In June and July, the US-led Coalition of countries fighting the armed group calling itself the Islamic State admitted that reports of civilian casualties it had previously dismissed as “not credible” were, in fact, correct: in its assault on Raqqa, Syria, last year, Coalition forces had killed at least 77 civilians, as documented earlier this year by Amnesty International. The Coalition also acknowledged that an attack on a school near Raqqa had likewise killed dozens of civilians, as documented by Human Rights Watch – a claim also previously dismissed as “not credible.”
This grim news represents a step forward of sorts for the Coalition. Previous reports of civilian deaths at the hands of U.S. or Coalition forces by Amnesty, the United Nations and other human rights organizations had been dismissed out of hand. When Amnesty, where I work, reported on civilians killed by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, for example, we received no response at all. That may have been because the government would not even acknowledge it had engaged in drone strikes in the country—regardless, it left deaths publicly uncounted.
But if acknowledgement is a first step, it’s not nearly enough. Amnesty International researchers carried out extensive field investigations in 2017 and 2018, visiting sites of Coalition strikes in every neighborhood of Raqqa and interviewing survivors and witnesses of these strikes and other residents. The huge extent of civilian harm was such that they couldn’t possibly document its full scale – that would take much longer – so they focused on cases emblematic of the destruction wrought on Raqqa in the Coalition’s effort to rout the Islamic State from the city. Their report, ‘War of annihilation’: Devastating Toll on Civilians, Raqqa – Syria, describes the experiences of four families in different parts of the city who lost 90 relatives, friends and neighbors, most of them in Coalition strikes. Those cases demonstrated that repeatedly the U.S.-led Coalition used weapons and tactics in the battle that caused disproportionate civilian deaths and destruction.
While the Coalition used precision-guided munitions, many had large payloads that destroyed entire buildings housing civilians. By its own admission, the Coalition also fired 30,000 artillery rounds into Raqqa – a choice that seems extremely reckless in the vicinity of civilians, given the imprecise nature of artillery, which has more than a 100-meter margin of error for each shell.
The Coalition’s public acknowledgement – via its monthly Civilian Casualty report – that it is responsible for killing those civilians is important, but what now? Will the U.S. or its partners offer the survivors an explanation, apology or assistance? Will they provide reparation, including compensation, for their losses, as is legally required if the strikes were a violation of International Humanitarian Law? And will the Coalition even investigate to determine how those strikes happened, whether violations occurred, and make those findings public?
President Donald Trump’s apparent hurry to leave Syria, leading to his freeze of stabilization funds in March, may have implications for whether the U.S. will fully investigate and take responsibility for the consequences of its military assaults.
In signing the National Defense Authorization Act last week, President Trump made a point of saying that he interprets Section 1062, which requires detailed public reporting on civilian casualties from US military operations, not to require any change in the Pentagon’s civilian casualty investigations procedure. This is a shocking statement in light of the Coalition’s essential acknowledgement that its investigations are insufficient, failing to account for more than 100 civilian casualties documented by independent human rights groups.
Instead of defensively refusing to institute a meaningful investigations policy, the Trump administration should do the opposite: pledge to improve its investigations so that all allegations of civilian casualties from U.S. and Coalition military operations are thoroughly investigated, and survivors receive an explanation, compensation and assistance in rebuilding their lives.
In response to the Coalition’s admission, Amnesty International USA has written to Secretary of Defense James Mattis asking him to commit to these steps.
Even as he stepped up the fight against IS, Secretary Mattis said that he wanted to “avoid civilian casualties at all costs.” To do that, the military must acknowledge and learn from its past actions that killed large numbers of civilians. And it must take every possible step to make amends for the loss of civilian lives it caused.
While Amnesty was able to document civilian casualties suffered by four particular families in Raqqa in its last round of research, we believe this is just the tip of the iceberg. Based on Amnesty researchers’ conversations with survivors and witnesses in Raqqa, there are hundreds more civilian casualties caused by that military operation that remain unacknowledged. The survivors, meanwhile, continue to live in dire conditions, including many maimed for life, and many whose homes and livelihoods were destroyed.
In its June report, Amnesty International presented a prima facie case that the Coalition air strikes resulting in these specific cases of civilian casualties violated the laws of war: the likely harm was disproportionate to the expected military advantage, and troops failed to take reasonable precautions to protect civilians. In each instance, the Coalition’s claimed reason for targeting the specific site didn’t adequately explain why the attack killed so many civilians.
In some cases, the Coalition used weapons with wide-area effects where it should have known civilians would be killed. In others, the Coalition seemed to rely on faulty intelligence, and it is unclear what steps were taken, if any, to confirm that intelligence before launching the strike.
The Coalition’s admission of responsibility for these civilian casualties should kickstart further investigations to determine exactly what happened and why, and to pave the way for justice and reparation, where appropriate.
While nothing can bring back the dead or wipe away the unimaginable trauma residents suffered, the Coalition can at least provide restorative measures – including compensation and rehabilitation – to victims’ families and survivors, while it initiates investigations that can bring full justice and reparation.
Right to know
Civilians impacted by Coalition airstrikes have a right to know why their loved ones – very often their children – were taken from them. In four of the five fatal strikes documented by Amnesty International, the Coalition claimed it targeted “Daesh (IS) fighting positions,” unintentionally killing civilians in the process. In one case, a strike that killed five children and three adults, the Coalition said it targeted a “Daesh headquarters” and fighting positions.
Such short-hand explanations are inadequate. The Department of Defense should work with the Coalition to conduct an independent investigation that yields concrete and verifiable details as to what happened that led to such tragic consequences.
In addition to the verification of civilian deaths, the Coalition should provide the exact location and nature of the targets, the methodology used for verifying the targets, and the measures that were taken to minimize the risk to civilians.
It has been nearly a year since the armed group calling itself Islamic State has been ousted from Raqqa. There is no apparent military or security justification for withholding these details, which are crucial to determining the legality of strikes that killed and maimed civilians. It is only by accounting for what happened in Raqqa that the Coalition can avoid inflicting high civilian death tolls in future military operations.
Currently, victims’ families do not even know which Coalition member state carried out the strikes. All Coalition forces involved – in carrying out air strikes, refueling planes or providing surveillance intelligence – must acknowledge their role and accept responsibility for the deaths and damage caused.
In cases where it relied on faulty intelligence, the Coalition should also reveal how the intelligence was obtained and the efforts made to verify the targets before striking.
As Amnesty International made clear in its report, patterns of civilian life in urban conflict zones – including sheltering indoors for prolonged periods and searching for food and water in areas close to frontlines – were well understood before the military operation to wrest Raqqa from IS began in June last year.
The Coalition has not yet provided any information on the steps it took to ascertain the presence of civilians before carrying out these specific strikes. For example, the Coalition has not revealed for how long it monitored the buildings before striking them and how it triangulated the initial intelligence with other information sources.
Tip of the iceberg
Amnesty International’s report highlighted five cases involving just a few families devastated by Coalition strikes as emblematic examples of a wider pattern in the Raqqa military operation.
But the Coalition carried out thousands of strikes on Raqqa – about 150 strikes per day at the height of the battle — many more than Amnesty International or any other non-governmental organization could investigate and document.
- While the Coalition has now admitted killing eight civilians in one strike on June 28, 2017, it carried out another 16 strikes on the city that day.
- While it admits killing 11 civilians with a strike on July 18, 2017, it carried out a further 46 strikes that day.
- And while it admits to killing 16 civilians on October 12, 2017, that was just one of the 29 strikes it launched that day on Raqqa.
These are just a few days of the four-month military operation during which Coalition forces pounded Raqqa relentlessly – “every minute of every hour,” in the words of US Army Sergeant Major John Wayne Troxell.
The Coalition’s admission, based on Amnesty International’s research, underscores the importance of conducting field investigations of alleged civilian casualties, and exposes procedural flaws in the Coalition’s investigations that need to be resolved. Unless the thousands of Coalition strikes in Raqqa are rigorously investigated, the true scale of civilian casualties and responsibility for them will likely never be established, and Raqqa’s civilian population will be denied justice or accountability. What’s more, without a true accounting of civilian casualties, the Coalition itself and each of its members will lack critical information they need to protect civilian lives in its military actions going forward.
Congress in the NDAA did its part by requiring detailed reporting on the civilian casualties caused by US military operations. But that reporting won’t accomplish its intended goal if the Pentagon doesn’t also improve its investigation process so that it is actually accounting for all instances of killing civilians, why that happened, and taking full responsibility.
Specifically, the Pentagon should:
- Thoroughly and meaningfully investigate all claims of civilian casualties from the assault on Raqqa – and from all US military operations — to have an accurate assessment of the civilian harm caused;
- Put in place an independent, impartial mechanism to effectively and promptly investigate credible reports of violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), make the findings of such investigations public, and hold violators accountable;
- Put in place the mechanisms necessary to provide prompt and full reparation to victims and families of victims of violations, including compensation, restitution, and rehabilitation, and ensure adequate resources are budgeted for this purpose;
- Create a mechanism to allow all civilians harmed by U.S. actions to seek prompt compensation and assistance;
- Improve procedures for investigating civilian casualties in all military operations, to include field visits and interviews with witnesses and survivors whenever possible;
- Ensure lessons are learned and strikes in ongoing Coalition military operations are carried out in full compliance with IHL;
- End the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects, such as artillery and mortars, in the vicinity of populated civilian areas, consistent with the prohibition on indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks;
- Assume the presence of civilians when engaging IS fighters, given their past use of human shields, and take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians, including giving effective advance warnings of impending attacks to the civilian population in the concerned areas, including, when possible, by providing advice to civilians on possible evacuation routes;
- Ensure that the Syrian Defense Force and other partner forces comply with IHL, including by refraining from the use of mortars in the vicinity of civilian areas, and refraining from looting civilian property;
- Ensure that concrete plans for evacuation and humanitarian assistance to civilians are put in place and budgeted for sufficiently early in the planning of military operations, so that adequate food, water, shelter and medical care can be promptly provided to civilians displaced by such military operations.
The Coalition’s goal in these military assaults has been to “annihilate” IS, as Secretary Mattis put it. The U.S. is now preparing its “final phase” in its war against the IS in Syria, senior administration officials have said, while simultaneously cutting hundreds of millions of dollars from its budget to stabilize those areas of Syria that it helped capture from IS.
Lethal assaults on densely populated areas like Raqqa demand complex consideration, careful planning, and significant resources to protect civilians and help them in the aftermath. The U.S. military and the entire 77-member coalition owe that sort of planning and investment to the people forced to endure these horrific conflicts.
As Mattis has said, “it’s a tragedy every time” a civilian is killed. He also knows that civilians’ support will be crucial to the Coalition’s ability to sustain any sort of victory.