In ISIS-held Raqqa, No Escape for Thousands of Civilians, Amnesty Warns
Soldiers with the Syrian Democratic Forces look at smoke rising after an airstrike during fighting with ISIS in its Syrian stronghold of Raqqa on Aug. 12, 2017. (Morukc Umnaber/AP Images)
Thousands of civilians in Raqqa are trapped, caught between ISIS’s mines, snipers and booby traps on the ground, and air and artillery strikes from a coalition fighting to liberate the Syrian city from ISIS control.
A report published by Amnesty International on Thursday details the deadly cost of the fighting. As many as 25,000 civilians are thought to be trapped in Raqqa, with many being used by ISIS as human shields. As a result, Amnesty said, 146 civilians were killed in June and July in bombings by an international coalition being led by the United States and its allies on the ground, a group of Kurdish and Arab fighters known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). As many as 60 children and 42 women were among the dead, according to Amnesty.
Other estimates have placed the death toll from the first two months of the offensive even higher. Airwars, a U.K.-based group that monitors civilian causalities in Syria, estimates 480 civilians died in air and artillery strikes by the coalition — as many as 119 of them children. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, also based in the U.K., estimates 523 civilians were killed in June and July, although it doesn’t break down who was responsible. In addition to fighting between ISIS and the U.S.-led coalition, areas south of Raqqa have also been under attack by the Russian-backed Syrian government.
The rapidly escalating battle, which began on June 6, is an indication of the city’s strategic importance to ISIS. In 2014, the group seized Raqqa and designated it the capital of its self-declared caliphate spanning territory in Syria and Iraq. Raqqa is where ISIS leadership is thought to have planned attacks abroad, and in the wake of ISIS’s recent defeat in the Iraqi city of Mosul, the city remains one of the last major urban centers under its control.
Those who managed to leave Raqqa told Amnesty that ISIS has scattered land mines and traps along escape routes throughout the city. The group has also set up checkpoints and used snipers to target those who are trying to flee.
To escape the fighting, many inside Raqqa have turned to smugglers to be led out of the city under cover of darkness. But in a stark illustration of the danger civilians face from all sides, Amnesty noted that escape “almost always” involved crossing the Euphrates River, where the American commander of the anti-ISIS coalition has vowed to “shoot every boat we find.”
“Civilians are thus trapped in the city, under fire from all sides, as the fighting intensifies,” Amnesty said. In its report, the group called on all sides, including the U.S.-led coalition, to stop using weapons that result in disproportionate and indiscriminate attacks.
Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the coalition’s commanding general, acknowledged the possibility of civilian deaths earlier this week, saying, “It’s probably logical to assume that there has been some increase in the civilian casualties, because our operations have increased in intensity.” He added, “I would ask someone to show me hard information that says that civilian casualties have increased in Raqqa to some significant degree.”
“There has been no military in the world’s history that has paid more attention to limiting civilian casualties and the deaths of innocents on the battlefield than the coalition military,” said U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who was next to Townsend when he made those remarks. Pointing out that ISIS hid among innocent civilians, Mattis said, “We’re not the perfect guys. We can make a mistake, and in this kind of warfare, tragedy will happen.”
Separately on Thursday, the United Nations called for a humanitarian pause that might allow the civilians trapped in Raqqa to escape.
“I cannot think of a worse place on earth,” Jan Egeland, the U.N.’s humanitarian adviser on Syria told reporters in Geneva. “There is heavy shelling from the surrounding and encircling SDF forces and there are constant air raids from the coalition. So the civilian casualties are large and there seems to be no real escape for these civilians.”
One survivor of the fighting in Raqqa, Ahmad, described to Amnesty an artillery strike that he witnessed in June. “It all happened in the space of a few minutes,” he said. “The shells struck one after another. It was indescribable; it was like the end of the world — the noise, people screaming. If I live a 100 years, I won’t forget this carnage.”