The US-led coalition campaign to liberate the Syrian city of Raqqa from the clutches of Islamic State killed hundreds of civilians and injured thousands, a charity has claimed.
Ahead of the one-year anniversary of the start of the offensive, Kate Allen, the director of Amnesty International UK, said Britain “needs to come clean over its role in this carnage”.
War Of Annihilation: Devastating Toll On Civilians, Raqqa, published by Amnesty on Tuesday, claims coalition air and artillery strikes detailed within it “appear either disproportionate or indiscriminate or both and as such unlawful and potential war crimes”.
“Civilians in Raqqa have suffered grievously at the hands of IS, but they’ve also been imperilled by the coalition’s disproportionate aerial attacks,” Ms Allen said.
“The coalition’s operations in Raqqa have killed hundreds and injured thousands of civilians and the UK needs to come clean over its role in this carnage.
“Having conducted more than 200 airstrikes in Raqqa, the UK needs to be able to show that its targeting was proportionate and that it took proper measures to avoid unnecessary civilian casualties in its joint operations with the US and others.
“Instead of repeating a mantra about there being ‘no evidence’ of civilian casualties from UK airstrikes, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) should publish proper data about its Raqqa attacks – dates, times, locations, weapons used and intended targets.
“Crucially, ministers should explain how the UK has investigated the impact of its attacks in both Raqqa and Mosul.”
In response, coalition spokesman US Army Colonel Sean Ryan invited Ms Allen to “leave the comforts of the UK” and to head to Syria and Iraq to see how they are “fighting an enemy that does not abide by any laws, norms or human concern”.
“There, she can personally witness the rigorous efforts and intelligence gathering the coalition uses before any strike to effectively destroy IS while minimising harm on civilian populations,” he told the Press Association.
“She can see firsthand our enemy using civilian non-combatants as shields against (the) coalition in order to sadistically claim that the coalition is ‘killing’ civilians.
“Finally, she can see the painstaking efforts we make to assess allegations of civilian casualties.”
He said Amnesty International has not contacted the coalition for details on how strikes are conducted, or if their processes meet the requirements set out in international treaties and agreements, which he said they do.
Col Ryan said the findings collated in the report which claim strikes were disproportionate or indiscriminate are “more or less hypothetical”, and stressed that any “non-combatant death or injury is a tragedy” with “meticulous processes in place to ensure we do everything possible to avoid them”.
In 2014 IS blitzed across Syria and seized Raqqa, before spreading into north and western Iraq, to capture Mosul – they even advanced to the edges of Baghdad.
The UK is just one country that makes up the Global Coalition of 75-members joined together in a commitment to eradicate IS – with the RAF so far carrying out more than 1,600 strikes as part of Operation Shader.
Last month the MoD admitted for the first time that a civilian on a motorbike had been “unintentionally killed” in eastern Syria as a result of an RAF Reaper drone strike on March 26.
Col Ryan said the conflict was “started by IS and their fake caliphate, at the expense of many thousands of lives killed in service of fanatical and selfish purposes”.
He also called on Amnesty for their thoughts on the countless innocent lives that could have been lost had the coalition not intervened against the extremists which “murdered, pillaged, raped and stole their way to gaining full control of swathes of areas in Iraq and Syria”.
The four-month coalition military operation to eradicate the terror group from Raqqa, the capital of their so-called caliphate, began on June 6 and was declared over on October 17 last year.
During the course of the operation homes, buildings and much of the city and its infrastructure were “damaged beyond repair” after tens of thousands of strikes, the report states.
Across two weeks Amnesty researchers visited 42 coalition airstrike sites and interviewed 112 survivors and witnesses – who told of the destruction caused by the aerial bombardments.
The charity said the harrowing stories and recollections of immense family losses stand in stark contrast to the coalition’s claims that they took great pains to minimise civilian casualties.
Despite acknowledging that IS “exacerbated the challenges inherent to urban combat by operating amongst civilians and using them as human shields”, Amnesty said these tactics “were well known”.
And it conceded how the dress code imposed on IS fighters and civilians “made it even more difficult” for Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the coalition to “distinguish between them”.
The report also suggests a deal negotiated between tribal leaders in Raqqa and the SDF to allow IS fighters to leave the city safely and with impunity could not have been possible without coalition agreement.
Questioning why the city was blitzed in light of the truce, Amnesty International Middle East researcher Benjamin Walsby said: “What possible military advantage was there in destroying practically an entire city and killing so many civilians?”
Col Ryan denied the coalition was “in the business of making deals” with IS, and said there was “still active fighting happening throughout the city” during that time, and to characterise the city as peaceful during those discussions is a “clear misstatement”.
An MoD spokesman said: “Keeping Britain safe from the threat of terrorism is the objective of this campaign and throughout we have been open and transparent, detailing each of our nearly 1,700 strikes, facilitating operational briefings and confirming when a civilian casualty had taken place.
“We do everything we can to minimise the risk to civilian life through our rigorous targeting processes and the professionalism of the RAF crews but, given the ruthless and inhuman behaviour of Daesh, and the congested, complex urban environment in which we operate, we must accept that the risk of inadvertent civilian casualties is ever present.”