The US-led military coalition must emerge from two years of denial over the heavy civilian casualties and massive destruction it has caused in the Syrian city of Raqqa, Amnesty International and Airwars said on 25 April 2019, as they launched a new offensive data collection project aimed at expelling the armed group calling itself the 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, presents the most comprehensive survey on civilian casualties in a contemporary conflict. The result of nearly two years of investigation, it puts the spotlight on a very heavy toll: more than 1,600 civilians lost their lives as a result of thousands of American, British and French air strikes and tens of thousands of artillery shells fired by American forces during the coalition’s military offensive against Raqqa, from June to October 2017.
At the time the offensive was launched, the EI had been controlling Raqqa for almost four years. He had committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, tortured or killed anyone who dared to oppose his regime. Amnesty International had already documented that EI used civilians as human shields, undermined routes out of the city, established checkpoints to limit movement and fired on those trying to escape.
“Thousands of civilians were killed or wounded in the coalition’s offensive to rid Raqqa of the EI, which had made the city a death trap by setting snipers and mines. Many aerial bombardments were not accurate and tens of thousands of artillery shells were indiscriminate: it is not surprising that they killed and wounded hundreds of civilians,” said Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s senior crisis adviser.
“U.S.-led coalition forces razed Raqqa to the ground, but they cannot erase the truth. Amnesty International and Airwars call on them to stop denying the shocking scale of civilian casualties and destruction caused by their offensive.
“The coalition must thoroughly investigate and learn from the mistakes made at Raqqa so as not to inflict such suffering on civilians trapped in future military operations,” said Chris Woods, Director of Airwars.
Advanced field research conducted in Raqqa and remotely
Amnesty International and Airwars collected and cross-checked many data flows for this investigation.
Over the course of four visits to Raqqa while the battle was still raging, Amnesty International researchers spent a total of about two months in the field. They investigated more than 200 strikes and interviewed more than 400 witnesses and survivors.
In addition, Amnesty International’s innovative Strike Trackers project identified when each of the 11,000 buildings destroyed in Raqqa was affected. More than 3,000 digital activists in 124 countries participated, analyzing a total of more than 2 million satellite images. Amnesty International’s Digital Verification Service, based at six universities around the world, analysed and authenticated the video images filmed during the battle.
Airwars and Amnesty International researchers analysed open access material, both in real time and after the offensive, including thousands of publications on social networks and other materials. As a result, they were able to build a database of more than 1,600 civilians who were reportedly killed during the coalition strikes. They collected the names of more than 1,000 victims: Amnesty International was able to verify 641 of them directly in the field in Raqqa, while for the others, information was provided by multiple credible sources.
The two organizations regularly report their findings to the US-led military coalition, as well as to the US, British and French governments. Thus, the coalition admitted responsibility for the deaths of 159 civilians, about 10% of the total number identified, but rejected the other allegations as “not credible”. However, it has still not properly investigated reports of civilian casualties and has not interviewed witnesses or survivors, acknowledging that it does not conduct investigations on the ground.