Valerie Szybala talks to Syria Direct about siege of Raqqa

US-backed ‘scorched-earth’ siege traps Raqqa civilians in fight to drive out Islamic State

Syria Direct

Up to 25,000 civilians are now trapped inside Raqqa city, according to the latest UNOCHA count. For them, the ongoing fight to drive out the Islamic State is nothing less than hellish.

Since the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces surrounded the city in June, residents face devastating airstrikes and artillery fire from the US-led coalition, as the SDF closes in on the Islamic State’s last remaining holdout districts of Raqqa city.

The UK-based airstrike monitoring group Airwars estimates more than 1,000 Raqqa residents killed since the start of the battle, with one coalition bomb or artillery round hitting the city “every eight minutes” during the month of August.

But residents have few options to leave. They are trapped inside Raqqa by Islamic State-planted landmines, and risk being targeted by US-backed forces whose apparent strategy is to “shoot every boat we find,” American Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsendtold the New York Times in July. Townsend, who commands the US-led Operation Inherent Resolve against IS, subsequently walked back that statement.

Earlier this week, the Syria Institute and the Dutch NGO Pax released their seventh “Siege Watch” report, detailing ongoing and possible future sieges across Syria. For the first time, they looked at American actions in Raqqa while assessing siege criteria. 

“We’re used to sieges waged by the Syrian government, where the target is civilians in a collective punishment strategy,” Valerie Szybala, executive director of the Washington, DC-based Syria Institute, tells Syria Direct’s Madeline Edwards.

“We don’t believe that the coalition’s intent is to punish civilians, but practically speaking, the effect is the same.”

Raqqa city is included in the report’s “watchlist,” which classifies communities at “high risk of being under long-term siege.”

“Raqqa was a challenge for us,” says Szybala. “It was the first time we were looking at this type of situation with the US.”

Q: What factors did you consider when classifying Raqqa as part of Siege Watch’s “watchlist” for the first time?

We look for locations that are intentionally surrounded as part of a military strategy by a force—in this case, the US-backed SDF—and have a civilian population trapped inside.

Raqqa was a challenge for us because it was the first time we were looking at this type of situation with the US. We’re used to sieges waged by the Syrian government, where the target of the siege is civilians or a collective punishment strategy.

We don’t believe that the coalition’s intent is to punish civilians, but practically speaking the effect is the same. Civilians are not allowed out, in part because they’re held by ISIS as human shields. But [we also asked ourselves]—are the US-backed coalition and SDF taking extraordinary measures to assist civilians who are trying to flee the city?

We found that they aren’t. There seem to be indiscriminate attacks on vehicles that are fleeing the city, and there are reports of civilians, [whether traveling in] boats or cars, being targeted by the coalition. But they seem to be not just indiscriminate—they seem to be targeted attacks on groups of individuals fleeing the city.

So speaking with networks of activists in Raqqa, they said they really have no way out. And for this reason, we’re going to soon be designating it as fully besieged.

An SDF fighter in western Raqqa city on September 5. Photo courtesy Delil Souleiman/AFP.

Q: So would you classify Raqqa city as fully besieged?

It is besieged. The titles we’re putting on these places are, by their very nature, superficial. They don’t define the place. We just try our best to follow a methodology that we’ve determined, these artificial categories, to make some sense in the madness.

Q: You mentioned that you keep in contact with a network of activists inside Raqqa city. How are you able to ensure that the information you receive from inside Islamic State territory was trustworthy?

It’s always a challenge with this location. In other places [in Syria], we have years of trust built up, but in a place like Raqqa, direct contact inside the city is incredibly difficult.

We’ve been forced to rely on activist networks that have contacts inside the city. That’s the reality of the situation right now. The electricity, and all the ways you communicate—sometimes it’s just not possible to talk to someone who’s in an ISIS-controlled area directly.

But I’m sure you know, working on Syria, that the data is never going to be perfect. That’s something we always try and be clear about at Siege Watch. But it’s so important to report on what are, in many cases, atrocities. The best we can do is to be transparent about gaps or flaws, or what we don’t know.

Q: Can you talk a little bit more about what exactly your sources said about “atrocities” taking place on the ground in Raqqa city? Did you see any change in humanitarian conditions there since SDF forces surrounded the city in June?

These are people who are going from one life threatening circumstance to another.

Of course, conditions have been deteriorating rapidly since the US-led global coalition began its offensive against the city for all the reasons one might expect—because of the devastating scorched-earth bombardment. All forms of infrastructure have been targeted. [US-backed forces] appear to have little regard for civilian vs. military, but in Raqqa we know this is a challenge because ISIS is embedded with civilians.

The besieging force still has a choice on how they proceed, and it seems that under the current US administration there is less caution taken, and that’s really the only way that this type of situation can come about.

The lack of food and water is of course devastating. I don’t believe there are any functioning medical facilities left. People who are near enough to the [Euphrates] river that they could have previously gotten water there can’t because they’ll be targeted.

And because of the severity of the situation with the difficulty of access and communication, the fear of ISIS we don’t even have the types of photos and videos to [coming] out of the city that I’m sure would help galvanize world attention to the effects this extended deprivation, of the diseases that are being spread because of the dirty water, of the medical cases that are dying for lack of care. That’s a shame. We know that in other cases, having imagery has really helped focus attention. In Raqqa, this [deprivation] is happening—it’s just so difficult to get imagery out of it.

Q: Does this lack of imagery coming out of Raqqa contribute to any sort of Western media bias against classifying the city outright as besieged? Is there an implicit bias to begin with?

I don’t know if it’s implicit bias—definitely the different circumstances make it a much more complicated situation. I think the presence of ISIS is real and the global coalition’s anti-ISIS campaign is largely seen as legitimate and justified in the global community. I think that complicates things.

The aspect that we struggled with was the extent to which we had been thinking of sieges as intentionally targeting civilians, as sieges up to this point have been causing maximum pain to civilians by destroying hospitals, by withholding baby milk. This has been commonplace, making it kind of unambiguous that civilians are the target.

That’s not the case in Raqqa, which adds this extra layer of difficulty in naming it [a siege]. But it clearly meets all the criteria. We’ve been looking at sieges that violate international law because of the impact they have on civilians—the deprivation of medical aid, the targeting of hospitals and bakeries. So this definitely meets all those categories. Whether or not they’re intentional or they are casualties of war, if you will, that is what’s happening.

Q: With the plight of Raqqa’s residents in mind, what steps can the US-led coalition realistically take to protect civilians while also driving IS from Raqqa city? 

We’ve heard [Operation Inherent Resolve] commander [Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend] say something like “We’re going to hit any boat or life raft that goes across the Euphrates.”

That kind of blanket policy of targeting is completely inappropriate for a situation where you have tens of thousands of civilians trapped.

[Ed.: In early July, Townsend told the New York Times that US-backed coalition forces in Raqqa “shoot every boat we find…If you want to get out of Raqqa right now, you’ve got to build a poncho raft.” The American commander later published an op-ed in Foreign Policy, claiming that the coalition applies “rigorous standards to our targeting process” and strike “only valid military targets after considering the principles of military necessity, humanity, proportionality, and distinction.”]

Taking more caution—even if it means slowing down—in assessing each individual threat so you don’t have situation where they’re bombing a group of civilians who are trying to get out of the city…I think it would be one of the best ways [to limit civilian casualties].

I also think that [US-backed forces] could designate a corridor or safe zone within the city—not that it’s safe from ISIS, but that it can be used as a zone for people to be picked up into safety.

Right now the only way that we’ve heard civilians [leave the city]—the lucky ones who happen to be bunkered down in a neighborhood that is taken over by the SDF, who weren’t killed in the fighting, weren’t forced by ISIS into a more heavily bombarded area—they’re generally picked up and taken to holding centers by the SDF. But people who aren’t lucky enough to be in one of those neighborhoods aren’t given a way out. So the US coalition could look at offering any sort of option for these people.

It’s not enough [for US-backed forces] to say that “we warned them beforehand, so if they stayed inside there are risks.” But people were being held by ISIS—they didn’t have the decision to leave beforehand, and now they still don’t have the decision.

Q: Looking further down the line, after the Islamic State is presumably driven from Raqqa and later from Deir e-Zor, is this the end of siege warfare in Syria? What other communities do you consider vulnerable to a similarly devastating siege—what about East Ghouta, in the eastern suburbs of Damascus?

East Ghouta is besieged, and we highlight it as incredibly vulnerable and very likely the next target of the government’s scorched-earth policy—the same type of Aleppo-style [tactics].

We see worrying signs, such as the effort to cut off [the eastern Damascus suburb of] Jobar from Eastern Ghouta, and repeated chemical attacks. It really points to a government that is not about to honor any real sort of de-escalation or ceasefire zone. I believe that Eastern Ghouta is probably the highest risk.

[Ed.: Jobar, currently split between areas of regime and rebel control, is the western gate to the rebel-held East Ghouta suburbs. The district has been the focus of battles since rebels launched a ground offensive from it this past March, Syria Direct reported at the time. In early June, bombardment and ground fighting broke out again, with regime missiles and shellfire still pummeling the district, as well as neighboring Ain Tarma, despite a Russian-backed ceasefire deal implemented in July.]

But you also have continuing challenges in northern Homs, and ultimately we saw this large spate of airstrikes in Idlib this morning. I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility that parts of Idlib could become besieged in the future.

Q: Going back to East Ghouta, we’ve heard civilians there quietly expressing fears that what happened in east Aleppo could happen to them. But do you really see an east Aleppo-style bombardment happening in East Ghouta, so close to the capital?

Absolutely, I do. We have to remember, it’s a different physical layout so it’s not going to look exactly like east Aleppo, which is a dense, urban area. But they’re showing every sign of wanting to take back Eastern Ghouta by force. Over the two years that we’ve been running Siege Watch, we’ve seen the enclave shrink notably on the eastern and southern portions. Over the summer and the spring, we’ve seen [regime forces] do a kind of short-term “surrender-and-die” blitz against the nearby adjacent neighborhoods of Damascus that were seen as weak spots in their siege.

I’m absolutely worried about the future of Eastern Ghouta.

 

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