For Raqqa to Heal, Prioritize Demining

November 13, 2017

Civilians continue to die in Raqqa — the Islamic State’s now-liberated capital in Syria. The killer is the unexploded ordnance, which consist of mines and booby traps that the Islamic State leaves behind. According to a close contact who has returned to his family home in Raqqa, the people of Raqqa have lived through such horrendous conditions under the Islamic State that those who became internally displaced during the fighting are willing to risk their lives to return home, despite the imminent bomb threat. According to another local contact of mine, there are only six demining organizations that are removing these explosives. Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently reported on Nov. 2 that the city will not be cleared for another six months. Meanwhile, nothing can stop the Raqqawis who want to return home now.

Syria is not a far-off place or a distant memory to me. It is more like a heartbeat or a deep exhale. For more than three years, I had the distinct honor and heartache of working to counter the Islamic State for the U.S. government. This mission sent me from Florida to various task forces in various countries in the Middle East, including, finally, to Syria. From May 2014 onward, I served in various capacities for the U.S. military working against the Islamic State in Syria. I completed this work in December 2016.

Weeks ago, as I listened to the radio on my morning commute through heavily forested North Carolina roads, I heard “U.S.-Backed Forces Liberate Raqqa From ISIS Control.” A later article from all the major outlets read “The de facto capital of the Islamic State has been returned to the Syrian people through the hands of the Syrian Democratic Forces.” That evening over dinner, a friend asked me if I saw the news. I apprehensively told him that I doubted the city will be fully liberated and knew that there would be mines and explosives everywhere, just like in Manbij.

Last year at this time, my colleagues and I were working in Manbij in Northern Syria, the second city in the country liberated from the Islamic State. Manbij was a strategic victory for coalition forces because it served as a major transit location for foreign fighters moving into Syria. The liberation of Manbij set the conditions for the Syrian Democratic Forces to liberate Raqqa. Last week, I spent a morning trying to understand the situation in Raqqa, speaking with a contact who owns property inside the city. When I asked him for his thoughts on the international actors vying for influence in Syria, he said that no one knows which faction will prevail. The future of Syria is uncertain, but in order to limit loss of life now, the unexploded ordnance must be cleared with urgency.

Unexploded ordnance is a munition or explosive that is primed or fused to detonate, but has not yet done so. For those of us far from the war, this may sound like a minor problem that is inevitable in post-conflict zones. But these explosions can have strategic effects even once the cannons have stopped firing. If the unexploded ordnance in and around Raqqa is not properly disposed of, then humanitarian actors, non-governmental organizations, and commercial goods suppliers will not be able to enter the area and begin the process of reconstruction. The ordnance will make it that much harder to bring durable peace to the area, reconnect Raqqa with markets, and make the city functional once more.

Once relative security is established in Raqqa, the security and humanitarian actors with the capacity to perform demining should prioritize efforts to clear the unexploded ordnance. The Islamic State always leaves booby traps and explosives behind, and the coalition airstrikes that targeted the Euphrates River Valley for years have also surely left behind unexploded ordnance. In order to fully realize the defeat of the Islamic State in and around Raqqa and set the conditions for a return to normalcy, the United States needs to be involved in helping its partners to clear it all out.

Clearing the explosives is the first and best advice I can give anyone post-liberation in former jihadist territory. When my colleagues and I drove through Kobani and Manbij last year, we received dozens of reports of unexploded ordnance. We saw the evidence in the traffic circles stacked like piles of deadly Jenga. We received reports that non-governmental organizations did not want to enter the area for fear that death was one wrong move away. I received phone calls and WhatsApp messages from one of the few humanitarians intrepid enough to enter Manbij, but cautious enough to ask for my assessment prior to doing so. The fact that humanitarians were reaching out to me — an armed actor — meant that they had no one else to turn to for assessments of explosives on the road; there was no focal point or coordination for unexploded ordnance. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly to the counterinsurgency effort, the demining of ordnance should be prioritized because unexploded ordnance can be repurposed and weaponized by potential adversaries in the insurgency.

When I was working in Manbij last year, I observed an uncoordinated effort between the Defense and State Departments, as well as coalition partners and the United Nations, to clear the unexploded ordnance; this effort wasted vital time. The Department of Defense had a limited presence in the area, so there was little U.S. manpower available to apply to mine clearance. U.S. forces were able to train a small team of local women from Manbij to negotiate and destroy mines and booby traps that the Islamic State left throughout the city, but there were less than two dozen of them. I physically handed out marking tape on a street corner of Manbij when members of the local populace notified me of unexploded ordnance that our small team lacked the capacity to respond to.

When the Syrian Democratic Forces liberated Manbij in August 2016, there was no demining response from the United Nations or the broader international humanitarian community. The State Department was working on a contract for a company to perform demining operations in Manbij, but it was not in place in time for the liberation and it took months to get the effort up and running. The United Nations was nowhere to be found in the process. I observed no United Nations presence in Manbij or Kobani during my time there and received no reports of their efforts. The United Nations has the capacity to mobilize a demining response to the unexploded ordnance in Raqqa, and it must not neglect the city like it did Manbij. After the liberation of Manbij, Gaziantep was still the major hub for conversations regarding counter unexploded ordnance. It was also the location where the United Nations cluster organizations resided and where other humanitarian organizations mobilized for their efforts in Syria. However, Turkey’s problematic relationship with the Kurds meant that organizations operating out of Turkey were wary of directing aid to Manbij because of the predominant Kurdish political influence in the city following its liberation.

To avoid similar problems in Raqqa, someone must take the lead to organize and coordinate an international demining effort. If the United Nations is not up to the job, the task will be left to the Department of Defense, which means the U.S. military will be encroaching into the civil space and finding itself once again ahead of policy in the Syrian conflict. If the U.S. military is left with the task of organizing the demining effort and committing resources to clearing the unexploded ordnance, it will be a long process because this is not their mission in Syria. Local armed groups will want some control over who comes in and out of Raqqa, but there needs to be an external actor who can prioritize needs, apply demining resources appropriately, and maintain both transparency and accountability throughout the process.

I have been to countless planning conferences where we discussed what to do following the liberation of cities in Syria. Soldiers and civilians tend to get caught up in lot of theoretical conversation, when the formula for post-liberation is simple: Prioritizing efforts to remove the unexploded ordnance will set the conditions necessary for a healthy society to re-emerge. People must be able to access their homes, hospitals, schools, and roads safely in order to return to relative stability, receive humanitarian assistance, and access external resources to rehabilitate their city.

The good news is that Raqqa no longer serves as the de facto capital of the Islamic State. However, now the international community must come together to ensure that the alternative future being provided offers a better life to Syrians than the Islamic State did. If the explosives are cleared, people will have access to outside resources, humanitarian assistance actors and non-governmental organizations can enter the space, and Raqqa will have the opportunity to heal.


Kimberly Metcalf served as a U.S. Army officer for over ten years; she deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, Qatar, Jordan, Turkey and Syria. For the past three years she worked directly on the Syrian conflict. Metcalf departed from military service on Nov. 1, 2017, and is residing in Belgium.

Image: 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit