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Syria: At least 1,600 civilians killed by US coalition in Raqqa, probe finds

Amnesty and Airwars criticise the US alliance for not investigating civilians killed in the 2017 bombing campaign against Islamic State
Thousands of buildings were destroyed by US-led coalition air strikes during its bombing campaign against IS militants in Raqqa (AFP)

A US-led military coalition killed thousands of civilians in Raqqa during its "indiscriminate" bombing campaign against the Islamic State group (IS) in Syria, an investigation released on Thursday has found.

In a new joint report, the Airwars monitoring group and human rights advocate Amnesty International said the US-led coalition was responsible for the deaths of at least 1,600 civilians during its bombardment of northeastern Syria. 

Both groups used open source data, which included thousands of social media posts and other material, to build a database of more than 1,600 civilians reportedly killed in coalition strikes between June to October 2017.

The organisations said they had gathered the names of more than 1,000 victims. Amnesty added that it had managed to directly verify 641 of these names on the ground in Raqqa, the eastern Syrian city IS was headquartered in. 

The groups noted one incident where four families had been "wiped out in an instant" after the US-led coalition bombed a Raqqa neighbourhood on 25 September 2017. 

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“I saw my son die, burnt in the rubble in front of me. I’ve lost everyone dear to me," Ayat Mohammed Jasem, a Raqqa resident, told a TV crew a year after the incident took place. 

"My four children, my husband, my mother, my sister, my whole family. Wasn’t the goal to free the civilians? They were supposed to save us, to save our children.” 

Throughout their investigations, Airwars and Amnesty said they regularly submitted evidence of civilian deaths to the US-led coalition. 

This prompted the coalition, comprised of US, British and French armed forces, among others, to admit responsibility for killing 159 civilians. However, the military alliance dismissed the remainder of deaths reported as "non-credible".

Investigation failures

Donatella Rovera, Amnesty's senior crisis response adviser, said the US-led coalition has failed to conduct an investigation into civilian deaths following its bombing campaign. 

"The coalition's lack of transparency and unwillingness to carry out proper investigations on the ground are part of a broader pattern of its failure to prioritise the protection of civilians to the extent that it could and should have," Rovera told Middle East Eye. 

'The fight against [IS] does not lessen the need for civilian protection'

- Donatella Rovera, Amnesty

"Many of the civilian victims of coalition strikes had already suffered at the hands of [IS], and in any case, the fight against [IS] does not lessen the need for civilian protection." 

She added: "For example, raining volleys of artillery shells - inaccurate to the point of being indiscriminate - all over neighbourhoods where there are civilians is never acceptable, regardless of who controls the territory."

Earlier this year, Amnesty's Strike Tracker project revealed that at least 11,218 buildings had been destroyed during the coalition's bombardment of Raqqa.

The Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militia, backed by the US-led coalition, drove IS from Raqqa in 2017 after a protracted urban conflict.

The SDF declared a territorial victory against IS militants in Syria nearly a month ago, after expunging the group from its foothold in eastern Syria's Baghouz. 

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Airwars and Amnesty added that they did not have the resources to properly investigate the full extent of civilian deaths and injuries in Raqqa.

They also called on members of the coalition to put in place an independent inquiry into civilian deaths and injuries.

In a statement, Col. Scott Rawlinson, spokesperson for the coalition, said the anti-IS alliance has been "open and transparent" in its reporting of civilian casualties.

"First and foremost, any unintentional loss of life during the defeat of Daesh [IS] is tragic. However, it must be balanced against the risk of enabling Daesh to continue terrorist activities, causing pain and suffering to anyone they choose," he told MEE.

"According to our records, there have been 69 credible allegations out of Raqqa, resulting in 318 killed. Of note, there are still open allegations under investigation.

"Amnesty International provided us with 86 new allegations, 43 of which had already been assessed as credible and previously reported or were deemed not credible because the allegation did not corroborate with our strike records," Rawlinson added.

"We requested that Amnesty International provide us with additional information on the remaining 43 allegations if they have it so that we would be able to determine whether we could conduct an investigation."