ISIS deceives civilians with 'safe haven' claim

By Waleed Abu al-Khair in Cairo

Civilians who fled the 'Islamic State of Iraq and Syria' take shelter in rural al-Raqa. The group has been preventing al-Raqa residents from fleeing as the Syrian Democratic Forces advance on the city. [Photo courtesy of the Syrian Democratic Forces]

Civilians who fled the 'Islamic State of Iraq and Syria' take shelter in rural al-Raqa. The group has been preventing al-Raqa residents from fleeing as the Syrian Democratic Forces advance on the city. [Photo courtesy of the Syrian Democratic Forces]

Through its media machine, the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) has sought to portray its so-called caliphate as a safe and desirable place to live.

But this idealised vision is far from the truth, residents of ISIS-controlled areas in Syria and observers tell Diyaruna, as the group has barred civilians from leaving.

As liberating forces on the ground, backed by coalition air power, move in on areas under ISIS control, the group has been keeping residents close at hand in order to use them as human shields when the need arises.

"Since the establishment of the group’s alleged state, its media machine has constantly portrayed it as a safe haven for civilians," Syrian journalist Mohammed al-Abdullah told Diyaruna.

ISIS has used the promise of jobs, homes and a purely Islamic lifestyle to attract both fighters and civilians to its state, he said, even as it prevents residents of those areas who do not subscribe to its ideology from fleeing.

The group now seeks to use civilians as human shields in these areas "to prolong the war, with the aim of forcing the international coalition to put forces on the ground and wage a long war of attrition", al-Abdullah said.

ISIS has sealed off areas still under its control and banned civilians from leaving, and its fighters have spread out between private homes in al-Raqa, thus putting the lives of civilians at risk during airstrikes, he added.

This tactic is also designed to deter ground forces such as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) from storming the group's urban strongholds, he said.

"According to reports from al-Tabqa, the group actually forced residents at the outskirts of the city to remain in their homes as the SDF drew closer," he said.

ISIS fighters then entered residential areas to slow down the fighting, he said, as SDF fighters "tried to prevent civilians from getting caught in the crossfire".

Luring residents into staying

ISIS has been promoting the notion that "al-Raqa is a safe area for the residents of the city, and that they are protected in it from what would happen to them if they leave", said al-Raqa native Wael Mustafa, who asked to use a pseudonym out of fear for his safety.

To this end, he told Diyaruna, the group has circulated dozens of false reports that accuse the SDF -- an Arab-Kurd alliance -- of abuses and executions targeting Arabs.

ISIS also claimed that the SDF plans to confiscate people's properties and homes, he said, thus hoping to scare al-Raqa residents into staying in the city.

"The group has two aims from spreading these rumours," he said. "The first is to prevent the local population from co-operating with the SDF at all, and the second is to put a stop to the escape of residents."

Civilian flight from the city has left some areas completely empty, Mustafa said, adding that "the group is dead set against this, because one of its main objectives is to turn the civilians into human shields".

Escape from al-Raqa city is near impossible at this time "because the group has drastically tightened its clampdown on residents and set up checkpoints at the outskirts of the city and in the areas overlooking agricultural fields", he said.

There has been a decline in the number of smugglers willing to escort residents out of the city across ISIS mine fields, he said, adding that "those who remain charge exorbitant fees that are beyond the means of the remaining residents".

The cost of smuggling a family of four out of the city starts at $3,000, he said.

Protecting civilian lives

"The SDF and all factions operating under the Wrath of the Euphrates operation room have the safety of civilians in the areas controlled by ISIS on their list of priorities," SDF platoon commander Ghassan Ibrahim told Diyaruna.

Storming operations targeting ISIS that potentially put civilians in harm's way are postponed, he said, explaining that special forces teams contact residents in the areas they approach to co-ordinate the evacuation process to safe areas.

"Dozens of evacuations have taken place in this manner in the course of the four phases of the Wrath of the Euphrates campaign," Ibrahim said.

But SDF fighters face difficulties in conducting evacuations, he said, as ISIS spreads out its snipers to kill anyone who tries to escape and has planted thousands of mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

"The presence of children and the elderly also significantly slows down the evacuation process," he said, adding that "evacuating civilians from al-Raqa’s rural areas is easier than evacuating them from within the city".

It is easier to slip into rural villages and farms and evacuate residents, he explained, as ISIS elements are not present in large numbers there "and the areas in question are vast and hard to monitor and control fully".

Inside al-Raqa city, he said, the group began to tighten its control over checkpoints months ago to prevent civilians from escaping.

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