From amid the rubble of Raqqa, civilians are asking why US-led Coalition forces destroyed the city, killing hundreds of civilians in the process of “liberating” them from the armed group calling itself “Islamic State” (IS), Amnesty International said in a new report ahead of the offensive’s anniversary.
Amnesty International researchers visited 42 Coalition air strike sites across the ruined city and interviewed 112 civilian residents who had survived the carnage and lost loved ones.
The accounts detailed in the report, ‘War of annihilation’: Devastating Toll on Civilians, Raqqa – Syria, leave gaping holes in the Coalition’s insistence that their forces did enough to minimize civilian harm. The report details four emblematic cases of civilian families who were brutally impacted by the relentless aerial bombardment. Between them, they lost 90 relatives and neighbours – 39 from a single family – almost all of them killed by Coalition air strikes.
They are part of a wider pattern and provide a strong prima facie case that many Coalition attacks that killed and injured civilians and destroyed homes and infrastructure violated international humanitarian law.
“When so many civilians are killed in attack after attack, something is clearly wrong, and to make this tragedy worse, so many months later the incidents have not been investigated. The victims deserve justice,” said Donatella Rovera, Senior Crisis Response Adviser at Amnesty International.
“The Coalition’s claims that its precision air campaign allowed it to bomb IS out of Raqqa while causing very few civilian casualties do not stand up to scrutiny. On the ground in Raqqa we witnessed a level of destruction comparable to anything we’ve seen in decades of covering the impact of wars.
“IS’s brutal four-year rule in Raqqa was rife with war crimes. But the violations of IS, including the use of civilians as human shields, do not relieve the Coalition of their obligations to take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians. What levelled the city and killed and injured so many civilians was the US-led Coalition’s repeated use of explosive weapons in populated areas where they knew civilians were trapped. Even precision weapons are only as precise as their choice of targets.”
‘War of annihilation’
Shortly before the military campaign, US Defence Secretary James Mattis promised a “war of annihilation” against IS.
From 6 June to 12 October 2017, the US-led Coalition operation to oust IS from its so-called “capital” Raqqa killed and injured thousands of civilians and destroyed much of the city. Homes, private and public buildings and infrastructure were reduced to rubble or damaged beyond repair.
Residents were trapped as fighting raged in Raqqa’s streets between IS militants and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters, supported by the Coalition’s relentless air and artillery strikes. IS mined the escape routes and shot at civilians trying to flee. Hundreds of civilians were killed: some in their homes; some in the very places where they had sought refuge; and others as they tried to flee.
US, British and French Coalition forces carried out tens of thousands of air strikes and US forces admitted to firing 30,000 artillery rounds during the offensive on Raqqa. US forces were responsible for more than 90% of the air strikes.
“A senior US military official said that more artillery shells were launched into Raqqa than anywhere since the Viet Nam war. Given that artillery shells have margin of error of over 100 metres, it is no surprise that the result was mass civilian casualties,” said Donatella Rovera.
The victims highlighted in the report cut across the city’s socio-economic spectrum and range in age from a beloved one-year-old baby girl to a respected elder in his 80s. Some were forced to stay in the city as they were too poor to pay smugglers to get them out; others stayed because, having worked all their lives, they had too much to lose by leaving their homes and businesses behind.
Their harrowing stories and immense losses stand in stark contrast to the Coalition’s repeated claims that they took great pains to minimize civilian casualties. In September 2017, at the height of the conflict, Coalition commander US Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend wrote that “…there has never been a more precise air campaign in the history of armed conflict”.
Raqqa residents, such as air strike survivor Munira Hashish, tell a different story: “Those who stayed died and those who tried to run away died. We couldn’t afford to pay the smugglers; we were trapped.” She and her children eventually managed to escape through a minefield “by walking over the blood of those who were blown up as they tried to flee ahead of us.”
All four families featured in the report suffered horrific ordeals.
The Aswads were a family of traders who had worked hard all their lives to construct a home in Raqqa. Some of them stayed behind to protect their belongings from looting, seeking shelter in their basement. But, on 28 June a Coalition air strike destroyed the building, killing eight civilians, mostly children. Another family member lost his life when he stepped on an IS mine when he returned to the city to try to recover the bodies days later.
Despite repeated attempts to flee, the Hashish family lost 18 members, mostly women and children, over a two-week period in August. A Coalition air strike killed nine, seven died as they tried to flee via a road which had been mined by IS, and two others were killed by a mortar launched by SDF.
The case of the Badran family perhaps best illustrates how dire the situation became for civilians trapped in Raqqa. Over the course of several weeks, 39 family members were killed in four separate Coalition air strikes as they moved from place to place inside the city, desperately trying to avoid rapidly shifting frontlines.
“We thought the forces who came to evict Daesh [IS] would know their business and would target Daesh and leave the civilians alone. We were naïve. By the time we had realised how dangerous it had become everywhere, it was too late; we were trapped,” Rasha Badran told Amnesty International. After several attempts to flee, she and her husband finally managed to escape, having lost their entire family, including their only child, a one-year-old girl named Tulip, whose tiny body they buried near a tree.
Finally, the Fayad case illustrates how a Coalition blitz during the final hours of the battle wiped out entire families in the Harat al-Badu area of central Raqqa, where IS fighters were known to be using civilians as human shields. The deaths of Mohammed “Abu Saif” Fayad and 15 family members and neighbours in Coalition air strikes early on 12 October seem all the more senseless because, just hours later, the SDF and the Coalition agreed a deal with IS, granting remaining IS fighters safe passage out of Raqqa.
“If the coalition and their SDF allies were ultimately going to grant IS fighters safe passage and impunity, what possible military advantage was there in destroying practically an entire city and killing so many civilians?” said Benjamin Walsby, Middle East Researcher at Amnesty International.
Potential war crimes
The Coalition strikes detailed in the report are examples of wider patterns. There is strong evidence that Coalition air and artillery strikes killed and injured thousands of civilians, including in disproportionate or indiscriminate attacks that violated international humanitarian law and are potential war crimes.
Amnesty International has written to defence officials in the USA, UK and France – whose forces carried out the air strikes over Raqqa – seeking additional information about these cases and about other attacks. The organization asked about Coalition tactics, specific means and methods of attack, choice of targets, and precautions taken in planning and execution of attacks and about any investigations carried out so far.
Amnesty International is urging Coalition members to investigate impartially and thoroughly allegations of violations and civilian casualties, and to publicly acknowledge the scale and gravity of the loss of civilian lives and destruction of civilian property in Raqqa.
They must disclose the findings of their investigations, as well as key information about the strikes necessary for assessing their compliance with international humanitarian law. They must review the procedures by which they decide the credibility of civilian casualty allegations and they must ensure justice and reparation for victims of violations. They also have a responsibility to assist with gruelling demining and reconstruction work under way in Raqqa in a more meaningful way than at present.
“Raqqa’s civilians are returning home to ruins, pulling loved ones out of rubble, and facing death or injury from mines, IEDs and unexploded ordnance. The Coalition’s refusal to acknowledge its role in creating this catastrophic situation adds insult to injury,” said Benjamin Walsby.