June 5, 2018

Written by

Samuel Oakford

The US-led Coalition appears to have committed violations of international law during the battle for Raqqa, Amnesty International says, after an extensive investigation outlining several incidents in which the Coalition used disproportionate firepower – despite what it says should have been knowledge of the presence of civilians in the city.

“The cases provide prima facie evidence that several Coalition attacks which killed and injured civilians violated international humanitarian law,” said Amnesty in its report – published on the first anniversary of the US-dominated assault on Raqqa.

The heavily Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) began their operations in the city on June 6th 2017, backed by substantial US-led strikes (95% of Coalition airstrikes and 100% of artillery actions during the battle for Raqqa were American). Five months later in mid-October, the city was retaken from so-called Islamic State. 

Estimates of the death toll in Raqqa vary, but local monitors credibly report that at least 2,000 civilians perished at the hands of all belligerents. Airwars researchers put the number likely killed by the Coalition at at least 1,400. But until now there had not been extensive ground investigation into the toll of strikes in the dense urban environment. That includes any efforts by the Coalition itself – which has discarded the great majority of civilian casualty allegations under review for Raqqa by its own investigators – all apparently without speaking to witnesses and victims. To date, the Coalition has admitted to just 26* civilian deaths during the fight for the city.

“It’s not hard to find airstrike sites to visit in Raqqa,” said Benjamin Walsby, one of the Amnesty researchers who traveled to the city. “There’s one on virtually ever street, and often more than one. We analyzed the scene of 42 strikes, and spoke to witnesses, survivors and relatives of the dead. The Coalition has not done the same.”

“The Coalition maintains a transparent process and has demonstrated its willingness to open new cases and even reopen old cases in light of new or compelling evidence,” a spokesperson for the alliance told Airwars. “We have not been approached by Amnesty but are willing to work with them.”

According to the United Nations, as much as 80 percent of Raqqa was rendered uninhabitable by fighting, and the local reconstruction committee recently told Airwars that most damage was caused by airstrikes. Adding to the suffering, hundreds of civilians – by some local accounts more than 1,000 – have been killed by ISIS mines and other explosive remnants since the end of fighting. 

Amnesty researchers spent two weeks in Raqqa during February 2018, visiting the 42 sites and interviewing a total of 112 survivors and witnesses. Amnesty has highlighted the cases of four families who lost dozens of members, illustrating the terrible ordeal Raqqawis faced as a result of ISIS’s criminal behavior – and the disproportionate and at times seemingly indiscriminate nature of Coalition strikes meant to vanquish the militants.

In each case, “Coalition forces launched air strikes on buildings full of civilians using precision munitions with a wide-area effect, which could be expected to destroy them entirely,” wrote investigators. “The civilians killed and injured in the attacks, many of whom were women and children, had been staying in buildings for long periods prior to the strikes. Coalition forces would have been aware of their presence had they conducted rigorous surveillance prior to the strikes.”

“Witnesses reported that there were no fighters in the vicinity at the time of the attacks,” said Amnesty. “Such attacks could be either direct attacks on civilians or civilian objects or indiscriminate attacks.

‘Shocking destruction’

The Coalition was well aware of the strategies ISIS would employ in Raqqa to purposefully endanger civilians, Amnesty investigators contend – including fighting in residential areas, and the use of non-combatants as human shields. The Coalition however did not modulate operations, instead escalating munition use and even turning down out of hand UN calls for a humanitarian pause

“The scale of destruction and loss of civilian lives I found in Raqqa is shocking,” Donatella Rovera, Senior Crisis Response Adviser, told Airwars. “It is imperative that the Coalition stop being in denial and carry out proper investigations to establish why so many civilians were killed as a result of its strikes, and that it make available information that is crucial to this endeavour. There is no security rationale for not doing so.”

The first Amnesty case involved the Aswad family. Eight members were, it says, killed in a Coalition strike on June 28th that hit a building owned by four brothers in the family – Jamal, Ammar, Mohammed and Khaled. In the days prior to the attack, neighbors had joined the family in the building’s cellar, attempting to shield themselves from fighting above ground between ISIS and the SDF. Amnesty found that while “IS fighters were in the area at the time” they were “not in the immediate vicinity of the Aswad building.”

Witnesses said that because the building hadn’t yet been finished, people would move across the road to the family’s existing home to “cook and use the toilet.” 

“We were sure that the warplanes would have photographed our street and would know our movements, as we went to and fro between the building and the old house across the street, and would have known that we were civilians, families with children,” Mohammed later told Amnesty. Nevertheless, on June 28th, the building was hit, pancaking upper floors and destroying the structure.

“Fragment of the motor of a US-made AGM-114 Hellfire missile recovered among the ruins of the Aswad family building, destroyed in a Coalition strike which killed eight civilians on 28 June 2017.” via Amnesty report.

Mohammed survived. But his brother Jamal died, along with a neighbour named Mohammed Othman, his wife Fatima and five of their children, aged 8-17. Another brother, Ammar, later also died – reportedly due to a land mine planted by ISIS.

Amnesty investigators visited the site and found remnants of a US-made AGM-114 Hellfire missile, and a US-designed Joint Direct Attack Munition. Both the United States and the UK declared strikes in Raqqa on June 28th.

‘War of Annihilation’

The Hashish family meanwhile lost eight members from an IED explosion at Raqqa, before losing nine more people in a July airstrike. The remaining family members had been staying in a smaller home with five rooms. One morning the area experienced shelling, forcing the family to take shelter. “The strike occurred straight after we re-entered the house,” said Munira, a survivor. “My brothers Hussein and Mohammed and their kids and the neighbors were all killed.” Munira was also injured, along with her children. “My seven-year-old son, Ahmad, was the worst; he suffered severe wounds to his abdomen.”

Munira also described ISIS’s patterns of movement in the city, which put residents in danger. “It was impossible to know which house IS would be in from day-to-day as they used to move around. We heard that they had made openings in the walls of people’s houses so they could move without being seen on the street. Any house was their house if they so wished.”

But she said it was unclear why the house her family was in was targeted. “They [ISIS] did not come to our house; it was an Arabic house [one story], not a tall building, so it wasn’t useful for them.”

Unlike operations in Mosul, which took place over the course of two US administrations, the battle for Raqqa was overseen wholly by the Trump White House and US Defense Secretary James Mattis. Just over a week before fighting reached inside Raqqa, Mattis remarked that the fighting against ISIS was now a “war of annihilation.” By the summer of 2017 – after just six months of the Trump administration – likely Coalition civilian casualties monitored by Airwars had doubled. In Raqqa, the gloves were off, including for US Marine Corps artillery units which fired thousands – or possibly tens of thousands – of rounds into the city.

The worst case documented by Amnesty – almost unfathomably distressing – was that of the Badran family, which lost 39 members alongside 10 neighbours in a number of airstrikes during  the Raqqa assault.

“Members of the Badran family killed in three separate Coalition air strike on 18 July and 20 August 2017 in Raqqa”. via Amnesty report.

First, five family members were killed on July 18th in a reported airstrike on a house in Nazlet al-Shehade – an area to which ISIS had forced that family to move. Two other neighbors were killed, then four other family members died when a strike hit a car in which they were fleeing from Nazlet al-Shehade.

A month later, after moving through the city in search of medical care and fleeing ISIS fire, the extended family returned to a home in the Harat al-Sakhani area. One of the surviving family members, Rasha, explained what happened around August 18th:

“Two days later, we were bombed, both houses where we were staying got bombed. Almost everybody was killed. Only I, my husband and his brother and cousin survived…. We hid in the rubble until morning because the planes were circling overhead. In the morning we found Tulip’s body [her infant daughter]; our baby was dead. We buried her near there, by a tree.”

In total, 28 members of the extended family were killed in the strike, along with five people in a house across the street. “Nothing was left standing, there was only rubble,” said Rasha. “These were simple Arab houses, they were not sturdy. I don’t understand why they bombed us. Didn’t the surveillance planes see that we were civilian families?”

‘Undercounting civilian casualties’

The final case reported by Amnesty involved the Fayad family. Sixteen family members and neighbours were killed in reported airstrikes on October 12, 2017 in the Harat al-Badu area of Raqqa, where many civilians had become trapped in the final days of fighting. Though fighting had briefly paused earlier in the week as part of a truce, the Coalition and SDF then struck ISIS’s remaining strongholds on the night of October 11th and 12th. Among those who perished were multiple victims in the Fayad family. 

According to the Coalition’s own strike reports, its aircraft carried out aerial attacks in Raqqa on each date referenced in the four Amnesty cases.To date, the Coalition has admitted to only 21 civilian fatalities in Raqqa between June and October 2017. Of 225 allegations reviewed, the Coalition has only found 15 cases to be credible. Over 90 per cent of all cases reviewed during the battle have been found to be ‘non-credible’.  In its most recent report, the Coalition rejected 72 reported civilian harm events at Raqqa – while finding none to be credible.

“The low credibility count suggests that some, possibly many, allegations may be dismissed before all necessary efforts are deployed to investigate them,” wrote the Amnesty researchers. “Undercounting civilian casualties could result in underestimating potential harm to civilians in future Coalition operations, as civilian harm mitigation procedures require military units to learn from their civilian casualty assessments, and incorporate that learning into planning future operations.”

None of the more than 100 residents who Amnesty spoke with during their research said they had been approached by the Coalition. As Airwars reported in March, there were ample opportunities for such interaction, including at processing centers run by the SDF.

“Unexploded MK 82 bomb, dropped by the Coalition, in a street in the centre of Raqqa. Months after the recapture of Raqqa unexploded munitions still littered Raqqa, in places where they posed a threat to civilians and where they could have easily been removed.” Via Amnesty Report.

Bodies in Raqqa are still being dug out, seven months after the end of hostilities. In a May interview, a member of the Raqqa Reconstruction Committee told Airwars that remains hastily buried in mass graves during fighting are often too decomposed to be identified. Other bodies are still entombed in the rubble that litters the city. Recovering the dead risks encountering one of thousands of IEDs that ISIS left rigged in Raqqa’s homes and public areas.

“Many of these, as well as unexploded bombs dropped by Coalition forces, continue to contaminate the city, with the cleaning process set to continue for months, if not years,” wrote Amnesty in its report. Desperate for money, children are working as labourers to clear rubble for as little as $4 per day – a job that can prove deadly.

“Why were those who spent so much on a costly military campaign which destroyed the city not providing the relief so desperately needed,” asked one resident of the city.

“Amnesty’s detailed field investigation once again highlights the significant death and destruction visited upon Raqqa last year, primarily by US forces as they ousted so-called Islamic State,” said Airwars director Chris Woods. “There is little doubt that several thousand civilians were killed in the fighting – yet almost no interest from the US and its allies in understanding how and where they died.”

Airwars’ own monitoring has shown a clear correlation between the level of Coalition firepower deployed in Raqqa and likely civilian deaths. As its own report recently noted, “Before the assault on Raqqa had begun in June 2017, the US-led Coalition had been made aware of the high reported civilian toll at Mosul – with Airwars for example publicly highlighting rises and falls in reported civilian harm which were closely tracking munition use. Not only were these lessons not subsequently applied by the alliance – but the intensity of bombardment at Raqqa (given its relatively smaller size, and the shorter duration of the battle) actually worsened.”

Airwars graphic depicting the close correlation between intensity of Coalition bombardment and civilian deaths at Raqqa

*An earlier version of this article stated that the Coalition had admitted to 21 civilian deaths which took lace d the Battle for Raqqa (June-October 2017). As of the Coalition’s latest monthly civilian casualty report that figure is now 26.