran. He joined the MFS when IS was trying to take over Hassaka, his hometown, back in 2015. Like his fellow MFS fighters, the inertia of the war has dragged him to Raqqa, where he now fights alongside a 40-man force comprised mainly of Syriacs like him, but which also includes Kurds, Arabs, and even three Western volunteers.

The 26-year old Californian known locally as "Christian," told DW that he joined the fight against IS because it's a "good cause". A former veteran of the Iraq war, Christian left the Marines to enlist the French Foreign Legion, from which he would eventually defect to come to Syria.

Macer Gifford ist einer der ausländischen Freiwilligen, die mit der MFS in Raqqa kämpfen
Foreign fighters like Macer Gifford (not his real name) have joined MFS against ISImage: DW/K.Zurutuza

Whereas Christian is highly respected within the MFS ranks for his proven experience in combat, Macer Gifford - also a pseudonym - admits he had no previous military training. The 30-year-old Londoner was actually a currency trader until he made it to northern Syria, in late 2014.

"The Kurds have lived side-by-side with Christians and Arabs, and they understand that it has to be like that", this man who labels himself as an "internationalist" told DW.

"This is a revolution in every sense of the word. The Middle East has been waiting for a revolution to come along, it's almost like a renaissance for this part of the world," blurted the British fighter.

Controversial airstrikes

A key factor in the SDF advance against IS are the highly controversial US air strikes. Amnesty International has recently criticized the US-led campaign for aerial bombardment and artillery on areas likely to contain civilians and asked for an end to attacks that risk being indiscriminate.

SDF officials told DW that they are in control of over 80 percent of Raqqa although the attention has recently shifted to Deir el-Zour, where US backed SDF forces are at risk of colliding with the Russian backed Syrian Army.

Tatoos with religious motifs are recurrent among Syriacs
No one knows what will come once IS is defeatedImage: DW/K.Zurutuza

Wladimir van Wilgenburg, a Kurdish affairs expert currently on the ground talks of a "historical moment" taking place in the country's northeast. But what comes after IS, he says, "remains unclear."

"Most likely the Americans will stay for some years, but it's difficult to know what will happen afterwards. Either the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria will reach an agreement with Damascus against Turkish influence in Syria, or Turkey will reach an agreement with Syria and Russia to undermine the Kurds and his allies. They could also remain de facto autonomous and not reach an agreement with anyone," the Dutch researcher told DW.

Macer Gifford shares the widespread feeling of uncertainty.

"There's a difference between your hopes and what the future might bring," recalls the volunteer during his night watch. He admits that the country might well be divided in two: one part run by the regime and the other by the SDF.

"Assad is a dictator, but not a fool - and I think he's willing to negotiate with the SDF," said the MFS fighter, just before the start of the umpteenth air strike over Raqqa.