AMMAN: With United States-backed ground forces two kilometers away from Raqqa city, thousands of civilians are already fleeing ahead of the battle for the heart of Islamic State territory in Syria, while nearby displacement camps brace for an even greater influx in the days to come.
As of Wednesday, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) hold positions just “two kilometers northeast” of Raqqa city, Serdar Haji Mahmoud, a war correspondent embedded with the SDF told Syria Direct.
For the first time, the advancing US-backed forces can see the capital of Islamic State (IS) territory in Syria with the naked eye. Pictures posted by pro-SDF accounts on social media show the skyline of the city.
Kurdish and Arab SDF forces advancing under cover of US-led international coalition airstrikes have slowly encircled Raqqa city to the west, north and east over the past six months. All bridges leading across the Euphrates River to the south have been destroyed by airstrikes.
Some 150,000 people from Raqqa province have been displaced by the ongoing battles, according to an April 30 report by UNICEF.
Now, as the battle for the city itself appears imminent, thousands of civilians are already risking their lives to escape IS-held Raqqa city and the villages and towns on its outer periphery. Some pay smugglers, while others try to find their own way. By night, with great caution, they make a break for it: on foot, by car, by motorcycle.
A displaced child from Raqqa near a fence in the Ayn Issa camp on May 19. Photo courtesy of Delil Souleiman/AFP.
IS does not allow civilians to flee outside of territory it holds, and in December 2016 executed and crucified a truck driver in Raqqa city for attempting to smuggle people out. Displaced people who have fled IS-held cities previously told Syria Direct that they did so at great personal risk and usually by cover of darkness.
“Over the past three days, more than 15,000 people have passed through,” Jalal al-Ayash, the head of the Ayn Issa camp 50km north of Raqqa city told Syria Direct on Tuesday. Al-Ayash and other administrators work under the SDF’s Raqqa Civilian Council.
Virtually every displaced person who reaches SDF territory passes through the Ayn Issa camp, located near an eponymous town.
The camp serves as a transit point for most displaced people, al-Ayash said. There, fleeing civilians undergo security checks and wait to receive permission to leave and pass through or stay in other SDF-held areas. Most stay for a few days before moving on, to Manbij, Azaz, Jarablus, al-Bab and other northern cities.
Out of an estimated 100,000 people who al-Ayash estimates passed through Ayn Issa since the beginning of May, 3,000 stayed in the camp, bringing its total current population to 10,000.
Local and international aid organizations, the UN and the local, Kurdish-led Self-Administration provide water, bread, canned goods and foam mattresses to the people in Ayn Issa. Doctors Without Borders (MSF) maintains a clinic, while the UN has built 10 communal tent kitchens.
“There is aid, but it is scarce,” al-Ayash said. He is most worried about providing food for all the newcomers, who camp administrators expect will stay longer in Ayn Issa itself than previous displaced people because of the proximity to Raqqa city.
If and when that happens, the camp will struggle more than it already does, al-Ayash said.
“We fear the camp will not be able to absorb the scores that will come when Raqqa is stormed.”
‘A state of collapse’
It is not easy for civilians living in IS-held territory to escape, but the risks of staying in Raqqa city and nearby villages are growing.
“Raqqa is in a state of collapse,” Ahmad, a civilian who fled the city with several of his family members and relatives last week told Syria Direct. Ahmad asked not to be identified by his real name because he fears for his safety.
“For civilians, the greatest fear is that they will not be able to get out,” Ahmad said, “and that IS will use them as human shields.”
Coinciding with military operations on the ground, US-led coalition aircraft are carrying out daily airstrikes against targets in IS-held Raqqa—56 in the past week alone—amidst reports of civilian casualties.
Airwars, an independent monitoring group that tracks and assesses coalition airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, reported that “between 283 and 386 civilians” were likely killed by the air campaign last month. The tally makes April the second-worst month for civilian fatalities since coalition actions began in 2014, the group said.
The sitting room in the house near Ayn Issa that displaced Raqqa resident Ahmad shares with 70 others on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Ahmad.
Most US strikes took place near Raqqa, where Airwars director Chris Woods said “we are seeing high civilian casualties where six months ago we would not.”
Woods suggested the increase shows “that protections for civilians on the battlefield appear to have been scaled back—with the inevitable consequence of higher deaths and injuries.”
In a Pentagon press briefing last Friday, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis said “there has been no change to our rules of engagement” and that coalition forces and their partners on the ground are making “extraordinary efforts to avoid innocent civilian casualties.”
SDF war reporter Serdar Mahmoud told Syria Direct that when the forces advance on the ground near Raqqa, “we leave a window open to the right or left of the front to let civilians get out.”
Displaced Raqqa resident Ahmad and his family escaped the city on May 14 by paying a smuggler SP100,000 (approximately $466) to lead them out of the city and towards the nearest SDF positions.
He said that IS security forces had turned his family and other residents of five districts out of their homes in the city “at gunpoint” and declared the newly vacated area a military zone.
With nothing left to lose, they made their escape. “We left the city and everything we own behind us,” Ahmad said.