An "unprecedented" new study released on Thursday revealed that the U.S.-led bombing campaign on Raqqa, Syria in 2017—which one military commander at the time claimed was the "most precise air campaign in history"—killed an estimated 1,600 innocent civilians while leveling the city on a scale unparalleled in recent decades.
"I've lost everyone who was dear to me. 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."
—Ayet Mohammed Jasem, survivor of U.S. bombing
The research collated almost two years of investigations into the assault on Raqqa, the groups said in a statement, and "gives a brutally vivid account" of the enormous number of civilian lives lost as "a direct result" of thousands of coalition air strikes and tens of thousands of US artillery strikes in Raqqa from June to October 2017.
The report—"Rhetoric vs. Reality: How the 'Most Precise Air Campaign in History' Left Raqqa the Most Destroyed City in Modern Times"—is detailed on the interactive website created by investigative news organization Airwars and the human rights group Amnesty International-USA which carried out what they call the "most comprehensive investigation into civilian deaths in a modern conflict."
The findings confirm that the U.S.-led coalition has admitted to just a fraction of the civilian carnage it has caused in Syria, even as it has boasted of the care it's taken in avoiding such casualties and the precision of the Raqqa offensive.
According to the report:
US, UK and French forces also launched thousands of air strikes into civilian neighborhoods, scores of which resulted in mass civilian casualties.
In one tragic incident, a Coalition air strike destroyed an entire five-story residential building near Maari school in the central Harat al-Badu neighborhood in the early evening of 25 September 2017. Four families were sheltering in the basement at the time. Almost all of them – at least 32 civilians, including 20 children – were killed. A week later, a further 27 civilians – including many relatives of those killed in the earlier strike – were also killed when an air strike destroyed a nearby building.
"I saw my son die, burnt in the rubble in front of me," Ayet Mohammed Jasem, one of the few survivors of the later attack, told the investigators. "I've lost everyone who was dear to me. 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."
At the time of 2017 assault on Raqqa it was U.S. Lieutenant General Stephen J. Townswend, commander of the coalition, who said, "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."
But the researchers argue the evidence belies those claims and, as part of the report, both groups demanded accountability for what was done to the city and its people.
Eyewitness statements and 1,000 named victims; massive open source analysis, and crowdsourced satellite imagery review of the destruction, all led @Amnesty and @airwars to conclude that at least 10 times more civilians died at Raqqa than @CJTFOIR concedes. https://t.co/uF6k3rLWmv
— Airwars (@airwars) April 25, 2019
"The coalition needs to fully investigate what went wrong at Raqqa and learn from those lessons, to prevent inflicting such tremendous suffering on civilians caught in future military operations," said Chris Woods, director of Airwars, in a statement.
"Coalition forces razed Raqqa, but they cannot erase the truth." —Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International
Donatella Rovera, a crisis investigator for Amnesty, shared some of what she found in Raqqa in a video the group released along with the report.
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"When I first came to Raqqa after the war, I knew that relentless American, British, and French bombardment killed civilians and destroyed much of the city," Rovera said.
"What I came to discover was that little or no protection was afforded to the thousands of civilians who were trapped in the city," she added. "Raqqa is the most destroyed city in modern times in terms of percentage. There is no part of Raqqa which has been left untouched."
During their investigation, the groups also listened to the stories of survivors like nine year old Fatima Hussein Ahmad who lost her mother, Aziza, and three siblings in artillery strikes on their neighborhood. as well sustaining injuries that required the amputation of her right leg. "I was thrown over there by the explosion," she told Amnesty during an interview from a burnt out home near where the attack took place. Almost two years later, she still cannot walk and uses a wheelchair donated by an NGO to get around. She told the researchers her only wish is to go back to school.
The interactive website contains a whole section of stories from the ground, including one of 32 people, 20 children among them, who were killed in an air strike near a school and another where civilians were targeted as they crossed a river with no way to escape.
The U.S. has claimed to have unleashed 30,000 rounds of artillery on the city during the offensive, while the U.K. and France helped to carry out thousands of air strikes. The U.S. strikes represent the equivalent of one strike every six minutes for four months.
"Many of the air bombardments were inaccurate and tens of thousands of artillery strikes were indiscriminate, so it is no surprise they killed and injured many hundreds of civilians,” said Rovera.
"The public deserves to know how many civilian casualties our government is responsible for, and the survivors deserve acknowledgement, reparations, where appropriate, and meaningful assistance to rebuild their lives." —Daphne Eviatar, Amnesty International
"Coalition forces razed Raqqa, but they cannot erase the truth," she added. "Amnesty International and Airwars call upon the Coalition forces to end their denial about the shocking scale of civilian deaths and destruction caused by their offensive."
Civilians—who for four years had been essentially held captive in Raqqa by ISIS as the armed group set up checkpoints restricting movement, planted land mines in exit routes, and used residents as human shields—suffered fresh brutality from the U.S. and its allies as they claimed to be "liberating" the city.
The two groups interviewed about 400 survivors and surveyed 200 attack sites throughout the city, examining the ruins of residential buildings and neighborhoods.
Analyzing social media posts, satellite images, and other material, Amnesty and Airwars have identified the shellings that destroyed about 11,000 buildings and the names of more than 1,000 victims.
But even with access to the groups' meticulous research, which they have shared with the coalition, military leaders have admitted to only 159 civilian deaths during the Raqqa campaign—10 percent of the number determined by Airwars and Amnesty—despite the fact that the coalition does not carry out its own investigations.
The report comes ahead of an expected report from the Trump administration regarding civilian casualties that resulted from the coalition's strikes.
"We hope to finally see an honest assessment of the devastating impact that U.S. lethal strikes have had on the civilians in Raqqa," said Daphne Eviatar, director of Amnesty's Security with Human Rights program. "The public deserves to know how many civilian casualties our government is responsible for, and the survivors deserve acknowledgement, reparations, where appropriate, and meaningful assistance to rebuild their lives."