Air and artillery strikes by the US and its allies inflicted devastating loss of life on civilians in the Isis-held city of Raqqa, according to an Amnesty International report. It contradicts claims by the US, along with Britain and France, that they precisely targeted Isis fighters and positions during the four month siege that destroyed large swathes of the city.
“On the ground in Raqqa we witnessed a level of destruction comparable to anything we have seen in decades of covering the impact of wars,” says Donatella Rovera, a senior crisis response adviser at Amnesty. She says that the coalition’s claim that it had conducted a precision bombing campaign that caused few civilian casualties does not stand up to scrutiny. She quotes a senior US military officer as saying that “more artillery shells were launched into Raqqa than anywhere since the end of the Vietnam war”.
The air and artillery strikes by the US and its allies killed many civilians – the number is unknown because so many bodies are buried under the ruins – during the four-month-long siege, beginning on 6 June and ending on 17 October last year according to the report. Citing the testimony of survivors, it contradicts assertions by the US-led coalition that it took care to avoid targeting buildings where civilians might be present. Witnesses say that again and again their houses were destroyed although there were no Isis fighters in them or nearby.
“Those who stayed died and those who tried to run away died. We couldn’t afford to pay the smugglers: we were trapped,” says Munira Hashish. Her family lost 18 members, of whom nine were killed in a coalition airstrike, seven as they tried to escape down a road mined by Isis, and two were hit by a mortar round, probably fired by an Syrian Democratic Forces unit. She says that she and her children only escaped “by walking over the blood of those who were blown up as they tried to flee ahead of us”.
Many families were hit more than once by airstrikes and artillery as they fled from place to place in Raqqa, vainly trying to avoid being close to the front lines but these were often changing. The Badran family lost 39 members, mostly women and children, as well as 10 neighbours, killed in four different coalition airstrikes. “We thought the forces who came to evict Daesh (Isis) would know their business and would target Daesh and the leave the civilians alone,” said Rasha Badran, one of the survivors. “We were naive.”
Many cities have been destroyed in the wars in Iraq and Syria since 2011, but the destruction is worse in Raqqa than anywhere else. Streets are simply lane-ways cut through heaps of rubble and broken masonry. The few people on the streets are dazed and broken, and this has not changed much in the months since the city was captured from Isis by local ground forces backed up by the devastating firepower of the US-led coalition.
The claim by the coalition that its airstrikes and artillery fire were precisely targeted against Isis fighters and their positions is shown up as a myth as soon as one drives into the city. I visited it earlier in the year and have never seen such destruction. There are districts of Mosul, Damascus and Aleppo that are as bad, but here the whole city has gone.
I went to look at the al-Naeem Roundabout where the spikes on top of metal railings are bent outwards because Isis used them to display the severed heads of people whom it deemed to be its opponents. On every side, as far as the eye can see, there are ruined buildings, some reduced to a mound of rubble while others have been turned into concrete skeletons that look as if they might collapse at any moment.
Given the level of violence in Iraq and Syria, it is difficult to prove that one place is worse than another, but this has now been established with a wealth of evidence in this Amnesty report entitled War of Annihilation: Devastating Toll on Civilians, Raqqa – Syria.
The report, based on 112 interviews and visits to 42 strike locations, was sharply criticised by a coalition spokesman even before it was published. US Army Colonel Sean Ryan was quoted by news agencies as inviting Kate Allen, the director of Amnesty International UK, to “personally witness the rigorous efforts and intelligence gathering the coalition uses before any strike to effectively destroy IS while minimising harm to civilian populations”. Although the report cites the detailed evidence of many surviving witnesses whose family members were killed in airstrikes, Col Ryan says that allegations of indiscriminate and disproportionate bombardment were “more or less hypothetical”.
The reality in Raqqa, despite claims of the precise accuracy of modern weapons and great concern for civilian life, is that the ruins look exactly like pictures of the aftermath of the carpet bombing of cities like Hamburg and Dresden in the Second World War.
US forces fired 100 per cent of the artillery rounds used against Raqqa and over 90 per cent of the airstrikes, but British and French aircraft were also involved. The Ministry of Defence says the UK carried out 275 airstrikes and killed no civilians at all. Despite pledges that civilian loss of life would be thoroughly investigated, Amnesty says there is no sign of this happening.
A consequence of the assertion by the coalition that they seldom harmed civilians, there has been little humanitarian support for people returning to Raqqa. Aid agencies say that one problem is finding a safe place where there no unexploded munitions or mines where they can distribute provisions. The report says that many residents ask: “Why those, who spent so much on a costly military campaign which destroyed the city, are not providing the relief so desperately needed.”
An MoD spokesman said: “Keeping Britain safe from the threat of terrorism is the objective of this campaign and throughout we have been open and transparent, detailing each of our nearly 1,700 strikes, facilitating operational briefings and confirming when a civilian casualty had taken place.
“We do everything we can to minimise the risk to civilian life through our rigorous targeting processes and the professionalism of the RAF crews but, given the ruthless and inhuman behaviour of Daesh, and the congested, complex urban environment in which we operate, we must accept that the risk of inadvertent civilian casualties is ever present.”