Hundreds of Raqqa residents reportedly killed by airstrikes on Isis stronghold amid changes in targeting policy under Trump
Concerns are mounting over the civilian cost of the US-led coalition’s campaign to reclaim Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa, with reports of airstrikes killing and wounding hundreds of Syrians. .
The reports, which cannot be definitively confirmed but are considered reliable by UN officials, raise questions about the US commitment to protect civilians in the battle amid the reported loosening of the rules of engagement under President Donald Trump.
“The coalition is not taking any precautions to avoid civilian casualties,” said Aghid al-Khodr, a senior editor at Sound and Picture, an organisation that maintains a network of clandestine correspondents in the Isis capital.
“The number of Daesh [Isis] fighters in the city does not exceed 500, but if they’re going to destroy a residential building and wipe out all the people in it every time they want to kill a Daesh fighter then they will be liberating the city from both Daesh and the residents,” he said.
The battle to liberate Raqqa, the capital of the terrorist group’s self-proclaimed caliphate, began two months ago with incursions into the city by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a confederation dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Arab auxiliary militia. The campaign is backed by the US-led coalition, which arms the SDF and has launched hundreds of airstrikes in support of the ground forces.
It followed a meticulous ground campaign that ousted Isis from large territories surrounding the city, and which led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians who fled the militants and the fighting, settling in refugee camps or with members of their tribes in eastern Syria.
The SDF is believed to control about half of Raqqa, but the battle to reclaim the rest of the city is likely to be a grinding effort due to Islamic State’s extensive use of human shields and booby traps. Civilians can only escape by paying exorbitant amounts to smugglers, and aid organisations say they lack food and medicine to treat the wounded.
“Some of our patients have been trapped behind frontlines for days or even weeks,” said Vanessa Cramond, the medical coordinator for Turkey and Syria at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which has treated 415 patients from Raqqa and its surroundings since June.
“In Raqqa city, if you don’t die from airstrikes, you die by mortar fire; if not by mortars then by sniper shots; if not by snipers, then by an explosive device,” MSF said, quoting a 41-year-old patient with shrapnel wounds who lost seven family members in the fighting. “And if you get to live, you are besieged by hunger and thirst, as there is no food, no water, no electricity.”
But the campaign’s progress has been tarnished by a stream of reports of airstrikes that have killed dozens of civilians in recent weeks, sometimes burying entire families in the rubble, raising questions about whether the coalition is taking enough precautions to protect civilians and how Raqqa could be stabilised after Isis is defeated.
The coalition’s targeting policy was reportedly loosened under President Trump, including delegating battlefield decisions to field commanders.