Civilian Casualties Continue To Mount As Raqqa Offensive Continues

Air raids on Raqqa conducted by the US-led coalition killed 29 civilians in the space of 24 hours, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) has revealed. According to figures provided by the SOHR, this week’s deaths add to at least 523 other civilians who were killed since the campaign to liberate Raqqa began in early June of this year, 109 of whom were children under 18. With the Raqqa offensive now well into its second month, there are mounting concerns that despite the significant gains being made by coalition forces against the ‘Islamic State’ (IS), the coalition’s vigorous bombing campaign is causing an unacceptable loss of civilian life.

The offensive has yielded approximately 45 percent of Raqqa to coalition forces, but has been slow-going, as IS makes use of booby traps, tunnels, and improvised explosives to maintain its grip on the remaining 55 percent. Worse still has been the tendency of IS fighters to use civilians as cover, frequently concealing their operations in apartment complexes and houses where residents, who are unable to flee from IS or coalition attacks, remain. Yet, according to reports from clandestine sources trusted by United Nations officials, very few IS fighters actually remain.

“The number of Daesh [ISIS] fighters in the city does not exceed 500,” says Aghid al-Khodr, the head of an organization with contacts to these sources, who was quoted in the Guardian. He went on to that that “…if they’re going to destroy a residential building and wipe out all the people in it… then they will be liberating the city from both Daesh and the residents.” Al-Khodr’s observation reflects concerns common to all who have called into question the scale and scrupulousness of the coalition’s attacks, particularly about if the coalition is taking any precautions to avoid civilian casualties and how stringently are the coalitions’ own rules of engagement being followed?

While not providing an answer to these concerns, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid al-Hussein, has called on liberating forces to show more restraint in their efforts to eject IS from Raqqa. “The large number of civilian casualties indicates much more must be done by the parties to ensure the safety of the civilian population,” Commissioner al-Hussein observed. He also added that “Civilians must not be sacrificed for the sake of rapid military victories.”

Furthermore, although defeating the Islamic State is clearly of great importance, it does not take priority over protecting civilians and ensuring that harm does not come to them. As such, each and every civilian casualty in the Raqqa offensive should be treated for what it is: a tragedy that compels the coalition to adjust its strategy. While not unexpected, casualties are not acceptable and cannot merely be written off as collateral damage falling within a tolerable range.

With that said, according to the UN, over 100,000 civilians still remain in Raqqa, trapped between fierce coalition air strikes and brutal mistreatment at the hands of IS. Thus, for the sake of these women, men, and children still remaining, it is crucial that the coalition pares back the ferocity of its bombing campaign.

Matthew Bucki-Smith