New US-led coalition’s efforts to reclaim Raqqa, dubbed the ISIS capital, has unfortunately been accompanied with reports of airstrikes hitting hundreds of Syrian civilians, many of whom are wounded and some have even died.
UN officials consider these reports reliable but they cannot be confirmed yet – questions are being raised among the media watchers and international community about the safety of civilians in the ongoing battle for Raqqa.
The liberation of this terrorist-held city began two months ago as an effort of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a a co-op of the forces of Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and recently regrouped Arab militia assemblies. The US has been supplying arms to the SDF and has been air-striking for a while in support of the ground forces.
It’s estimated that the SDF now controls half of Raqqa, but ISIS is still holed up tight. Civilians and human shields used by Islamic State fighters can only escape by paying exorbitant amounts to smugglers, and the whole city is in need of food and medicine, especially 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.
Ever since President Trump “loosened” the offensive strategy, there has been a rise in reports of collaterally killed civilians. The loosening included delegating battlefield decisions to field commanders. Seven civilians, a whole family, 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 total by the coalition.
Targets often include single IS fighters, such as entrenched snipers on roofs, where an airstrike is called for without checking if it’s worth endangering large groups of civilians in an effort to kill a single militant, even if it’s a sniper.
“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.”