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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.

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