On May 9, as part of the effort to take back the city of Raqqa from the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS), the United States decided to arm Kurdish elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). According to representatives of the SDF, once liberated, governance will fall to the Raqqa Civilian Council, an administrative body consisting of predominantly Kurds and Arabs. While Kurdish officials have made assurances that these civilian councils will epitomize the “coexistence and brotherhood of peoples,” such overtures are easier said than done. In Syria, ethnic tensions have existed long before the 2011 uprisings, but have increased in intensity in recent years. Support for joint Arab and Kurdish military efforts alone will not be enough to quell hostility between ethnic groups in Raqqa; the international community must formulate a blueprint for post-liberation governance and inter-ethnic cooperation to obviate the potential for future conflict. As historical and contemporary conflicts demonstrate, ethnic tensions often endure well after a conflict ends, particularly if the root causes of the tension are not meaningfully addressed.
A rough history of ethnic tension
As Kurdish forces have liberated areas of Northern Syria from ISIS control, civilian councils have been established to fill the governance vacuum. These governing structures have been moderately successful. In Manbij, which was liberated by Kurdish forces in 2016, reports claim that the newly formed civilian council consists of a proportionate representation of Arab, Kurdish, and Turkmen leaders. But representative councils alone have not been sufficient to address existing social cleavages.
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