Civilian Deaths in Raqqa Mount as US-led Coalition Forces Push to Reclaim City from ISIL

June 16, 2017

 

Since beginning a large-scale offensive campaign on 6 June, the US-led coalition has continued to advance in Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State (ISIL) in Syria. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a network of Kurdish and Arab militias supported by the US-led coalition, has said they have opened up a second front inside the city. The recent offensive comes after a months-long effort by the SDF to cut off Raqqa, and ISIL within it, from outside support.
 
However, despite the seeming success at loosening ISIL’s grasp on Raqqa, the number of civilian casualties has continued to increase as the US-led coalition’s attacks have intensified there. Paulo Pinheiro, chairman of the UN Commission of Inquiry, told the UN Human Rights Council on Wednesday that US-led coalition airstrikes are responsible for a “staggering loss of civilian life” in Raqqa, having caused at least 300 civilian casualties and the displacement of 160,000 since March. If the coalition’s offensive on Raqqa succeeds, it could liberate the city’s civilians, including Yazidi women and girls, that “the group has kept sexually enslaved for almost three years as part of an ongoing and unaddressed genocide" according to Pinheiro. However, he added that the fight on terrorism must not be “undertaken at the expense of civilians." Additionally, Pinheiro reported on efforts coordinated between the Syrian government and armed groups to evacuate civilians from conflict areas, which he asserts can "in some cases amount to war crimes” as forces have forcibly removed civilians. Civilians also continue to face a direct risk from ISIL, as those who have successfully fledfrom Raqqa have reported that ISIL fighters have begun killing any who try to escape, and fighters have been using civilians as human shields.
 
The conflict situation has indirect consequences for civilians, as well. On Tuesday, 13 June, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) called for better access to Raqqa, claiming that close to half a million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic cited several barriers that have made aid operations "costly and complex," such as a serious lack of resources and funding, as well as the blockage of land routes by other parties which has forced the aid agency to rely solely on airlifts.   
 
ICRtoP member Human Rights Watch has urged the US to investigate airstrikes that have allegedly targeted civilians in Syria and Iraq, expressing particular concerns about the alleged use of white phosphorus by coalition forces in airstrikes, saying it “poses a high risk of horrific and long-lasting harm” for civilians in densely populated cities like Raqqa. HRW added that "White phosphorus fragments can exacerbate wounds even after treatment and can enter the bloodstream and cause multiple organ failure”. In this vein, HRW has urged the US-led coalition to make protection of civilians a priority.

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(c) 2017 RtoP Weekly

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