Wladimir van Wilgenburg in AYN AL ISSA – Since June 6, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces have slowly taken the city of Raqqa from Islamic State, street by street. Black banners are slowly replaced in Raqqa’s neighbourhoods by colourful flags of the different groups that are part of the SDF, an alliance of Kurdish, Christian and Arab fighters.
On the drive to the Raqqa frontlines or to Tabqa one encounters checkpoints of the newly created Raqqa Internal Security Forces – recognizable by their blue arm patches. The checkpoints are one of the signs of plans the U.S.-led Coalition has for post-ISIS stabilization.
The RISF falls under the Raqqa Civil Council that now temporarily runs the liberated areas of Raqqa and its countryside from the small town of Ain al Issa, until the city is completely liberated. SDF forces now control around 60 per cent of Raqqa city, fighting a difficult battle.
Ahmad abd al-Khalaf has been a volunteer in the internal security forces for several months. “Our areas were liberated, but we cannot return due to the presence of mines and booby traps, I joined the security forces to maintain the security of country, and to liberate our country,” he said. “There is still a Daesh [ISIS] thought in our country, and we want to reorganize the country to maintain it,” the 38-year old added.
Khalaf, who is from Raqqa, said he joined the RISF to liberate Syrian land from ISIS.
“Daesh is a terrorist organization and its ideology is dangerous. They are killing, torturing and treating the people badly, and are making differences between the ethnic groups,” he said. “We want to unite our ethnic groups, Kurds, and Arabs, and return our country to the rightful owners,” he concluded.
In the past, ISIS in Arab majority towns like Manbij and Raqqa expelled, killed and threatened Kurds and confiscated their properties. But now the RISF wants to provide a multi-ethnic non- sectarian model where the different ethnic groups will live in peace.
Yasser Ismail al-Khamis, 27, joined RISF several months ago. “I wish everyone in the community to join these forces to get rid the country of terrorism,” he said.
Although his family is safe, freed from the hands of ISIS, a cousin was killed. “He was killed three years ago for resisting Daesh ideology, and they killed him for this. If Raqqa is liberated, our goal is coexistence between Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians. All the Syrians on this land will cooperate to get rid of terrorism, and to restore our country as it was in the past,” Khamis said.
In one of the RISF headquarters in the town of Ayn al Issa, Idris Mohammed, a Kurd from Raqqa and the RISF spokesperson, sips on a cup of tea. He is in regular meetings with the Coalition and is also part of the Raqqa Civil Council’s security committee.
“The main reason for joining Raqqa people to the internal security forces is to protect their city,” Mohammed told Grasswire. “The most important reason is that the people of al-Raqqa are tired. For six years, different factions controlled the city, but they were not just. If we were not just, the people of Raqqa wouldn’t join us.”
“We are working for the city and not personal interests and we are not dependent on any external agendas,” he said in reference to rebel forces that were backed by countries in the region.
Tribal influence and feminism
The Raqqa Internal Security Forces that fall under the control of Raqqa Civil Council also has relations with Arab tribes from Raqqa.
“The tribes take guidance from the Raqqa council, and in coordination with the council, the Internal Security Forces and the SDF, some of Daesh have been released,” Mohammed said.
“We are the executive authority and they [Raqqa Civil Council] make the political decisions and we implement it,” he said. “We work with our friends in the council,” he added.
As a result of the coordination between the Raqqa tribes and Raqqa Civil police, at least 228 ISIS suspects were released in the last few months. “We can say that those who worked with Daesh for money will be released, but those who took up arms and stained their hands with the blood of Syrians will not be released,” Mohammed said.
Nevertheless, the tribal influence in Raqqa prevents some women from joining the RISF. “We have a few women of Raqqa who joined our forces, and [many] refused to join us because of their tribal habits, and they do not accept the idea [of equality] that much,” he said.
Currently, the Raqqa Civil Council is headed by the Kurdish feminist Layla Mohammed, and co-lead by Sheikh Mahmoud Shawakh al-Bursan.
However, the RISF hope to break patriarchal ideas and recruit more women. “We believe in our morals, ethics, and ideas,” Mohammed said.
The Manbij model
The RISF are following the model of the Arab-majority town of Manbij which was taken from ISIS by the SDF last August in an operation that lasted less than three months.
In February, the security forces known as Asayish handed over the security responsibility to the Manbij Internal Security Forces, which is identifiable by the same blue logo as the RISF.
The Asayish are the main police force of the nascent Federation of Northern Syria, the body striving for autonomy in the lands controlled by the SDF.
The difference with Manbij is that the RISF was created before the city of Raqqa was liberated from ISIS.
Nevertheless, it’s clear that the RISF also receives assistance from the Asayish. “Our troops are in the liberated areas, and there are Asayish forces. We consider this as one front, we and the forces of the Syrian Democratic Forces are one hand,” Idris Mohammed said. “We do not deny the assistance of the Syrian Democratic Forces and from the Asayish too. There are groups of Asayish among us who help us.”
The Asayish forces were sent in May to assist the fledgling RISF since at that time only 50 members were trained, the local Kurdish news website ARA news reported at the time.
The U.S.-led Coalition doesn’t mention the assistance role the Asayish plays in Raqqa. “As any good military force would, when handing off to another force that’s going to protect the rear area, essentially, it’s coordination. So, when the SDF commanders feel that security is good enough, they’ll liaise with the Raqqa Internal Security Force and the area is literally handed off,” British Army Maj. Gen. Rupert Jones, deputy commander of the Coalition forces, told reporters last week.
“So the bulk of Raqqa province is already secured by the Raqqa Internal Security Force. So the areas north of the city, west, east of the city, and in the south city, down around Tabqa. And the RISF have started taking over some of the districts of Raqqa,” said Jones, who regularly visits northern Syria.
“Once the Syrian Democratic Forces are sufficiently confident that security is stable, then they are handing off those outer districts to the RISF so they, of course, can then concentrate their fighting power closer to the front,” he concluded.
Nevertheless, although the Asayish is seen by experts as a strictly Kurdish force, the force contains many Arabs, following the multi-ethnic model of the SDF.
Many checkpoints on the roads near the Turkish-Syrian border are manned by Arabs who do not speak any Kurdish. When I needed to get permission from the Asayish to travel to Kobani, one of the main officials for this permission was an Arab, so I needed a Kurdish-speaking official to help me with translation.
Ethnic composition of the forces
Currently, there are a total of 1,300 RISF members, with 1,000 trained by the U.S.-led Coalition. The Coalition says the majority of the RISF are Arabs, representing the population of Raqqa. “About 80 percent of the RISF is Arab, and about 20 percent are Kurds,” Coalition spokesperson Colonel Ryan Dillon told reporters in mid-August.
Earlier in August, a Coalition spokesperson told Grasswire that the Coalition plans to train up to 5,000 RISF members.
“The RISF is an internal security force, much like a police force, that provides security in those areas liberated by the SDF and is able to provide wide area security to prevent attacks in liberated areas. Training will continue until the goal is reached of approximately 3500-5000 strong,” the spokesperson said in an August 9 email.
According to Idris Mohammed, 70-80 percent of the RISF are Arabs, but he said there is no difference between the ethnic groups.
“Our forces are the internal security forces in al-Raqqa and its members are Arabs and Kurds,” Mohammed said. “There are no difference between Arabs, Kurds and Assyrians, all of them protect their country.”
Nevertheless, the fact that Idris is a Kurd shows that Kurds do play an important role in the police force.
The Coalition trains the RISF for 7-10 days in first aid, the laws of armed conflict, setting-up and manning of checkpoints, and temporary detention operations, Coalition officials say.
A Coalition spokesperson told Grasswire on August 9 that the RISF are also trained in basic small arms, and that the Coalition provides the “basic equipment and uniforms necessary for the RISF to accomplish their mission.”
RISF member Ahmad Abd al-Khalaf said the courses deal with several subjects. “The first stage in training is ethics. The second stage is how to deal with civilians. The third stage is how to deal with mines and then the fourth, fifth and sixth are focused on medical aid,” he said.
According Mohammed, the training lasts for 10 days. “It is based on education of human rights and military training, but the focus is more on the military side.”
Yasser Ismail al-Khamis, who was also trained by the U.S.-led Coalition, said he will receive more training in the future. “I will be subject to intellectual courses to get rid of the old thoughts [sectarianism], and to learn to deal with civilians and to respect humanity,” he added.
The Coalition is also paying a stipend to those forces who are trained.
“The Raqqa Internal Security Force are a vetted force, and so are being paid as part of the U.S. process. You know, they’re essentially a Syrian opposition force, and they’re a vetted Syrian opposition force,” Maj. Gen. Rupert Jones told reporters this month.
However, Coalition spokesperson Col. Joe Scrocca, Director of Public Affairs for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, told Grasswire that the Coalition ‘does not pay salaries.’
“The Coalition provides a stipend to the RISF to help support their operations against Daesh. We will not discuss the amount of this stipend,” he said.
“Those who join the coalition courses have salaries, and those who have not yet joined the coalition courses, are paid by the Raqqa Civil Council,” Mohammed said. Those who are paid by the Raqqa council receive around $107, while those who receive a salary from the Coalition are given around $103, paid in Syrian pounds, the RISF official said.
“The Trump team wants to establish stability in Raqqa after ISIS. This is now part of the core U.S. strategy toward Syria,” Nicholas A. Heras, a Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, working in the Middle East Security Program, told Grasswire. “U.S. funding support makes sure that the Raqqa Internal Security Force is adequately paid and is incentivized to be effective and competent. This is a priority for the Americans in Raqqa, and for the Trump administration’s approach to Syria.”
The RISF deals not only with counter-terrorism, which is more often handled by intelligence officials and the Asayish, but also domestic crimes.
“We have offices for theft, crimes, checkpoints and security of the country, all in order to provide protection for the country. There are also offices for traffic,” Idris Mohammed said.
The RISF is also inside Raqqa on the second line of the front as a backup force for the SDF. “We are always ready to fight terrorism,” Mohammed added.
Raqqa forces are also operating in the internally displaced persons camps. “We make entry and exit procedures and assist displaced people. We have arrested a number of Daesh there in the camps, but we cannot go into details,” he said.
The situation for the 10,000-20,000 civilians who remain in Raqqa is very bad, the official said. “They are being used as human shields, that’s why we do not advance very fast for the safety of civilians,” he said. “We pledge to Raqqa people that we will come to them and get them out of this situation.”
Follow Wladimir on Twitter: @vvanwilgenburg
Fergus Kelly contributed reporting. Joanne Stocker edited.