The human cost of the battle for Raqqa unclear
Tunis- As Syrian regime forces appear to have broken the two-year-long siege at Deir ez-Zor, the US-led coalition’s fight to reclaim the Islamic State’s self-declared capital at Raqqa, north along the country’s Euphrates River, grinds on.
Figures from the UN Commission for Human Rights indicate that, during August, 151 civilians were killed in coalition strikes, which the international body suggested may be in contravention of international law. For the Islamic State (ISIS), like its numbers within the city, fatalities are unknown, though its propaganda machine claims to have killed more than 1,000 Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters since hostilities began June 6.
Bloody though it may be, progress appears to be being made. The Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, a monitoring group, said ISIS’s control of the city, as of September 2, had fallen to around 37.5% of overall territory. SDF fighters claim to have seized control of Raqqa’s old city and, in a morale-boosting coup, took the city’s Great Mosque on September 2.
Outside the city, some semblance of economic life has returned. Markets are open and essential supplies can be bought and sold, though electricity remains unavailable since the destruction of the Tabqa Dam by ISIS earlier this year.
Rubble is commonplace throughout the governorate, with dead bodies festering in 45-degree heat.
Nadim Houry, director of the Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism Programme with Human Rights Watch (HRW), told of a man who daily walked past rocks covering his 12-year-old daughter’s body.
“He tried digging her out with his hands. He got his friends to help but without heavy machinery he couldn’t do anything,” Houry, who visited Raqqa in June, said by phone.
After seven years of fighting between rebels, the Assad regime, ISIS and the US-backed coalition, the population has emerged from the jihadists’ authority exhausted and bewildered as to what the future might hold.
Though the coalition claimed to have clear plans for restoring liberated territories to local governance, little information appeared to have made its way to those on the ground.
“They’re obviously relieved to be free from ISIS but they have no idea what the future might hold. No one in the coalition has told them what is happening.” Houry said, “There are people there from all over. They’re from Deir ez-Zor. They’re from south of the Euphrates, Tabqa, everywhere and there isn’t really the infrastructure for them. Hospitals aren’t functioning and heavy machinery is scarce.”
Demining operations remain patchy and unexploded ordnance and bombs litter large parts of the governorate, posing a threat to the local populace and rendering land and homes unusable.
“The people we talked with, many of them lost their houses or family members because of the continuous bombardments inside the city,” Ingy Sedky, spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, told Reuters. “Many schools, hospitals and health centres were destroyed. They say nothing is functioning inside Raqqa city.”
UN estimates said that 10,000- 20,000 people were trapped within the city, caught between snipers, car bombs and booby traps of ISIS and air strikes of the US-led international coalition.
“A month ago, I had a loaf of bread and a bowl of za’atar (thyme), a cucumber and some halva,” a Syrian journalist, writing under the name of “Tim Ramadan,” said in the British newspaper the Guardian. “I couldn’t go out to buy more because no shops are selling food in my neighbourhood. Walking a long way was too dangerous because of the air strikes.”
Rights groups said a loosening of the US-led coalition’s targeting parameters resulted in increased civilian casualties, provoking the United Nations’ recent ire. With greater decision-making given commanders on the ground, an entire civilian block occupied by a small number of ISIS fighters could be considered a legitimate coalition target.
The loosened parameters are taking a heavy toll. In one incident, on September 4, coalition planes killed 13 civilians, including a pharmacist, his wife, brother and two children, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported. “The tolls are high because the air strikes are hitting neighbourhoods in the city centre that are densely packed with civilians.” observatory Director Rami Abdul Rahman told Agence France- Presse.
The number of ISIS fighters within Raqqa remains in dispute. A US military spokesman said approximately 2,500 fighters were in the city, relying on amphetamines to fuel a desperate rear-guard action. Other observers, such as the media organisation Sound and Pictures, which claims to have operatives within the city, put the number at “less than 500.”
In either scenario, coalition fighters are not encountering ISIS in the numbers many had anticipated. “They’re encountering fighters in the hundreds, not the thousands,” Houry said. “We don’t know where they are. They could be massing at Deir ez-Zor (in preparation for a later attack) or elsewhere in the country. We just don’t know.”