Smoke rises over Hajin during clashes. Photo courtesy of Syrian Democratic Forces.
AMMAN: US-led coalition airstrikes in eastern Deir e-Zor province are placing thousands of civilians in the direct line of fire, according to conflict monitors and displaced residents, three months in to a grueling US-backed offensive against the Islamic State’s final foothold in Syria.
So far in November, the US-led coalition has officially conducted at least 380 strikes, including airstrikes and artillery bombardments, in and around Islamic State (IS)-held Hajin—a once densely populated pocket of territory in Deir e-Zor province, between the Euphrates River to the west and the Syrian-Iraqi border to the south and east, that has been under IS control for several years.
As the fight to root out IS from its final foothold in Syria continues, the coalition has come under increasing scrutiny, with airstrikes reportedly targeting not only military installations but also civilian infrastructure including residential neighborhoods, shops and mosques. Hundreds of civilians are estimated to have been killed since the beginning of the anti-IS offensive in September.
The reported casualties have drawn comparisons to the coalition-backed Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF) offensive on Raqqa last year, during which more than a thousand civilians reportedly died amid a devastating wave of airstrikes and artillery bombardments that left much of the city in ruins.
In the latest major casualty incident reported from Hajin, at least 40 civilians were killed in coalition strikes in the Buqan area of Hajin on November 17, according to the UK-based monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) as well as reports in Syrian state media.
According to SOHR, 43 people died in the attack—including 36 family members of IS fighters, 17 of whom were children.
The coalition has explicitly denied the reports. In an official statement released that same day, the coalition acknowledged that it conducted 19 strikes in the area, but added that it “validated these targets as legitimate” and “assessed them to be free of civilian presence.”
Washington’s special envoy to the coalition, Brett McGurk, also tweeted that the strikes in question were conducted “after careful review to ensure no civilians [were] in the area,” but that another force “from across the [Euphrates] river” conducted 10 uncoordinated strikes.
McGurk did not elaborate further, though the Syrian government and a slew of allied, Iranian-backed militias maintain a presence west of the Euphrates in Deir e-Zor province.
‘Too little is being done to protect civilians’
Hajin is the last IS-held foothold in Syria, following simultaneous military offensives by Turkish-backed rebel fighters, US-backed Kurdish-majority forces as well as the Syrian government and its allies that systematically routed IS forces from their territory throughout the country since 2015.
The SDF, backed by warplanes from the US-led international coalition, launched an offensive on IS positions in and around Hajin on September 10, officially announcing the campaign the following day.
Since then, airstrikes have regularly pounded the IS-held pocket while the Kurdish-led SDF battle IS fighters on the ground.
But the months-long offensive has suffered multiple setbacks, not helped by inclement weather conditions including sandstorms, as well as networks of IS tunnels that have aided the hardline Islamist group in several fierce counterattacks.
Late last month, days after IS erased significant SDF gains and pushed through front lines to the Syrian-Iraqi border, the SDF officially paused its ground offensive—directing blame at Turkey for attacking Kurdish-led forces in northern Syria at the same time that the SDF was battling IS further south.
The SDF resumed operations more than 10 days later, on November 11.
Even as ground operations stalled, US-led coalition strikes continued to batter the pocket on a daily basis, with an average of 23 strikes per day thus far in November—up from 16 in October and 10 in September, according to official numbers published by the coalition in weekly strike summaries.
The summaries state that US-led aerial attacks have targeted and destroyed an array of IS infrastructure in Hajin including command centers, tunnels, supply routes and bomb-making facilities.
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US-backed forces near the Hajin town of a-Susah on September 13. Photo courtesy of Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images.
At the same time, reports of mass casualties are frequent, including that of 40 killed last Saturday as well as an October strike on a mosque in the town of a-Sousah that reportedly killed as many as 60 civilians.
The US-led force maintains that it uses precision strikes and targeting to minimize the impact of its strikes on civilians and civilian infrastructure. Coalition spokesperson Colonel Sean Ryan told Syria Direct that avoiding civilian casualties is the coalition’s “highest priority.”
However, according to Kinda Haddad, researcher with UK-based monitoring group Airwars, which tracks and documents coalition military operations against IS in Iraq and Syria, an increase in strikes over the past month has been accompanied by a significant rise in allegations of civilian deaths.
From October 18 through November 11, the most recently assessed period, Airwars tracked a minimum of 216 allegations of civilian deaths, and a maximum of 500—up from between 53 and 98 in the previous period, from September 5 to October 17.
“As far as we can discern, too little is being done to protect civilians on the ground,” Haddad told Syria Direct via email late last week.
“It feels at times that these last villages...are being treated as military targets in their entirety.”
Civilians in Hajin 'left to fate'
The UN—which also expressed concern last week following recent reports of civilian deaths and injury in Hajin—says that at least 10,000 civilians are among the estimated 15,000 people remaining in the Hajin enclave.
Accurate information on the ground in Hajin is difficult to gather. Electricity and internet service is scarce, while residents and displaced people within the Hajin pocket are often too scared to speak given the presence of IS.
One Hajin resident who was displaced from the pocket in early October, Abu Jassim, described the situation for civilians there as akin to “true suffering.” He asked that his real name be withheld in this report for security reasons.
“There was a siege imposed on us,” he told Syria Direct from a tent near the SDF-controlled town of al-Busayra, about 60km north of Hajin, on Sunday. “We had nothing to eat or drink.”
“And when the coalition bombing took place, we were left to fate,” he said. “There were no shelters. The plane strikes, and your house could collapse on top of you without anyone realizing.”
Badia Muhammad, a Syrian media activist who maintains a network of sources and correspondents on the ground in eastern Deir e-Zor, meanwhile described an “intense” bombing campaign that “aims to destroy everything that IS is able to hole up in—houses, shops and former government ministries.”
“The coalition and the SDF could target front lines and not residential areas,” he said. “[But] there is a blatant disregard for civilian deaths.”
Despite these assertions, coalition spokesperson Col. Ryan told Syria Direct that the “majority of allegations have so far been only vague claims without specific details necessary to perform a full assessment.”
“Such allegations are ordinarily found not credible,” he added.
Airwars researcher Haddad admitted that news reports are “a bit sketchy and at times confusing,” noting that allegations of casualties are often sourced back to IS’s Amaq news agency—often also used to publish claims of responsibility by the hardline Islamist group.
But, Haddad added, multiple other local media outlets have nonetheless released reports corroborating information of mass civilian casualties.
According to the Airwars researcher, this pattern of reports followed by coalition denials was seen previously in the battle for Raqqa, where the coalition allegedly launched more than 21,000 munitions—including airstrikes and artillery fire—onto the city over a period of about four months.
The scale of civilian death in Hajin “is almost exactly what we saw in Raqqa,” she said. “When strikes intensify, reports of civilian casualties rise accordingly.”
During the Raqqa offensive, which ended October last year, the coalition denied most allegations that it was responsible for thousands of civilian deaths that conflict monitors, rights groups and local media outlets blamed on the US-led force.
Airwars places the civilian death toll in Raqqa at 1,400, and expects numbers could still rise, with investigations ongoing and reports of more than 2,600 bodies already recovered from the rubble—most still in need of identification.
The coalition, meanwhile, has until now acknowledged responsibility for just 104 civilian casualties in Raqqa.
A makeshift displacement camp north of Hajin on November 18. Video provided to Syria Direct by Badia Muhammad.
‘Don’t go to the land of the infidels’
Estimated thousands of civilians who remain in Hajin find themselves caught between coalition bombardments, frontline clashes and mines planted by IS. Routes out to safety are severely limited, and treacherous.
Within the first weeks after the offensive launched in September, some 7,000 civilians were displaced from Hajin, according to the UN.
But by October, the UN said the number of people fleeing was “minimal.”
Former Hajin resident Abu Jassim, who managed to flee earlier this year, says he was one of the few who nonetheless managed to escape—but only after several failed attempts.
“We tried to flee the bombing and siege more than once, but Daesh would catch us, bring us back and tell us, ‘Don’t go to the land of the infidels’,” he told Syria Direct, using an Arabic acronym for the hardline Islamist group.
Finally, he found relative safety, reaching the Hajin camp—one of a handful of makeshift displacement camps within SDF territory near the front lines. But there too, movement is restricted, security concerns remain and living conditions are dire.
At one such displacement camp assessed by the UN in September, the organization said “scattered pits” were serving as toilets, while meals provided by camp administrators consisted of just a few pieces of bread. Drinking water was taken from the nearby Euphrates.
“Life there was nonexistent,” Abu Jassim said, adding that he ultimately paid a bribe to a camp guard in order to travel further north.
Soon after, on October 11, IS crossed front lines, violently infiltrated the Hajin camp and reportedly took more than 100 displaced people back into IS-held territory as hostages, their exact whereabouts still unknown.
The camp remains empty to this day.