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Civilians still in Raqqa are still civilians
The presence of the US 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit in Syria to take part in the campaign to capture Raqqa marks a significant shift in U.S. policy in the Middle East, and heralds an unknown future for the city’s civilians.
By Lt. Col. Jay Morse, U.S. Army (Ret.)
Best Defense guest columnist
The presence of the US 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit in Syria to take part in the campaign to capture Raqqa marks a significant shift in U.S. policy in the Middle East, and heralds an unknown future for the city’s civilians. This deployment means that civilians in the Islamic State’s self-styled capital are now under threat from yet another party to the conflict: the Islamic State, various militias, Syrian government and Russian bombardment, anti-Islamic State coalition air strikes, and now, American 155mm heavy artillery.
The United States has a key opening to break the violence-driven cycle of civilian resentment that boosts recruitment for groups like the Islamic State and ultimately makes the United States less safe. To do so, U.S. forces must seize every opportunity to reduce damage to civilians and their property by ensuring strict distinction between civilians and fighters, by prioritizing the protection of civilians, and — most importantly — by ensuring that the Kurdish and anti-government militias the Marines are supporting do the same.
Before the Islamic State captured Raqqa in 2013, it was Syria’s sixth largest city. Today, by all accounts, it is a prison for most of the 400,000 civilian men, women, and children who remain — all of whom deserve the same protections every American civilian would demand, and be entitled to, should a group like the Islamic State overtake one of our cities.
But the introduction of American heavy artillery to Raqqa presents a challenge for U.S. forces. Though the accuracy of artillery and the efficacy of munitions has greatly improved since World War II, the effects in populated urban areas remains relatively unchanged: large numbers of dead and injured, collapsed buildings, destroyed power and water lines, and a drastic reduction in humanitarian organizations’ ability to provide aid.
Protecting civilians is a legal obligation. The law of war, also known as International Humanitarian Law or the Law of Armed Conflict, defines a civilian as someone who is not a member of an armed force. But today’s conflicts present challenges: A civilian can lose this legal protection by participating in the hostilities, or a fighter might not only dress like a civilian, but will intentionally mix with the civilian population in an attempt to confound forces who follow the rules. This makes it particularly difficult to distinguish between a civilian and a fighter.
As a way to better understand what it means to “participate,” and who is a lawful target, American forces employ a control measure of positive identification (PID) — a requirement to not only see what you are shooting at, but to positively identify your target as either hostile in fact (an identifiable enemy) or hostile by intent (an unknown person pointing a weapon at you, for example). This doctrine is critical when using artillery in populated areas, and it is often ensured by employing forward observers attached to ground fighting units.
But when artillery is used in support of a foreign ground force, like the allied Kurdish and anti-government militias, it will often be necessary to rely on those same forces to provide both the initial observation as well as fidelity in evaluating success or failure. True, militia members won’t be firing howitzers directly, but they very may well be used to identify potential targets, thus making them responsible for critical life or death decisions.
This is problematic. In Syria, the United States is supporting multiple militias in a complex civil war with different loyalties who have neither the legal nor technical training to adhere to the same standards as that of U.S. Marines. It is irresponsible to assume these militias won’t consider some of the civilians trapped in Raqqa as an enemy simply because they are still there.
Civilians stay in war zones for all sorts of reasons: They may lack the resources to leave, or have no other place to go. They may be unwilling to leave vulnerable family members, may not want to leave their homes, or — most likely — they are not allowed to leave. There are 3,000 to 4,000 fighters in Raqqa, compared to 400,000 civilians. The civilians still there are not leaving, and their presence does not mean they are Islamic State fighters, or even Islamic State sympathizers. Unless they directly participate in the hostilities, they are civilians and entitled to protection.
The assumption that the mere presence of a civilian in an Islamic State-controlled city marks them as the enemy is both contrary to fact and law, and that makes the U.S. Marine Corps’s potential use of these militias in the artillery targeting process so troubling. In the fight against irregular organized armed groups like the Islamic State, identifying who is and is not a lawful target is difficult but important, because protecting civilians — even (or even especially) those perceived to be sympathetic to a group like the Islamic State — is not only the law, but is what distinguishes a professional military from a criminal group like the Islamic State.
And this makes the protection of civilians not only a legal imperative, but a strategic one as well.
U.S. forces have learned this lesson the hard way over 15 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Research in Afghanistan has shown that civilian harm is a driving force in boosting support for insurgent groups. But the U.S. Military has also institutionalized the instruction and practice of the laws of armed conflict. The overall success of the U.S. Military in understanding the strategic value of caring for civilians while imparting this legal obligation is in large measure the result of quality combat leaders genuinely committed to the humanitarian limits in war as well as the training and experience of U.S. forces.
Ultimately, the defeat of the Islamic State requires more than a military victory. It requires demonstrating in word and deed that civilians will be shielded, as much as possible, from the suffering of war. Distinguishing between civilian and fighter, and doing so with distinction, must be a central concern in Raqqa for both U.S. forces and the militias they are supporting.
Over the last decade, the United States has shown a willingness to establish policies and procedures that better protect civilians on the battlefield. It’s the law and it’s good for national security. But it is also more than that. The Islamic State has proved itself a cruel and brutal group, willing to commit atrocities against civilians to cement its hold over populations. The United States is and should remain better than that, and defeating the Islamic State for good will require a demonstration of values that inspire rather than terrify. If the United States wants to continue to be a world leader and a force for good while defeating the Islamic State, then ensuring that U.S. forces and the militias they support prioritize the protection of civilians is a good place to start.
Lt. Col. (Ret.) Jay Morse is a retired U.S. Army judge advocate, and is currently the Senior Military Advisor for the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) . He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo credit: ABDULLAH AL-SHAM/AFP/Getty Images