A new report by Amnesty International provides damning evidence that Syrian government forces unlawfully killed scores of civilians in a series of aerial attacks on the city of al-Raqqa in November 2014 which violated international humanitarian law.
Some of the attacks may amount to war crimes.
New report on Syria
Al-Raqqa under attack: Syrian air force strikes against civilians documents a series of airstrikes between 11 and 29 November that led to the deaths of up to 115 civilians, among them 14 children. They included attacks on a mosque and a busy market crammed full of civilians and other buildings not being used for military purposes.
"Syrian government forces have shown flagrant disregard for the rules of war in these ruthless airstrikes. Some of these attacks give every indication of being war crimes," said Philip Luther, Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme.
"The government appears indifferent to the carnage caused by these strikes, refusing even to acknowledge civilian casualties they have caused. They have carried out repeated attacks on civilian areas without clearly identifying military targets, a blatant violation of the requirement to distinguish between civilians and military targets."
According to the Syrian authorities the attacks were meant to target members of and bases held by the armed group that calls itself the Islamic State (IS).
IS seized al-Raqqa last June and declared the city the capital of its "Islamic caliphate" comprised of territory under its control in both Iraq and Syria. However, evidence gathered by Amnesty International shows that in most cases no military targets could be identified in the vicinity of the areas attacked.
During the deadliest day of attacks on al-Raqqa on 25 November, government forces bombed a number of civilian areas, striking a mosque, a busy market, shops, a transport hub, a storage facility and a residential building.
A witness who described the scene in the aftermath of the attack on Museum Market to Amnesty International said 40 buildings had been damaged. He said no military bases or checkpoints were located anywhere in the vicinity.
"It was a disaster… it is the main market in al-Raqqa and is usually packed with people during the day, I saw body parts everywhere. I carried 40 bodies to cars, ambulances and pick-ups that transferred them to [hospitals]… I saw at least 50 people with severe and minor injuries."
A witness to an attack on the Industrial City described a similarly terrible scene: "I saw body parts everywhere, I saw bodies that were burnt and people who had injured extremities. I also saw a body hanging on the electricity wire, maybe from the blast," he said.
Residents said the Industrial City is a heavily populated area and that there were no IS bases or checkpoints in the vicinity, but that IS fighters sometimes used garages in the area to repair their vehicles.
Both IS and government forces have been committing appalling crimes against civilians across Syria. Unless the Security Council enforces its resolution their suffering is only likely to multiply.
In most attacks no clear military target could be identified. In a few cases witnesses to attacks said that they had seen some IS fighters in the vicinity; but they said the IS members had been dressed in civilian clothes and it is far from clear that they were the intended targets of these attacks. In the attack on the mosque, witnesses said that among those killed were individuals believed to be IS fighters, but that they had been participating in Friday prayers, alongside civilian worshippers, at the time.
"It was prayer time and the mosque was full of people. I saw flesh on the ground and many bodies and injured people. I can’t remember the exact number because I was in a state of shock," one witness said.
"The mere presence of IS members does not sanction the authorities to carpet-bomb the area without taking likely civilian casualties into account," said Philip Luther.
At the very least several of the Syrian government attacks on al-Raqqa that killed or injured civilians were disproportionate or otherwise indiscriminate. Some are likely to have been direct attacks on civilian objects and civilians. These types of attacks should be investigated as war crimes.
The Syrian Government appears to be repeating a well-established pattern throughout the country of brutally punishing the civilian population for the presence of the government’s armed opponents.
Civilians in al-Raqqa have been subjected to a rule of fear since IS took control of the area. They have been forced to comply with the IS’s radical interpretation of Shari’a law. Those whom IS consider to have transgressed their edicts or who are suspected of opposing IS rule have been punished with summary killings, amputations and floggings.
"The residents of al-Raqqa already have to endure the reality of life under brutal IS rule. Punishing an entire civilian population simply because the city where they live is now under IS control can never be justified," said Philip Luther.
"The government cannot continue to justify mass brutality with the charade that it is solely seeking to target ‘terrorists’. It has repeatedly used this as an excuse to carry out indiscriminate bombardments resulting in thousands of civilian casualties."
Four years into the crisis in Syria the devastating toll on civilians is clear.
All sides in the conflict have also completely failed to implement a UN Security Council resolution passed in February 2014, which called for an end to attacks on civilians and indiscriminate attacks, to lift sieges of populated areas, an end to arbitrary detention of civilians and torture, and unhindered access for humanitarian aid.
"Both IS and government forces have been committing appalling crimes against civilians across Syria. Unless the Security Council enforces its resolution their suffering is only likely to multiply," said Philip Luther.
"A referral of the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court would send a message to all warring parties that those who order or commit war crimes will be brought to justice, and an arms embargo would help stem the flow of weapons being used to commit these crimes."