With the U.S. intent on freezing the Syrian government out of the Raqqa rebuilding process, it has now looked to the Saudis for funding and planning. The Saudi point man for the project is a known anti-Shiite sectarian, espousing much of the belief system of the ousted Daesh terrorists.
The fight to free the Syrian city of Raqqa from Daesh (ISIS) — by the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), led by U.S. special forces — has all but ended. With Raqqa now under SDF control, the question has become how to rebuild the former Daesh stronghold. The reconstruction of Raqqa will undoubtedly last longer than the siege to free it, as thousands of U.S. air and artillery strikes pounded much of the city into rubble. During August alone, a U.S. coalition bomb, missile or artillery round was fired into Raqqa on average every eight minutes.
Unable to deny its role in the city’s rather destructive “liberation,” the U.S. government has claimed that it will lead the way in clearing the rubble it created and restore basic services, such as water and electricity that were cut off during the bombardment. Last Tuesday, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters, “We will assist and take, essentially, the lead in bringing back the water, electricity and all of that.”
“But eventually the governance of the country of Syria is something that I think all nations remain very interested in,” Nauert added, alluding to the fact that the SDF and its U.S. backers have no plans to return Raqqa to Syrian government control, having instead passed the city’s governance to a “local council.”
However, Raqqa’s council along with other groups of Syrian Kurds recently agreed to negotiate with the Syrian government after Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem told the Kurds last month that the Syrian government was open to granting the Kurds “some form of self-administration.”
Yet, were the Kurds and the Syrian government to reach an arrangement, it would likely not include the current U.S. troop presence in Raqqa and elsewhere in Syria, nor the presence of another foreign nation hostile towards the Syrian government: “We support whoever wants to liberate any city from the terrorists, but that doesn’t mean to be liberated from terrorists and be occupied by American forces, for example, or by another proxy, or other terrorists,” Syrian President Bashar Al Assad told AFP news agency in April.
With the Syrian government and its allies locked out of rebuilding Raqqa, for now at least, the U.S. has apparently began to look elsewhere for financing. While having committed to “leading” the effort to rebuild Raqqa, the Trump administration seems unwilling to spend the money necessary to repair the widespread destruction.
However, a recent meeting between Brett McGurk, special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL – a project launched by the State Department in 2014 to ‘degrade and defeat ISIS’ – and a Saudi minister in Ayn Issa – a city in the Raqqa governorate of Syria – has shown that Saudi Arabia is being brought in to help fund the reconstruction of Raqqa. The topic of the meeting, as described by news agency Raqqa24 and pro-Kurd journalists, was reconstruction.
Brett McGurk visited Ayn Issa today with the Saudi minister Thamer al-Sabhan (former Ambassador to Iraq) & joined 3 different meetings.#R24
— Raqqa24 (@24Raqqa) October 17, 2017
Saudi point-man a rabid sectarian
The Saudi minister accompanying McGurk during the reconstruction talks, Thamer al-Sabhan, is hardly an obscure figure. Al-Sabhan, in addition to serving as Saudi Arabia’s Gulf Affairs minister, is the former Saudi ambassador to Iraq, recalled to Riyadh last year. The inclusion of Al-Sabhan, known for his sectarianism and vehement hatred of Shia Muslims, in these meetings offers a portent of what a Raqqa reconstruction funded by the Saudi monarchy would likely look like.
In 2015, al-Sabhan was appointed the ambassador to Iraq, the first such Saudi ambassador sent to Iraq since 1990. Soon after his arrival, he railed against the Iraqi Shia militia known as the Popular Mobilization Units, which have been instrumental in fighting Daesh in Iraq, as well as against Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a revered Iraqi religious scholar known for speaking out against the divisions caused by sectarianism. Having soured his welcome, he soon found himself the object of demands from prominent Iraqis for his expulsion from the country.
Instead of toning down his rhetoric, al-Sabhan instead asserted that Iraqi Shia groups were attempting to assassinate him, a charge that the Iraqi government claimed to be false. Soon after, the Iraqi government formally called for al-Sabhan to be recalled and he was removed from his post as ambassador in October 2016. Since then, he has been serving as a Saudi government minister. Earlier this year, he asserted that in order to eliminate terrorism in the region, it was first necessary “to eliminate the rogue Iranian regime.”
Rebuilding Raqqa as a sectarian beachhead in Syria
The inclusion of Saudi Arabia, particularly Thamer al-Sabhan, in the reconstruction of Raqqa makes it clear that secularism in the region is set to become a thing of the past. Unlike the Syrian government, Saudi Arabia has made it known through its actions outside and within its own borders that it supports only those groups and populations that follow Wahhabism, an extreme form of Islam that is essentially anathema to secularism.
Given that Raqqa was largely destroyed in order to remove Daesh from the area, a Raqqa reconstructed by the same state that helped create Daesh will likely be similar in many ways to a city under Daesh control. Indeed, Daesh not only adheres to a religious dogma born out of Wahhabism, it was also funded by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. With al-Sabhan heading the Saudi rebuilding effort, Raqqa seems destined to serve as a fountainhead for the fueling of future sectarian instability in Syria, long after Daesh is out of the picture.