When the world gets closer.

We help you see farther.

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter.

LA STAMPA

On Raqqa Frontline: Kurds, Arabs, Italians Close In On ISIS

Kurdish-led forces advance with hopes to recapture the ISIS capital. Together with Arab and foreign fighters, they share a common enemy. But what happens when ISIS is gone?

Soldiers of the Syrian Democratic Forces in Raqqa
Soldiers of the Syrian Democratic Forces in Raqqa
Giordano Stabile

RAQQACommander Jihad Khabad, a tough and slender man with a well-kept beard, is holding a radio in his left hand and scanning a tablet with a map of the old city center of Raqqa. His men are stationed in buildings on the frontline between the Al-Sinaa and Rafiqah neighborhoods, a few hundred meters from the old city walls, hunting for snipers who appear suddenly out of side streets.

Whenever a gunman is spotted, often with surveillance drones, he is eliminated with rocket launchers. "At night they hide in tunnels," the commander explains. "Then during the day they start popping out all over the place, even in neighborhoods that have been freed. Every movement is a danger. Under every stone there could be a mine or a trap-bomb. We have more wounded every day."

"Tension reigns'

From the terrace atop a three-story building, you can watch the battle unfold through the holes in the rampart. The entire neighborhood of Al-Sinaa, conquered by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) a month ago, is still a battleground of explosions, sniper shots, and more powerful detonations. In order to get to advanced positioning, Toyota SUVs from a rearguard base in Al-Mashalab, a couple of kilometers to the east, serves as transport hub. It's full throttle through the streets covered in rubble, from gutted houses to blackened automobile carcasses. There isn't a living soul for as far as you can see, with local residents long since fled.

ISIS militants in Raqqa Photo: Dabiq/Planet Pix via ZUMA

There are some 20 soldiers in this frontline position. About two-thirds or more are Kurdish, the others are Syrian Arabs from the Raqqa area. The commander is a Kurd, and needs an interpreter to communicate with all his troops. Tension reigns. At 29, the Kurdish commander is in charge of the most crucial area of the frontline, the gateway to the old city center. Just last month, ISIS killed his predecessor, Gya Kobani – a true leader, beloved by the Kurdish guerilla fighters, respected by all. "They were able to locate his position with one of their drones," said one Kurdish fighter. "They started hitting us with mortar shells, in the end a car bomb killed him."

ISIS is a monster opposed to all our ideals.

That is why the old city walls have been inaccessible in recent days. The section that was conquered two weeks ago contains the historical building Qasr al-Banat, Palace of the Ladies, the crown jewel of the year-long campaign by anti-ISIS forces to win back the Syrian city declared the capital of the Caliphate.

Kurdish and Arab forces are two worlds that don't seem to mix despite efforts by U.S. military advisors. On one side you have Marxist-Leninist guerilla fighters who call each other comrades and are shaped by Abdullah Ocalan (the jailed Kurdish nationalist leader) and rigorous discipline similar to that of the Vietcong. And on the other side you have Bedouin fighters, the majority of whom are from the large tribes of Shammar, natives of Saudi Arabia, pious and traditional Muslims.

United against ISIS

The only thing that unites them is their hate for ISIS, especially for their foreign fighters. "Tunisians, Algerians, Libyans, Egyptians, Chechens, and Russians," Ahmed, a bulky Arab fighter in a bandana, lists them off, one-by-one. He recounts how he was trained, "for five months," by the Americans, while living in the Al-Sinaa neighborhood with his family, parents, three wives, and children (he couldn't specify how many exactly). "They killed my mother because she did not want to marry off one of her daughters to a foreigner," he says. "They killed two of my nephews, one was 13 years old. So now I will cut their throats." He says ISIS, is caught in a trap: "They are dead, they can't escape, we will kill them all." His family, those who are left – who knows who, is still "over there", in the old city center.

At night, it's the Kurdish YPG "special forces' that reign. Around two or three the temperature goes from 45 °C (113 °F) during the day to 25 °C (77 °F). The guerilla fighters have night vision goggles and move according to intelligence information gathered from coalition airplanes and drones. All ISIS fighters can do is hide. The YPG have been trained "for months and months' 29-year-old Claudio Locatelli. A native of Curno in northern Italy, he explains that he used to be "an activist, a freelance journalist, and a barkeeper." Now, he is part of the YPG "International Brigade" modeled after those who fought in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. There are Danes, Germans, Americans, and Canadians. They have come for the "Kurdish cause" and to destroy ISIS.

A "democratic Syria" where "Kurdish and Arabs, Muslims and Christians' can live together on equal ground.

"I got a tattoo for those who died in Paris, and another one for those who died in London," Locatelli says, "But the thing that pushed me the most to come here was the massacre of the Yazidi, the raping of an entire population, that's what ISIS is, a monster opposed to each and every one of our ideals. I couldn't limit myself to activism, to reporting; I had to fight."

The International Brigade is among the units whose duty is to conquer territory, "one building at a time," a long yet constant battle. "We move ahead 100, sometimes 200 meters every night. If all goes well, this will be over in a month, at the most two," says Locatelli.

In the northeastern part of the country, the stated goal now is a "democratic Syria" where "Kurdish and Arabs, Muslims and Christians' can live together on equal ground. But there are not only ethnic tensions, there are also resources — including oil and minerals — that various players are eyeing. This is the great concern of post-Raqqa. "What will America do? Are they going to sell us out to Turkey?" Firas Dar, a PYD leader wonders.

But not even America knows. A former special forces official "Dan" who was part of the team who captured Saddam Hussein in 2003, is now a "contractor" in Kobani. He is sure that the Kurds will not push for independence "because they know that after 10 seconds Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would attack them."

In the end there could be "an agreement with the Assad regime," notes Dan, so long as a battle doesn't break out between Americans and Russians for control of the border between Syria and Iraq. These battle lines were drawn in the sand 100 years ago by Sykes and Pico (Asia Minor Agreement), and have largely shaped conflicts in the Middle East ever since. And they won't end with the defeat of ISIS in Raqqa.

You've reached your monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
  • $2.90/month or $19.90/year. No hidden charges. Cancel anytime.
Already a subscriber? Log in

When the world gets closer, we help you see farther

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
Economy

Europe's Winter Energy Crisis Has Already Begun

in the face of Russia's stranglehold over supplies, the European Commission has proposed support packages and price caps. But across Europe, fears about the cost of living are spreading – and with it, doubts about support for Ukraine.

Protesters on Thursday in the German state of Thuringia carried Russian flags and signs: 'First our country! Life must be affordable.'

Martin Schutt/dpa via ZUMA
Stefanie Bolzen, Philipp Fritz, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister, Mandoline Rutkowski, Stefan Schocher, Claus, Christian Malzahn and Nikolaus Doll

-Analysis-

In her State of the Union address on September 14, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, issued an urgent appeal for solidarity between EU member states in tackling the energy crisis, and towards Ukraine. Von der Leyen need only look out her window to see that tensions are growing in capital cities across Europe due to the sharp rise in energy prices.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

Sign up to our free daily newsletter.

In the Czech Republic, people are already taking to the streets, while opposition politicians elsewhere are looking to score points — and some countries' support for Ukraine may start to buckle.

With winter approaching, Europe is facing a true test of both its mettle, and imagination.

Keep reading...Show less

When the world gets closer, we help you see farther

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
You've reached your monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
  • $2.90/month or $19.90/year. No hidden charges. Cancel anytime.
Already a subscriber? Log in
Writing contest - My pandemic story
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS

Central to the tragic absurdity of this war is the question of language. Vladimir Putin has repeated that protecting ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine was a driving motivation for his invasion.

Yet one month on, a quick look at the map shows that many of the worst-hit cities are those where Russian is the predominant language: Kharkiv, Odesa, Kherson.

Watch VideoShow less
MOST READ