War in Raqqa: Rhetoric versus Reality
The US-led Coalition's military campaign to oust the "Islamic State" (IS) from its self-styled "capital" in Raqqa, Syria, killed and injured thousands of civilians. Four months of relentless bombardment reduced homes, businesses and infrastructure to rubble.
Civilians were caught in the crossfire in a city that had become a death trap. IS snipers and landmines prevented them from fleeing, while the Coalition's air bombardments and reckless artillery strikes killed them in their homes.
Wasn't the goal to free the civilians? They were supposed to save us, to save our children.
I've lost everyone who was dear to me. My four children, my husband, my mother, my sister, my whole family.
Planes were bombing and rockets were falling 24 hours a day, and there were IS snipers everywhere. You just couldn't breathe.
- Ayat Mohammed Jasem, survivor of a Coalition airstrike that killed at least 32 people.

Between June and October 2017, the US-led Coalition, including the UK, France and others, launched thousands of air and artillery strikes in support of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a local Kurdish-led militia fighting the IS on the ground.

By then, the IS had ruled Raqqa for almost four years. It had perpetrated war crimes and crimes against humanity, torturing or killing anyone who dared oppose it.

In its battle against IS, the US-led Coalition claims to have taken all necessary measures to spare civilians.

However, that rhetoric is a far cry from reality. Amnesty International carried out extensive investigations on the ground in Raqqa and partnered with Airwars on remote analysis to uncover the military campaign's impact on civilians. Here we explore the evidence and the stories of many of the families who lived and died during the war in Raqqa.

RHETORIC - ZERO HUMAN CASUALTIES
"I challenge anyone to find a more precise air campaign in the history of warfare…The Coalition's goal is always for zero human casualties"
- Lieutenant General Stephen J. Townsend, Coalition commander
REALITY - ENTIRE FAMILIES DECIMATED
Coalition air and artillery strikes killed or injured thousands of civilians. Entire buildings were destroyed, killing whole families.
In just one tragic incident, four families were killed - including that of Ayat Dh'eiba, whose testimony you have just read above. They were sheltering in the basement of a five-storey building when a Coalition air strike destroyed it on 25 September 2017. The strike killed at least 32 civilians - four men, eight women and 20 children - who were just trying to stay safe.
LAUNCH 360 EXPERIENCE
RHETORIC - PROTECTING CIVILIANS
"We are the good guys… We do everything humanly possible consistent with military necessity, taking many chances to avoid civilian casualties at all costs."
- Former Defence Secretary, General James Mattis
REALITY - INDISCRIMINATE STRIKES
Volleys of artillery shells randomly raining down on residential neighbourhoods are indiscriminate strikes.
“In five months they fired 30,000 artillery shells on ISIS targets… They fired more rounds in five months in Raqqa than any other Marine artillery battalion since the Vietnam War.”
- Sgt Major John Wayne Troxell in November 2017
Fatima, just nine years old, lost her mother and three younger sisters on 10 June 2017 when an artillery shell struck her home in the Dara'iya neighbourhood. She also lost one leg and the other one was severely injured. The shelling, launched by US forces some 16 kilometres north-east of the city, killed at least 16 people on Fatima's street on that day alone.
EVEN IN WAR NOT EVERYTHING IS PERMITTED

The Coalition launched strikes likely to cause excessive harm to civilians and failed to distinguish between military targets and civilians.

Such conduct violates the principles of distinction and proportionality - fundamental requirements of international humanitarian law. Disproportionate or indiscriminate attacks are war crimes.

Urban combat poses inherent challenges. These were exacerbated in Raqqa because IS used human shields, but the Coalition was well aware of these tactics long before the battle.

During its offensive, the Coalition failed to take into account that civilians were present in every neighbourhood. Had Coalition forces carried out adequate surveillance before launching their strikes many civilian lives could have been spared.

WHAT YOU CAN DO
The Coalition has admitted killing 159 civilians in Raqqa – barely 10% of the real number, without conducting investigations or interviewing survivors and witnesses in Raqqa.
The Coalition must take responsibility for killing so many civilians in Raqqa.

Amnesty International and Airwars are calling on the Coalition to:

  • Make public all relevant informationnecessary for investigating its air and artillery strikes
  • Set up an independent, impartial mechanism to investigate all reports of civilian harm, including violations of international humanitarian law, and make the findings public
  • Create a fund to ensure that victims and their families receive full reparation, and compensation.