Intensified airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition targeting the Islamic State are responsible for a "staggering loss of civilian life" in Raqqa, Syria, a United Nations investigator said Wednesday.
The northern Syrian city, the so-called capital of the Islamic State (ISIS), is where U.S.-backed forces, including Syrian Kurdish and Arab U.S.-backed rebel groups, last week began an offensive. That effort to retake the city from ISIS, also referred to as ISIL, was aided by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes.
But these increased strikes were in the crosshairs of Paulo Pinheiro, the chairman of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry for Syria, who gave the U.N. Human Rights Council his dire assessment of the situation for Syrian civilians, who "are in the unenviable role of being the target of most warring parties" and face "disastrous consequences."
While Pinheiro told the U.N. body that a successful offensive "could liberate the city's civilian population from the group's oppressive clutches, including Yazidi women and girls, whom the group has kept sexually enslaved for almost three years as part of an ongoing and unaddressed genocide," he underscored that the "imperative to fight terrorism must not [...] be undertaken at the expense of civilians who unwillingly find themselves living in areas where ISIL is present."
He said that the "that the intensification of airstrikes" as a result of the offensive "has resulted not only in staggering loss of civilian life, but has also led to 160,000 civilians fleeing their homes and becoming internally displaced."
Those fleeing Raqqa, and countless others forced to join the ranks of internally displaced people across Syria, face "a wretched experience" and "are particularly vulnerable to violence," Pinheiro said. He also pointed to "aerial bombardments by pro-Government forces" and other forced evacuations that leave civilians in peril.
According to Reuters,
the U.S. delegation [to the Human Rights Council] made no reference to Raqqa or the air strikes. U.S. diplomat Jason Mack called the Syrian government "the primary perpetrator" of egregious human rights violations in the country.
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U.S.-led coalition airstrikes killing Syrian civilians is not new.
Chris Woods, director of monitoring group Airwars, said recently to The Intercept: "We have been killing a lot of civilians in and around Raqqa for quite some time now, yet these incidents are rarely admitted by the coalition and there is almost no interest from international media."
Echoing Pinheiro, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said this month, "Just because ISIS holds an area does not mean less care can be taken." He added: "Civilians should always be protected, whether they are in areas controlled by ISIS or by any other party."
"The only way to end civilian suffering is to end this war."
—Paulo Pinheiro, the chairman of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on SyriaThe new comments from Pinheiro follow what the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said was the deadliest month for Syrian civilians since the U.S.-led bombing campaign began in September of 2014.
"No matter how white phosphorus is used, it poses a high risk of horrific and long-lasting harm in crowded cities like Raqqa and Mosul and any other areas with concentrations of civilians," said Steve Goose, arms director at the human rights organization. "U.S.-led forces should take all feasible precautions to minimize civilian harm when using white phosphorus in Iraq and Syria," he said.
Pinheiro said in his address: "the only way to end civilian suffering is to end this war."