Consider the case of Layla Mohammed, a PYD member and women’s rights activist from the town of Tel Abayad on the Turkey-Syria border. In a conversation, a senior U.S. official spoke with admiration of her dedication and commitment to the cause of women in Syria. Over objections from some Arab community leaders in Raqqa, the PYD- and YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (an entity that serves, basically, as a fig leaf by Washington to cover the U.S.-backed YPG campaign against ISIS) named Ms. Mohammed co-chair of a new Raqqa administrative council that will rule Raqqa after ISIS is gone.
But Raqqa, more than Damascus, Homs, or Aleppo, is known among Syrians as a conservative Arab city, where many communities retain links to tribal networks extending along the Euphrates and eastwards into the Syrian desert towards Iraq. Traditional norms, including those governing the roles of women, prevail. Many Americans find the constraints placed on Arab women objectionable, and would applaud Ms. Mohammed’s activism. But as the Iraq war should have taught Washington, it cannot impose, either directly or through local proxies, its own social and political norms on conservative Middle Eastern communities without potentially provoking a counter-reaction.
Arab opinions polls from recent years make this tension plain. An unofficial survey of ISIS fighters from 2014 conducted by a Lebanese communications firm showed that defending Sunni communities under attack was the top reason recruits from other Muslim countries joined ISIS. The 2016 ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey highlighted how disputes over how best to interpret Islam and perceptions that western culture is being imposed on Arab societies feeds extremist recruitment. The longstanding Arab-Kurdish ethnic competition and the PYD’s ideological agenda, such as suddenly imposing gender equality, stand to boost extremist recruitment once ISIS shifts to insurgency mode after the fall of Raqqa.
Most worrisome: evidence that Sunni-Arab extremists learn and adapt from their own mistakes. In Idlib province in northwest Syria, al-Qaeda shifted away from the brutal tactics it honed in Iraq from 2004 to 2009. Instead, by transitioning into something of an “al-Qaeda, Version 3.0,” it has reduced violence against local populations, provided infrastructure-service delivery through local administrators, and integrated more with local communities. If the Arab communities of eastern Syria perceive that the PYD-YPG seeks to dominate them, wiser al-Qaeda and ISIS leaders in Syria may be poised to pick up more recruits and embed in communities, making the coming Arab insurgency harder to contain.
For now, ISIS is still in Raqqa and hasn’t yet shifted into wide-scale insurgency mode. But it won’t be long until Washington will have to decide who will control and govern Raqqa and eastern Syria, and who will pay for it. As Colin Powell told George W. Bush in 2003, if Bush toppled Saddam, America would “own” Iraq and have to take responsibility for it. America may soon have 1,000 more troops on the ground in eastern Syria, and its proxies are seizing new territory from ISIS every week with U.S. support, including a Marine artillery battalion and regular airstrikes. There are even U.S. peacekeepers deployed in Manbij and near Tel Abayad to keep Turkish, Syrian-Arab, and Syrian-Kurdish fighters from shooting at each other. America now effectively owns eastern Syria.