The over 8-month-old campaign by the US-led coalition to liberate Mosul from ISIS has resulted in a rising civilian death toll due to indiscriminate airstrikes on residential areas. The final phase of the Euphrates Wrath operation to liberate Raqqa spearheaded by the US-backed Kurdish YPG has raised growing concerns among Human Rights Watch, independent journalists, and other international organizations about the deteriorating humanitarian situation in and around the city, as well as the U.S. coalition’s questionable conduct.
Before the hostilities between the SDF forces and ISIS began in Raqqa, the SDF had surrounded ISIS-held Raqqa from the northern, eastern and western axes, capturing the vital villages on the outskirts of the city. However, a southern corridor remained open for retreating ISIS terrorists. This corridor was used as escape routes to transfer large numbers of seasoned fighters, convoys, armoured vehicles, fuel trucks, and artillery pieces to the Homs and Deir ez Zour provinces where their forces are rapidly losing ground to the advancing Syrian Arab Army and allied militias, who seek to relieve the besieged government garrison and civilian population of Deir ez Zour. Reports from Russian intelligence and the defence ministry claim the US-backed SDF proxies have collaborated with elements of the ISIS leadership to allow contingents to flee southwards from Raqqa on condition they do so towards the advancing Syrian army positions, which spokesmen of the YPG deny. However, footage released by the Russian defence ministry showing large ISIS military convoys travelling south from Raqqa and being destroyed by Russian airstrikes on May 25 and 29-30 attests to an altogether different reality.
In light of these new battlefield developments, the question of why the U.S. has accelerated airstrikes and resorted to white phosphorous in the populated neighbourhoods of Raqqa instead of enabling the SDF forces on the ground to conduct urban warfare in a methodical manner needs to be questioned in view of the strategic realities. The disproportionate measures used on Raqqa city have already drawn the ire of the UN Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, with Paulo Sergio Pinheiro explaining to the UN Human Rights Council that advance on Raqqa had resulted in a “staggering loss of civilian life, but has also led to 160,000 civilians fleeing their homes and becoming internally displaced.” One of the panel commissioners, Karen Koning AbuZayd, also outlined that 300 civilian deaths from coalition airstrikes have been documented (Reuters), “200 in al-Mansoura alone.” A Human Rights Watch report also condemns the alleged (though corroborated through video footage) irresponsible short-sighted use of flesh searing white phosphorous munitions on the populated suburbs of Raqqa. Unfortunately, these brazen actions are not without precedent as was demonstrated in the Mosul operation, which the UN coordinator for rights group Salaam for Democracy and Human Rights criticized as “not within the international legal framework.”
The plight of the civilians in Raqqa and its countryside is all the more worrying considering the U.S. shift to annihilation tactics, as described by U.S. Secretary of Defence ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis. However, this runs contrary to their actions on the ground where they have assisted ISIS units in fleeing to the Homs, Hama, and Deir ez Zour governorates. The post-liberation scenario is also fraught with dangerous propositions given that the predominantly Kurdish SDF forces, which the U.S. has invested money, arms, media, and diplomatic support into is occupying Arab-majority towns and cities, which may very well stoke sectarian tensions and lead to a protracted conflict with the Syrian government and Turkey.