RAQQA, Syria – The United States last week announced it was cutting about $230 million in stabilization funding to northeast Syria, saying any future reconstruction money for the war-torn country will have to wait until a United Nations-led peace process is in place.
More than 10 months after its recapture from Islamic State, Raqqa is still struggling to recover from a war that has devastated all prospects of a normal life.
Analysts believe the Trump administration has already decided to persuade other countries in the U.S-led Coalition against ISIS increase their financial contributions for a post-ISIS Syria.
“The Trump team means business when it says that the Arab countries should pay for the rehabilitation of areas in Syria that the Coalition conquered from ISIS,” said Nicholas Heras, Middle East Security Fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.
“This means that other countries, and not the United States, will pick up the tab for paying for the big-ticket reconstruction in northern and eastern Syria,” he told The Defense Post.
But those working on the ground in Raqqa and other areas retaken from ISIS are confident that such cuts will have no significant impact on the funding they receive from the U.S.
“The [U.S.] Defense Department runs most of current stabilization programs in Raqqa and the recent cuts were made for the State Department programs that were placed by the previous administration,” said Ahed al-Hendi, who runs a non-governmental organization that works in sustainable development in Raqqa.
Al-Hendi, who asked that his organization not be identified by name, told The Defense Post that the cuts could actually have “positive impact on the way the U.S. is spending its money on meaningful projects in Raqqa where the U.S. has real influence.”
The funding cut came months after President Donald Trump said that he wanted to pull U.S. troops out of Syria and freeze more than $200 million in recovery funds.
The Department of State said in an August 17 statement that the “decision was made by the Secretary [Mike Pompeo], in consultation with the White House, and took into account the already significant military and financial contributions made by the United States to date, the President’s guidance on the need to increase burden sharing with allies and partners, and significant new pledges made by Coalition partners.”
“The United States has ended the ridiculous 230 Million Dollar yearly development payment to Syria,” Trump tweeted after the State Department announcement. “Saudi Arabia and other rich countries in the Middle East will start making payments instead of the U.S.”
The day before the U.S. funding cuts were made public, Saudi Arabia announced a $100 million contribution for Syria’s stabilization efforts, including Raqqa and other areas of northeast Syria that have been captured from Islamic State.
Riyadh’s assistance came after a pledge Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir made during the July 12 Global Coalition Ministerial Conference hosted by Pompeo in Brussels.
“This vital contribution will save lives and help Syrians restore their communities from the bottom up,” Brett McGurk, U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, tweeted.
Located on the north bank of the Euphrates River, Raqqa was the de facto capital of ISIS’s so-called caliphate for more than three years. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces freed the city in late October 2017 with the help of the international Coalition after a four-month-long battle against ISIS militants whose control over Syrian territories it once held has since diminished.
But the remnants of war and ISIS’s brutal rule cast a shadow over the ongoing progress being made by the new local authorities in Raqqa. The smell of rotting corpses under the rubble of destroyed buildings still fills the air in some parts of the city. Many neighborhoods are still off-limits as a small team of experts works day and night to remove landmines left behind by ISIS.
The industrial zone near the historic “Baghdad Gate” in eastern Raqqa was entirely destroyed during the campaign, but a handful workshops have managed to reopen and are busy repairing apartment doors and making new ones.
To the south is the wholesale produce market or “Souk al-Hal” as it’s locally called. The once-bustling market near the Euphrates is now occupied mostly by boat owners who compete to transport goods and people from the agricultural hinterland south of the river to the market, after the major bridges were destroyed in the ISIS war. For a moment, the movement of people at the market gives the impression that things indeed are returning to normal.
But local officials said there is still a lot of work to do.
Raqqa Civil Council is the civilian body that is now responsible for running Raqqa. It was founded in April 2017 – while the city was still under ISIS control – to take charge of administration after the group’s ousting.
“At this point, we have four top priorities in Raqqa,” said Abdullah al-Aryan, head of the RCC Reconstruction Committee. “These priorities are: cleaning up the city from rubble and debris, restoring water networks, repairing the sewage system and removing dead bodies of [ISIS] fighters.”
Al-Aryan and his team have been documenting their work throughout the city. According to his statistics, the water network repair project has reached its final stages.
“The real problem that is facing us now is fixing the sewage system,” al-Aryan said. “It will take some time to get it ready for use. Only 25 percent of the work has been done, but we hope that by January 2019, everything will be finished,” he told The Defense Post.
But given the pace of progress here, such hope could be too ambitious. There are two major assistance programs that have been instrumental in stabilization efforts in Raqqa; a Coalition-led program that funds most RCC projects, and one run by Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) that has been working throughout Raqqa province.
Our State team in #Syria is doing a remarkable job. AMB Roebuck (left) is our lead on the ground. Mark Stroh (earlier in #Raqqa, at right) now completing successful 12-month tour. Accompanied today in Raqqa by new @StateDept Syria Envoy Joel Rayburn. Strong team getting stronger! pic.twitter.com/BQMMEP5iVQ
— Brett McGurk (@brett_mcgurk) August 15, 2018
A U.S. delegation that included McGurk and veteran diplomat William Roebuck was recently in Raqqa. The visit was seen by the community as yet another sign of the U.S. commitment to help rebuild the city’s infrastructure.
“The U.S. has put together a real plan for stabilization in Raqqa and other areas liberated from ISIS, which includes an effective governance system and good services,” al-Hendi said. “People need to come to Raqqa and see that for themselves.”
“The Trump administration left a big loophole open for the U.S. military to order and coordinate assistance for local stabilization projects to help communities in post-ISIS areas of Syria,” CNAS’s Heras said.
“There will likely be millions of dollars of support going to local communities in post-ISIS eastern Syria from non-government organizations via the U.S. military. Trump’s team, via the U.S. military, is trying to execute a stealth stabilization mission in northern and eastern Syria,” he added.
‘Funding is often selective, inconsistent’
But locals in Raqqa hope that continued funding by the U.S. and its Coalition partners will help remove some obstacles, especially in their efforts to reopen more schools as the school year approaches.
“Funding is often selective, inconsistent and it doesn’t cover all aspects of stabilization in Raqqa,” said Ahmed al-Hashloum, finance officer for the Enmaa Organization, a civil society group that mainly works in education and agriculture, rebuilding schools and sponsoring projects to help farmers.
“Donors need to understand our priorities,” Al-Hashloum told The Defense Post. “For instance, we need training for our local staff. We need adequate training for our workers so they can response to people’s needs in a more effective way.”
National and international NGOs that want to operate in Raqqa are required to register with the RCC. The application process includes providing details about the purpose of the organization, number of people working for it and other basic information which is reviewed by council authorities, according to its Office of Organizations Affairs.
Some applicants said they had to wait for about 30 days before their organizations were legally permitted to work in Raqqa. Others have stated shorter periods.
Al-Hashloum’s organization has been involved in rebuilding dozens of schools in Raqqa city and its countryside. Its goal is to have as many schools as possible ready for local children and those based at camps whose parents are hesitant to return to Raqqa for fear that their children will have nowhere to go to school.
“To encourage Raqqawis to return home, we need to make certain that basic needs are available for them and their children,” al-Hashloum said. “So in addition to repairing schools, we have been involved in an agricultural project of 8,000 hectares [more than 17,500 acres]. This has provided 142 job opportunities for households in Raqqa.”
However, adequate funding and large-scale projects are apparently not the only concerns Raqqa residents have for the future.
Fear of regime return to Raqqa
There is no end in sight to Syria’s seven-year civil war, and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have been making major advances against rebels throughout the country. Many people in Raqqa worry that Assad’s forces could return to their city.
“They have retaken Daraa and many other areas recently, so why would Raqqa be an exception?” asked Hammoud al-Huwaidi, a 29-year-old resident of Raqqa who recently returned to the city after living for a year at the Ain Issa camp for internally displaced people.
Al-Huwaidi said he wanted to reopen his auto body shop, but political uncertainty is preventing him from investing in such a project.
The SDF’s political wing, the Syrian Democratic Council, recently visited Damascus for talks with the Syrian regime. The discussions included the prospects of a regime return to Tabqa, which is administratively part of Raqqa and lies about 44 km (28 miles) west of the city.
But Syrian Kurdish leaders say any future regime return to Tabqa, which has one of Syria’s largest hydroelectric dams, would be limited to administrative matters such as running the dam and supervising power plants.
While it remains unclear whether the U.S. will stay in Syria in the long-term, Syrian Kurds have expressed a desire to secure their grip on areas they have taken from ISIS – even if that requires direct talks with Damascus.
“It is so important for us to hold on to these gains, because we genuinely want to see stability in this region,” an SDF official said in an interview at a base in Ain Issa, 56km (35 miles) north of Raqqa. The official insisted on anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to comment on the matter.
“When we have a politically stable region, Turkey will have no excuse to invade us here. We don’t really want to see what happened in Efrin and elsewhere to happen here too,” the official added.
In March 2017, the Turkish military and allied Syrian rebel fighters took control of the Efrin region in northwestern Syria, pushing out the People’s Protection Units (YPG) – the mainstay of SDF.
Ankara views the YPG as an extension of Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been engaged in a three-decade insurgency in southeast Turkey.
Turkish officials have repeatedly threatened to attack Kurdish fighters elsewhere, including areas located east of the Euphrates, although the spokesperson for Manbij Military Council Shervan Derwish said that the U.S. gave guarantees it would protect Manbij from attacks.
Regardless of how serious these threats are, residents of Raqqa don’t want the fate of Efrin – or even Manbij – for their city.
“I came back to Raqqa as soon as the SDF and U.S.-led Coalition liberated it, knowing that things would stay unstable,” said Fatima al-Issa, a 35-year-old resident of Raqqa’s Mashlab neighborhood.
She told The Defense Post that living in the Ain Issa refugee camp was safe, “but it didn’t feel right to stay there any longer, especially after our city was liberated from terror.”
“I want to build my life again and not worry about Turkey or any other force to come and destroy our homes again,” Al-Issa added.