Recommendations to Anti-ISIS Coalition on Operations in Syria
On June 6, the US-led anti-ISIS coalition (the coalition) began a military offensive with Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) inside Syria to end ISIS control of Raqqa and surrounding areas. The SDF are trained and armed primarily by the US and supported in the fight against ISIS by about 1,000 US troops (Special Forces and Marines) on the ground and with coalition air support. According to the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) since November 2016 more than 200,000 people have been displaced as a result of the Raqqa operation and 160,000, including 40,000 children, are estimated to remain in the city.
There are significant civilian protection concerns as the operations in Raqqa unfold including:
- The capabilities of the SDF to conduct operations in populated areas;
- An increase in civilian casualties caused by US airstrikes;
- ISIS’s use of civilians as human shields and the booby-trapping of buildings;
- Lack of coordination and conflicting communications to civilians whether to stay or leave areas of hostilities and move to safe areas; and
- Absence of adequate screening procedures respecting the dignity and rights of civilians.
Current operations in west Mosul offer lessons for Raqqa on the coalition’s decision to encircle and “annihilate” ISIS in Mosul’s al-Qadima (old city). On May 28, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis announced a shift of military strategy against ISIS from “attrition” to “annihilation.” Parties to the conflict must consider the impact on civilians of an annihilation strategy that would besiege ISIS in an area, along with thousands of civilians who face significant challenges to leaving. This strategy and its severe consequences for civilians is on full display in west Mosul, as coalition and Iraqi forces have closed in on al-Qadima where ISIS fighters remain along with over 150,000 civilians and face life or death choice: either leave and risk being killed by ISIS shelling and snipers, or stay and risk death from coalition and Iraqi aerial bombing, artillery, and mortars. Such a stark choice must be avoided in Syria and civilians must be given options for safe exit out of active areas of hostilities.
This paper offers recommendations to the anti-ISIS coalition and SDF to address key civilian protection concerns in Syria. The coalition should:
- Take all feasible precautions to reduce civilian casualties, improve investigations, and acknowledge victims and offer them assistance;
- Refrain from using bombs with heavy payloads and explosive weapons with wide-area effects, such as artillery, rockets, and mortars, in populated areas;
- Refrain from entrapping civilians along with ISIS and ensure civilians have safe exit routes from ISIS areas;
- Commission an independent assessment of all anti-ISIS coalition operations to understand how civilians are being harmed and learn how to better protect them;
- Communicate consistently with civilians to allow them to make informed choices on whether to leave or stay, and also ensure proper coordination with humanitarian agencies to allow for necessary assistance to displaced persons;
- Develop and enforce consistent screening guidelines in accordance with international law at SDF checkpoints for displaced persons.
Download the full policy brief, by MENA & South Asia Director Sahr Muhammedally, below.
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