Which Assad himself copied from the US' 2003-2011 occupation of Iraq
If there is one thing that foreign powers seeking to overthrow the Syrian government publicly begrudge it is its reliance on now infamous barrel bombs specifically and siege tactics generally.
Years into the foreign-backed revolt Syrian armed forces are short on manpower and correspondingly loathe to bleed in costly urban combat. As a result they've come to greatly rely on their artillery including in urban settings.
As the great Patrick Cockburn has often reported when faced with rebels taking over a section of a city or a town the modus operandi of the government forces has been to cordon off the area and call on the residents to leave it and become refugees. After a certain amount of time has passed the loyalist forces will then act almost as if the blockaded area was now without any civilians (or as if everyone still in the area is an enemy) and subject it to shelling and attacks from the air including sometimes with improvised 'barrel bombs'.
The hope is that besieged rebels can be gradually worn down and defeated, or at least softened up through a combination of firepower and lean bellies. The tactic seems logical from the point of view of the Syrian government forces which are stretched thin, but obviously spells great suffering for any civilians who do not or cannot leave the area.
Recently there has been muted talk of an offensive by the US-backed, Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces against ISIS capital of Raqqa. Actually it appears that such an offensive is not in the works yet but that we're instead seeing a preparatory push to shorten SDF's front line and take positions from which Raqqa can be threatened directly.
Even so the very first move of the US military which is expected to provide air support for the effort has been to drop leaflets on Raqqa calling on civilians to leave the city because liberation is approaching:
The US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State (IS) group has dropped flyers on the eastern Syrian city of Raqqa urging residents for the first time to leave the militant stronghold, an activist and a monitor said on Friday.
"The time you have been waiting for has come, the time has come to leave Raqqa," reads the top of the comic-book-style water-coloured sketch.
It shows residents - three men wearing backpacks, a veiled woman and a child - fleeing a grey, battered city into idyllic green countryside, running past dead soldiers and IS fighters and a sign marked: "IS, Raqqa province, checkpoint."
— الرقة تذبح بصمت (@Raqqa_SL)May 19, 2016
Washington is eager to blast Assad for too often behaving as if civilian survival was not his responsibility but that of the civilians themselves. However, now that it has become more serious about fighting ISIS rebels in Syria itself the United States is opening its long-awaited effort against Raqqa with the exact same call for civilians to leave lest they find themselves in the crossfire and in the crosshairs of US munitions.
US Coalition in Iraq
Actually this should not be surprising since this has been exactly how the United States has fought insurgents in neighboring Iraq long before the outbreak of war in Syria - throughout the occupation but most famously in Fallujah in 2004.
In the spring of 2004 Iraqi resistance took control of the Sunni city, the US first attempted to hurriedly retake it in the First Battle of Fallujah but was frustrated and abruptly gave up the effort. After that the Americans satisfied themselves with blockading the city, and subjecting it to collective punishment in the form of cutting electricity, water and medicinal supplies and intermittently hitting it from the air.
Later that year, in November, US occupation forces launched a second – larger and better planned – offensive against the surrounded city which ultimately restored physical US control over the city. However, it also turned it into a depopulated, bombed out and poisoned hellhole.
Before launching the Second Battle of Fallujah the Americans had called on the residents to evacuate the city and therefore felt themselves justified in unleashing the full power of their artillery and pretty much leveled parts of the Iraqi city.
In fact American troops were advised to err on the side of caution and shoot first and ask question later. Supposedly everyone still in the city was a dead-end fighter, albeit in reality tens of thousands of civilians remained trapped in the city.
Most perversely before, during and after the 2004 onslaught on Faullujah the US employed munitions which poisoned the soil and water of the city. As a result Fallujah saw a terrible skyrocketing of cancer, stillbirths and horrific birth deformities -- which continue to plague the city to this day.
Let's all pray that in Raqqa ISIS unravels fast. Barrel bombs? They're bad, but nothing compared to the poisons the US military may cover that city in if there's a long fight.