With the looming prospect of U.S. strikes on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in the eastern province of Raqqa, many panicked Syrians are moving away from the city center and from ISIS buildings and checkpoints, often to rural areas.
The fear of becoming collateral damage is rooted in years of conflict that has seen the civilian death toll impacted by everything from regime-led barrel bombing campaigns and sniper fire to suicide bombings and starvation.
We asked Ayham Kamel, director of the Middle East and Africa program at the Eurasia Group, and Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Dubai think tank INEGMA, to weigh in on where Syrian civilians stand as strikes loom and the price they could ultimately pay to root out ISIS.
Theodore Karasik: Based on what we’ve seen from airstrikes by the Syrian regime, ISIS is putting civilians into areas that are next to key buildings of the ISIS government. ISIS is also beginning to disperse itself and its military hardware into civilian areas. The purpose is just like in any other conflict – to make sure that these civilians are being used as human shields. This is a tactic that many non-state actors have used to make sure that if there’s any collateral damage, civilians are casualties. And then those numbers can be published in ISIS media.
It seems that citizens in Raqqa are more afraid of ISIS than of anything else, but they’re also afraid of the Syrian regime. So if the airstrikes go as planned, we may begin to have internal refugee flows from that part of Syria and the displaced are going to be caught up in the battle between the regime and ISIS – and any special operations forces on the ground in the future.
When we’re talking about these airstrikes, we don’t know when they’re going to happen, and that’s an important aspect of this. Soon? After Eid? Are they going to be a month or two down the road, or further?
Ayham Kamel: I think the U.S. will use precision weapons for limited strikes. The collateral damage will be limited. When it comes to the Iraqi or Syrian military, when they attack ISIS targets, their equipment and military capability, their targeting, is usually poor. Sometimes on the Syrian regime front, it’s an intention of policy. And there are problems with the weaponry these states have. It’s not going to be a challenge for the U.S., which will set which targets to attack in Raqqa and in Syria as a whole. So I doubt it will have as significant an impact [on civilians] as other military campaigns usually have.
U.S. air power will not aim to completely destroy ISIS because that’s not possible, and the U.S. knows that. This is a campaign of degrading ISIS at the very beginning, and ground forces will take over these places. But we are not there yet.
The civilian population in ISIS-held areas tends to sway. At some point they were pro-regime and pro-Free Syrian Army, and at others they were supportive of ISIS. We’re not sure what their support level is for ISIS right now. That’s because access to these population zones is limited, and because people in ISIS-held zones don’t always feel at liberty to discuss the issue. There is much less freedom there than there is in regime-held areas. But ISIS has a government structure and management that is somewhat effective in terms of things like garbage collection and revenue management.
I don’t think anyone has the capacity to root out ISIS out at this point. The U.S. does not want to work with the Assad regime, and getting moderate forces in place to appeal or take over ISIS-controlled territory will be very challenging – and might not succeed at all. There are layers of complications.
So there’s not an easy way to appeal to populations under ISIS control. The Syrian opposition or the Assad regime might not even be interested in appealing, in winning the “hearts and minds” campaign. Both the regime and rebel groups believe that only military power can work against ISIS, and there’s little care on either side for the humanitarian cost involved in the process.