The flags of the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) and Shengal Women's Units (YJS) were planted in the city centre of Raqqa, which had been the capital city of ISIS, on September 14.
ISIS still controls about 20% of the city, but the symbolic importance of this event reflects a very real change in the situation in Syria.
Both the YPJ and YJS are fighting as part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which brings together left-wing armed groups that support the revolutionary model of grassroots democracy and women’s liberation that guides the Democratic Federation of North Syria.
SDF and YPJ commander Rojda Felat told Firat News Agency on September 22 that Raqqa was expected to be completely cleared of ISIS within a month and a half. Progress is slowed by the widespread distribution of landmines and booby-traps by ISIS and their use of civilians as human shields.
The planting of a YPJ flag to indicate the SDF taking Raqqa’s city centre was not coincidental. ISIS takes pride in being the most violently misogynistic armed group fighting in Syria and Iraq, but the YPJ is an all-women fighting force. It is also based on the prominent role of women’s liberation in the radical social revolution taking place in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan) and other parts of northern Syria.
The SDF is the military expression of this revolution.
The planting of the YJS flag beside it is a more controversial statement. The YJS is not Syrian but from Shengal (Sinjar), the homeland of the Yazidi ethno-religious minority in Iraq. During its 2014 genocide against the Yazidis, ISIS infamously carried off women and girls as war booty, auctioning many in Raqqa’s public markets.
With help from groups affiliated with the left-wing Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that is fighting the Turkish state, and from the Rojava-based YPJ and Peoples Protection Units (YPG), the Yazidis established the YJS and the Shengal Resistance Units (YBS).
The YBS and YJS have liberated most of Shengal on the basis of a social revolution similar to that in northern Syria. The YJS sent troops to the SDF offensive on Raqqa to liberate the Yazidi women and girls enslaved there and bring them home.
The SDF is in a tactical military alliance with the US military that has supported the Raqqa offensive through airstrikes and the supply of military hardware.
In Iraq, the US has opposed the establishment of democratic self-administration in Shengal and the presence of what it calls “PKK forces”. However, the US has turned a blind eye to the YJS presence in the SDF.
This is just one indication of the complex and contradictory matrix of alliances and antagonisms that have been partially hidden by ISIS’s war against everyone else.
ISIS did not emerge until three years into the Syrian Civil War, by which time it had already killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions.
The Syrian Civil War began after the hereditary dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad used military support to crush a mass uprising. Defections from Assad's army created the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
The FSA was joined by some of the protesters, despite warnings from a majority of the opposition committees that militarising the conflict would play into the hands of both the regime and foreign powers and would lead to greater bloodshed rather than democracy. These warnings proved correct.
The FSA gave itself the mandate of protecting the protesters, but from the outset, it was characterised by the lack of a unified command. It became the brand name for a large number of armed groups, some of which took to preying on the civilians they were claiming to protect.
The situation was worsened by the decision of the US to give military aid to FSA groups both directly through the CIA and, to a larger degree, indirectly through regional allies such as Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. This was motivated by the Assad regime’s alliance with Russia and Iran, and sporadic support for the Lebanese anti-Israel resistance movement, Hezbollah.
Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia all played a role in the eclipsing of the originally secular FSA groups by Sunni Islamist groups, both inside and separate from the FSA.
The 2012 revolution in Rojava was originally intended to stop Syria’s northern region becoming a battleground between rival forces hostile to the Kurdish and Syriac/Assyrian minorities who make up much of Rojava’s population.
Unlike the uprising in the rest of Syria, the Rojava revolution was based on a coherent, progressive ideological vision and functioning grassroots democratic structures.
The success of the Rojava revolution, and its ideological affinity with left-wing opposition to Turkey’s authoritarian regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, changed Turkey’s Syria policy. Turkey began providing material support to ISIS, enabling the latter's rise. It also led to Erdogan abandoning his initial aim of overthrowing Assad.
Meanwhile, despite huge material support from Russia, Assad’s army continued to fall apart and he increasingly relied on foreign forces — from Iran and Hezbollah.
ISIS’s brutality and sponsorship of worldwide terrorism gave a pretext for foreign powers to intervene. The US and its allies began airstrikes in 2014, Russia in 2015.
Russia has backed Assad both politically and militarily, but the US and its allies have been inconsistent. It continues to politically recognise the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) — the representative of predominantly Sunni Islamist opposition. But militarily its cooperation has, since 2015, increasingly been with the SDF as the most effective fighters against ISIS.
Some US aid is still going to some SNC-affiliated FSA groups, but the military ineffectiveness of the SNC-aligned groups and the rise of anti-Western Islamism within them has led to a significant decrease in US aid.
However, despite the military alliance with the SDF, the West has refused to recognise the Syrian Democratic Council and Democratic Federation of North Syria. These groups are excluded from internationally brokered peace talks.
Moreover, the West has been complicit in an economic blockade that hampers development in the revolutionary areas in northern Syria and the revolutionary administration’s efforts to look after refugees from other parts of Syria.
Furthermore, the US gave the green light to Turkey’s invasion and occupation of territory around Jarabulus and al-Bab last year, which divides the canton of Afrin from the rest of Rojava.
Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia continue to arm rival SNC-affiliated groups.
Assad’s position remains precarious, but Turkish preoccupation with crushing the revolution in the north has allowed him to strengthen his position. In December, the regime was able to retake East Aleppo after four years because Turkey pressured rebel groups it supported to redeploy to fight the SDF in the north. This followed an agreement between Erdogan and Assad.
The imminent defeat of ISIS is bringing the other antagonisms in Syria into sharper relief. Since early September, both regime forces and the SDF have been advancing into the last ISIS-held province, Deir ez-Zor. Both forces have reached the outskirts of Deir ez-Zor city.
This has already led to clashes between the SDF and pro-Assad forces. While these have been minor, the danger of a large scale confrontation is real.
At the same time, it is unclear what role, if any, the US-led Western air forces will continue to play in Syria after ISIS is gone.
“We are aware that this is not a political alliance. We do not know what to expect after Raqqa,” Kimberly Taylor, a British internationalist volunteer fighting in the YPJ, told Croation magazine Novosti on August 23.
“They don’t give a shit about the Kurds, Rojava or the Revolution. When the Turks bombed the YPG Command Center, the Americans were informed in advance and they did not forward us that information.
“Those people who were killed, including the YPJ’s command, were handled by the US officers … We are not stupid — they will have no qualms about stabbing us in the back, allowing Turkey to have a go at us, and completely changing the way media reports about us.”
YPJ commander Rosel Amanus told Novosti that the SDF would continue fighting for freedom regardless of whether the alliance with the West continues. “We’re not afraid of anyone,” she said. “This was our war before both the air strikes and American aid.”
Turkish attacks on Afrin continue, as does Erdogan’s duplicitous, but often skilful diplomacy. Inat Hatip, a commander of an FSA group that is now part of the SDF, told Firat News Agency on September 19 that Turkey was trying to get Russian and Western approval to invade Idlib province — to get rid of al-Qaeda affiliated forces whose presence in the province was enabled by Turkey.
Meanwhile, on September 22 elections were held throughout the revolutionary areas of North Syria for communes that form the basic unit of participatory democracy.
Quotas ensure that women comprise at least 40% of each communal council, while parallel women-only councils also exist. Representation for ethnic and religious minorities is also guaranteed.
The SDF is not just fighting against ISIS, it is fighting for something — a new Syria based on participatory democracy and freedom. This fight looks set to continue after ISIS is defeated.