The US-led military Coalition must end almost two years of denial about the massive civilian death toll and destruction it unleashed in the Syrian city of Raqqa, Amnesty International and Airwars said today as they launched a new data project on the offensive to oust the armed group calling itself “Islamic State” (IS).
The interactive website, Rhetoric versus Reality: How the ‘most precise air campaign in history’ left Raqqa the most destroyed city in modern times, is the most comprehensive investigation into civilian deaths in a modern conflict. Collating almost two years of investigations, it gives a brutally vivid account of more than 1,600 civilian lives lost as a direct result of thousands of US, UK and French air strikes and tens of thousands of US artillery strikes in the Coalition’s military campaign in Raqqa from June to October 2017.
By the time the offensive began, the IS had ruled Raqqa for almost four years. It had perpetrated war crimes and crimes against humanity, torturing or killing anyone who dared oppose it. Amnesty International previously documented how IS used civilians as human shields, mined exit routes, set up checkpoints to restrict movement, and shot at those trying to flee.
“Thousands of civilians were killed or injured in the US-led Coalition’s offensive to rid Raqqa of IS, 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,” said Donatella Rovera, Senior Crisis Response Adviser at Amnesty International.
“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.”
“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,” said Chris Woods, Director of Airwars.
Cutting-edge research on the ground in Raqqa and from afar
Amnesty International and Airwars have collated and cross-referenced multiple data streams for this investigation.
On four visits since the battle was still raging, Amnesty International researchers spent a total of around two months on the ground in Raqqa, carrying out site investigations at more than 200 strike locations and interviewing more than 400 witnesses and survivors.
Amnesty International’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, analyzing a total of more than 2 million satellite image frames. The organization’s Digital Verification Corps, based at six universities around the world, analyzed and authenticated video footage captured during the battle.
Airwars and Amnesty International researchers analyzed open-source evidence, both in real-time and after the battle – including thousands of social media posts and other material – to build a database of more than 1,600 civilians reportedly killed in Coalition strikes. The organizations have gathered names for more than 1,000 of the victims; Amnesty International has directly verified 641 of those on the ground in Raqqa, and there are very strong multiple source reports for the rest.
Both organizations have frequently shared their findings with the US-led military Coalition and with the US, UK and French governments. As a result, the Coalition has admitted responsibility for killing 159 civilians – around 10% of the total number reported – but it has routinely dismissed the remainder as “non-credible.” 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.
Bringing cases to life
Rhetoric versus Reality brings to life 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 Holoscribe’s creative team, the interactive website combines photographs, videos, 360-degree immersive experiences, satellite imagery, maps and data visualizations to highlight the cases and journeys of civilians caught under the Coalition’s bombardment. Users can also explore data on civilians who were killed, many of them after having fled from place to place across the city.
Entire city blocks flattened
Raqqa’s soaring civilian death toll is unsurprising given 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 about firing 30,000 artillery rounds during the campaign – the equivalent of a strike every six minutes, for four months straight – surpassing the amount of artillery used in any conflict since the Viet Nam 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.
One of the first neighbourhoods to be targeted was Dara’iya, a low-rise, poorer district in western Raqqa.
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 neighbourhood on the morning of 10 June 2017. They were among 16 civilians killed on that street on that day alone. Fatima lost her right leg and her left leg was badly injured. She now uses a wheelchair donated by an NGO to get around and her only wish is to go to school.
Families wiped out in an instant
US, UK and French forces also launched thousands of air strikes into civilian neighbourhoods, scores of which resulted in mass civilian casualties.
In one tragic incident, a Coalition air strike 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 air strike destroyed a nearby building.
“Planes were bombing and rockets were falling 24 hours a day, and there were IS snipers everywhere. You just couldn’t breathe,” 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.
“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.”
Time for accountability
Many of the cases documented by Amnesty International likely amount to violations of international humanitarian law and warrant further investigation.
Despite their best efforts, NGOs like Amnesty International and Airwars will never have the resources to investigate the full extent of civilian deaths and injuries in Raqqa. The organizations are urging US-led Coalition members to put in place 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.
Coalition members must create a fund to ensure that victims and their families receive full reparation and compensation.