Syria - Concerns are mounting over the civilian cost of the US-led coalition’s campaign to reclaim Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa, with reports of airstrikes killing and wounding hundreds of Syrians.
The reports, which cannot be definitively confirmed but are considered reliable by UN officials, raise questions about the US commitment to protect civilians in the battle amid the reported loosening of the rules of engagement under President Donald Trump.
“The coalition is not taking any precautions to avoid civilian casualties,” said Aghid al-Khodr, a senior editor at Sound and Picture, an organisation that maintains a network of clandestine correspondents in the Isis capital.
“The number of Daesh [Isis] fighters in the city does not exceed 500, but if they’re going to destroy a residential building and wipe out all the people in it every time they want to kill a Daesh fighter then they will be liberating the city from both Daesh and the residents,” he said.
The battle to liberate Raqqa, the capital of the terrorist group’s self-proclaimed caliphate, began two months ago with incursions into the city by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a confederation dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Arab auxiliary militia. The campaign is backed by the US-led coalition, which arms the SDF and has launched hundreds of airstrikes in support of the ground forces.
It followed a meticulous ground campaign that ousted Isis from large territories surrounding the city, and which led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians who fled the militants and the fighting, settling in refugee camps or with members of their tribes in eastern Syria.
The SDF is believed to control about half of Raqqa, but the battle to reclaim the rest of the city is likely to be a grinding effort due to Islamic State’s extensive use of human shields and booby traps. Civilians can only escape by paying exorbitant amounts to smugglers, and aid organisations say they lack food and medicine to treat the wounded.
“Some of our patients have been trapped behind frontlines for days or even weeks,” said Vanessa Cramond, the medical coordinator for Turkey and Syria at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which has treated 415 patients from Raqqa and its surroundings since June.
“In Raqqa city, if you don’t die from airstrikes, you die by mortar fire; if not by mortars then by sniper shots; if not by snipers, then by an explosive device,” MSF said, quoting a 41-year-old patient with shrapnel wounds who lost seven family members in the fighting. “And if you get to live, you are besieged by hunger and thirst, as there is no food, no water, no electricity.”
But the campaign’s progress has been tarnished by a stream of reports of airstrikes that have killed dozens of civilians in recent weeks, sometimes burying entire families in the rubble, raising questions about whether the coalition is taking enough precautions to protect civilians and how Raqqa could be stabilised after Isis is defeated.
The coalition’s targeting policy was reportedly loosened under President Trump, including delegating battlefield decisions to field commanders.
Rights groups say the coalition should be more transparent in how it makes targeting decisions, because it appears that on some occasions it has targeted Isis fighters, such as snipers, based on the rooftops of residential buildings, endangering large groups of civilians in an effort to kill a single militant.
“There are definitely grounds for caution and concern and the need to beef up the process by which targets are selected,” said Nadim Houry, the director of the terrorism and counter-terrorism programme at Human Rights Watch, who recently visited Raqqa province and investigated a series of airstrikes by the coalition that caused civilian casualties.
“We know that Isis fights from civilian areas and in some cases intentionally uses civilians to protect itself,” he said. “The coalition still has the obligation to minimise civilian casualties and have a robust mechanism in place. When it fails the result can be very deadly for civilians, so an investigation of these strikes is essential.”
The Guardian cannot verify the casualty reports independently due to the inability to gain access to Raqqa and areas under Isis control.
A family of seven civilians was reportedly killed when airstrikes hit a residential area of the city on 4 July, while on 16 and 17 July 36 civilians were reportedly killed in two separate coalition airstrikes.
Local activists reported two more mass casualty bombings by the coalition in late July and the first week of August. Sixty-two people were reportedly killed in airstrikes on 26 July in residential areas, while 15 members of the same family, including children, were killed in the Shammas district two days later.
On 1 August, activists said around 50 people, mostly women and children, were killed in the Bousraya neighbourhood after a coalition bombing raid struck a residential building. Air Wars, an organisation that tracks the civilian cost of the campaign, said between nine and 50 civilians died in that attack.
On the same day, 11 members of the same family were reportedly killed in a coalition bombing on their home in the Tawassuiya neighbourhood, while another 20 were reportedly killed two days later in al-Badou and al-Takana neighbourhoods.
Airwars estimated that 119 children had been killed in the campaign to liberate Raqqa city, out of an estimated 340 civilian casualties in June and July, with casualties rising sharply in recent weeks. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitoring organisation, estimates that 523 civilians have died in two months of fighting.
In its monthly casualty report late last week, the coalition said that it “takes all reports of civilian casualties seriously” but that the total number of civilian deaths it deemed credible since the launch of its operations in August 2014 stood at 151, after nearly 23,000 airstrikes.