20,000 Syrians disappeared by ISIS. Hundreds of bodies found in mass graves. Now thousands of people ask, why isn’t the US investigating?

Up to 20,000 Syrians are believed to have been disappeared by the Islamic State (ISIS) since its emergence in Syria in 2013. Now that the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and US-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS have forced the group back from the land it once held, mass graves are being discovered in the extremists’ wake. With the US proclaiming its commitment to stabilising northeast Syria, families of the missing are asking why those who disappeared still haven’t been found and why the mass graves aren’t being properly investigated.

The discovery of the graves has been going on for months. In February, one was uncovered in Raqqa containing the bodies of 3,500 people. It is likely that some of the interred are ISIS fighters themselves or civilian casualties of the coalition bombing, in addition to people ISIS killed during its barbaric rule over northeast Syria.

To date, no international forensic investigation teams have been sent into the region to exhume the graves, contradicting guidelines from the ICRC and OHCHR on the treatment of mass graves. The ICRC states that armed groups, in addition to state authorities, have a duty to investigate mass graves, meaning that the Syrian Democratic Forces, under the sponsorship of the US, have a responsibility to exhume the bodies. Though the US has provided support to local people to investigate the graves through the Raqqa Civic Council, they are not forensic specialists meaning that their excavations are likely resulting in vital evidence being lost or destroyed.

Despite the US having spent around $90 million on stabilisation efforts in northeast Syria, little has been done to help find the missing, beyond the inexperienced exhumations. Syrian Democratic Forces have occupied former ISIS detention centres, overlooking or destroying evidence of their former inhabitants, while captured ISIS militants have been released after a period of days. Activists who have been following the militants’ arrests say they don’t believe they have been questioned about the missing despite the Syrian Network for Human Rights recording 8,349 cases of disappearance and estimating that the total number of people disappeared by ISIS in Syria could reach 20,000.

“As we have seen elsewhere in Syria, the issue of detention and disappearance is at the top of the list of concerns for victims of the conflict, and there is no prospect of communities in the northeast rebuilding while tens of thousands of people remain unaccounted for,” says Laila Kiki, Executive Director at The Syria Campaign. “We cannot overstate the urgency of getting help for the families of the missing through proper investigations and supporting them with access to the information they need to find out what has happened to their loved ones. It is unconscionable for the US-led coalition to allow mass graves to be dug up in an area where they have been operating without supporting proper investigations and helping the victims.”

“We looked everywhere for Bashar’s body,” says his sister, Yasmin, remembering the day he disappeared in ISIS’s caliphate. “It’s been hard to keep our hopes up and it is easier for me to think of him as dead. We need answers. My brother went to donate blood at the hospital and never came back. His name is neither with the living nor the dead and we deserve the right to know what happened.”

The Syria Campaign has launched a petition calling on the US-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and the Syrian Democratic Forces to take urgent steps to uncover the fate of the disappeared by ISIS and give answers to their families. For further information on this story please see The Syria Campaign’s campaign brief, A Race Against Time: Demanding the US and SDF find the disappeared by ISIS.