Human Rights Watch’s Concerns For Protection Of Civilians In Battle For Raqqa

Human Rights Watch declared grave concerns this week for the rights of detainees, indiscriminate attacks, and the treatment of displaced people by the U.S.-led coalition, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and other local armed groups in the offensive against Islamic State (ISIS) for the city of Raqqa.

The Syrian city has been under ISIS control since January 2014 and an estimated 400,000 civilians are estimated to remain in the Raqqa governorate. The SDF, supplied with arms and training from the President Donald Trump’s administration, announced on Monday, June 12, 2017, that they have captured a number of key neighbourhoods around the city and could be days away from victory. Citing a local activist, Al Jazeera has confirmed that ISIS is expected to retreat or surrender in the coming days.

However, Lama Fakih, Deputy Middle East Director at Human Rights Watch has stressed that “the battle for Raqqa is not just about defeating ISIS, but also about protecting and assisting the civilians who have suffered under ISIS rule for three and a half years. Coalition members and local forces should demonstrate concretely that the lives and rights of the hundreds of thousands of civilians in Raqqa are a parallel priority in the offensive.”

Very high numbers of civilian casualties from U.S.-led coalition missile and aerial attacks, since operations in Syria began in September 2014, have led to severe concerns about the adequacy of precautions to protect civilians trapped in Raqqa. The latest monthly civilian casualty report of the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve found that “at least 484 civilians have been unintentionally killed by Coalition strikes since the start of Operation Inherent Resolve.” The U.S. has done very little to prevent such high numbers of civilian casualties or to compensate those injured or bereaved. It estimates the number of civilian casualties to be eight times smaller than the figure predicted by Airwars, a UK-based NGO monitoring airstrikes since May has neglected to confirm responsibility for specific civilian casualties.

Following its experience monitoring the Mosul air campaign in Iraq, on June 13, 2017, Human Rights Watch stressed the great importance of protecting civilians in Raqqa. The organization has urged that measures must be implemented to ensure maximum levels of target verification and authorization prior to air and ground-launched strikes, particularly in areas where civilians and combatants live densely together. As well, it was noted that commanders should limit the use of indirect-fire weapons (i.e. mortars, artillery, rockets) and unguided munitions to minimize civilian casualties, as well surveillance, intelligence, and reconnaissance assets should be deployed to locate and track patterns of the presence of civilians and combatants, and credible reports of civilian casualties should be “individually, robustly and transparently investigated” and effective systems for their compensation should be developed.

Following reports of the continued use of child soldiers by both the Asayish (local Kurdish police) and the YPG (People’s Protection Units) forces, Human Rights Watch has also called for the Coalition to check armed groups’ compliance with international humanitarian law and the demobilization of all child soldiers before assisting them. It also stresses that SDF forces and local authorities should investigate allegations of the Asayish’s arbitrary detention and mistreatment of detainees. Restrictions on the movement of civilians fleeing ISIS-controlled territory should furthermore be replaced by safe passage, humanitarian corridors, and sufficient support (especially healthcare, sexual and reproductive health for women and girls, food assistance, and potable water) for internally displaced persons.

The dense and tangled presence of both ISIS forces and civilians in Raqqa does not absolve Coalition forces from the obligation to attack only military targets. Instead, the human rights and safety of civilians must remain a central priority in the offensive for Raqqa.