AIN AL-ISSA, Syria – Monitoring groups have accused the United States-led coalition of killing hundreds of civilians since the start of an aerial campaign against the so-called Islamic State in northern Syria last year. Though civilians continue to be caught in the crossfire, the U.S. is trying to improve living conditions for the thousands of people displaced by the battle against ISIS.
The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) began their operation against ISIS in Raqqa province in November 2016. Shortly after, the first civilians displaced by the fighting arrived in Ain al-Issa, in northern Raqqa. At the time, internally displaced persons (IDPs) faced dire humanitarian conditions. But since the Kurdish-Arab alliance advanced on Raqqa city in June, increased humanitarian access to the camp, achieved in part through deeper U.S. involvement on the ground, has somewhat improved the situation.
“We accelerated the deployment of some of our experts and diplomats from the State Department and from USAID … who could help enable NGOs to address this situation,” the anti-ISIS U.S. coalition envoy, Brett McGurk, said last month. “Two months later … people being taken care of. That is due to the work that our diplomats and our military civil affairs people do on the ground every day.”
A U.S. official who asked to remain anonymous told Syria Deeply that the U.S. “continues to work with our allies and partners to increase humanitarian access into and within Syria,” adding that “ensuring the humanitarian response keeps pace with the needs [of IDPs] is a priority for us.”
Roughly 324,000 people from Raqqa and surrounding areas have braved the scorching heat, snipers and streets littered with landmines to make their way to SDF-controlled areas of northern Syria. About 8,000 displaced people currently live in Ain al-Issa, according to the United Nations.
Residents of nearby areas have set up shops in the camp, some selling secondhand clothing. Several NGOs provide services to the IDPs, including a clinic.
“It is better than before, but they still need support because there are many IDPs. Every day around 2,000 to 3,000 IDPs arrive in Ain al-Issa, Tabqa and al-Twehne [camps],” Berivan Issa, an official in the local Kobani administration responsible for humanitarian affairs, told Syria Deeply. She added there is still a need for medicine and water.
Taher Halaq, a 50-year-old IDP from Raqqa who has been living in Ain al-Issa for two months, also noted improved conditions in the camp. “Bread is free and there is plenty of food, but I hope there will be more aid delivered by the NGOs,” he told Syria Deeply.
This was not the case for the thousands displaced last summer during the SDF offensive against ISIS in the city of Manbij, in northeastern Aleppo province. Most camps had limited bread, water and shelter, due to the low number of NGOs active in the area.
But over the past few months, new crossline access for the United Nations within Syria, and cross-border aid deliveries from the Kurdistan regional government (KRG) in Iraq have “improved humanitarian access to the Raqqa area,” the U.S. official said.
A year ago, border access between northern Syria and the KRG area of Iraq was difficult, owing to the tension between the Kurdish parties in Iraq and Syria. But in the fight against ISIS both are dependent on U.S. support – something Washington likely leveraged to send both weapons and humanitarian aid across the border in preparation for the Raqqa operation.
In June, the Syrian government gave the U.N. World Food Program (WFP) permission to use a new land route for aid deliveries to rural areas of Raqqa province from Damascus via Aleppo and Manbij.
However, humanitarian access is not the only change in Ain al-Issa. The number of arrivals in the camp has also significantly fallen. In April, the camp was a major transit point for tens of thousands of civilians fleeing fighting, and at the height of the influx 1,500 new arrivals were screened and processed each day, according to a June report from the Syria Protection Cluster. In the first two weeks of August, however, an estimated 627 people arrived at the camp and more than 1,700 left, according to the IDP Situation Monitoring Initiative.
Today, most IDPs are scattered across 40 or 50 locations, and many continue to face critical shortages of food, water, and healthcare, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Lack of humanitarian access and a massive influx of IDPs have created a dire living situation in the informal settlements of the Karama transit camp, due to the lack of access for humanitarian organizations.
Yet, despite the harsh conditions for IDPs, many civilians continue to flee to the camps as the situation worsens in Raqqa. “Daesh are using civilians as human shields inside the city, and placing them in places so the coalition can’t bomb them,” Chamoun, a local commander of the SDF-linked Syriac Military Council, said in Raqqa earlier this month.
According to U.N. estimates, there are still 18,000–25,000 civilians in Raqqa. Hundreds are reportedly being held hostage in a stadium in central Raqqa, which is also doubles as a prison for the militants, Chamoun said.
“There are still a lot of civilians in Raqqa. They are two groups: a group that does not have the money, so they cannot go out, and a group that has money and does not go out for fear of losing their property,” Halaq said, adding that “Daesh takes the money from them and then doesn’t let them go out.”
Though the SDF is advancing against ISIS in Raqqa city, civilians might remain displaced for a while after the battle is over, according to Omar Alloush, the joint head of public relations in the Civil Council of Raqqa.
“Before the return, we need to remove the mines and open safe corridors and send our council organizations to Raqqa and provide services and open bakeries before the return of IDPs,” he said.
But back in Ain al-Issa camp, in the bare, desert area some 30 miles (50km) from Raqqa city, civilians are awaiting the day they can return.
“We here in the camp sometimes hear that Raqqa will be liberated within a week or a month and I hope that it will be liberated and we will return to our homes safely after Raqqa is demined,” Halaq said.
Stay tuned for our next installment about those who remain in Ain al-Issa IDP camp.