The War in Five Sieges

Patrick Cockburn

The road to Raqqa, once the de facto Syrian capital of Islamic State, looks surprisingly pastoral. As we approached the city across the plain north of the Euphrates we had to stop the car several times: the road was barred by flocks of sheep. It seemed an encouraging sign of returning normality. But local people explained that shepherds were bringing their flocks to graze here for less happy reasons. Before 2011 this was well-irrigated crop-growing land, but now, after six years of war, the irrigation channels are dry or contain only stagnant water: nobody is maintaining them and there is no electricity to pump water from the Euphrates. Giant grain silos stand just off the road but they have been abandoned or damaged by bombs or shells.

The further we drove into Raqqa, the worse the destruction became: most of the few buildings that are still intact have been taken over as command posts by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurdish-Arab army that with the support of US-led airpower captured Raqqa after a four-month siege last October. There are equal numbers of Arabs and Kurds in the SDF, but the commanders we met were all Kurds. Some of the surviving residents of Raqqa, which before the war had a population of 300,000, are returning, but the streets were mostly empty. Behind one SDF guard post an elderly woman was sorting through the debris of a bombed-out building, looking for scraps of metal and plastic to sell. One of her sons had been killed by a mine, she said, and she needed money to buy food for his wife and daughter. All the buildings in the city centre have been destroyed or damaged beyond repair: some took a direct hit from a bomb or a shell; others still stand but have been gutted by bomb blasts and look uninhabitable.

There were occasional signs of life. Some people had gathered outside a shop selling tea and falafel; a small generator in the street was powering Raqqa’s only working traffic light. Nearby was al-Naeem roundabout, where Islamic State carried out public executions, displaying the severed heads of its victims on the spikes of a metal fence. IS has gone, but the sense of terror it generated during the four years it ruled Raqqa has not. Residents said their fear of IS remains ineradicable – ‘Daesh is in our hearts and minds’ – and they worry that the present moment may only be a pause in the violence. The anxiety is understandable, but the threat may be long-term rather than immediate: SDF commanders say that IS is not carrying out guerrilla attacks, and though there are frequent rumours of ‘stay-behind IS sleeper cells’ they always turn out to be mythical. But the SDF officers are Kurds in control of an Arab city and they know they can’t stay in charge for ever; nor will they always be able to call in airstrikes and artillery fire from the US-led coalition. Even if IS stays away, Raqqa, on the bank of the Euphrates, is in a dangerous position, sandwiched between opposing sides: the Kurds, backed by the US, to the east; and to the west Assad, supported by Russia and Iran.

Many other cities in Syria and Iraq have been wrecked in the course of long sieges. In some cases large districts have been flattened – such as Daraya in Damascus or the Old City in Mosul – but in Raqqa the damage extends across the entire city. This means that there is nowhere that can be used as a base for reconstruction. The UN says it is difficult to find places from where aid can be distributed because IS planted mines and booby traps everywhere. Electricity workers complain that they can’t do their job for the same reason. Months have passed since the siege ended but signs of reconstruction are few. ‘After the war we were at zero and we are still at zero,’ an Arab doctor said. People aren’t being vaccinated and only elderly women and children are allowed to pass through Syrian government lines on the other side of the Euphrates to get treatment in Damascus hospitals. ‘The regime thinks everybody here is a terrorist,’ the doctor said. ‘They have always been fascists in Raqqa,’ an unsympathetic Kurd said.

The SDF and the US-led coalition seem to have felt that Raqqa, a city occupied by IS for longer than any other, was a centre of popular support for IS, and so deserving of whatever happened to it. SDF frontline troops called in airstrikes at will to obliterate any resistance. In addition to the bombs, according to a US officer some 35,000 artillery shells were fired into the city during the siege. Nine mass graves have been discovered, only one of which has been opened. It contained 553 bodies: civilian victims of airstrikes, IS fighters and, possibly, patients from a nearby hospital. The coalition maintains in the face of all evidence that it tried to avoid civilian casualties in both Raqqa and Mosul. In Mosul, its spokespeople could argue, the attacking forces had no choice but to inflict heavy civilian casualties since IS fought to the end and tried to kill anyone who attempted to escape. But this argument doesn’t hold good for Raqqa. Here, the siege ended with an ugly twist: civilians expected to be bused out under the terms of a truce, but instead IS fighters and their families were evacuated in a convoy while the civilians were left behind.

The deal between the remaining IS fighters and the besieging forces is documented in ‘“War of Annihilation”: Devastating Toll on Civilians, Raqqa – Syria’, an Amnesty International report published in June. It shows that initial attempts to agree a truce in early October – when IS had been driven back into a single corner of the city, along with a large number of civilians whom they would not allow to escape – were sabotaged by foreign IS fighters, mostly from Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, who discovered they weren’t included in the agreement, which held that Syrian-born fighters could leave the city unharmed. Fearing summary execution, the foreign fighters broke the truce by opening fire on the SDF with mortars and automatic rifles. A second ceasefire deal was arranged for 14 October, and presented by the coalition and the SDF as a humanitarian arrangement, allowing them ‘to focus on defeating Daesh terrorists in Raqqa with less risk of civilian casualties’. In the event, the opposite happened: it was IS fighters – including Saudis and Tunisians, carrying arms and ammunition – who boarded the buses, which took them to territory controlled by IS. The report quotes Jamila, a mother of two: ‘When we heard that there was a truce and we would be allowed to leave Raqqa, we thought this was for us, the civilians, but then when the buses came we realised they were for Daesh. We had to make our own way out of the city.’ After these experiences, people in Raqqa feel that nobody cares what happens to them. They say they are frightened of everybody: IS, the Kurds and Assad.

Raqqa is one example of the prolonged siege warfare that has dominated the wars in Syria and Iraq. The opposing forces have varied from city to city but they include the Syrian and Iraqi armies, the Kurdish SDF, IS, the Syrian non-IS opposition, Iraqi Shia paramilitaries and Hizbullah. In every case, ground troops have only been able to win with the backing of airpower, artillery and advisers most usually supplied by the US-led coalition or Russia. Whether the fighting was in Ramadi and Mosul in Iraq or Aleppo and Damascus in Syria, the way the sieges were conducted was similar. Few combat troops were used: no side could afford heavy losses in street battles with a well-trained enemy. The attackers relied heavily on shelling and bombing to clear the way or to batter the defenders into submission. It was a strategy that always succeeded in the end, but it had the inevitable cost – a cost that governments on all sides invariably lied about – of causing great destruction and civilian loss of life. Air forces were in denial or deliberately misleading, pretending that modern high-precision targeting had transformed the nature of bombing. But the ruins of East Aleppo, Raqqa, Mosul and Eastern Ghouta look very much like pictures of Hue in 1968 or Hamburg in 1945.

Claims and counterclaims are impossible to verify in the course of a siege and it is only afterwards that the true scale of civilian casualties can be established, though by then the news agenda has moved on and there is limited public interest. The fullest report comparing the claims of air forces with what actually happened on the ground was Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal’s ‘The Uncounted’, an examination of civilian loss of life around Mosul published at the end of 2017 in the New York Times magazine. Khan and Gopal exhaustively studied a number of coalition areas, including Qaiyara, a town south of Mosul where the US air force admitted to having killed one civilian and the Iraqi air force claimed to have killed none. After conducting extensive door-to-door interviews with people in Qaiyara, Khan and Gopal concluded that the real figures were very different: ‘What we found was sobering. During the two years that Isis ruled downtown Qaiyara, an area of about one square mile, there were 40 airstrikes, 13 of which killed 43 civilians – 19 men, eight women and 16 children, ages 14 or younger.’ They discovered that one in five of the airstrikes in these areas had resulted in the deaths of civilians, making them thirty times more destructive than the coalition acknowledged. This, they wrote, may be ‘the least transparent war in recent American history’.

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In Syria, the sieges began in 2012, a year after the original uprising, when Assad pulled his forces out of many opposition-held areas and concentrated on strategically important urban areas, road networks and military facilities. Opposition strongholds like Douma on the outskirts of Damascus were at first loosely encircled by checkpoints and subjected to sporadic artillery fire. When I visited Douma in February 2012 the Syrian soldiers manning the checkpoints looked relaxed; they had little to do while the UN tried to mediate access for people living in the area to hospitals elsewhere in Damascus as well as the release of detainees and a resumption of public services. Over the next six years these semi-permeable blockades were to turn into outright sieges: the pattern was much the same in Aleppo, Homs and elsewhere. For Assad, the advantage of this approach was that poorly trained conscripts could be used to seal off opposition zones while the most motivated and well-equipped troops acted as a strike force that could be moved quickly from point to point to resist an attack or launch an offensive. For the opposition, too, siege warfare had its attraction: in the heart of Damascus, Homs and Aleppo they had liberated territory they now ruled themselves, and they hoped to use these enclaves as bases from which to bring down the regime. But their forces were dissipated: they failed to join up the liberated zones, and the government was able to pick them off one by one.

The decision to defend certain areas, or to besiege them, was often determined by sectarian or ethnic allegiances. Both the government (dominated by the Shia Alawi sect) and the opposition (dominated by Sunni Arabs) would play down the fact, but divisions between communities were at the heart of the Syrian civil war. These divisions decided the location of the military frontlines that snaked through Damascus and Homs, much as they had once done in Belfast and Beirut. The government-held districts were inhabited by the minority groups, Alawites, Kurds, Christians, Druze, Ismaili and Shia, which together make up about 40 per cent of the population. A businessman in Damascus told me that the weakness of the anti-Assad forces was that ‘the exiled opposition leaders have not developed a serious plan to reassure the minorities.’ Opposition enclaves were overwhelmingly Sunni Arab, though the Sunni community was itself divided between rich and poor and between rural and urban areas. Well-off secular Sunnis in government-held West Aleppo didn’t feel much sympathy for the poor, religiously minded Sunni in the rebel-held east of the city.

The government used artillery and aerial bombardment to drive out civilians from opposition areas. Once the bombardment was over they would act as if everybody who remained was an enemy of the regime – though they might be just too poor to find anywhere else to live. Places like Daraya in south Damascus were turned into ghost districts, the buildings empty, silent and stripped of everything down to the window frames. In 2014 I visited Homs, the third largest city in Syria and the centre of the original uprising. At the time, Assad’s soldiers were bombarding the Old City, where rebels were holed up. I spoke to an army captain called Mohammed, who had been fighting the siege in Homs for two and a half years. He disapproved of a mediation plan that would allow a thousand rebel fighters to be evacuated. He rolled up a trouser leg to show me where a sniper had shot him, and said: ‘They came through a tunnel that came out behind where our men were positioned and attacked them from behind.’ He took great satisfaction in the fact that the rebels involved in this particular incident had all been killed: one consequence of these sieges was to deepen hatreds on both sides of the frontline. They also caused pervasive fear. In Homs, where the intertwining of pro and anti-government districts was particularly complex, I wanted to visit a military hospital in the al-Waer district in the west of the city, the largest remaining Sunni enclave still holding out against Assad. Government officials gave permission but said: ‘We frankly can’t find anybody to go with you because it is so dangerous.’ We drove cautiously from checkpoint to checkpoint: it became clear that the hospital was surrounded by rebel positions. When we got there, the guards were too frightened to open the gates.

Syria has always been deeply divided. In 2012, young men in Douma showed me houses which had once belonged to members of the Muslim Brotherhood: they had been sealed during the Brotherhood’s anti-government campaign twenty years earlier and were still shut up. Long before the civil war there was intense resentment over the privileges and power of the Alawi elite, to which most of the leadership belonged. In Barzeh, a Sunni district in north Damascus, the inhabitants’ main grievance dated back to the 1970s, when Hafez al-Assad, an Alawi officer who had recently seized power, confiscated a large piece of land belonging to local people to create two new neighbourhoods: Esh el-Warwar and Dahiyat al-Assad. They were soon populated with Alawi officials and officers and the original Sunni owners received minimal compensation. When the protests that swept through Syria in 2011 reached Barzeh, it was the Alawi militia and paramilitaries from the new neighbourhoods who came to suppress the demonstrations, using tanks and heavy weapons. The protesters fought back and, thanks to popular support and their knowledge of the terrain, kept control of the district. A long stalemate followed, but the rebels had cut off the main road to Esh el-Warwar and Dahiyat and the government wanted it back. The rebels, for their part, were being pounded by artillery and sniped at from a hill overlooking Barzeh, while the inhabitants who had fled the district wanted to go home. A ceasefire was arranged and was largely successful, since in Barzeh – unlike in so many other places – there were no ideologically committed foreign jihadi fighters. Returning refugees looked aghast at the extent of the destruction of their homes. Abu Hamzeh, a rebel leader, said that about 250 people, including women and children, had been killed in the siege. The government had promised to release detainees but was only handing over dead bodies. Survivors said they had no fruit or fresh vegetables: they had avoided starvation because they were able to eat the stocks of food of those who had fled.

During all these sieges fighters and civilians alike lived a subterranean existence to escape the shelling and bombing. The primitive and dangerous conditions in Barzeh in 2014 were repeated in East Aleppo in 2016, Mosul and Raqqa in 2017, and Eastern Ghouta in 2018. Through intermediaries, I kept in touch with Haytham Bakkar, a local journalist, in Eastern Ghouta during the last weeks of the siege there. He said that many families had abandoned their one-storey houses and moved into bigger buildings which had basements. Bakkar said that conditions in these overcrowded underground rooms were miserable: he was living in one with half a dozen families whose children were crying because they hadn’t eaten for three days. ‘The basements are wet, smell bad because of the leaking sewage pipes, and are full of dangerous insects like scorpions,’ he said. ‘There is no daylight and no electricity, so people are using small torches with batteries to see.’ He wanted to stay in Eastern Ghouta whatever happened because ‘if we cross to a safe area we may live, but we will have to watch the TV news showing strangers living in our homes.’ I lost touch with Bakkar for a while when Eastern Ghouta finally fell in April. The next time I heard from him he had fled to Turkey with his family, but he didn’t want to say exactly where he was living.

Five sieges decided the outcome of the wars in Syria and Iraq: Kobani, East Aleppo, Mosul, Raqqa and Eastern Ghouta. Just how much these sieges had in common wasn’t immediately obvious to the outside world because media coverage was so different. The sufferings of civilians in East Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta at the hands of the Syrian government and the Russians were extensively reported, with graphic photographs and film of injured and dying children. Their production, and the eyewitness reporting of events, was effectively outsourced by international media to local activists: the only people who could operate as journalists in jihadi-held areas. In Mosul and Raqqa the news coverage was very different: in both cases the foreign media downplayed the civilian loss of life, or blamed it on IS for using people as ‘human shields’ and not allowing them to escape – it was true enough that IS didn’t care how many civilians were dying around them.

In the final months of the sieges of Mosul and Raqqa the coalition bombing, and the Syrian and Iraqi shelling, became considerably more intense – for a reason the US and the Syrian and Iraqi governments haven’t admitted. They had always been less capable than they claimed of locating the right target, and now they faced another problem: IS and other jihadi groups were showing great tactical ingenuity in fighting guerrilla war in the streets, inflicting heavy casualties on Iraqi army and SDF ground troops. IS fighters moved swiftly on foot or by motorbike from house to house, cutting holes in walls and tunnels underground, making surprise attacks and avoiding surveillance from the air. Their sniper, mortar and mine-laying teams never stayed in one place for long: they would move on quickly from a house they had used as a base, leaving the civilian inhabitants to face coalition retaliation. Such tactics went a long way towards negating the advantages of the high-precision airstrikes that the coalition claimed were so much more discriminating than those of the Russians and the Syrian air force. In the end, maximum firepower was used to obliterate the last stubbornly defended IS enclaves, with no regard for the number of civilians killed. When the fighting ended in Raqqa and Mosul the devastation was essentially identical to what I had seen in Barzeh and Homs years earlier.