U.S. Coalition, ISIS and Assad Have Raqqa Residents Trapped In A 'Deadly Labrynth'

Smoke billows in an eastern area of the embattled northern Syrian city of Raqqa on August 15, 2017, as Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a U.S. backed Kurdish-Arab alliance, battle to retake the city from the Islamic State (ISIS) group. Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty

The Islamic State militant group (ISIS), the U.S.-led coalition and the Russia-backed forces of the Assad regime are trapping thousands of civilians in a "deadly labyrinth" in the eastern Syrian city of Raqqa, Amnesty International said on Wednesday.

A Kurdish-Arab alliance backed by the air power of the U.S.-led coalition is besieging the city that laid the foundation for the group to announce a caliphate for the world's Muslims straddling the Iraqi-Syrian border. Raqqa became the ISIS de facto capital after its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made himself caliph of the Islamic State in July 2014.

The Kurdish-Arab coalition, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, has seized half of the city's neighborhoods from the jihadist group in a two-month offensive that has been slowed by the jihadist group's sniper fire, vehicle suicide bombs and booby traps. The U.N. estimates that between 10,000 and 50,000 civilians remain inside the city. The Syrian regime has been conducting airstrikes on villages south of the city.

"As the battle to wrest Raqqa from Islamic State intensifies, thousands of civilians are trapped in a deadly labyrinth where they are under fire from all sides. Knowing that ISIS use civilians as human shields, SDF and U.S. forces must redouble efforts to protect civilians, notably by avoiding disproportionate or indiscriminate strikes and creating safe exit routes," said Donatella Rovera, Senior Crisis Response Adviser at Amnesty International, who led the rights group's investigation.

"Things will only get more dangerous as the battle reaches its final stages in the city centre. More can and must be done to preserve the lives of civilians trapped in the conflict and to facilitate their safe passage away from the battleground."

The rights group and other monitors have expressed concern about mounting civilian casualties in and around Raqqa. Strike monitor Airwars reported on Tuesday that the U.S.-led coalition under President Donald Trump has killed more civilians in seven months than in the previous two-and-a-half years that the coalition was conducting strikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

It said the U.S.-dominated multinational force has been responsible for a minimum of 5,117 civilian deaths since August 2014, with about 55 percent of them occurring under the Trump's administration.

Survivors and witnesses told the rights group that civilians are facing the threat of ISIS snipers who target anyone who flees, strikes by the Syrian regime and the U.S.-led coalition and ISIS using them as human shields to deter the strikes.

Civilians who manage to escape the city also face suspicion that they were members of ISIS and persecution at the hands of the SDF forces, as many did in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul at the hands of Iraqi security forces.

ISIS's religious police, known as the hisbah, have also tried to prevent civilians fleeing with threats and intimidation. So too have ISIS fighters, according to one survivor.

"They [ISIS] came to knock on our door and told us we had half an hour to get to the Old City. If you refused they accused you of being a PKK [Kurdish Workers Party] agent and threatened to take you to the prison," Reem, who fled the Daraiya area, said.

One of the key routes out of Raqqa is across the Euphrates River by boat. But survivors told Amnesty that the U.S.-led coalition is targeting boats crossing the stretch of water. The coalition's top commander, Lieutenant General Stephen J. Townsend, said last month that the coalition forces "shoot every boat we find."

Kurdish fighter near Raqqa
A Kurdish fighter from the People's Protection Units looks at smoke rising after an coalition airstrike in Raqqa, Syria, on June 16. Reuters/Goran Tomasevic/File Photo

"Crossing the river has been a key escape route for civilians fleeing the conflict in Raqqa, so striking 'every boat'—on the erroneous assumption that any boat will be carrying IS fighters or weapons—is indiscriminate and prohibited by the laws of war," said Rovera.

It is not only civilians leaving Raqqa in a state of disrepair. The U.S.-led coalition said last week that ISIS fighters emerging from Raqqa were "emaciated," "malnourished" and high on drugs. The city has been besieged with airstrikes long before the latest offensive and the humanitarian conditions inside the city for residents are dire.

"As water turns off, as the ability for food to, you know, come in and out of these cities—it makes it very, very difficult to sustain oneself," coalition spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon said.

The coalition says the jihadist group has formed a network of tunnels underneath Raqqa to help launch counter-attacks against coalition forces, or to escape the city.

Raqqa was the site of several filmed executions of western hostages, including American journalists James Foley and Stephen Sotloff, as well as British nationals Alan Henning and David Haines.

After the group overran the city in January 2014, it imposed its brutal brand of Islamic law, lashing, beheading and executing opponents, and instilling fear among the estimated 200,000-strong population of the city at the time of its capture.

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