RAQQA, Syria – The two fighters, one an Arab sniper, the other his Kurdish commander, are each driven by a personal grudge against the Islamic State group. They are working side by side in an elite commando unit of the U.S.-backed forces fighting the militants in the Syrian city of Raqqa.
But they have vastly different visions of what happens once they succeed.
Abdullah, the Arab fighter, fears the militants’ fall in Raqqa will only be the start of more turmoil. He worries it will unleash a wave of bloodshed among the area’s Sunni Arab community as residents seek revenge on neighbors who joined the group.
For Erdal, the Kurd and the unit commander, the battle for Raqqa is a step toward realizing his people’s dream of autonomy in the Kurdish heartland of northern Syria. Next, he and many other Kurds believe, will come a fight with their nemesis Turkey, which has sent troops into Syria in part to thwart Kurdish ambitions.
Another danger once IS falls is of a backlash among Raqqa’s Sunni Arab population against the Kurds. Many in the community deeply resent Kurdish ambitions and see their hopes for self-rule as intended to break apart the country.
The two men’s views reflect the differing priorities run through the alliance between Kurdish and Arab fighters in the Syrian Democratic Forces, which the United States forged together to wage the fight against the Islamic State group. The SDF has proven a startling success in bringing together Kurds and Arabs. The more experienced and organized Kurds dominate command and some units are purely Kurd or purely Arab, but most SDF units are mixed, with few signs among the fighters of the tensions plaguing their communities at large as Kurdish influence grows in northern Syria.
It is largely the hands-on U.S. support that ensures that cohesion, raising questions over what…