Syria: US-led Coalition deeply in denial about civilian casualties in Raqqa

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Amnesty International



The US-led Coalition’s flurry of responses rejecting the findings of a recent Amnesty International report on the devastation wrought by their aerial bombardment of Raqqa last year shows how “deeply in denial” they are about the large number of civilians killed and injured by Coalition strikes, human rights NGO Amnesty stated.


Since the 5 June publication of Amnesty’s ‘War of annihilation’ report, senior Coalition and government figures have used social media, broadcast interviews and even the UK Parliament to dismiss the report’s findings that there is prima facie evidence that several Coalition attacks which killed and injured civilians violated international humanitarian law.


Earlier this month, UK Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said in the House of Commons that Amnesty’s finding were “unfounded” and branded the report “deeply disappointing and disgraceful” while praising the “amazing professionalism of our Royal Air Force”.


The Coalition claims to be “transparent” and to have “meticulous processes” in place to ensure everything possible is done to avoid civilian casualties. But they consistently fail to demonstrate that this is in fact the case.


In stark contrast to the Coalition – which has failed to conduct field investigations into its air attacks in Raqqa – Amnesty spent several weeks in Raqqa conducting such investigations, leaving no doubt that the Coalition killed hundreds and injured thousands of civilians during its offensive. In just four cases Amnesty analysed, Coalition airstrikes killed 70 civilians, mostly women and children – including 39 members of a single family.


Meanwhile, the Coalition’s monthly reports on civilian casualties across Iraq and Syria rely on vague descriptions and dismiss the vast majority of allegations as “non-credible”. The Coalition has acknowledged a mere 23 civilian deaths resulting from the 30,000-plus artillery rounds and several thousand airstrikes it launched into Raqqa city during its four-month military campaign last year. Amnesty strongly believes this figure is neither accurate nor credible.


The artificially low number of civilian casualties the Coalition acknowledges stems in part from poor investigation procedures that fail to involve on-the-ground research.


The only Coalition partner on the ground in Raqqa in the aftermath of the military offensive – the Kurdish-led Syrian Defence Forces – has demonstrated a very different understanding of events during the offensive. In a letter to Amnesty at the end of last month, the SDF pointed to Coalition “mistakes” and “unsuccessful air strikes” resulting in “huge human and material losses” on the ground.


Donatella Rovera, Senior Crisis Response Adviser at Amnesty International and co-author of Amnesty’s Raqqa report, said: “The Coalition’s knee-jerk reactions are long on rhetoric and short on detail. They lay bare how deeply in denial the Coalition leadership is about its failure to protect civilians caught in conflict.


“The blustery denials we’ve repeatedly seen and heard from senior Coalition officials are contradicted by the lived reality of the hundreds of civilians we’ve interviewed for our investigations in Raqqa and Mosul. They’re even contradicted by their own partners on the ground.


“We are asking the Coalition to live up to their own standards when it comes to reporting on civilian casualties in conflict, to investigate allegations of violations and offer redress to victims and their families. “Unless the Coalition learns from its mistakes in Raqqa – and Mosul beforehand – it will be doomed to repeat them, with civilians again paying a devastating price.”


Benjamin Walsby, Middle East Researcher at Amnesty International and co-author of the Raqqa report, said: “Visiting strike sites and interviewing survivors and witnesses are crucial elements of any investigation. Without them, the Coalition’s investigations are simply not credible by any stretch of the imagination.


“Both strike sites and survivors and witnesses are easily accessible, as Raqqa and Mosul are now under the control of Coalition partners. Coalition officials and Western politicians have recently travelled there, so there is no reason for the Coalition not to carry out investigations that are worthy of the term, as promised in its own methodology.”



Amnesty engagement rebuffed


Since early 2017, Amnesty has engaged in numerous advocacy meetings with Coalition officials, written repeatedly to defence officials in the USA, UK and France, and published four reports on the civilian casualties caused by the Coalition’s operations in Mosul and Raqqa. However, in this period the Coalition has either failed to respond to requests for further information, or has attempted to dismiss Amnesty’s findings.


The Coalition and some of its members have occasionally admitted to causing civilian casualties after Amnesty and other human rights organisations publicised particular cases. At the end of June, the Coalition announced that, in light of new evidence from Amnesty, it would re-evaluate four previously closed cases and examine one new case.



‘Beyond cynical’ of Putin to focus on Raqqa deaths in Fox News interview


Responding to a Vladimir Putin interview on Fox News yesterday in which the Russian president sought to turn attention away from civilian casualties caused by Russian attacks in Syria, to focus on the high civilian death toll from the US-led Coalition’s aerial bombardment of Raqqa, Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Middle East Research Director, said:


“It’s beyond cynical for President Putin to use civilian deaths in Raqqa to deflect attention from Russia’s own role in horrific violations contributing to the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians and the displacement of millions during Syria’s war. 


“Amnesty International has repeatedly documented both Russian and Syrian forces committing widespread and egregious violations of international humanitarian law, many amounting to war crimes, including bombing hospitals and using internationally-banned cluster munitions. 


“And, of course, Russia has been instrumental in obstructing accountability for such crimes and in hampering independent investigations into chemical weapons attacks.


“The US-led Coalition should absolutely face heightened scrutiny for its conduct in last year’s four-month Raqqa offensive. 


“Our field investigations in the bombed-out city revealed hundreds of civilians were killed and thousands injured in the battle to oust the armed group calling itself Islamic State. 


“The Coalition must own up to its record on civilian casualties and pave the way for meaningful investigations and reparations – unless it learns from its mistakes, it will be doomed to repeat them.


“President Putin’s deflections will do nothing to save lives in Syria. What could prevent more civilian bloodshed is for Russian forces and authorities to abide by the rules of war, ensure humanitarian access to civilians in need, and stop hampering international efforts to investigate and prosecute crimes under international law.”






Amnesty International is a non-governmental organisation focused on human rights with over 7 million members and supporters around the world. The stated objective of the organisation is “to conduct research and generate action to prevent and end grave abuses of human rights, and to demand justice for those whose rights have been violated.”

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