|As Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) advance on Raqqa, Kurdish sources have reported the discovery of an alleged Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) mass gravesite four kilometers east of Tabqa. According to a 2016 Associated Press survey, ISIS has commonly used mass graves since 2014; the survey estimated ISIS has 72 mass gravesites in Iraq and Syria containing up to 15,000 bodies. Satellite imagery and other documentation indicate that both the Syrian government and ISIS use mass graves and burn sites to dispose of dead bodies, making victim identification difficult – but not impossible. Forensic DNA testing can aid in victim identification and crime scene investigation for use in future accountability efforts, but the ongoing conflict in Syria poses challenges to the proper preservation and analysis of mass graves. To avoid mishandling of dead bodies found in and around Raqqa, SDF forces, the US-led coalition, and the international community must commit to protecting the integrity of sites to eventually allow forensic experts unfettered access in conducting accurate investigations that yield evidence for future justice mechanisms and the safe return of bodies to families.
The United Nations (UN) considers a mass grave to be a location with three or more victims “of extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions” who have not died in combat. Under international humanitarian law (IHL), conflict parties should “take all possible measures” to prevent bodies from being despoiled and make all efforts to identify the dead and provide proper burials in marked graves. The use of mass gravesites hinders the accurate identification and recovery of remains, compounding the widespread missing persons crisis the Syrian conflict has produced.