The United States military and its partners have failed to fully atone for a massacre of civilians in Syria last year, according to Amnesty International.
The organization is calling on the U.S.-led coalition that was targeting ISIS in the city of Raqqa to investigate what happened. The alliance, which calls itself Operation Inherent Resolve, admitted last month that it “unintentionally killed” at least 1,059 civilians in the Middle East between August 2014 and June 2018. Officials said 77 of the victims, including 24 children, lost their lives in Raqqa over a five-month period in 2017.
Amnesty's Donatella Rovera alleged that the coalition's casualty figures are “only the tip of the iceberg.” She explained: “The many survivors and witnesses we spoke to on the ground pointed to a civilian death toll (in Raqqa) in the high hundreds.”
The military conceded that 11 people died in a Raqqa airstrike on July 18, 2017, but did not reveal the extent of the carnage resulting from 46 other shellings in the city that day. On Aug. 20, two strikes reportedly killed 42 Raqqa civilians, but the coalition released no information about 50 additional attacks on the same day.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in the United Kingdom, estimated that at least 3,250 people died in the city during the five months. About 1,130 of them were civilians, and hundreds of others were missing, according to the group.
Just before the shellings began, Defense Secretary James Mattis proclaimed that the Pentagon intended to employ “annihilation tactics.” Following the operation, a military adviser said that “every minute of every hour we were putting some kind of fire on ISIS in Raqqa, whether it was mortars, artillery, rockets, (High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems), Hellfires, armed drones, you name it.”
Rasha Badran lost her 1-year-old daughter, Tulip, in the Aug. 20 attack. “Almost everybody was killed,” the grieving mother told Amnesty. “Only I, my husband, and his brother and cousin survived. The strike happened at about 7 p.m. I fainted and when I regained consciousness I heard my husband's cousin, Mohammed, calling out. I could neither move nor speak. Then my husband and his brother found me.”
Badran recalled: “My husband was the most seriously injured. He had a head wound and blood was pouring from his ears. It was dark and we could not see anything. We called out but nobody else answered; nobody moved. It was completely silent except for the planes circling above. We hid in the rubble until the morning because the planes were circling overhead. In the morning, we found Tulip’s body. Our baby was dead. We buried her near there, by a tree.”
Amnesty argues that military officials should be more forthcoming about how they determine airstrike targets, and what steps they take to minimize civilian casualties.
“How can the coalition avoid inflicting high civilian death tolls in the future without accounting for what went wrong in Raqqa?” Rovera asked. “Unless the thousands of coalition strikes in Raqqa are rigorously investigated, the true scale of civilian casualties will likely never be established and the coalition will continue to dismiss most allegations — a shocking denial of life and dignity for Raqqa's civilian population.”
Two months ago, U.S. Army Col. Thomas Veale was speaking on behalf of the coalition when he said: “As far as how do we know how many civilians were killed — I'm just being honest — no one will ever know.”
Most of Raqqa was destroyed, leaving almost 300,000 residents homeless. Children made up a high percentage of those who were devastated. “The children have suffered for years under ISIS and must not be forgotten once the fighting subsides,” said Sonia Khush of the Save the Children charitable organization. “We must ensure that they have a future to look forward to. The international community invests vast amounts of money on military action, but only a fraction of that for helping the children and families who suffer the consequences.”
Brig. Gen. Talal Sillo, in an interview with The Associated Press, boasted that the Raqqa operation succeeded in ending the Islamic State's control of the city. But he acknowledged that the city was “comprehensively wrecked.”
During the airstrikes, the Daily Beast reported: “Whole neighborhoods are being bombed flat with little or no regard for civilians trapped inside. It's like dropping a nuclear bomb in stages.” A United Nations official accused the coalition of being responsible for a “staggering loss of life.”
While the Raqqa siege has ended, Save the Children is raising the alarm about a “rapidly escalating” crisis in northeast Syria. Civilians are languishing in refugee camps that are “bursting at the seams,” the organization reported.
Khush said the camps are “miserable,” adding: “Families do not have enough food, water or medicine.” She noted that for the former Raqqa residents living in the makeshift facilities, there is no where else to go because their homes “have been turned into rubble.”