Syria: While Raqqa’s dead are buried in mass graves, US-led coalition buries its head in the sand

By Kumi Naidoo, kuminaidoo

This month I was in Raqqa – my first time in Syria amid one of the world’s bloodiest conflicts in decades. I witnessed first-hand the destruction caused by the US-led coalition’s relentless bombardment during a four-month battle that ended a year ago this week. Today, residents are still digging corpses from the rubble and the stench of death hangs heavy in the air.

Walking around, I saw how entire city blocks had been levelled by Coalition air and artillery strikes aimed at ousting the armed group calling itself Islamic State (IS). Supporting the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on the ground, US, UK and French forces carried out thousands of air strikes. US military officials boasted about lobbing 30,000 artillery rounds into the city – the most fired by a US battalion anywhere since the Vietnam War.

It is hard to convey how grim and ghostly parts of the city are. Raqqa’s central old city is now a shell of bombed-out buildings. Apartment blocks have been smashed to smithereens, with many now resembling collapsed layer cakes. Schools are struggling to reopen. Young children play with remnants of war, while some scavenge for scrap metal in the rubble to help feed their families.

Imagine a city the size of Pittsburgh lying 80% destroyed, with a displaced population slowly returning. This is not the vision of “liberation” that the US-led Coalition promotes. And small wonder – they don’t want the world to know how little they are doing to help the residents coming home to the most destroyed city of modern times. It is scandalous that the Coalition allowed IS fighters, with their heavy weaponry and families, to leave Raqqa but similar care was not taken to protect innocent civilians. 

So far, residents have recovered around 2,500 bodies – some from the rubble and others exhumed from mass graves – the majority believed to be civilians killed by Coalition air and artillery strikes.
Kumi Naidoo, Amnesty International's Secretary General

Some 30,000 homes have been destroyed and a further 25,000 severely damaged. So far, residents have recovered around 2,500 bodies – some from the rubble and others exhumed from mass graves – the majority believed to be civilians killed by Coalition air and artillery strikes. Because there are no forensic specialists, in most cases surviving relatives will never know what has become of their loved ones. 

With their hard work and resilience, residents have slowly breathed life back into Raqqa. But all those I met told me how bitterly disappointed they are at the shocking lack of help from the Coalition – which apparently had the resources to bomb the city in such a cataclysmic barrage of firepower, but not to rebuild it.

The Coalition has categorically failed to investigate the impact of its devastating military campaign in Raqqa. Amnesty International teams have interviewed hundreds of survivors, eyewitnesses and local officials on multiple field visits since the offensive. Not a single one had been approached by the Coalition after the battle.

Prior to Amnesty International’s June 2018 report “War of Annihilation: Devastating Toll upon Civilians in Raqqa - Syria, the Coalition had admitted to causing just 23 civilian deaths in its entire Raqqa campaign. Our dedicated, ongoing investigative work is chipping away at this false narrative.

Following a string of blustery denials from military officials and politicians, at the end of July this year, the Coalition quietly admitted to a further 77 civilian deaths documented in our report. We believe it is just the tip of the iceberg – our ongoing field investigations point to the likelihood of hundreds more civilians killed in Coalition strikes on sites where there were no IS fighters or other military targets present. Each such case presents prima facie evidence of violations of international humanitarian law. Taken together, it’s a damning pattern.

So, what went wrong? Was it weapon malfunction, poor intelligence, human error, or fundamental negligence? Did the Coalition fail to verify targets adequately, or was it down to poor choice of munition? These are crucial details, both to establish facts and to assess lawfulness. After the Coalition’s campaign in Mosul, Iraq, was similarly devastating for civilians, it is crucial to learn the lessons necessary to avoid similar mistakes in future. And delivering accountability in Raqqa would set a welcome precedent in Syria’s conflict, where too much civilian blood has been spilled by all parties to the conflict.

In a letter to Amnesty International in September, the US Department of Defense again refused to detail the circumstances of its air strikes that led to civilian casualties. Disturbingly, the Pentagon does not even seem willing to offer an apology for the hundreds of civilians it killed. This is an insult to the victims and survivors.

Disturbingly, the Pentagon does not even seem willing to offer an apology for the hundreds of civilians it killed. This is an insult to the victims and survivors.
Kumi Naidoo

Nobody is denying that IS fighters committed war crimes against Raqqa’s civilians – Amnesty International has extensively documented these. But IS crimes do not relieve the Coalition of its obligation to uphold the laws of war.

While the Coalition continues to bury its head in the sand, we will continue to investigate the full extent of civilian casualties – a task that should be done by the Coalition – and to support the victims’ demand for justice and reparation.

Sajed lost seven family members, including his wife and three young children, when multiple Coalition strikes flattened the house where they were sheltering. He told me: “Nothing can bring back my children, but we must strive for justice so that other parents won’t have to lose their children”. Every one of the bereaved civilians I met in Raqqa wants justice, and I believe they deserve it. 

Kumi Naidoo

Kumi Naidoo is a life-long social justice campaigner hailing from South Africa