After several months of deadlock, the US-led operation with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to take Raqqa has begun. Lama Fakih the Middle East director at Human Rights rightly points out, “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.”
However the largest force on the ground in the Syrian Democratic Forces is the People’s Protection Units (YPG). As Raqqa is a predominantly Sunni Arab city, there are legitimate concerns about a non-Arab force helping to take the city, especially one which has scores to settle within the Daesh capital.
Human Rights Watch is concerned about the YPG’s persistent recruitment of child soldiers. The Kurdish police (Asayish) have been accused by both HRW and Amnesty International of detaining and mistreating many. It has detained medics who have given treatment to captured Daesh fighters. An estimated 400,000 civilians remain in Raqqa governorate, and 160,000-200,000 in the city of Raqqa. More than 200,000 civilians have so far been displaced, according to the UN. Of those left, 40,000 are children.
The coalition is determined that the “liberation of Raqqa” should be done much faster then the slowly progressing operation in Mosul. Raqqa is the Caliphate’s capital, and the destruction of Daesh there would be highly symbolic. As in Mosul, the defeat of Daesh should be welcomed. However it there are real and serious misgivings about the forces that will undertake the operation. We should have no faith in the combination of militias and the US to respect the interests of the civilian population of Raqqa.
Around 50,000 forces are technically available if all of the YPG and other Syrian Arab militias that have been approved by the US and Turkey are deployed. Daesh have laid mines across the city and booby trapped houses, and have installed a network of tunnels under the city. There are regular announcements through megaphones during bombing raids, warning civilians not to leave their homes. Those that do flee are shot at by snipers, and civilian vehicles are torched. The coalition has responded by using white phosphorus. This incendiary chemical is legal if used to make a smoke screen or to guide other forms of artillery. However, Raqqa is densely populated, and the consequences of white phosphorus coming into contact with civilians is lethal. There have been well documented cases of burns through to the bone; wounds can reignite when dressings are replaced. The use of white phosphorus in civilian areas should be considered a war crime.
The coalition has accepted that in recent airstrikes almost 500 civilians were killed. Who will control Raqqa following the defeat of Daesh is hard to know. The YPG will not enter the city itself. Whoever ends up in control will probably find themselves fighting the Syrian government. Maybe a deal can be struck between Turkey and the US over who can maintain control. The situation has been made more complicated by the involvement of Iran and Russia. Both have increased their direct involvement in the conflict, and both back Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Russia has warned the US that it will consider US aircraft legitimate targets and will stop the communication that was set up to try to prevent shooting incidents in the air. Following an attack on the Iranian Parliament by Daesh, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have launched several missiles into eastern Syria. This is the first time Iran has played a direct role in the conflict.
Mosul: Daesh to fall
The last district in Mosul held by Daesh is likely to fall soon. 100,000 civilians are trapped in the Old City, the most densely populated area of Mosul. The Iraqi army has said that air and artillery strikes will be used sparingly to minimise loss of life in the narrow passageways and old buildings that make up the Old City.
About 230 civilians have been killed in western Mosul in the first two weeks of June — the result of air strikes and rocket attacks, with a smaller number killed by Daesh snipers as they try to flee. Although there is officially a humanitarian corridor running out of the city, high numbers of casualties are incredibly likely.
This is not helped by the desire of some of the military to blow up the Nuri mosque, made famous for having Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his only public and recorded appearance there.