The murder of a prominent Arab tribal figure in Raqqa is the latest indication that the city – which was the self-declared capital of the ISIS caliphate until October last year – remains mired in Arab-Kurdish rivalry and exploited by a host of domestic and foreign interests, writes Mona Alami following a recent trip she made to the beleaguered city
The recent killing of Sheikh Bashir Faisal Huwaidi, a prominent tribal figure, in Raqqa in eastern Syria comes amid a series of security breaches plaguing a city that is still struggling to recover from the brutal reign of terror imposed by the Islamic State (ISIS).
Since ISIS was driven from the city in October 2017 by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Raqqa has been beset by security incidents stoked by an array of competing actors including ISIS cells, Iran, Turkey and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, all attempting to exploit to their own ends local Kurdish and Arab rivalries.
On November 2, Sheikh Bashir Faisal Huwaidi, from the powerful Afadala clan, was found shot dead., Subsequent media reports said that Arab tribal leaders in Deir ez Zor and Raqqa had called on their fellow Arabs serving in the Kurdish-dominated SDF to defect, implicitly blaming the group for Huwaidi’s death. An Arab source speaking in a phone conversation with The Brief accused extremist elements from the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a component of the SDF, for the sheikh’s assassination. He added that the PYD had carried out the killing on behalf of the PKK, a Kurdish group to which the PYD is affiliated and is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey.
“Sheikh Huwaidi was against stripping Raqqa from its Syrian environment and also believed that the main interest of the Arab Kurdish region was to remain Syrian and not to engage in cross-border Kurdish rivalry with Turkey,” a Raqqa notable told The Brief, speaking on condition of anonymity.
However, Sheikh Hamad Bou Sadam, a prominent tribal leader, denied any PYD or SDF involvement in Huwaidi’s death, saying that the victim had been an advisor to the SDF. Bou Sadam noted that ISIS had been quick to claim responsibility for Huwaidi’s murder and had carried out a bombing attack in Raqqa a day later.
“It’s true that the tribes had a strong reaction to the killing and they demand answers”
Hekmat Habib, a senior member of the Syrian Democratic Council, the political arm of the SDF, said that many factions – including ISIS, Turkey, the Assad regime and Iran – were attempting to destabilize Raqqa. Huwaidi’s killing was part of that internecine turmoil.
“It’s true that the tribes had a strong reaction to the killing and they demand answers,” Habib said, explaining the differing views over who might have been responsible for Huwaidi’ death.
Even though ISIS was defeated and expelled from Raqqa 13 months ago, they continue to have a covert and deadly network of sleeper cells in the city and the surrounding region. In recent months, dozens of suspected ISIS members have been arrested in and around Raqqa, according to Sheikh Mohamad Nour Theeb, a tribal chief and member of the city’s legislative council. The arrests were allegedly linked to a series of bombings in the suburbs of Raqqa.
“Terrorists take advantage of the state of widespread destruction to hide explosive devices in the rubble, which often explode as cars pass,” said Nour Theeb.
Yet, ISIS cells are not alone in trying to wreak havoc in the city. According to Leyla Moustapha, the co-chair of Raqqa’s council, various factions affiliated with the Assad regime and Iranians cells are operating in the city, which explains the recent attacks targeting prominent figures. “Despite the various [disruptive] agendas of these factions, the situation has improved,” she insisted.
“Raqqa is fertile ground for foreign interference given the systemic problems facing the city “
Nour Theeb claimed that factions close to the Assad regime are actively trying to recruit young men and tribal members in Raqqa, promising a presidential pardon to anyone who served with ISIS in return for their cooperation. Raqqa is fertile ground for foreign interference given the systemic problems facing the city, 95 percent of which has been destroyed, including 60 bridges and 27 schools. The healthcare system and the electricity grid also have collapsed. Moustapha estimated the cost of repairing the electrical infrastructure in a single Raqqa street at close to $5 million. Nearly 150,000 people have returned to the city, roughly 50 percent of the original population, with the remaining residents still living in refugee camps or in villages surrounding the city.
Other significant challenges facing Raqqa’s council, beyond a non-existent infrastructure, include land disputes, bureaucratic inertia, lack of reconstruction funds and resources all of which exacerbate tensions in the city. The council, which has limited means, seems overwhelmed and its work is apparently complicated by the lack of trust between Arabs and Kurds, even though the council is jointly managed by Kurdish and Arab co-chairs.
“This new administration is far from democratic and is the result of a consensus between the various factions. Kurds are the dominant force here even though many are not part of the city’s original social fabric,” said Mohammed, a young student and a resident of the city.
The specter of terrorism looks set to endure in Raqqa, and even as the city struggles to return to normality more than a year after ISIS’ defeat, its complex social, political and economic framework offer challenges and opportunities for outside factions looking to defend their respective interests against each other.
Mona Alami is a senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. She is also a fellow with TRENDS Research & Advisory.