Amnesty protests US ‘denial’ over Raqqa casualties

The US-led Coalition’s ongoing failure to admit to—let alone adequately investigate—the shocking scale of civilian deaths and destruction it caused in Raqqa is a “slap in the face” for survivors trying to rebuild their lives and their city, said Amnesty International a year after the offensive to oust ISIS. On Oct. 17, 2017, following a fierce four-month battle, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—the Coalition’s Kurdish-led partners on the ground—announced victory over ISIS, which had used civilians as human shields and committed other war crimes in besieged Raqqa. Winning the battle came at a terrible price—almost 80% of the city was destroyed and many hundreds of civilians lay dead, the majority killed by Coalition bombardment. In a letter to Amnesty on Sept. 10, 2018, the US Department of Defense made clear it accepts no liability for the civilian casualties it caused. The Coalition does not plan to compensate survivors and relatives of those killed in Raqqa, and refuses to provide further information about the circumstances behind strikes that killed and maimed civilians.

“Disturbingly, the Pentagon does not even seem willing to offer an apology for the hundreds of civilians killed in its ‘war of annihilation’ on Raqqa. This is an insult to families who – after suffering the brutality of IS rule – lost loved ones to the Coalition’s cataclysmic barrage of firepower,” said Kumi Naidoo, Amnesty’s new secretary general, just returned from a field visit to Raqqa. “One year after the battle ended, the obstacles to justice are still insurmountably high for victims and their families. It is completely reprehensible that the Coalition refuses to acknowledge its role in most of the civilian casualties it caused, and abhorrent that even where it has admitted responsibility, it accepts no obligation towards its victims.”

The Coalition’s failure to live up to its commitments to carry out ground investigations into the impact of its strikes is one reason why its own civilian casualties count is so implausibly low.

Prior to Amnesty International’s June 2018 report War of Annihilation: Devastating Toll upon Civilians in Raqqa—Syria, the Coalition had admitted to causing just 23 civilian deaths in its entire Raqqa campaign. Incredibly, a year after the offensive, the UK Ministry of Defense still maintains its hundreds of air-strikes in Raqqa resulted in zero civilian casualties—a statistical improbability.

Following a string of blustery denials from military officials and politicians, at the end of July the Coalition quietly admitted it had caused a further 77 civilian deaths—almost all of those documented in Amnesty International’s report.

Despite its admission of responsibility in these cases—a more than 300% increase on previous reports —the Coalition persists in refusing to detail the circumstances in which these civilians were killed.

In what it called its “final response” to Amnesty International, the US Department of Defense stated that it does not consider itself bound to answer further questions about the circumstances and reasons behind launching strikes which killed and maimed so many civilians.

The Department of Defense also spuriously asserted that experienced Amnesty International researchers, military and legal experts do not understand international humanitarian law (the laws of war). It suggested that Amnesty based its case that the law had been broken on the deaths of civilians alone. In doing so, it chose to ignore evidence that, in the cases documented by Amnesty, ISIS fighters were not present at the scene of air-strikes that killed and injured civilians. Amnesty International believes this evidence provides a prima facie case that these strikes violated international humanitarian law.

“The crucial question raised by our research is whether the Coalition took the necessary precautions to minimize any potential harm to civilians, as the laws of war require. While the Coalition refuses to provide this information, the evidence shows it did not,” said Kumi Naidoo. “Secretary of Defense James Mattis has claimed US forces are ‘the good guys.’ The ‘good guys’ would comply with the laws of war and do whatever is necessary to ensure innocent civilians who suffer as a result of their actions get the justice they deserve.”

Amnesty says it will soon release the full details of many other newly documented cases—amounting to scores of civilian casualties still unacknowledged by the Coalition. “While the Coalition continues to bury its head in the sand, we will continue to work on the ground and use all the tools available to us to expose the full extent of civilian casualties and demand justice and full reparation for victims and their families,” said Kumi Naidoo. (AI, Oct. 15)

Since the taking of Raqqa, Coalition air-strikes have continued to back the SDF in its campaign to take the remaining ISIS pockets in Syria’s northeast. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports that the total killed in Coalition air-strikes since its Syria operations began in September 2014 now numbers more than 11,500.  Newly released figures from the SOHR find that the total killed in Russian air-strikes in Syria since Moscow intervened September 2015 now numbers more than 18,000. (DW, Spet. 30)

Photo: SDF