BEIRUT (Reuters) - The U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State is helping to train a police force for the Syrian city of Raqqa in anticipation of its capture from the militants, two Kurdish officials said on Friday.
They said the political wing of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias, also had advanced plans to install a civilian council in the city once it falls. It would consist mainly of Arabs, in line with Raqqa’s demography, but also include Kurds and other ethnic groups.
The extent of Kurdish influence in the future running of the city is sensitive both for residents and for NATO member Turkey, which has fought its own Kurdish insurgency for three decades and fears growing Kurdish ascendancy just over the border in northern Syria.
The United States, which backs the SDF, says a final decision has yet to be taken on how and when Raqqa - the de facto capital of Islamic State in Syria - will be captured.
But the SDF’s campaign near the city is continuing apace, and the plans for civilian rule indicate its determination to take Raqqa regardless.
The U.S. military declined to comment on any specific police training activities. One U.S. official, however, said the United States believed that whoever provides internal security should reflect the ethnic make-up of the population.
Kurdish official Awas Ali, who comes from Raqqa province, said the city council, of which he will be a member, would be unveiled in April. It would include local tribal sheikhs and people currently living in the city who would be identified when it was safe to do so.
The establishment of a local government allied to the SDF in Raqqa would expand the sphere of Kurdish influence in northern Syria, mirroring governing arrangements put in place in the city of Manbij after its capture by the SDF last year.
Ali said hundreds of people had already been trained at Ain Issa, north of Raqqa, to join the Raqqa police, which he described as a purely civilian force with no paramilitary role.
The training was being carried out with help from SDF-allied security forces from Manbij and other areas in northern Syria, and from the U.S.-led coalition.
“There will be a department of internal security for Raqqa ... and there are also people from the international coalition overseeing the training,” he told Reuters from the Kurdish-controlled town of Kobani.
Senior Kurdish politician Ilham Ahmed, speaking separately to Reuters, confirmed the police training at Ain Issa.
“As for preparing the local council to run the city, it is almost complete,” said Ahmed, who co-chairs the SDF’s political arm, the Syrian Democratic Council. “They are ready to run the city until it is completely liberated,” she told Reuters.
Local authorities would expand the council after Raqqa’s capture, as happened in Manbij, she added.
The head of the Kurdish YPG militia, which is a major part of the SDF, told Reuters last week the final assault on Raqqa would start in early April. The French defence minister said on Friday that it was expected to start in days.
Ali said that he is one of two Kurds on a 10-person committee setting up the Raqqa council, and that invitations to join the council had been sent to around 100 notable figures from Raqqa.
“The most important thing is that they have no ties to the regime and that the people who have been picked are socially acceptable,” he said.
Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Mark Trevelyan