Syrian women and children gather on the western front after fleeing the centre of Raqqa on October 12, 2017. Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Syrian fighters backed by US special forces, are battling to clear the last remaining jihadists holed up in their crumbling stronghold of Raqqa. (BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

Here’s what you need to know about the attacks on Raqqa, Syria

By Nadine Jawad, Government Relations intern

Over the past several years, the people of Raqqa, Syria have suffered terribly under the rule of the Islamic State (IS). Then, from June to October 2017, a US-led coalition placed a siege on the city with a goal to remove the IS for good. This could have been a liberating moment. Instead, the coalition’s assaults brought more despair for the civilians trapped. For those in Raqqa, they had to make a decision. They could flee, leaving their belongings behind and possibly stepping on booby trapped streets along the way. Or they could stay, risking their lives under the bombardments of bombs. A new Amnesty International report provides evidence that the US-led coalition against the IS failed to take basic precautions to protect civilians and has violated international humanitarian law. The attacks killed or injured hundreds of civilians and destroyed most of the city’s infrastructure.

Amnesty’s researchers saw firsthand, through the stories of survivors, the excessive loss of civilian life and the destruction of much of the city. Although IS exacerbated the challenges inherent to urban combat by operating amongst civilians and using them as human shields, their tactics were known well ahead of the Raqqa campaign. Coalition forces did not take adequate account of civilians present in the city and failed to take the precautions necessary to minimize harm to civilians and civilian objects. Several hours after the release of the Amnesty report, the coalition released a statement in defense against the findings, denying the allegations.

The Amnesty report focuses on the fate of four Raqqa families. One particularly vivid story is that of the Aswad family. The Aswad’s were a family of four brothers of traders who worked all their lives to construct a building in Raqqa. The entirety of their life savings was combined to finally build a store right across the street from their childhood home. Amid construction, the war began and while a couple of the family members fled with their children, two of the brothers remained in Raqqa when the military operation began to protect their property from looting.

During the airstrikes, they remained in the basement of the building, providing refuge for neighbors as well. On the evening of June 28, the building was destroyed by a Coalition airstrike, killing eight people, most of them children. Mohammed Othman Aswad was the only survivor. After the airstrikes, he unsuccessfully attempted to remove the rubble away to pull out his brother’s body. His brother would remained trapped, along with a neighbor’s daughter, for days.

In the report, there is an image of Mohammed Aswad, looking into the hole that once was the building his brothers and he had dreamed of. Around him, much of the background is also leveled, an entire city now of rubble and dust. With a majority of the city dead or displaced, there is not much for Mohammed Aswad left in Raqqa but memories.

The four families in the report are emblematic of a larger pattern of death and degradation. Within the report, there are family photos of the deceased, including those of newborn babies, young children, teenagers, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, and more. While the Coalition statement claims the group has “meticulous processes in place” designed to minimize civilian causalities, the survivors are not convinced. “I don’t understand why they bombed us,” said one survivor. “Didn’t the surveillance planes see that we were civilian families?”

Today, many in the city remained displaced. People are struggling to survive with limited food, water, or shelter. Furthermore, civilians are removing rubble to find the dead bodies of their families. Some are unsure if their family members are dead or alive. Amnesty cites one man who cannot afford to travel to the various hospitals in Syria to see if his wife is in one of them. As of this spring, there were still bodies rotting, with families left behind responsible for living amidst the stench of the degradation of the bodies of their loved ones.

The report counters a narrative of the coalition as saviors of Raqqa. Prior to the assault, US Defense Secretary James Mathis promised “a war of annihilation” and that’s what the coalition did. The civilians of Raqqa doubly suffered, first under IS rule and second under the coalition attacks.

The Coalition’s initial response neglected to hold themselves responsible for the loss of human life. Still worse, it is alarming there was no mention of reparation or steps needed to be taken moving forth to provide shelter and resources to those who made it out alive, with little to nothing. Amnesty’s report elevates the stories of civilian loss and provide public awareness of our investigations in order to ensure the rights of civilians are protected to the highest degree possible. Amnesty International calls on the Coalition’s member states to publicly acknowledge the scale and seriousness of the loss of civilian lives as well as the destruction of property and livelihoods which resulted from the Coalition strikes in Raqqa.

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