As Islamic State attempts to hold onto final shreds of territory in Syria, on the ground reports indicate that militants are using women and children as human shields. The SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) and US-led coalition forces have suspended attacks in response to the use of human shields. They have also created corridors in the desert through which they are encouraging civilians to come out.
SDF’s spokesman for the Deir Ezzor region Adnan Afrin confirmed that their assault on the region had been put on hold to protect civilians in the area. He told AFP,
“The jihadists are using the civilians as human shields to block our advance,”
The last patches of Islamic State territory are crowded with civilians. Several hundred civilians are said to be leaving the area, with reports counting as many as 3,000 civilians leaving the area in a 24-hour period. According to the Syrian Observatory for Huan Rights, thousands of civilians have left the area, totaling more than 36,000 people. Of that figure an estimated 3,100 of those are extremists. The majority of civilians who have fled are mostly women and children from militant families. They have been leaving the area since December via humanitarian corridors opened up by the SDF.
Syrian Democratic Forces Commander (SDF) Roni Qamishli told Sky News that Islamic State were “finished”.
“It is just a matter of days, not weeks,” he said. “They are finished – militarily at least.”
The use of desperate measures by Islamic State to hold onto any remaining territory come at the same time that the US announce that they will retract troops. In an interview on CBS TV on 4 February, President Trump claimed that Islamic State militants had been stripped of 99 percent of its territory on his watch, and soon “we’ll be at 100.” His claim has been contested by analysts who note that this is an unlikely scenario, given the presence of other groups such as Al-Qaeda.
Despite President Trump’s claims, analysts also suggest that the US’s withdrawal could create a power vacuum and further tension, particularly as Russian influence is still quite strong in Syria.
At its height of power Islamic State controlled around 10 million civilians in Iraq and Syria, however the SDF and US air power pushed them further out towards their current position. Islamic State have previously used human shields in both Iraq and Syria. They use the pattern and technique of trapping civilians among fighters in order to slow offensives. As they withdraw, they leave minefields and booby traps to slow their attackers, which also prevents civilians from escaping.
In addition, the US-led coalition has also had a severe impact on civilian casualties. Conflict monitor, Airwars estimates that there have been a total of 16,864 US-led Coalition Strikes in Syria resulting in an estimated 7,481–11,907 civilian deaths in coalition operations against Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq.
The use of human shields is prohibited in international humanitarian law and constitutes a war crime.
It is a rule that is set forth in the Third Geneva Convention, the Fourth Geneva Convention and the Statute of the International Criminal Court that states,
“utilizing the presence of a civilian or other protected person to render certain points, areas or military forces immune from military operations” constitutes a war crime in international armed conflicts.