ISIS or the Kurds? Some Arabs wonder which is worse

Kurdish-Arab alliance battles ISIS for Raqqa
Kurdish-Arab alliance battles ISIS for Raqqa

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Kurdish-Arab alliance battles ISIS for Raqqa 01:29

Story highlights

  • Some Arabs in the de facto ISIS capital say they'd fight for ISIS
  • U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters are effective but come with historic baggage

(CNN)News from the war against ISIS appears, for once, to be upbeat.

On one front, Iraqi forces have launched an offensive against the extremist group's stronghold in Falluja, west of Baghdad. At the same time in Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are on the move to clear the countryside north of Raqqa, ISIS' de facto capital.
    That is perhaps the view from afar, but as is so often the case, the closer you get to this conflict, the less clear it becomes.
    One might expect that the long-suffering inhabitants of Raqqa, who have been under ISIS' heavy black yoke since 2013, would welcome the approach of their liberators. But according to a tweet put out in English by the activist group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, "the strategy of taking Raqqa by SDF... push a lot of people to join ISIS to Defense for their city."
    In other words, rather than preparing to welcome their would-be liberators, some Raqqa inhabitants are choosing to throw their lot behind ISIS.
    The problem lies in who those would-be liberators are.
    Backed by the United States, the Syrian Democratic Forces are a coalition of Kurdish, Assyrian, Christian, Arab tribal and other forces. But they are dominated by the Kurdish YPG, the Popular Defense Units.
    In other words, it's a Kurdish armed force with a multi-ethnic façade, and the Arabs of Raqqa could well be worried about their intentions in a post-ISIS Syria.
    The SDF says its current offensive north of Raqqa is not aimed at the city itself.

    Post-war conflicts

    Now for some history.
    The one-way bus ride into ISIS headquarters
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    North-central and eastern Syria have been in ethnic flux for the past century. As the Ottoman Empire imploded at the end of World War I, Kurds fled what became Turkey and settled in northeast Syria, between the border with Iraq and the area north of Raqqa.
    They had to compete for land and resources with the already diverse local population composed of Arabs, Armenians, Assyrians, Yazidis and others. France, the governing power, pursued a policy of divide and rule, playing the various groups off against one another.
    Decades later, in the early 1980s, I got a hint of those tensions when working for a French oil prospecting company in the area around Raqqa.
    My survey team was composed of myself and four others, Arabs from Qamishli, in Syria's far northeast. We stopped to speak to an old farmer tending his field, and hardly had the salutations finished when he demanded, "Are any of you Kurds?"
    When we responded in the negative, he snapped "Good! Because if you were..." He then reeled off a Kurdish curse involving mothers and donkeys I had learned but dare not repeat here.

    Mutual mistrust

    The United States sees the Kurds of Syria as their most reliable partners there. The Americans are relatively confident that Kurdish fighters -- unlike other Syrian rebel groups -- won't switch sides, sell their U.S.-supplied weapons to ISIS, or disappear when the going gets rough.
    Relying on the Kurds is understandable for American officials who have struggled to get a handle on a war that defies simple solutions.
    But clearly the Kurds come with a lot of their own baggage, which may well weigh down the American effort to destroy ISIS.
    Inside ISIS controlled Raqqa, Syria
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    Arabs have long suspected the Kurds of trying to carve a separate state from Syria and Iraq. Turkey, struggling with a restive Kurdish minority, has the same preoccupation. Those are some of the macro concerns.
    The micro -- or perhaps more correctly, the local -- concerns of the people of Raqqa include the worry that a well-armed, U.S.-supported, predominantly Kurdish force will expel or subjugate them and take their land, and as they say in Arabic, "land is honor."
    I was in northeast Syria last December, and saw that Arab towns and villages "liberated" by the SDF and the YPG remained abandoned. The Kurdish forces told the original inhabitants they would not be allowed to return for the time being because of booby traps and other safety concerns.
    But what was apparent was that the Kurds suspected the Arab villagers of being ISIS sympathizers, while the Arabs I spoke with, just miles from their town, denied any ISIS sympathies. They also weren't at all confident they would ever return home.
    We have no way of gauging public opinion in Raqqa, so the tweet from the activists there may not tell the whole story.
    But what is clear is that while ISIS may disappear or may be destroyed in a matter of months, older conflicts and tensions will endure.