*** Al-Raqqa City was besieged by the US-led Coalition and its partners the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) during an offensive to take the city from ISIS between June-October 2017. The population was besieged by the attacking forces which surrounded the city, and was prevented from leaving by ISIS who took civilians as human shields. Escaping civilians and those in neighborhoods captured by the SDF trickled out throughout the siege, and an untold number were killed (independent reporting puts the figure of Coalition/SDF civilian casualties far higher than the US-led Coalition will admit, and Siege Watch contacts reported that there were so many dead in airstrikes that they ran out of places to bury them). In the final days, negotiations between the SDF, local tribal leaders, and remaining ISIS fighters allowed for the evacuation of the remaining civilians. By the time victory was declared by the SDF and the US-led Coalition, al-Raqqa was completely depopulated, and the intense US-led Coalition airstrikes resulted in overwhelming infrastructure destruction. As a result of the depopulation and the low risk of renewed siege if/when civilians return, al-Raqqa has been removed from Siege Watch project monitoring efforts. ***
Dates: 26 June 2017 - 17 October 2017
Siege classification: Tier 1
Besieged by: US-led anti-ISIS coalition partner Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and ISIS
UN recognizes siege?: No
Current Population: No good figures available. No good figures available. Recent estimates range from 8,000-15,000 (REACH, UN).
Civil control: ISIS
Military control: ISIS
Active Conflict: SDF offensive backed by the US-led Coalition to capture the ISIS stronghold of al-Raqqa city began on 06 June 2017. The military encirclement of the city was completed on 26 June 2017. Active violent conflict is ongoing. Large parts of the city have been completely destroyed through the combination of artillery bombardment and thousands of US-led Coalition airstrikes.
Al-Raqqa is the only community in Syria under siege by US-backed SDF forces. Unlike those communities in Syria besieged by the Syrian government where the siege is used as a form of collective punishment against civilians, it appears that combatants (ISIS fighters) are the primary targets of the siege of al-Raqqa city. Nonetheless, the impact on civilians trapped in Raqqa is devastating. Available evidence suggests that besieging forces are not taking sufficient precautions to protect people trapped inside of the city or to ensure appropriate treatment of those who have escaped. US Defense Secretary Mattis has described the US anti-ISIS strategy as one of “annihilation,” and Special Envoy Brett McGurk has expanded upon this, saying “we actually surround the enemy so that foreign fighters in particular cannot escape.”
Civilians continue to be killed in US-led Coalition airstrikes and shelling, and civilian infrastructure inside of al-Raqqa has been targeted repeatedly. There are no designated safety corridors or zones for civilians to use to seek protection from Coalition attacks. Humanitarian conditions for civilians in al-Raqqa are grim with food supplies running low, insufficient access to water, and no access to medical care. As of late September 2017 there were reports of severe malnutrition and civilian deaths due to lack of medical care.
Civilians trapped in al-Raqqa city face multiple barriers to escape: 1) ISIS is reportedly preventing people from moving when possible, using civilians as human shields. They have also mined the area, making movement more dangerous. 2) People are afraid of being mistakenly killed by the SDF and US-led Coalition when trying to escape. 3) Some civilians are concerned about the fate that awaits them under the control of the Kurdish YPG-dominated SDF. Displaced citizens from al-Raqqa are reportedly detained in screening camps controlled by the Asayish – the Kurdish police – where conditions are generally very poor. For men, there is a high risk of being forcibly conscripted to fight with the SDF after escaping the city.