Removing Explosive Hazards to Promote Stability in Northeast Syria

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by Natalie Wazir

One year after ISIS was pushed out of Raqqah, the people of northeast Syria are still working to get back on their feet. One of the biggest obstacles they face is massive contamination from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and other explosive remnants of war (ERW) left behind by ISIS, including in countless homes, shops, hospitals, schools, roadways, water pumping stations, and electric power facilities. Not only do these devices endanger the people of northeast Syria as they attempt to recover from ISIS’ brutal reign, but ERW prevents humanitarian aid organizations and stabilization actors from accessing key areas and providing the help that these populations so badly need.

The U.S. Department of State’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement, part of the Bureau of Political and Military Affairs (PM/WRA), is working to remove ERW and IEDs from critical infrastructure in portions of northeast Syria liberated from ISIS control and to educate people living in these areas how to stay safe when facing the threat of explosive hazards on a daily basis. By creating safe environments for families and humanitarian aid organizations, removing ISIS’ deadly legacy of ERW is helping to restore basic services in places like Raqqah as internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees voluntarily return to their homes and livelihoods. Through these efforts, the United States is working to provide stability and security in liberated areas.

With funding from the U.S. and contributions from Denmark, Germany, Kosovo, Latvia, Norway, and Taiwan, PM/WRA’s main implementing partner Tetra Tech, which is a U.S.-based company, is engaged in the following activities:

  • Conducting surveys to locate and mark explosive hazards;
  • Clearing of all forms of explosive hazards, including ERW and IEDs from critical infrastructure sites, such as schools, hospitals, and clean water facilities;
  • Building local capacity by training local Syrians to conduct explosive hazards removal in accordance with international standards; and
  • Educating local and returning populations about explosive hazards through formal risk education.

The critical first step in explosive hazards removal is gaining community acceptance for site access. Community liaisons work with local councils and community leaders to build trust and gain valuable information on known locations of hazards to increase the effectiveness of survey teams. The teams of explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) experts then methodically inspect suspected sites to evaluate whether explosive hazards are present. Surveys are conducted by trained personnel through site visits or remote aerial surveillance. Over the past 19 months, critical infrastructure, like power, water, and transportation facilities that are vital to the safe and voluntary return of refugees, have been prioritized. Since Raqqah’s liberation in October 2017, Tetra Tech has completed more than 400 surveys of individual critical infrastructure.

When surveys indicate that explosive hazards are present, a team composed of international EOD experts and trained local technical personnel get to work. Team leaders have several tools available to help make their jobs more efficient, effective, and safe, including armored heavy equipment, K-9s trained to detect explosive materials, and robots with mechanical arms. After all known explosive hazards have been neutralized, the local civil council is notified, and the site can once again be used to serve the local population. As of September 2018, more than 300 sites in Raqqa City have been surveyed and cleared, including 9 hospitals, 66 schools, and 76 infrastructure facilities, including water treatment and pumping, power generation, and transfer stations.

Clearance teams are also called on by the community or Coalition Forces to support ‘spot tasks.’ These efforts include emergency interventions to neutralize explosive caches and other munitions items found in public areas. Clearance teams destroy these materials to eliminate the threats to unsuspecting civilians and prevent malign actors from harvesting and repurposing explosive hazards. To date, Tetra Tech’s clearance teams have removed over 6,000 explosive hazards from Raqqah, Tabqah, and surrounding areas. Overall, funding from the United States and other international contributors has cleared over 24,000 explosive hazards from 3,150,000 square meters, helping to facilitate the return of over 160,000 IDPs.

To help build a permanent, sustainable EOD capability for the people of northeast Syria, Tetra Tech has trained 125 locals in explosive hazards search, removal, and disposal techniques. After the students complete their instruction, they are teamed with international experts and begin conducting real explosive hazards survey and disposal operations. An additional 25 Syrian nationals have expanded their capabilities, receiving advanced training and certifications. After several evaluations and advanced explosives remediation training and practices, these individuals are now being trained to take over as team leaders who will be responsible for daily clearance operations at key sites. They will form the core of a new, local capability to expand clearance operations across northeast Syria.

Keeping the people of northeast Syria safe from explosive hazards also requires education. Tetra Tech’s mine risk education (MRE) efforts include two teams that interact with the community daily to inform the citizens of Raqqah and Tabqah, and their outlying communities and IDP camps about explosive hazards. These teams meet with community civil councils to gain their support and identify the best locations to teach MRE classes, often schools and other areas with high population density. The teams also place safety posters and billboards in high-traffic areas. To date, the MRE teams have completed 515 MRE sessions, raising the awareness levels of 70,000 residents, including 56,000 children.

PM/WRA efforts in northern Syria are aimed first and foremost at saving lives and to creating safe spaces for the Syrian people to rebuild their communities. Many of these areas now have power restored, water flowing, and access to basic and emergency health care needs; more than 45,000 students have resumed their studies with safe access to schools and playgrounds. Most importantly, deaths due to explosive hazards continue to decrease significantly as Tetra Tech and other mine action organizations continue to clear explosive hazards, educate returning populations, and build local capacity to sustain these efforts.

About the Author: Natalie Wazir is the Program Manager for Syria in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs' Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.