Syria’s land grab to bring civilians little but more bloodshed

Sunday 02/07/2017
Costly fighting. A Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighter stands at a cemetery during a funeral for fighters killed by Islamic State (ISIS) militants in Raqqa, on June 23. (Reuters)

Tunis- As the death throes of the Islamic State (ISIS) convulse much of Syria, the international powers competing in the coun­try ratcheted up efforts to secure territory. In between stands a ci­vilian population frequently over­looked and often undefended.

With the eventual capture of ISIS’s last Syrian strongholds in Syr­ia looking assured, Iran, Hezbollah, Turkey, the US-led coalition and the Damascus regime have stepped up efforts to secure strategic territo­ries. Predictably, as the conflict es­calates, so, too, do military clashes and civilian deaths.

US missiles struck an Assad re­gime base in April in response to the base being the launch point of an alleged chemical weapons at­tack against civilians. In May, US jets fired on an Iranian-supported column as it approached a train­ing base in Syria’s key strategic border town of Al-Tanf, near Iraq and Jordan. In Azaz in northern Syria, clashes erupted between US-backed Kurdish forces and their pa­tron’s ostensible NATO ally, Turkey.

In Raqqa, as the US coalition and its allies in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) increase their assault on ISIS’s de facto capital, the United Nations has characterised ensuing civilian loss of life as “staggering,” a claim rejected by the coalition forces.

On June 18, US jets shot down a Syrian Su-22 fighter providing air support to regime forces approach­ing SDF positions at Tabqa near Raqqa, the first such downing of a foreign-manned aircraft since 1999 and the cause of significant diplo­matic fallout. Two days later, US fighters shot down an armed drone of Iranian manufacture as it ap­proached Al-Tanf.

The situation appears to be grow­ing graver by the day, with com­mentators pointing to the risk of a US conflict with Iran and others predicting Russia as its ultimate likely opponent. Both outcomes are far from certain.

Former Syrian diplomat and co-founder of the civil society support group People Demand Change, Bas­sam Barabandi said: “The Ameri­cans have a clear mission in Syria, which is defeating ISIS. Everything else is secondary.”

With the US aims in Syria beyond ISIS’s immediate defeat subject to question, the regime and the forces aligned to it are seeking to gain as much territory as possible. “The regime does not have enough man­power to defeat the Syrian people, hold and control the lands so the Iranians are doing the job for [it] but for their own purposes,” Bara­bandi said in an e-mail exchange.

For Iran, those aims lie within Tehran’s goal of establishing a land corridor to the Mediterranean. For Syrian President Bashar Assad, the challenge is more immediate. “As­sad is already an Iranian puppet. He cannot survive without them. The current escalation is the natu­ral consequence of the conflict be­tween the American mission and Iranian aims,” Barabandi added.

Between those aims are the rem­nants of Syria’s civilian population trying to survive amid the bloodi­est war of the 21st century and the besieged inhabitants of Raqqa, who have survived three years of ISIS oc­cupation and whose loyalties are in doubt. “So far, the number of civil­ians killed has increased and is ex­pected to increase further over the coming days and weeks. The major problem for the civilians of Raqqa is that all the parties consider them as supporting ISIS, which is a huge mistake,” Barabandi said.

In May, the Syrian Network for Human Rights estimated that 207,000 civilians had been killed during Syria’s civil war, 55,000 of whom were children.

“Amnesty International has docu­mented numerous unlawful attacks on civilians and civilian objects across Syria by all parties to the conflict, some amounting to war crimes and crimes against human­ity” Diana Semaan, the NGO’s Syria researcher, said via e-mail. “The Syrian government and Russia re­peatedly used weapons prohibited under international humanitarian law on civilians. Non-state armed groups have also conducted indis­criminate attacks on populated are­as such as in Damascus countryside and Aleppo city.”

As the US-led coalition closes in on Raqqa, reports of civilian casu­alties are mounting. “We are cur­rently investigating reports of civil­ian casualties resulting from US-led coalition attacks on Raqqa governo­rate and we are also closely moni­toring the offensive on Raqqa city, a densely populated civilian area,” Amnesty International said.

Ousting ISIS from positions at Sirte in Libya and Mosul in Iraq has proved costly in terms of time, mu­nitions and lives. As the coalition and the SDF rally at Raqqa, there is little reason to suppose that ISIS’s self-proclaimed capital will be any easier to take.

“We are deeply worried about the fate of civilians in Syria but in par­ticular Raqqa,” Semaan said. “[ISIS] has been using civilians as human shields in Mosul and we are con­cerned the same tactic will be used there.”