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Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters on their way to Raqqa, Syria June 6, 2017. © 2017 Reuters

(Beirut) – The United States-led coalition, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and other local armed groups should make protecting civilians and respect for human rights a priority in the offensive to retake Raqqa from the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), Human Rights Watch said today. The offensive was announced on June 6, 2017.

Key human rights priorities for anti-ISIS forces should include: taking all feasible precautions to avoid civilian casualties and investigating alleged unlawful strikes; ensuring that no child soldiers participate in the military operation; respecting detainee rights; providing safe passage to fleeing civilians and providing sufficient support to displaced people; and increasing efforts to survey and clear landmines and explosive remnants of war.

“The battle for Raqqa is not just about defeating ISIS, but also about protecting and assisting the civilians who have suffered under ISIS rule for three and a half years,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Coalition members and local forces should demonstrate concretely that the lives and rights of the hundreds of thousands of civilians in Raqqa are a parallel priority in the offensive.

On December 23, 2016, Human Rights Watch shared recommended human rights priorities with the US Defense Department, the Syrian Democratic Forces, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), and the local Kurdish police, known as the Asayish, all of which are expected to be involved in the offensive and related security operations. On February 16, Human Rights Watch shared the same recommendations with the new US defense secretary.

Up to 400,000 civilians are estimated to remain in Raqqa governorate, and 160,000-200,000 in the city of Raqqa, which ISIS captured in January 2014. Human Rights Watch staff last visited the city in April 2013.

Avoid Civilian Casualties; Investigate Unlawful Strikes

Human Rights Watch has documented several missile and aerial attacks that caused civilian casualties and were carried out by US-led coalition forces in Syria since they began operations there in September 2014. Rising civilian casualties from US-led coalition strikes have heightened concerns about whether adequate precautions are in place.

On June 2, Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) published its monthly civilian casualty report covering Syria and Iraq. The report found that: “To date, based on information available, CJTF-OIR assesses that, it is more likely than not, at least 484 civilians have been unintentionally killed by Coalition strikes since the start of Operation Inherent Resolve.”

During the same period, Airwars, a United Kingdom-based nongovernmental organization that monitors airstrikes, estimated that the minimum number of civilian casualties from US-led coalition strikes in Syria and Iraq was more than 3,800, approximately eight times the number reported by the coalition. Despite having the authority and funds, the US has done very little to compensate those injured by strikes or the families of those killed. US military officials have said that non-US coalition members are responsible for at least 80 of the 484 fatalities, but none of the other coalition members have publicly admitted responsibility. As a result, as of May, the US stopped confirming its own responsibility for specific civilian casualties.

Coalition members should take all feasible measures to ensure the protection of civilians and civilian objects during military operations. This includes maintaining international standards and procedures designed to prevent civilian casualties, and robustly and transparently reporting airstrikes and enemy and civilian casualties. This also requires promptly, impartially, and, thoroughly investigating instances in which civilian casualties may have occurred as a result of those operations; and providing compensation for wrongful civilian deaths and injuries and appropriate “condolence” or ex gratia payments for civilian harm.

Based on its experience monitoring the Mosul air campaign in Iraq as well as other coalition airstrikes in Syria, Human Rights Watch urges coalition members to:


  • Maintain measures to require the maximum levels of target verification and authorization prior to all air and ground-launched strikes. A central decision-making node, such as the Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command – Operation Inherent Resolve’s “Strike Cell” in Baghdad, should evaluate and approve each strike and provide additional targeting information and recommendations as necessary. Taking this step where practicable is one way to ensure that targeting officers are equipped with more information about the target and the potential risks to civilians before a strike is approved. Additionally, multi-level approval systems that incorporate and synthesize large amounts of information from the battlefield can help minimize civilian casualties;
  • When operating in densely populated areas where civilians and combatants are comingled, commanders should take all feasible steps to minimize the harm to civilians and civilian objects. The use of munitions with large payloads of high explosives in populated areas should be limited. These munitions can have a wide-area destructive effect, and it is not possible when using them to distinguish adequately between civilians and combatants, almost inevitably resulting in civilian casualties. Where feasible, commanders should require terminal attack controllers, who have the authority to approve the release of weapons to maintain the highest level of direct control over each strike, including both seeing the target and the attacking aircraft. Commanders should also limit the use of indirect-fire weapons – mortars, artillery, and rockets – and using unguided munitions – meaning that the firing unit does not see the target, but relies on spotters to provide targeting information. In all cases, commanders and targeting officers should select weapons and specific munitions to minimize civilian casualties to the maximum extent possible;
  • When conducting airstrikes, use all available means to verify the presence and location of combatants, as well as the presence of civilians in the immediate vicinity. Anti-ISIS forces should also take into account the increasing use of civilians as human shields by ISIS. Any estimates of potential civilian casualties before a strike should take into account that many civilians remain trapped in ISIS-held territory and may not be readily observable from the air or by using advanced targeting equipment. Because of this, to reduce the risk of civilian casualties, surveillance, intelligence, and reconnaissance assets under the control of members of the US-led coalition should, where possible, be dedicated to conducting pattern-of-life analyses and locating and tracking civilians moving in and out of potential and future target areas in advance of operations;
  • Prior to conducting strikes, carefully and rigorously verify information received from partner forces, including other members of the US-led coalition, using all available sources of information – aerial observations, information collected by personnel and military hardware, etc. This step is critical to avoiding acting upon erroneous targeting information;
  • Coalition members should individually, robustly, and transparently investigate credible reports of civilian casualties and make public detailed findings of all of their investigations. These investigations should use a full range of tools, including interviews with victims and their families, consultation with human rights groups, surveillance and targeting videos, and forensic analyses. The public findings of investigations should include an explanation of the accountability measures coalition members used, the redress provided to victims or their families, and the process through which coalition members determined whether accountability or redress measures were necessary;
  • Redress should include compensation for wrongful civilian deaths and injuries and for harm to civilians. The coalition should develop effective systems for civilians to file claims for condolence or ex gratia payments and to evaluate the claims. If the investigation finds that serious violations of the laws of war occurred, it should refer those responsible for appropriate criminal prosecution.


Ensure that No Child Soldier Takes Part in the Campaign

In doing research in northern Syria in February 2014, Human Rights Watch found that, despite promises in 2013 from the Asayish and the YPG to stop using children for military purposes, the problem persisted in both forces. The internal regulations of both the Asayish and YPG forbid the use of children under age 18. International law sets 18 as the minimum age for participation in direct hostilities, which includes using children as scouts, couriers, and at checkpoints.

In a positive development, on June 5, 2014, the YPG admitted that the problem continued and pledged to demobilize all fighters under 18 within one month. In July 2015, however, Human Rights Watch released further evidence that the YPG and its female branch failed to adhere to obligations not to use child soldiers. The YPG sent Human Rights Watch a response on July 22, 2015, pledging to “follow up” on the cases cited.

In November 2015, when Geneva Call, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to promoting respect by non-state armed groups for international humanitarian norms, was in Syria, the official YPG spokesperson acknowledged that child recruitment was a persistent problem, but that the YPG was working to remedy the situation. In October 2016, when Human Rights Watch was in northern Syria, the spokesman said that child recruitment had gone down “to a minimum” and that children were not fighting on the front lines. Human Rights Watch urges coalition members to:


  • Vet armed groups before assisting them, and monitor their compliance with international humanitarian law, including the prohibition on the use of child soldiers, and investigate any credible allegations of abuses;
  • Make clear to the Syrian Democratic Forces and other forces that recruiting children as soldiers is unlawful even if they are not serving a military function; discipline officers who allow children to serve under them; and encourage the forces to provide former child soldiers all appropriate assistance for their physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration; and
  • Commit publicly to ceasing coordination with or assistance to armed groups that recruit and fail to demobilize child soldiers.


Respect Detainee Rights

During field investigations in Syria in February 2014, Human Rights Watch documented that the Asayish arbitrarily detained people in areas under their control and mistreated detainees, including those accused of terrorism-related offenses. Human Rights Watch found in October 2016 that the SDF had seemingly arbitrarily detained medical personnel for providing assistance to ISIS.

Arresting authorities should not presume that someone is affiliated with ISIS or otherwise suspected of criminal activity based simply on gender, age, religious sect, or tribal name. Suspects should only be detained if there is individualized suspicion that they committed a crime. SDF forces and local authorities should stress to commanders and soldiers that it is not permissible to detain medical personnel who provide medical treatment to enemy combatants. The forces and local authorities should investigate credible allegations of arbitrary detention, ill-treatment, and torture of detainees and hold those responsible accountable.

Any screening of displaced people by the SDF or other security forces should last only a matter of hours, in a way that is nondiscriminatory and ensures civilian protection in accordance with the laws of war and human rights law. Anyone held longer should be treated as a detainee, meaning that their detention should have a clear legal basis, and they should be in an authorized place of detention. Authorities working at the screening centers should have basic technical training for their tasks, and the authorities should provide them with the adequate resources to screen people as quickly and safely as possible. The forces should transparently inform humanitarian groups about capacity and procedures at the screening centers. Other recommendations relating to screening include:


  • The authorities should promptly notify the families of detainees of the whereabouts of their relatives and publish overall numbers of detainees;
  • Authorities should make medical care, including first aid, promptly available to everyone at screening sites;
  • Authorities running the screening centers surrounding Raqqa should locate them as far from hostilities as possible;
  • Authorities should promptly identify vulnerable people and give them first priority for screening, including people needing immediate medical assistance, and provide them with any assistance needed. Unaccompanied children should be treated in an age-appropriate manner, and female staff should screen women and girls;
  • Authorities should make every effort to keep any child held for screening with a parent, and should only question children in the presence of a parent. If authorities screen children and suspect that they were child soldiers, treatment should focus on rehabilitation and social reintegration, not detention or prosecution. Under international norms, officials should seek at all times to release, protect, and reintegrate children unlawfully recruited or used, without condition, and children should be rapidly separated from adult fighters and handed over to “an appropriate, mandated, independent civilian process.” In all cases, children should be detained or imprisoned only as a last resort and for the shortest appropriate period, separately from adults;
  • The authorities should allow independent protection monitors at all screening centers; and
  • Authorities should ensure that people being screened are treated respectfully and that conditions in the centers meet international standards.


Provide Safe Passage to Fleeing Civilians, Sufficient Support to Displaced People

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), more than 200,000 people have been displaced as a result of the Raqqa operation, and up to 160,000-200,000 are estimated to remain in the city, including 40,000 children.

The laws of war require all parties to the conflict to take all feasible steps to evacuate civilians from areas of fighting or where fighters are deployed and not block or impede the evacuation of those wishing to leave. Human Rights Watch has previously documented that ISIS uses civilians to protect its forces from attack. Deliberately using the presence of civilians to protect military forces from attack is the war crime of “human shielding.”

The presence of ISIS fighters among civilian does not absolve anti-ISIS forces from the obligation to target only military objectives, however. The creation of humanitarian corridors and the issuance of effective advance warnings of attack to the civilian population do not relieve attacking forces of their obligation to distinguish at all times between combatants and civilians and to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians. Corridors and warnings do not permit forces to treat civilians who remain as combatants subject to attack.

Staff from humanitarian organizations working to meet the needs of those affected by fighting in Raqqa have told Human Rights Watch that civilians there will require access to health care, especially sexual and reproductive health for women and girls, food assistance, and potable water. Aid groups anticipate finding that health facilities and water pumping stations may have been severely damaged due to airstrikes and will need to be repaired or alternatives found and that there is most likely a shortage of medical professionals in the city. Raqqa is seen as a high-risk area for cholera.

People displaced by the fighting in Raqqa are sheltering in other parts of the governorate, as well as in Aleppo, Idlib, and to a lesser extent Hama, Homs, and Deir al-Zour governorates. Many are in camps for displaced people.

In its May 23 Raqqa situation report, OCHA said that in mid-May reports emerged that local authorities prevented internally displaced people from Raqqa governorate from leaving Ein Issa camp by confiscating their ID cards and travel documents. Camp authorities have since indicated that these rules will not be enforced and that displaced people will be able to leave the camps if they find sponsors.

OCHA also said that for security reasons, displaced people had been allowed to relocate to rural areas but not towns such as Tell Abyad, Ayn Arous, and Kobane and that their identity documents had been confiscated at checkpoints if they tried to go to the towns. It said:


Restrictions on freedom of movement, as shown by the situation in Mabrouka and Ein Issa, continue to be of concern. Some 3,500 families had reportedly been using their cars as shelter outside Ein Issa camp waiting for the authorities to return their identity documents. Communication devices are confiscated upon entry to Mabrouka camp.


SDF and other forces should ensure that civilians are able to flee areas of fighting for safety and to get aid, including in areas controlled by the Democratic Union Party (PYD)-led autonomous administration in northern Syria. They should ensure the safety and security of humanitarian relief personnel at all times.

Local authorities should allow freedom of movement for all displaced people in areas under their control, including those who want to live or travel outside of the camps. Movement restrictions should only be imposed if  “provided by law … and necessary to protect national security, public order, public health or morals, or the rights and freedoms of others,” as outlined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Increase Efforts to Survey and Clear Landmines, Explosive Remnants of War

Improvised mines, other types of explosive devices, and remnants of war pose a significant threat to civilians and hinder recovery in places that were under ISIS control. ISIS-planted improvised explosive devices will likely pose a major threat to civilians in the battle to retake Raqqa from ISIS.

During a five-day investigation in the city of Manbij from October 4 to 9, 2016, Human Rights Watch collected the names of 69 civilians, including 19 children, killed by improvised mines planted by ISIS in schools, homes, and on roads during and after the fighting over control for the city. The total is most likely much higher because Human Rights Watch was not able to collect information from all neighborhoods and villages. Hospital staff said that they had treated hundreds of people injured by improvised mines. Nearly all the incidents documented appear to have been caused by victim-activated improvised explosive devices.

Local military and civilian authorities should raise awareness among the displaced about the threat of improvised mines and develop capacity to rapidly clear homes and residential areas of mines and remnants of war to facilitate the return of the civilian population.

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