Raqqa civilian killings admission ‘tip of the iceberg’ for US-led Coalition military operation in Syria
After Amnesty International research prompted the US-led military Coalition to admit to killing dozens of civilians in its Raqqa offensive, the Coalition must urgently launch thorough, independent investigations to uncover the full scale of civilian deaths and compensate the victims and survivors.
On 26 July the Coalition acknowledged that its aerial bombardments between June and October 2017 killed 77 civilians, including 24 children and 25 women – specific cases documented by Amnesty International’s field investigations in Raqqa. The Coalition had previously brushed off these cases as “non-credible” and senior officials had derided Amnesty International’s research as “naïve” and “reckless” in the media and other public forums.
“The US-led Coalition’s admission of responsibility is not surprising given the level of our evidence, and marks a welcome U-turn in its stance on the many civilians killed by its Raqqa offensive,” said Donatella Rovera, Senior Crisis Response Adviser at Amnesty International.
“But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Our detailed field investigations covered just four cases – but the many survivors and witnesses we spoke to on the ground pointed to a civilian death toll in the high hundreds.”
“The US-led Coalition’s admission of responsibility is not surprising given the level of our evidence, and marks a welcome U-turn in its stance on the many civilians killed by its Raqqa offensive. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Our detailed field investigations covered just four cases – but the many survivors and witnesses we spoke to on the ground pointed to a civilian death toll in the high hundreds.
In its June report, ‘War of annihilation’: Devastating Toll on Civilians, Raqqa – Syria, Amnesty International presented a prima facie case that the Coalition air strikes resulting in these specific cases of civilian casualties violated the laws of war. The Coalition’s admission of responsibility should kickstart investigations to establish this – and pave the way for justice and reparation.
In addition to killing so many civilians, these strikes left some survivors maimed for life and destroyed their homes and livelihoods.
“The plight of many of the survivors is dire,” said Benjamin Walsby, Middle East Researcher at Amnesty International.
“Nothing can ever bring back the dead or wipe away the unimaginable trauma. The least the Coalition can do right now is provide restorative measures – including compensation and rehabilitation – to victims’ families and survivors, while its sets up the investigations that can bring full justice and reparation.”
Right to know
Civilians impacted by Coalition air strikes have a right to know why their loved ones – very often their children – were taken from them. In four of the five fatal strikes documented by Amnesty International, the Coalition claimed it targeted “Daesh (IS) fighting positions”, unintentionally killing civilians in the process. In one case, a strike which killed five children and three adults, the Coalition said it targeted a “Daesh headquarters” and fighting positions.
In the absence of an independent investigation and concrete and verifiable details, such short-hand explanations are woefully inadequate and cannot be expected to be taken at face value.
“The Coalition should dignify these deaths by releasing meaningful and verifiable information about these strikes – notably the exact location and nature of the targets, the methodology used for verifying the targets, and the measures taken to minimize the risk to civilians,” said Donatella Rovera.
“Almost a year after the armed group calling itself Islamic State has been ousted from Raqqa, there is no military or security reason for withholding these details, which are crucial to determining the legality of strikes which killed and maimed civilians. How can the Coalition avoid inflicting high civilian death tolls in the future without accounting for what went wrong in Raqqa?”
Currently, victims’ families do not even know which Coalition member state carried out the strikes. All Coalition forces involved – in carrying out air strikes, refueling planes or providing surveillance intelligence – must accept their role in the deaths and damage caused.
Faulty intelligence appears to have played a part in at least some of the killings the Coalition has admitted.
“How did the Coalition deem that they were hitting IS fighting positions and headquarters when in fact they were striking homes full of civilians?” said Benjamin Walsby.
“For each of these specific strikes, the Coalition must reveal how the intelligence was obtained and the efforts made to verify the targets before striking.”
How did the Coalition deem that they were hitting IS fighting positions and headquarters when in fact they were striking homes full of civilians? For each of these specific strikes, the Coalition must reveal how the intelligence was obtained and the efforts made to verify the targets before striking.
As Amnesty International made clear in its report, patterns of civilian life in urban conflict zones – including sheltering indoors for prolonged periods and searching for food and water in areas close to frontlines – were well understood before the military operation to wrest Raqqa from IS began in June last year.
The Coalition has not yet provided any information on the steps it took to ascertain the presence of civilians before carrying out these specific strikes. For example, the Coalition has not revealed for how long it monitored the buildings before striking them and how it triangulated the initial intelligence with other information sources.
Tip of the iceberg
Amnesty International’s report highlighted four cases involving just a few families devastated by Coalition strikes as emblematic examples of a wider pattern in the Raqqa military operation.
But the Coalition carried out thousands of strikes on Raqqa – many more than Amnesty International or any other organization could investigate and document.
While the Coalition has now admitted killing eight civilians in one strike on 28 June 2017, it carried out another 16 other strikes on the city that day
On 18 July 2017, it also admits killing 11 civilians with a strike, but it carried out a further 46 strikes that day.
Similarly, on 12 October, it admits to killing 16 civilians in one of the 29 strikes it launched that day on Raqqa.
It has admitted killing 42 civilians in two strikes on 20 August; just two of its 52 strikes on Raqqa that day.
These are just few days of the four-month military operation during which Coalition forces pounded Raqqa relentlessly – “every minute of every hour”, in the words of US Army Sergeant Major John Wayne Troxell.
“The Coalition’s admission, based on Amnesty International’s research, shows the value of field investigations and exposes procedural flaws in the Coalition’s investigations that need to be resolved. Unless the thousands of Coalition strikes in Raqqa are rigorously investigated the true scale of civilian casualties will likely never be established and the Coalition will continue to dismiss most allegations – a shocking denial of life and dignity for Raqqa’s civilian population,” said Donatella Rovera.