Raqqa’s Civilians: The Weapons, or the Collateral, of War?

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Since 2015, the US-backed coalition the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Russian-backed Assad army have regained many of the IS strongholds, diminishing the presence of Daesh in Syria and Iraq.

Most recently in July 2017, the recapture of the city of Mosul spread both national and international hope that the current capital of ISIS’ ‘Caliphate,’ the Syrian city of Raqqa, will now face the same fate.

With the battle now well underway, Nowruz Ahmed, who sits on the military council of the SDF, claimed that the city will be recaptured within no more than two months. Such a statement has been endorsed enthusiastically by the international community.

Amidst such an encouraging prediction, the effect on the civilians held hostage in the IS stronghold will be devastating unless action is taken immediately. In Mosul alone, an estimated 40,000 civilians were killed due to (among many factors), (i) the immense firepower used to extract IS fighters from the city, and (ii) IS’ brutality against civilians, especially using them as ‘human shields’ against the incoming enemy.

Western governments estimate that approximately 18,000-25,000 Syrians remain in the besieged city of Raqqa, with an estimated 50% being children. The City had a prewar population of a quarter of a million and any estimate of the number of civilians still present has to be little more than a guess. Save The Children has called for an immediate ceasefire of fighting, on all sides, to allow civilians to escape safely from the city.

US-backed SDF fighters are working tirelessly to extract civilians from the city. However, reports from Raqqa suggest IS fighters have caught onto this fact, so are concealing themselves as SDF soldiers in order to recapture fleeing civilians. Once recaptured, civilians are either tortured and executed, or added to IS’ growing (guesstimates range from 7,000-20,000 large) human shield.

A dilemma arises for the international community. How should we help the oppressed civilians in Raqqa amidst growing violence? In attempting to safely extract them from the city, it is clear a huge amount of suffering is accrued. Nonetheless, by not working to extract civilians, they risk making more civilians the collateral of the war against IS. If the SDF and Assad forces use the same immense firepower in Raqqa as our allies did in Mosul, it means the civilians of Raqqa will suffer the same fate as the civilians of Mosul.

However, with the best intention, we cannot concur with Save The Children that a cease-fire is the right option. IS’ heinous treatment of civilians highlights their desperateness to maintain their strong hold over Raqqa. In any case, a cease-fire is highly unlikely as it would give credence to their Caliphate. More turmoil would likely result.

Placing a prediction on the length of the operation to remove IS from Raqqa, as Nowruz Ahmed did, is not wise. The operation must conform to standards of warfare worthy of the UN charter, therefore must first and foremost protect the safety of civilians. The fight to eradicate IS cannot be conducted without respect for the Geneva Conventions.