The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias backed by U.S.-led air strikes, has driven ISIS out of its self-declared “caliphate” capital, the Syrian city of Raqqa. With its back against the wall and its jihadists surrendering or fleeing in droves, ISIS’s control of territory in Syria has been reduced to a strip of the Euphrates valley and surrounding desert. The United States Central Command held back from declaring complete victory, but said that “more than 90 percent of Raqqa is in S.D.F. control.” Land mines and improvised explosive devices remain, which need to be cleared before civilians can safely return. Nevertheless, developments were considered positive enough that Brett McGurk, President Trump’s special envoy for the global coalition against ISIS, reportedly left Washington for a visit to Raqqa.
ISIS had taken over Raqqa at the beginning of 2014. Not until June of this year did the U.S.-backed campaign to take Raqqa back get under way. Just two months ago, there were still about 2,000 ISIS fighters remaining in Raqqa, determined to fight to the death for their capital. By last weekend, a few hundred ISIS militants, mostly foreign born, were left behind to continue fighting, holed up in a stadium and a hospital which were captured on Tuesday.
The loss of its capital is a huge symbolic blow to ISIS, which has been suffering a string of major defeats since President Trump took office. Just as nothing succeeds like success in attracting new recruits to ISIS’s cause, its loss of its base of operations from which it had planned and directed attacks around the world spells failure. As Jenan Moussa, a reporter Arabic Al Aan TV, tweeted: “Game over for ISIS in #Raqqa. They lost capital of their caliphate. Same guys, not long time ago, bragged about conquering Rome.”
Some human rights and anti-war activists have complained that the defeat of ISIS in Raqqa has come at too heavy a price in civilian lives and devastation, which they blame on air strikes by the U.S.-led military coalition. A report issued by Amnesty International last August stated that the coalition forces’ “reliance to a large extent on weapons which have a wide impact radius and which cannot be accurately pinpointed at specific targets to neutralize IS [ISIS} targets in civilian neighborhoods, has exacted a significant toll on civilians.” Some activists blamed the Trump administration’s change in tactics, delegating more decision-making on where and when to conduct air strikes to lower level field commanders.
The number of civilian deaths attributable to coalition air strikes has been estimated to be approximately 1000. That said, much of the problem facing the anti-ISIS coalition is the same that Israel confronted in fighting Hamas militants in Gaza. ISIS concentrated many of its fighters in densely populated areas of Raqqa, using civilians as human shields and hiding among women and children who had nowhere else to go. ISIS used civilian residents’ homes, hospitals, religious sites and civilian neighborhoods as locations from which to conduct their military operations. As Amnesty International itself acknowledged, ISIS “laid mines and booby traps to render exit routes impassable, set up checkpoints around the city to prevent passage, and shot at those trying to sneak out.”
Despite these obstacles, coalition forces endeavored to safely evacuate civilians from Raqqa and out of harm’s way when possible. The coalition allowed a deal to go forward several days ago, under local tribal elders and Raqqa Civil Council auspices, to evacuate civilians by bus from Raqqa along with some non-foreign members of ISIS.
The U.S.-led coalition is trying to defeat a monstrous group that revels in killing or enslaving anyone it considers to be an “infidel.” Despite using precision weaponry to minimize civilian casualties, coalition forces cannot guarantee that their air strikes aimed at obliterating ISIS will not result in some unintended civilian deaths and injuries. The Obama administration’s overly restrictive rules of engagement may have prevented some civilian casualties from air strikes, but at the cost of more human suffering caused by ISIS’s perpetuation of its harsh rule and murder spree. These rules required near certainty that civilians will not be harmed in air strikes, far beyond what international law requires as a legitimate standard of warfare.
Dave Deptula, dean of the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Power Studies and the first general charged with overseeing drones, warned in an article, co-authored with Joseph Raskas, against “the fallacies and misperceptions that cause Western democracies to limit legal military operations to halt the evil that is the source of the crimes against the civilians their self-imposed restrictions aim to protect.” Referring to the restrictive rules of engagement imposed by the Obama administration that they believed unduly restricted the use of air power, they observed that such policies “limit civilian casualties that may result from attacking the terrorists, but allow the certainty of civilians being slaughtered at the hands of those same terrorists if they are not eliminated.”
The Trump administration deserves credit for restoring common sense balance to the war against ISIS, which has lost its capital and other key strongholds in Syria and Iraq as a result. Many more innocent lives will be saved than lost in the military campaign to destroy this manifestation of evil. At the same time, however, it remains imperative to defeat the Islamic supremacist ideology that fueled its rise in the first place.