UN war crimes investigators have denounced a “staggering loss of civilian life” caused by the US-backed campaign to reclaim Raqqa, the de facto capital of Islamic State.
The independent commission of inquiry tasked with investigating violations of international law, war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria said the intensification of airstrikes by the United States-led coalition had led to the deaths of at least 300 civilians in the city.
The Raqqa operation began last week with a ground assault by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an umbrella group comprised of Kurdish and Arab militiamen armed by the US, and supported by coalition airstrikes.
They have already pushed into Raqqa from the east and west, reportedly approaching the old city walls. Citizens have reported intense combat in areas of the city.
“We note in particular that the intensification of airstrikes, which have paved the ground for an SDF advance in Raqqa, has resulted not only in staggering loss of civilian life, but has also led to 160,000 civilians fleeing their homes and becoming internally displaced,” Paulo Pinheiro, chairman of the UN commission of inquiry, told the human rights council in Geneva.
Karen Abuzayd, an American commissioner on the independent panel, said: “We have documented the deaths caused by the coalition airstrikes only and we have about 300 deaths – 200 in one place, in al-Mansoura, one village.”
The civilian cost of the campaign was highlighted last week when footage emerged of coalition planes deploying white phosphorus in the city, which is home to tens of thousands of civilians, prisoners of war, enslaved Yazidi women, and a few thousand Isis militants.
“The imperative to fight terrorism must not, however, be undertaken at the expense of civilians who unwillingly find themselves living in areas where Isil is present,” Pinheiro added, using an alternative acronym for Isis.
Human Rights Watch urged the coalition separately on Wednesday to exercise great caution when using white phosphorus, saying it could cause “horrific and long-lasting harm” in crowded cities like Raqqa, and that such powerful incendiary munitions should never be used in populated areas.
The use of white phosphorus drew strong condemnation last week, and raised concerns that the coalition was not taking adequate precautions to protect civilian lives.
While the success of the campaign would free civilians in Raqqa from the yoke of Isis, many face the prospect of death by coalition airpower or because of their use as human shields by the militants, a common tactic in their defence of their stronghold in Mosul across the border. Some 18% of people in Raqqa province have been displaced in the campaign to retake the city, according to UN figures.
“As the operation is gaining pace very rapidly, civilians are caught up in the city under the oppressive rule of Isil, while facing extreme danger associated with movement due to excessive airstrikes,” Pinheiro told reporters.
People living in Isis areas are also subject to inconsistent screening procedures to determine if they are sympathisers with the militant group.
Those who do survive or flee also face uncertain prospects of survival, owing to the limited access to the area for humanitarian organisations. Turkey to the north has refused to allow much aid to flow across the border and into areas controlled by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units militia, which is part of the SDF, because Ankara considers it a terrorist group affiliated with its own Kurdish insurgency.
The UN has also had limited access to the area owing to restrictions on their movement. By contrast, before the campaign to reclaim Mosul, aid organisations were able to set up camps to house tens of thousands of displaced people.
On Wednesday, aid groups described the gruelling and daunting challenge they faced to respond to the humanitarian crisis in and around the city. A key problem is getting aid supplies to the relatively remote desert region, with just a trickle of assistance currently crossing from neighbouring Turkey and Iraq.
“There is supply but it’s very, very limited and the needs of the population are very high,” said Puk Leenders, emergency coordinator for northern Syria for Médecins Sans Frontières.
The UN’s World Food Programme said it had delivered one month’s supply of food for 80,000 people in Raqqa, Deir Ezzor and Hasakeh provinces in north and northeast Syria, but said this “offered limited capacity and was insufficient to meet all needs”. .