The Whack-a-Mole Strategy Against ISIS Carries a Civilian Toll

A bus convoy of ISIS fighters travels from the border of Lebanon to eastern Syria | Photo from Wochit News

In mid-October, the US military granted safe passage to hundreds of Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) militants out of Raqqa – the group’s de facto capital –  pursuant an evacuation deal arranged by the city’s civil council and tribal elders. This sanctioned exodus is part of a string of deals, which allow members of the UN-designated terrorist organization to evade capture in exchange for the surrender of territory. Though the US military expressly premises the evacuations on the preservation of civilian life, these agreements have generally been executed only after ground battles and aerial bombardment inflict substantial damage to civilian life and property. Moreover, the evacuation agreements lack a consistent strategy for eradicating extremist militias and the root causes that led to their rise. To build the long-term peace and stability necessary to prevent ISIS’s return, it is imperative the US articulates and implements a strategy for Syria that prioritizes civilian protection and welfare.

The Raqqa evacuation deal, though widely hailed by media as a decisive victory against ISIS, led to several problematic outcomes. On October 14, the US-led Combined Joint Task Force against ISIS issued a press release stating that the evacuation agreement facilitates Raqqa’s liberation while minimizing civilian harm. While the deal did force militants into areas outside of the city, it appeared to have few (if any) conditions. In reality, the fighters simply moved to other ISIS strongholds in Deir ez-Zor province.

The parameters of the deal itself are also questionable. ISIS was permitted to take some 400 civilians to use as human shields when they fled. Moreover, the deal came with contradicting reports about whether foreign ISIS militants would be included in the evacuation; while reports claimed foreign fighters were excluded, a member of Raqqa’s Civil Council stated the opposite. There was likewise no mention of detainees held hostage by ISIS. By failing to condition evacuation upon their release, an untold number of prisoners presumably still held by ISIS remain unaccounted for. Family members reported to SJAC that they still do not know where their loved ones are located. Prominent Syrian figures – including Abdul Wahab Mulla, an outspoken YouTube star, and Ismael al-Hamed, the last doctor remaining in Raqqa – are among the thousands of prisoners still missing. Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, an Italian priest abducted in 2013, has similarly not been located.

The symbolism of the victory was also tempered by the fact that 80% of Raqqa is now uninhabitable, according to the United Nations. Video footage from CNN shows a city in complete rubble, with displaced civilians living in tattered tents nearby. This has been a result of ISIS’s brutal tactics of using civilians as human shields, but also due to intense Coalition airstrikes on Raqqa that began in June, causing an estimated 1,100 civilian deaths and utterly destroying municipal infrastructure. Paradoxically, the United States reportedly opposed a similar evacuation deal earlier this summer, once again signaling a lack of established strategic policy in the battle against the extremist group.

Despite the Coalition’s recent contention that it disfavors deals that allow ISIS militants to avert justice or resurface elsewhere, the United States has allowed exactly that time and time again. In May, US-backed forces wrested Tabqa Dam and a nearby village from ISIS control, which included an evacuation deal for ISIS fighters that led to their safe transit to Raqqa – where the United States chased them only a month later. A similar deal was reached in Manbij in August 2016, when ISIS fighters were permitted to evacuate toward Jarablus – an ISIS-controlled municipality. The deal came after three months of intense fighting and aerial bombardment – a campaign which caused civilian casualties and significant infrastructure damage.

The strangest of these deals occurred this Fall during a dramatic standoff with ISIS, Hezbollah, and Syrian government allies. After an evacuation deal was brokered between the parties, providing hundreds of ISIS fighters transportation from Lebanon’s border to eastern Syria, the United States protested – resolutely vowing to block the convoy’s journey. Yet after a two-week impasse in which the buses remained stranded in the desert, the United States wholly reversed course following pressure from Russia and allowed the bus loads of ISIS militants to pass to the Iraqi border. This action provided relief to the civilians trapped in the buses with the militants, but angered the Iraqi government, which has been waging its own battle against ISIS, with US support, and did not want to contend with more militants in its territory.

It is understandable that complex wartime operations require flexibility, and SJAC does not seek to comment on the intricacies of military combat tactics. However, we do urge the US to begin adopting tactics that truly prioritize civilian wellbeing and the preservation of infrastructure in ISIS-held cities. Recently brokered deals fail to address the fate of detainees, “human shields” taken during evacuations, or the communities ISIS subsequently occupies. This has frustrated local communities, appearing to favor quick wins over the concerns of civilians. Most troubling is that there is no plan for rebuilding and providing services to local communities in the aftermath of the destruction. It is a complicated and costly feat, but absolutely necessary in order to stabilize liberated areas to ensure ISIS is not able to return. The US must offer an explanation of what is to come, and what protections will be offered during the ongoing campaign in Syria.

For more information or to provide feedback, please contact SJAC at info@syriaaccountability.org.

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