The Independent International Commission of Inquiry (IICI) on the Syrian Arab Republic was set up in 2011 by the United Nations Human Rights Council to track human rights abuses in Syria.
Naturally, this has meant that most of the Commission’s work is focused on the industrial-scale crimes against humanity committed by Bashar al-Asad’s regime and his enablers in Russia and Iran. Later, as non-state terrorist and extremist groups intruded into Syria, the Commission documented the atrocities by the Islamic State (IS), al-Qaeda, and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which works under the label of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria and dominates the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that the U.S.-led Coalition works with against IS. The Commission has also recorded abuses by rebel groups.
The Commission’s latest report, released on 6 March 2018, “draws from more than 500 interviews and encapsulates the trends over the past six months in the Syrian Arab Republic, with particular focus on the impact of the offensive against [the Islamic State] and the use of siege warfare on the civilian population.” The report, therefore, has something of a focus on the SDF/PKK human rights violations, though IS’s horrific treatment of religious minorities and so on, plus the pro-Asad coalition’s ongoing campaign of massacre and displacement in areas such as East Ghuta, are given ample attention.
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The report says that the battle for Raqqa city, which began in earnest in June 2017 and concluded in October, “was marked by violations committed by all sides and came at an extremely high cost to civilians”.
At the height of the Raqqa operation, according to IICI, “the international coalition conducted about 150 airstrikes daily”. The U.S. has been distinctly opaque about its estimates of civilian casualties in the anti-IS Operation INHERENT RESOLVE, but independent investigations of the Mosul campaign indicated a vast undercounting. In Raqqa, this problem is compounded because unlike in Iraq, the U.S. did not work with a professional force. The U.S. rushed the Raqqa operation for political reasons and was therefore forced to work with the force to hand, the SDF/PKK militia, which has very limited capacity when it comes to urban warfare, and to rely heavily on airstrikes. These “annihilation tactics” destroyed the city and displaced 200,000 people into the badly-run SDF internally displaced persons (IDP) camps, according to IICI. It can be added that since a lot of IS operatives were allowed to leave Raqqa and the SDF/PKK is rejected by many inhabitants, the durability of the “victory” over IS is in some doubt.
The IICI documents the SDF/PKK’s use of forced conscription, including of child soldiers “as young as 13, [who] receive basic training before being deployed to active frontlines. … Although less frequent, girls have also been recruited”. The Commission documents that in Tel Abyad, returning families are asked to contribute one man to the SDF, which “in effect, prevented some families from going back to their homes”. Some civilians have fled SDF-held zones to “avoid reprisals, including arrest, for refusing conscription”, and “conscription of men has also been reported in internally displaced persons camps, [with] some men … arrested for refusing”.
“Journalists and activists have been intimidated and arrested” for reporting stories unwelcome to the SDF, especially about its human rights violations and civilian casualties caused by the coalition in Raqqa city, Tel Abyad, and Tabqa. “In several instances, the [SDF] arrested and detained relatives of the wanted activists … in order to obtain information about their whereabouts and pressure the activists to come forward”. The SDF has arrested the relatives of members of the Syrian opposition and IS alike. “Several of those detained were women and children, including a 16-year-old girl and a 10-year-old boy,” the Commission reports, adding that the SDF tortured some of its captives to get them to give up their relatives. “Some male detainees were reportedly beaten and burnt with cigarettes and did not receive medication for chronic illnesses such as diabetes,” the IICI report notes.
The Raqqa operation, and the follow-on in Deir Ezzor, “triggered one of the single largest waves of internally displaced persons since 2011,” says IICI. “The total number of persons who fled Raqqah and Dayr al-Zawr stands at 320,000”. Many of these people fled to SDF camps in northern Raqqa and Hasaka, and the SDF interned 80,000 people “to vet them for possible connections to ISIL”. But, says the Commission:
Irrespective of the legitimacy of a security threat, the blanket internment of all internally displaced persons from Raqqah and Dayr al-Zawr by the Syrian Democratic Forces cannot be justified. Among the civilians currently interned are women, children, the elderly and infirm, disabled persons and others who do not represent any imperative security threat and whose continued detention is manifestly unnecessary on any grounds. In many instances, the ongoing internment of those individuals amounts to arbitrary deprivation of liberty and the unlawful detention of thousands of individuals.
In Annex III of the report, the Commission notes that the number of refugees heading for SDF-held areas was no reflection of popular will: “Through the use of road closures, checkpoints, and the requirement of transit permits, SDF created a coercive environment whereby Syrians displaced from Raqqah and Dayr al-Zawr who fled north were left with no choice but to transit through camps, amounting to de facto detention from the moment of capture.” The camps “lack of even the most basic resources”, the Annex adds, with new arrivals “sleeping on the desert soil … because no tents were provided to them”. Protests about conditions were quelled by the SDF. People could bribe their way out of the camps, and have to—even after people pass the vetting process, a fee is required to recover identity documents from the SDF and to be allowed out.
The Commission notes that those displaced from Raqqa city simply cannot return because of the extent of the booby traps left by IS and the unexploded ordinance. This is in contrast to the Asad regime, which has a legal framework—notably Law No. 33, passed on 26 October 2017, built off a statutes passed in November 2012—designed to keep the displaced from returning.
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The IICI report contains a section on a particularly controversial Coalition airstrike, against al-Badiya school in the Mansura area around Raqqa, at about 23:00 on 20 March 2017. The Coalition’s last word on this was in July 2017: “After review of available information and strike video it was assessed that there is insufficient evidence to find that civilians were harmed in this strike”. The Commission sharply dissents. The Commission sharply dissents. “Information gathered by the Commission does not support the claim that 30 ISIL fighters were in the school at the time of the strike, nor that the school was otherwise being used by ISIL”, the report states. After “conduct[ing] 20 interviews with survivors, relatives of victims, rescuers, village residents and individuals on site after the airstrike”, IICI concluded that “the school had been housing internally displaced families since 2012. Of more than 200 residents in the school, 150 were killed. The Commission identified 12 survivors”.
Earlier in the report, IICI documented that IS “committed the war crime of using human shields” in Raqqa and the regime’s destructive campaign in Deir Ezzor that, inter alia, prompted IS to turn to forced conscription. The report concluded by noting that Asad’s regime continues its systematic torture and murder of prisoners—crimes against humanity documented in prior reports by the United Nations and Amnesty International, among others—and continues to use criminal counterinsurgency tactics, in particular starvation sieges and the bombardment of civilian infrastructure.
The appendices include greater detail on the Asad regime’s siege of East Ghuta, which has been “characterised by pervasive war crimes”, where “protected objects” like schools and hospitals are deliberately destroyed, and banned weaponry—cluster munitions and chemical weapons, specifically—are regularly employed.
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 UPDATE: In The Daily Beast on 12 March 2018, Samuel Oakford of Airwars, a monitoring organisation, wrote that the number of civilians killed in the Raqqa operation was around 2,000, with 1,400 of them killed between June and October 2017. The U.S. launched around 4,500 airstrikes in Raqqa during this five-month period—with Britain conducting 213 attacks and France fewer than fifty—and in Raqqa the U.S. deployed artillery on a vast scale, firing at least 20,000 shells and maybe as many as 30,000. “[O]nly 11 percent of Coalition civilian harm assessments have resulted in an admission of responsibility,” Oakford wrote. “Out of 121 reports so far assessed for the Raqqa assault, the Coalition has confirmed involvement in just 13 strikes, which it says left 21 civilians dead and six injured”.