An unprecedented investigation from Amnesty International and Airwars has revealed that more than 1,600 civilians were killed as a direct result of thousands of US, UK and French airstrikes and tens of thousands of US artillery strikes during the US-led Coalition’s military assault on the Syrian city Raqqa in 2017.
The much higher than previously reported civilian death toll reflects the Coalition’s relentless barrage of munitions that were inaccurate to the point of being indiscriminate when used near civilians.
One US military official boasted of firing 30,000 artillery rounds during the assault – the equivalent of a strike every six minutes, for four months straight – surpassing the amount of artillery used in any conflict since the Vietnam war. With a margin of error of more than 100 metres, unguided artillery is notoriously imprecise and its use in populated areas constitutes indiscriminate attacks.
During the four-month bombardment (June to October 2017), almost 80% of the city was left uninhabitable (including more than 11,000 buildings), and Raqqa is widely considered the most-destroyed city of modern times.
Amnesty and Airwars findings, which give a brutally vivid account of the onslaught, are contained in a new interactive website – Rhetoric versus Reality: How the ‘most precise air campaign in history’ left Raqqa the most destroyed city in modern times, which forms the most comprehensive investigation into civilian deaths of any modern conflict.
Amnesty and Airwars collated and cross-referenced multiple data streams from investigations spanning almost two years, analysing open-source evidence, both in real time and after the battle – to build a database of the more than 1,600 civilians reportedly killed in the attacks. The organisations have gathered names for more than 1,000 of the victims. Amnesty has directly verified 641 of those on the ground in Raqqa, and there are very strong multiple-source reports for the rest.
On four visits since the battle, Amnesty researchers spent a total of nearly two months on the ground in Raqqa, carrying out investigations at more than 200 strike locations and interviewing more than 400 witnesses and survivors.
Amnesty’s innovative “Strike Trackers” project also identified when each of the more than 11,000 destroyed buildings in Raqqa was hit. More than 3,000 digital activists in 124 countries took part, analysing more than two million satellite image frames. Amnesty’s “Digital Verification Corps”, based at six universities around the world, also analysed and authenticated video footage taken during the battle.
Many of the cases documented by Amnesty are likely to amount to violations of international humanitarian law and warrant further investigation.
By the time the offensive began, the Islamic State armed group had ruled Raqqa for almost four years, committing war crimes and crimes against humanity – torturing or killing anyone who dared oppose it. Amnesty has previously documented how ISIS used civilians as human shields, mined exit routes, set up checkpoints to restrict movement, and shot at those trying to flee.
Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s Senior Crisis Response Adviser, said:
“Thousands of civilians were killed or injured in the US-led Coalition’s offensive to rid Raqqa of ISIS, whose snipers and mines had turned the city into a death trap.
“Many of the air bombardments were inaccurate and tens of thousands of artillery strikes were indiscriminate, so it is no surprise they killed and injured many hundreds of civilians.
“Coalition forces razed Raqqa, but they cannot erase the truth.
“Amnesty International and Airwars call upon the Coalition forces to end their denial about the shocking scale of civilian deaths and destruction caused by their offensive in Raqqa.”
Chris Woods, Director of Airwars, said:
“The Coalition needs to fully investigate what went wrong at Raqqa and learn from those lessons, to prevent inflicting such tremendous suffering on civilians caught in future military operations.”
Amnesty and Airwars have frequently shared their findings with the Coalition and with the US, UK and French governments. In response, the Coalition has admitted responsibility for killing 159 civilians – around 10% of the total number – but has routinely dismissed the remainder as “non-credible.” In July 2018, UK Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said in the House of Commons that Amnesty’s findings were “unfounded”, “deeply disappointing and disgraceful”, while praising the “amazing professionalism of our Royal Air Force”.
However, to date the Coalition has failed to adequately probe civilian casualty reports or to interview witnesses and survivors, admitting it does not carry out site investigations.
Despite their best efforts, NGOs like Amnesty and Airwars will never have the resources to investigate the full extent of civilian deaths and injuries in Raqqa. The organisations are urging Coalition members to establish an independent, impartial mechanism to effectively and promptly investigate reports of civilian harm, including violations of international humanitarian law, and make the findings public.
Coalition members who carried out the strikes – notably the USA, the UK and France – must be transparent about their tactics, specific means and methods of attack, choice of targets, and precautions taken in the planning and execution of their attacks. Additionally, Coalition members must create a fund to ensure that victims and their families receive full reparation and compensation.
The Rhetoric versus Reality website tells the stories of families who lived and died in the war by taking users on a journey through the city – meeting survivors, hearing their testimonies and visiting their destroyed homes. From the bombed-out bridges spanning the Euphrates to the largely demolished old city near the central stadium, no neighbourhood was spared.
Developed with the virtual and augmented-reality digital company Holoscribe, the website combines photographs, videos, 360-degree immersive experiences, satellite imagery, maps and data visualisations to highlight the cases and journeys of civilians caught under the Coalition’s bombardment. Users can also access data on civilians who were killed, many of them after having fled from place to place across the city.
Nine-year-old Fatima lost mother and three siblings
One of the first neighbourhoods targeted in Raqqa was Dara’iya, a low-rise, poorer district in the west of the city.
In a ramshackle, half-destroyed house, Fatima, nine years old at the time, described how she lost three of her siblings and her mother, Aziza, when the Coalition rained volleys of artillery shells down on their district on the morning of 10 June 2017. They were among 16 civilians killed on that street that day alone. Fatima lost her right leg and her left leg was badly injured. She now uses an NGO-donated wheelchair and her only wish is to go to school.
In another tragic incident, a Coalition airstrike destroyed an entire five-storey residential building near Maari school in the central Harat al-Badu neighbourhood in the early evening of 25 September 2017. Four families were sheltering in the basement at the time. Almost all of them – at least 32 civilians, including 20 children – were killed. A week later, a further 27 civilians – including many relatives of those killed in the earlier strike – were also killed when an airstrike destroyed a nearby building.
One survivor of the 25 September strike, Ayat Mohammed Jasem, told a TV crew when she returned to her destroyed home more than a year later:
“Planes were bombing and rockets were falling 24 hours a day, and there were ISIS snipers everywhere. You just couldn’t breathe. I saw my son die, burnt in the rubble in front of me. I’ve lost everyone who was dear to me. My four children, my husband, my mother, my sister, my whole family. Wasn’t the goal to free the civilians? They were supposed to save us, to save our children.”
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.”