Kurdish Militias Are Taking Control of Northern Syria While Moving Towards Raqqa - and There's Not Much Any Other Armed Forces Can Do About It

June 15, 2017

Even though Massoud Barzani is not the president of Iraqi Kurdistan by law any more since 2015, he’s still considered as the de facto chief of the Kurdish region, and he urges all of his neighbors to accept a total independence of kurds in the whole middle east. Despite the still ongoing refusal of the Iraqi government, Barzani’s desire of establishing the first Kurdish state in the region will probably be fulfilled and accepted by most western states, who are backing him since more than a decade. Hence, Barzani recently declared that an official referendum over total Kurdish independence in Iraq was to be held in September, 2017.


If Syrian Kurds have not much in common with their Iraqi cousins, a common agreement on a Greater Kurdistan, reuniting Iraqi and Syrian territories, could soon be at stake. While Barzani Kurds have recently realized they would not take the major lead on the battle of Mosul on the Iraqi side, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and other Syrian Kurdish militias are, on the contrary, leading the great reconquista of Syrian territory against the Islamic State. After winning Manbij, Syrian Democratic Forces (composed in majority of Kurdish militants, with other Assyrian militias, former FSA fighters and sunni arab tribes) are now in the front line inside the Battle of Raqqa : Kurds already control suburban Al-Mashalab district. When one thinks back of how Kurds were struggling to maintain their own survival in 2014 in the face of ISIS victories, it is quite striking to realize how much they achieved in 3 years.


The dark parts show the clear advance of ISIS militants at the end of the year 2014, a couple of months after the establishment of the Caliphate. Back then, if the survival of the Ba’th regime was questionable, very few expected the kurds to become the main party at stake in the Syrian War, in regards of the territories they controlled. (Source : ©Thomas Van Linge)


Today, in June 2017, Syrian Kurds have definitely controlled the greatest parts of the north (in yellow). Against all odds, they are the ones who began retaking Raqqa from the hands of ISIS, while the Syrian Arab Army, the Turks and  other Syrian rebels are still far from reaching the Islamic State’s main city in Syria.


One year ago, after the declaration of the “Rojava” (Western Kurdistan) by Syrian Kurds of the PYD, it seemed that the Kurds were becoming the first military power of the whole Syrian war. Considering this issue, an “Erdogan-Assad” unofficial negotiation started taking place a couple of weeks before the Turkish coup d’état: it highlighted the fear of the two countries that, in a post-ISIS Syria, Kurds would probably take a good share of Syria’s territory to include it in their Rojava project - and soon after would start claiming more territories in the southern parts of Turkey. Therefore, the Syrian and Turkish government tried to collaborate in order to prevent this Greater Kurdistan to ever happen. Kurdish militias, on the other hand, kept on winning territories and participating in important battles, even in parts of Syria where they are not at all in majority, like Manbij (that they completely control today under the SDF) or Aleppo, where they still control a few neighborhoods.


Indeed, as French researcher Fabrice Balanche stated in his analysis of the Syrian conflict, the SDF could for example rely on a kurdish minority within Manbij, who assured them a local political power in the aftermath of the battle. Raqqa, however, is composed of almost 100% of Sunni Arabs whom, if some are defiant towards ISIS and would be cheering over their military defeat, most would probably not accept to become part of a vast Kurdish state. The same dilemma was at stake in Mosul, where the coalition finally decided that Sunni Arab tribes were going to be in the frontline of the battle to regain control of the Iraqi city - Kurdish and Shia militants would (officially) stay behind, in order not to scare the Sunni civilians of Mosul who feared from suffering the same fate as ISIS occupiers…


In Raqqa, however, the international coalition has let the Kurds lead the way. In the long run, this strategy seems unstable and the fate of Raqqa remains uncertain. If Kurds were to take over Raqqa and push jihadists to retreat, the city would probably not last under a Kurdish political control.

[1] Syrian and Iraqi Kurds: Conflict and Cooperation, Dr. Paasche, published in the Middle East Policy Council :

“While attempts to compromise have been made in the past with little success, a more recent meeting in Dohuk (Kurdistan Region of Iraq, or KRI) between the various Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish parties appears to be more promising”




[2] The Die Is Cast: The Kurds Cross the Euphrates, by Fabrice Balanche, published in the Washington Institute of the Near East Policy

“Meanwhile, the PYD offensive has been supported by coalition airstrikes, indicating that the move was at least partly coordinated with the United States and was not a unilateral PYD decision. From that perspective, the advance toward Manbij could be part of a strategy to win back Raqqa. If Manbij falls, the capital of the "caliphate" could eventually become isolated from the rest of IS territory in Syria. All of the Euphrates bridges from the Turkish border south to Assad Lake have been destroyed or are controlled by the Kurds.”


[3]The militant group “Raqqa is Dying Silently” is an example of civilian resistance from within Raqqa. This group is tryng since 2014 to provide reliable documentation over the occupation of Raqqa by ISIS militants. Most of them are former/current FSA activists. http://www.raqqa-sl.com/

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