A man carries a young girl in the aftermath of an alleged Russian airstrike on Aleppo, on April 26th 2016. Similar images of victims of Coalition strikes at Raqqa rarely make the news (via RFS News).

1,000 days of war: A tale of two bombed cities

Written on May 4, 2017


For two years Kinda Haddad has tracked and assessed for Airwars more than a thousand alleged Coalition and Russian civilian casualty incidents in Syria. In recent months, as the battle against ISIL has intensified, reports of civilian deaths around Raqqa caused by the US-led alliance have risen steeply. Yet in contrast to the siege of Aleppo, international media coverage has largely been absent. Here Kinda offers her thoughts on why two bombed cities might be treated so differently.

Researching allegations of civilian casualties made against Coalition and Russian air strikes in Syria in real time – while listening to the radio news as I do in my daily life – has become a vivid exercise in cognitive dissonance.

Claims against Russia are, it seems, often quickly picked up and reported on extensively, and especially so at times when Moscow’s actions are at their harshest and most intense.  In the autumn and winter of 2016 for example, Russia and the regime of Bashar al Assad were doing their utmost to retake Aleppo from the rebels. The two allies put the city under a crippling siege and bombed it without any discernible consideration for the presence of civilians. Indeed, on many occasions both Russia and the regime appeared to purposefully target civilian infrastructure and medical facilities.

That brutal campaign succeeded in gaining control of eastern Aleppo in December 2016.  The cost in civilian lives was enormous, and a great proportion of those killed were women and children.  In less than four months leading up to the fall of Aleppo more than 1,000 civilians were reportedly killed by Russian strikes. In November alone, the Syrian Network for Human rights tied 358 civilian deaths to Russia. During all of 2016, the group estimates that Russian forces killed more than 3,900 civilians.

Whatever one thinks of the regime and of Russia, the fact that the plight of civilians was highlighted is what I would expect from a free media in a free society, as part of their job of ‘speaking truth to power’. And they did so in spades.

There was a considerable degree of attention paid by international media to events on the ground, with Russia’s actions in the news all day, every day. Civilians who had escaped were interviewed extensively and the misery and losses they had endured were highlighted. It was so bad I would often turn the radio off. Despite all the awful material I view daily I still find the recorded sounds of shelling and the voices of people more distressing.

The White Helmets rescue civilians from the rubble following Russian or Assad regime airstrikes on Aleppo, July 8th 2016. (via, Alsharq News)

Crippling assault

A few months on and Airwars is monitoring a very similar situation with the Coalition both in Raqqa province in Syria, and in Mosul city in Iraq – each ISIL strongholds for several years.

As with Aleppo, Mosul is under crippling assault – and like the Russians who work alongside the Syrian army, the Coalition is working alongside Iraqi government  forces, carrying out air and artillery shelling.

Despite repeated statements that the Coalition takes great care to avoid targeting civilians, events on the ground reflect a different version of events. The level of casualties has been shocking, with between 1,308 and 2,435 civilians claimed killed by the Coalition in Mosul in March 2017 alone. There remains a high level of confusion as to what degree the Coalition and Iraqi forces – and ISIL – are causing these deaths. The same happened in Aleppo, where it became very hard for people on the ground to distinguish between Russian and regime warplanes. Artillery in particular – used heavily in Mosul – is difficult to tell apart.

While the Russian campaign has shown a clear pattern of targeting civilians, the Coalition insists that it pursues a much more careful operation.  Yet the level of civilian casualties from both the Coalition and Russian operations are simply too high – and in the case of the Coalition it is not appropriate, or just, to dismiss hundreds of incidents as “mistakes.” Every day – not week – we are seeing several such “mistakes,” with no explanation from the Coalition. This gives the distinct impression that when faced with a military target,  neither side cares much as to whether civilians are present or not.

Raqqa Silence

International media was slow to report on high civilian deaths at first. However recent weeks have seen major field reports and investigations from international and regional news groups – which have helped pressure both the Coalition and Iraqi forces into reducing harm to civilians.

But across the border in Syria’s Raqqa province it’s a very different story – even though many of its cities and towns have been put under siege by the Kurdish SDF, and with Coalition air raids escalating in a way we have not seen since the beginning of the war against ISIL in Syria in September 2014. March saw the worst casualty levels yet with between 320 and 860 civilians likely killed in Coalition strikes in Syria, a sixfold increase on the previous month. Ninety per cent of these deaths were around Raqqa.

Where we used to see a handful of allegations a week we are now monitoring several cases a day. Many of these bear high death tolls. For example up to 17 people, most of them women and children, were reportedly killed as they tried to escape Al Tabaqa on April 24th 2017. Their cars were targeted and everyone in the vehicles perished.

And there are so many incidents like this every week. Sometimes there is very little information. But other times there is a flood of detail from local outlets and social media, including names and photos of the victims. On those days I check how the incident is being reported internationally, and invariably there is…. radio silence

Unlike the allegations made against Russia at Aleppo, claims of civilians killed by the Coalition around Raqqa seem to attract little to no international media attention. Yet the sources for allegations both against the Russians and the Coalition are often identical -activists on the ground, with access to a network of people in the various locations where civilian casualties are occuring.

As in Aleppo, Coalition strikes are many times occurring right in the middle of city and town centres – Mosul, Raqqa, Al Tabaqa, al Mansoura and so many other urban locations. These are civilian villages, towns and cities occupied by ISIL. Some of the residents may be sympathetic to the terror group but most of them are not. It is not a democracy, not a choice to live under ISIL. These are places full of people who have no other option but to remain.

The Coalition is likely to win the war with a high civilian toll, just as Russia helped win at Aleppo. But in order to win the peace, a new strategy is needed with civilians at its heart. We can see in the opposition areas where Russia is operating how hated Moscow is. Inevitably, the same now appears to be happening in areas where the Coalition is operating, with local monitors routinely claiming ‘massacres’ and ‘war crimes’.

Leaving scores of civilians dead, wounded, lame and traumatised is not a wise long term strategy for winning a war that is avowedly being fought on behalf of those exact same civilians.