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Published On: Wed, Aug 23rd, 2017

UN relief officials condemn targeting of civilians, infrastructure as airstrikes hit Raqqa

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nsnbc : Senior United Nations humanitarian officials for Syria, yesterday, expressed deep concern over many civilians reportedly killed in airstrikes and other attacks in the last few days in the Syrian city of Raqqa, where the U.S. and international anti-ISIS coalition-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are fighting Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Destroyed home in Tabqa near Raqqa. Photo courtesy UNICEF / Souleiman

Destroyed home in Tabqa near Raqqa. Photo courtesy UNICEF / Souleiman

Ali Al-Za’tari, the Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria, and Ramesh Rajasingham, the acting Regional Humanitarian Coordinator, issued a statement saying “The UN condemns attacks directed against civilians and civilian infrastructure. The humanitarian community reminds all parties to abide by their obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law to protect civilians and to spare no effort to prevent civilian casualties.”

These – not officially confirmed or verified – accounts come on the heels of an increasing number of reported civilian casualties due to intensified military operations, including airstrikes. In recent months, regular airstrikes and shelling in the city have reportedly resulted in scores of civilian casualties, including women and children, the statement said.

An estimated 75,000 people have been displaced from Raqqa city, but 18,000 to 25,000 civilians who remain trapped risk being killed by ISIL snipers or mines if they try to flee, or being used as human shields or killed in indiscriminate airstrikes if they remain.

Last week the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS conducted more than 200 strikes in support of the partnered Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on the ground in an around Raqqa, the Islamic State’s “capital” in Syria. Around 60 non-combatant civilians have been reported killed in that time span in the Old City of Raqqa where ISIS mounts a fierce last stand, using civilians a human shields.

Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) told reporters that “what distinguishes the operation for Raqqa from all other cities is the degree to which ISIS thugs use civilians as human shields. … This fight has become a matter of life and death for both sides”.

Coalition spokesperson Col Ryan Dillon told reporters that ISIS is “baiting” the coalition into carrying out airstrikes that will result in civilian casualties. “In Raqqa, ISIS has posted children outside of known ISIS facilities – car bomb and IED factories,” he said. The coalition relies on intelligence gathering from the air and the ground in order to avoid civilian casualties, he added, applying “rigorous standards to our targeting process.”

Stephane Dujarric, the spokesman for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told reporters last week that they are deeply concerned about the safety and protection of the thousands of civilians inside Raqqa city, many of them women and children, who are caught in the crossfire of the ongoing conflict.

Raqqa_Syria_YPG_Aug 2017_2

Photo courtesy YPG

“Access to Raqqa is not currently possible for the UN, due to the fighting on the ground,” Mr. Dujarric said on August 9, reminding all military actors of their obligations to protect civilians and ensure humanitarian access.

The US-led coalition reported more than 200 strikes against ISIS this week in Raqqa, “destroying more than 180 ISIS fighting positions, car bombs and other various improvised explosive devices.” There are two types of airstrike targets, Dillon told reporters, – deliberate and dynamic. Deliberate targeting involves days or weeks of observation of daily life and behavior in an “extensive development process.” Dynamic targeting is responsive, taking out an ISIS suicide car, for example. The decision-making process takes minutes to hours, responding to “emerging and immediate threats.”

The coalition supports the SDF with air and ground strikes. It is fighting an estimated “2,500 enemy forces” in Raqqa, Dillon told reporters on Thursday.  “Fighting in the tightly packed old city is particularly difficult, with ISIS rigging buildings and even corpses with improvised explosives to try to stall the SDF advance,” the spokesperson explained last week.

The Old City of Raqqa is besieged, and SDF is continuing to fight pockets of resistance in surrounding neighborhoods, according to the Syriac Military Council, a component of the SDF. “[ISIS] has centralized much of their operations and many of their fighters in the city’s main hospital. They have fortified the complex, created tunnels for access and are hiding among women and children who have nowhere else to go,” Dillon told Pentagon reporters via teleconference on Thursday.

Photo courtesy YPG

Photo courtesy YPG

Dillon said that about 55 percent of the city has been cleared, “despite the scores of improvised explosive devices emplaced by ISIS and the density of the high-rise buildings in the areas they are fighting in now.” He explained ISIS as rigged “thousands of fiendishly clever explosives and to dig extensive tunnels throughout the city.”

The SDF is a diverse force comprised largely of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), who are optimistic that the city will be liberated quickly. “Soon we will all celebrate the liberation of the city of Raqqa, this beautiful city that they [ISIS jihadists] made it the capital of terrorism and terrorists,” Brigadier Talal Silo (Telal Selo), SDF’s official spokesman, reporters on Thusday last week.

The SDF / YPG, backed by the United States, is trying to limit the impact of the battle on the civilian population, but it also uses a deliberate media strategy aimed to minimize reports about the loss of civilian lives, to blame ISIS, and to release reports mainly about “rescuing civilians” and humanitarian operations.

The YPG reported Friday last week that SDF fighters have rescued civilians who remained stranded in al-Diriyah neighborhood of Raqqa for the last one month. The YPG notes that while transferring the civilians to safe areas out of the battle zone, SDF fighters provided special help to the mothers and carried their children to the vehicles. The war in Syria has caused the death of an estimated 150,000 people so far while countless others have sustained severe injuries.  Several millions have been internally or externally displaced.

CH/L – nsnbc 23.08.2017

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