Raqqa: A City Destroyed Then Forgotten
An investigation by Airwars for the Daily Beast shows that Coalition-inflicted casualties were vastly higher than are being publicly acknowledged
In the weeks after the defeat of the so-called Islamic State at Raqqa, a woman named Ayat Mohamed—her black clothing covering burns on her body—led a French TV crew to the ruins of a building in the Al Badou neighborhood. Here in late September Ayat’s husband Khaled al Salama, their four children, along with her mother, sister and niece, had all been killed by an alleged strike by the US-led coalition. Their bodies remained trapped below.
“The planes were bombing and rockets were falling 24 hours a day,” said a tearful Ayat. “There were ISIS snipers everywhere, you couldn’t breath.” In all directions, buildings had been destroyed, and it was hard to tell where one structure began and another ended. “My children are still there, buried under the rubble,” she told the camera. “No one has dug them out yet.” Ayat said she could not afford to have their bodies retrieved. “How can I get them out of these ruins, how can I see them?”
Nearly three more months would pass before some of the bodies were recovered. A picture taken at the scene shows five white body bags labelled with the names of Ayat’s husband, Khaled, and their children Farah, Mohammad, Najah and Hussein. Their remains were dug out on February 12th, according to the local monitor Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS).
“Al Salama’s wife survived the shelling and spent nearly four months communicating with the Raqqa Civilian Council until they pulled out the bodies of her family,” an RBSS representative told Airwars. The location of the remains of Ayat’s mother, sister and niece is unclear, though it is possible they were among the nearly 30 bodies that have been pulled from the building, most of them badly decomposed and many charred after they were burned in the attack. All of the bodies were buried in Tal al Bai’aa cemetery, said RBSS.
More remains of victims are being retrieved in Raqqa every day, some dug out by laborers hired by relatives and loved ones. According to Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, in the month leading to mid-February alone, upwards of 190 additional unidentified corpses had been pulled from the rubble.
Overall, an estimated 2,000 civilians were killed during bitter fighting for control of Raqqa, according to local casualty monitors – in an assault dominated by US firepower. Even now the dying hasn’t stopped. Cut down by explosives left rigged by ISIS, hundreds of returning civilians have been wounded or killed since October. Like those seeking to retrieve their family members, Raqawis, the people of Raqqa, left to fend for themselves have paid desperate locals to try and disarm their homes, or have attempted to make their homes safe themselves—sometimes with disastrous consequences.
All this is occurring as international media coverage of Raqqa dwindles away. Once the center of countless stories about the so-called Islamic caliphate, ISIS’s self-declared capital is now 80 per cent uninhabitable due to destruction from recent fighting, according to the United Nations.
By the time US-backed ground forces began moving into Raqqa in early June 2017, a parallel offensive across the Iraqi border in Mosul was nearly finished. After eight months of bitter fighting, parts of Iraq’s second largest city were devastated and thousands of civilians had been killed or injured. In Raqqa, early accounts indicated that just as in Mosul, civilians were being obstructed from leaving – at risk from booby traps laid by ISIS, or targeted by the terror group’s snipers. At the same time, civilians inside Raqqa received conflicting evacuation instructions from the Coalition and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Unlike operations in Mosul, which took place across two US administrations, the fight in Raqqa was carried out entirely under the watch of Donald Trump’s White House. Trump’s promise to delegate everything to commanders in the field—and Defense Secretary James Mattis’ shift to “annihilation tactics”—helped contribute to a drastic increase in civilian casualties from Coalition strikes that took off early in 2017. As The Daily Beast and Airwars reported last year, the number of civilian deaths caused by the Coalition during the entire war against ISIS had already doubled under Trump by the summer of 2017—right in the midst of operations in Raqqa.
According to official data, the Coalition—in Syria almost entirely consisting of American military aircraft and ground artillery units, with limited support from British and French planes—leaned heavily on airpower and artillery during the five months it took to expel ISIS from an area much smaller than Mosul.
Today, the actual number of weapons fired in Raqqa remains clouded by inconsistent statements from US officials. However, according to an Airwars analysis, at least 95 per cent of strikes in Raqqa and all artillery strikes were American. At least 21,000 munitions—and possibly thousands more—struck the city.
What isn’t uncertain is that the intense bombardment resulted in significant civilian casualties. Local monitors estimate that upwards of 2,000 were killed by all parties to the fighting—and many victims, like those in the Salama family, are only now being found.
At the same time, the Coalition’s record on investigating alleged deaths from air and artillery strikes appears to have significantly weakened in Raqqa. Nine months into operations in Mosul – at the end of June – the Coalition had acknowledged responsibility for 43 strikes that it said killed at least 240 civilians and wounded a further 42. (As of its most recent update, the Coalition has admitted to killing 321 or more civilians in Mosul, and injuring a further 46 people in 60 events.) It concluded that 58 additional alleged civilian casualty incidents at Mosul were considered “non-credible”. That meant that after seven months, 43 percent of the 101 total completed assessments had resulted in acknowledgements of responsibility.
In Raqqa, a greater reliance on air and artillery strikes ahead of more cautious ground advances—as well as the limited firepower of local partner forces (the largest weapons wielded by the SDF were 120mm mortars)—all indicated that civilian harm would be more often tied to Coalition actions.
Yet nine months later, only 11 percent of Coalition civilian harm assessments have resulted in an admission of responsibility. Out of 121 reports so far assessed for the Raqqa assault, the Coalition has confirmed involvement in just 13 strikes, which it says left 21 civilians dead and six injured—far short of the 1,400 likely Coalition-inflicted deaths Airwars tracked between June and October.
The enemy forces arrayed against the Coalition in Raqqa also significantly differed. According to Coalition figures, international and Iraqi forces encountered 700 vehicle borne IEDs during the battle for Mosul. In Raqqa, the Coalition and SDF encountered only “around a dozen VBIEDs” between June and Oct. 20, 2017.
Most damage to the city—described in January 2018 by USAID chief Mark Green as devastation “almost beyond description”—was the result of US air and artillery strikes. Satellite images from before the battle show one neighborhood mostly intact. Soon it was mostly gone.
Meanwhile, decisions about what and what not to strike were moved significantly down the command chain, a dynamic that began in late 2016 under President Barack Obama and which was in full effect during the battle in Raqqa. “TEA [Target Engagement Authority] was decentralized from the Headquarters GO level (far removed from the battlefield) and delegated to the appropriate level commander, who was close to the fight,” AFCENT spokesperson AnnMarie Annicelli told Airwars in an email. The “ground force unit,” she said, “controlled all dynamic engagements” of air and artillery.
A storm of weapons
Fired from afar and usually targeted based on intelligence from local proxy ground forces,the SDF, US bombs, missiles and artillery shells rained almost continuously into Raqqa. According to official figures provided to Airwars, the Coalition launched more than 20,000 munitions into the city during the five-month campaign. In August, that barrage had officially increased to more than one bomb, missile, rocket or artillery round fired every eight minutes—a total of 5,775 munitions during the month.
This was more than all munitions released by the US in Afghanistan during all of 2017. In Mosul – a far larger city with many times as many residents, and where fighting lasted nearly twice as long – the Coalition actually fired on average fewer air-dropped and artillery munitions during nine months of fighting (3,250 per month).
According to Air Force Central Command (AFCENT), Coalition aircraft carried out “nearly 4,500” airstrikes in and around Raqqa between May and October of 2017. During the four month battle for Raqqa, the UK said that its aircraft had hit 213 targets in the city, while France reported fewer than 50 airstrikes on Raqqa over the same period. All other air attacks (approximately 95 percent) and every artillery round to hit the city most likely came from US forces.
During the first half of the battle for Raqqa, fire from A-10 “Warthog” ground assault aircraft accounted for roughly 44 percent of weapon use in Raqqa. The extensive use of A-10s in such an urban setting – which fire 30mm cannons and can also deploy bombs and missiles – was described by US officials at the time as unprecedented.
“The fight itself was within the urban complex of Raqqa and the pilots had to get creative to figure out ways to strike targets at the bottom of these five-story buildings,” said Lt. Col. Craig Morash, commander of the 74th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron. “Urban conflict, at least in this form, was kind of the first time anybody had ever seen it before,” he later told a reporter.
Those A-10s were joined by Reaper drones, B-2 and B-52 bombers, F-15s and F-16s, and long range artillery. Raqqa experienced the full weight of the US warfighting machine.
Quentin Sommerville, the BBC’s veteran Middle East Correspondent, reported extensively from both Raqqa and Mosul. His battlefield dispatches from deserted areas of Raqqa that had been captured from ISIS showed a city in ruins, even as fighting still raged in other neighborhoods. “24 hours of coverage wouldn’t do justice to the total devastation across Raqqa,” he tweeted from the city on September 17th. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“I would say in Mosul artillery and airstrikes were in most cases a last resort,” Sommerville said in an interview with Airwars. “In Raqqa, they seemed like they were used first.”
Recent disclosures suggest the true number of weapons fired in Raqqa may in fact be even higher. Speaking to reporters on January 23rd, Command Sergeant John Wayne Troxell—a senior non-enlisted adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff—said that US Marines stationed near Raqqa had “in five months… fired 30,000 artillery rounds on ISIS targets, killing ISIS fighters by the dozens.”
A spokesperson for the Marine Corps later told Airwars that they were not authorized to verify those figures, while the Coalition said that many of the rounds fired by the unit were aimed “at other Daesh targets in Syria outside of Raqqah.” Artillery, however, has a limited range, and Marines based in Syria during Raqqa fighting likely would have unleashed the majority of rounds inside the city itself, which by June was completely surrounded.
In August, Amnesty International reported that hundreds of civilians were already dead from Coalition air and artillery strikes. “Artillery shells are hitting everywhere, entire streets,” Raqqa resident Ahmad Mahmoud, wounded by artillery himself, told Amnesty in June 2017. “It is indiscriminate shelling and killing a lot of civilians.” A Western reporter in touch with Airwars said survivors from Raqqa later told them artillery was scarier, as it came in deluges and without any warning.
The so-called Islamic State bears significant responsibility for the destruction and death toll at Raqqa, according to investigators. “By deliberately placing civilians in areas where they were exposed to combat operations, for the purpose of rendering those areas immune from attack, ISIL militants committed the war crime of using human shields in Raqqah governorate,” the UN’s Commission of Inquiry for Syria noted in a recent report.
“Despite the fact that civilians were being used as human shields, international coalition airstrikes continued apace on a daily basis, resulting in the destruction of much of Raqqah city and the death of countless civilians, many of whom were buried in improvised cemeteries, including parks,” the Commission also wrote.
Facing down thousands of bombs and shells, residents said ISIS sometimes made civilians wear the same clothes as ISIS fighters so as to appear indistinguishable. ISIS would also position vehicles “next to a house and fire at the planes and helicopters in the sky,” one witness who lost his brother in a subsequent strike told Amnesty. “Then it would move and park next to another house. The helicopters and planes kept trying to hit it. They hit so many houses but they didn’t even hit the vehicle.”
But at times Coalition targeting was less explicable. In one incident, on the night of July 1st, neighbors told Amnesty, a family of five—including three children—died when an airstrike hit their building in Raqqa’s Old City. The house was 100 meters, the witness said, from the closest group of ISIS fighters. The Coalition has identified a number of possible incidents around this date in Raqqa—including one referred to it by a “human rights organization,” and another which the Coalition has already determined was a “non-credible” allegation.
The Salama family appears to have fallen victim to such a scenario. Ayat and her husband Khaled had recently returned to Raqqa in order to bring other family members to safety. Instead they all became trapped as the fighting intensified. According to RBSS, the family was moved by ISIS, reportedly along with many residents of al Amassi neighborhood, to another part of the city called al Badou. There, they were killed in a reported Coalition strike.
Despite the horrors experienced by civilians during recent fighting, press reports from Raqqa have been filed far less regularly than its status as the former “ISIS capital” might have suggested. In Mosul, many more journalists covered the battle—often revealing important details about the civilian toll. In December for example, a major field investigation by the Associated Press put the overall civilian death in Mosul above 9,000.
Reporters on the ground in Mosul were able to uncover incidents of civilian deaths from airstrikes, and in several cases help convince the Coalition to concede involvement. The work of BuzzFeed News’ Mike Giglio led to an admission of culpability in four cases, which had left a total of 40 civilians dead. That accountability was only possible after Giglio made unauthorized reporting trips to Mosul, interviewing family members and other witnesses—investigatory steps that the Coalition itself does not undertake. In Raqqa, few media investigations have so far taken place.
When details of civilian deaths do emerge, they gain less traction. In the last month of fighting at Raqqa, a report released by the UN’s humanitarian agency OCHA included details of an October 2nd presumed Coalition strike that hit “a water well located in the outskirts of the Al-Tawaassoiya area in the north of Ar-Raqqa city, reportedly killing 45 civilians.” The next day, another strike hit wells where civilians had again congregated, leaving at least 21 dead according to OCHA. The attacks left the city with no functional wells, said the humanitarian brief.
Those attacks, which followed an alleged pattern of civilians being bombed near water sources, and the targeting of civilians trying to escape the city by boat earlier in the offensive, do not appear to have been widely picked up by English-language media.
“In Mosul, media were falling over each other; almost no stone was left unturned,” said Sommerville. “But Raqqa was more difficult to reach during the offensive, and is still difficult to get to. There we have barely scratched the surface. It seemed to me that wherever we went there were stories of civilian casualties. And no one was investigating.”
Yet access to civilians who had escaped the fighting at Raqqa was possible. The SDF had set up civilian reception centers on the outskirts of the city, where survivors were able to speak freely about their harrowing experiences.
“The bombardment had been so heavy that people weren’t even afraid of talking about it in front of the SDF,” said a Western journalist who visited one of the centers. “Almost every single person we spoke to had a relative, friend or neighbor that was killed in some kind of bombardment—whether they were going to get water or something else.”
Though all these civilians passed through central locations, there appears to be little or no official record kept of their testimonies about the toll of fighting and bombing inside the city. “The Coalition has not conducted interviews on the ground in or around Raqqa as part of any civilian casualty investigation,” a Coalition spokesperson told Airwars.
“It is striking to see the Coalition continue to deny civilian casualties even after independent on the ground investigations found the contrary,” said Nadim Houry, of Human Rights Watch. “If they want to talk to survivors, they only need to visit these areas.”
Though Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International were both able to reach Raqqa without permission from the Syrian government, UN investigators have been blocked by Damascus since 2012. The UN’s Commission of Inquiry, established by the Human Rights Council and the only internationally sanctioned body tasked with investigating crimes committed by all sides in the Syrian war, is severely hamstrung. It can only carry out investigations remotely, often via cell phones and the internet.
Ironically, the Syrian government’s attempts to shield its own crimes has also offered a better chance at impunity for its adversaries. “It is beyond comprehension that, despite this extensive range of violations, Syrian victims and survivors continue to be denied any meaningful justice,” said Commission Chair Paulo Pinheiro on March 6th.
Houry of Human Rights Watch visited Raqqa governorate in the lead up to the battle, documenting evidence of at least 84 civilian deaths in two strikes. In each case, HRW provided detailed information to the Coalition, but not a single one of those civilian deaths has been admitted. “The delays at this point suggest either lack of seriousness in the effort or a desire to hide something,” he claims.
The legacy of the fight for Raqqa may now be the thousands upon thousands of unexploded pieces of ordnance that litter the streets, many of them IEDs rigged by ISIS to explode. Coalition countries say they are funding efforts to train and equip cleanup teams, but those efforts appear to be inadequate. On a subsequent trip, Houry documented the toll—at least 491 dead and injured since October—from IEDS, and how desperate many civilians remained.
The going rate for young men to look through properties and remove rubble was around $50 per house, according to one resident. A false step could cost searchers their lives. A successful job could lead to the discovery of more war dead, like the family of Ayat Mohamed. “It’s like playing Russian roulette, but these young men are desperate for money,” said the resident.
Raqqa is only one part of a complex Syrian battlefield that has claimed countless civilian lives. But the defeat of the so-called Islamic State in its self-proclaimed caliphate was a fight orchestrated and carried out in the main by the United States. To date, the Trump administration has shown little interest in properly understanding the civilian harm resulting from its defeat of ISIS.