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A “Death Trap” in Raqqa: Amnesty Finds U.S.-Led Coalition Killed More Than 1,600 Syrian Civilians

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Image Credit: Amnesty International

A major new investigation by Amnesty International and Airwars has revealed the U.S.-led military coalition killed more than 1,600 civilians during the 2017 offensive to oust ISIS militants from the Syrian city of Raqqa. The coalition launched thousands of airstrikes and tens of thousands of artillery strikes on the city. U.S. troops fired more artillery into Raqqa than anywhere since the Vietnam War. At the time, the United States claimed it was the “most precise air campaign in history.” We speak with Donatella Rovera, lead investigator with Amnesty International. She is calling on the U.S. and coalition nations to fully investigate the mass civilian casualties. Rovera is senior crisis response adviser at Amnesty International. The new investigation is titled “Rhetoric versus Reality: How the 'most precise air campaign in history' left Raqqa the most destroyed city in modern times.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We begin today’s show in Syria. A major new investigation by Amnesty International and Airwars has revealed the U.S.-led military coalition killed more than 1,600 civilians during the 2017 offensive to oust ISIS militants from the Syrian city of Raqqa. The coalition launched thousands of airstrikes and tens of thousands of artillery strikes on the city. U.S. troops fired more artillery into Raqqa than anywhere since the Vietnam War. At the time, the United States claimed it was the, quote, “most precise air campaign in history.” Amnesty is calling on the U.S. and coalition nations to fully investigate the mass civilian casualties. Amnesty International’s Donatella Rovera traveled to Raqqa to speak with survivors.

DONATELLA ROVERA: So, this is where we are going, because this is one of the bases where U.S. forces had their artillery battery. And they were firing from there volleys of unguided artillery shells into Raqqa. I didn’t come to Raqqa with any preconceived ideas of, you know, what had or had not happened. It’s a journey of discovering what happened. When I first came to Raqqa after the war, I knew that relentless American, British and French bombardment had killed civilians and destroyed much of the city during the battle to oust ISIS. But what I came to discover was that little or no protection was afforded to the thousands of civilians who were trapped in the city.

AMY GOODMAN: While Amnesty International’s Donatella Rovera was in Syria, she spoke with a woman named Ayat, whose entire family was killed in an airstrike.

AYAT: [translated] My children, my husband, my mother, my sister, my niece, my whole family—I’ve lost them all, my dearest ones. We were sitting in the basement when the rocket hit, just before sunset. When it hit, my face was burnt by the flames. My neighbor was in front of me and was left totally charred. When I came around, my son was screaming. He was in pain, but I couldn’t help them. He was screaming, “Mommy, help me!” I told him, “I can’t, my son. I can’t help you.” I was burnt. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t move my hands or feet. I wasn’t able to help him. He suffered until morning and then died. Those who can afford the missiles that kill children can afford to help. What was this war? Wasn’t the goal to free civilians? They were supposed to save us, to protect our children.

AMY GOODMAN: Those were the words of a Syrian woman named Ayat. A U.S.-led coalition airstrike killed her entire family.

We go now to London, where we’re joined by Donatella Rovera, the senior crisis response adviser at Amnesty International. She was the lead investigator of the investigation by Amnesty and Airwars titled “Rhetoric versus Reality: How the 'most precise air campaign in history' left Raqqa the most destroyed city in modern times.”

Donatella Rovera, welcome to Democracy Now! Just explain the level of the devastation and the involvement of the United States.

DONATELLA ROVERA: The devastation is clear for all to see. There is not a single neighborhood in Raqqa that was spared. There is more than 11,000 buildings that were destroyed or damaged, all over the city. People are living in the middle of the ruins.

As for the level of responsibility of the United States, they were the lead party in this military operation, that involved also U.K. and French forces. But more than 90% of the airstrikes were carried out by U.S. forces, and all of the artillery strikes were carried out by U.S. forces. So, the U.S. was, by far, the overwhelming power in this military operation that caused so many civilian casualties that could have been avoided.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Donatella, could you explain exactly what this investigation entailed and what your findings were?

DONATELLA ROVERA: We spent weeks and months in Raqqa. Just in the past year, I’ve been back to Raqqa for four times, for weeks at a time, visited more than 200 sites of coalition strikes and interviewed more than 400 witnesses and survivors and carried out on-the-ground investigation, beyond just collecting testimonies. So, for example, I went to scrap yards to find how much they had received by way of used artillery shells and other pieces of munitions. And then, as well as the on-the-ground investigation, we carried out very extensive remote sensing with our evidence lab. We had a project whereby thousands of volunteers examined more than 2 million satellite image frames. We examined every single scrap of information that was available on open sources.

And the findings of all that is that we were able to verify, on the ground, more than 640 civilian killed. And the rest, up to 1,600, are cases where we have names, where we have very strong and credible reports. The same is also—the same information has also been collected by Airwars. So, we have done a very large part of the job that the coalition should have done and has not done until now. They have not been in Raqqa investigating on the ground, speaking to survivors and witnesses, to try and find out what the impact of the military operation that they carried out has had on the civilian population.

Our investigation shows two things. First, it is not a question of some individual, isolated cases. It is way more widespread than that. Entire families, time and time again, were wiped out—10 people here, 20 people there, 30 people in another building and so on. And secondly, our investigation shows that it is possible to do this kind of investigation on a large scale in Raqqa. It is not always the case in a postwar theater, but it is possible to do so in Raqqa. Therefore, there’s no impediment, and therefore no reason why the U.S.-led coalition has not been willing to do a proper investigation so that facts can be established, they can take responsibility. Because, until now, the coalition has only admitted to roughly 10% of the civilian casualties they’ve caused. And that’s not good enough, frankly. Eighteen months have passed since the end of the war. It is time for the coalition to be transparent, to come clean, to take its responsibility for the civilian casualties that it has caused, and to provide reparation to the victims.

AMY GOODMAN: You say that U.S. marines boast they had fired more artillery into Raqqa than any time since Vietnam. One U.S. military official boasted about firing 30,000 artillery rounds during the campaign, the equivalent of a strike every six minutes for four months straight, surpassing the amount of artillery used in any conflict since the Vietnam War. Donatella?

DONATELLA ROVERA: That is deeply worrying. I mean, obviously, you know, this was said by U.S. marines on the record. It’s nothing to be proud of, because artillery is a battlefield weapon. It is not meant for urban area. Every artillery shell has a margin of error of 100 meters or more. And we all know that in a city, where there are civilians, even just 10 meters can make the difference between a legitimate military target and a house full of civilians. So, you know, artillery is cheap, but it is very costly in terms of civilian lives when used in areas around civilians. It should never be used around civilians.

And when it comes to the air-delivered munitions, the air bombardments that were carried out by the coalition forces, the munitions were precise but were very wide-impact-radius munitions, you know, big MK-type bombs that took out entire buildings. Six-, seven-floor buildings were taken out, with civilians inside. Again, those bombs are not your most sophisticated piece of kit that is at the disposal of U.S. forces. They could have used more precise, likely more expensive and requiring—more labor-intensive to use, but it would have been possible to achieve their military objectives without causing so much harm to civilians.

And secondly, the importance of the quality of the intelligence, because, ultimately, precision munitions are only as precise as the intelligence is. And the question is whether the coalition forces put all the time and resources that they should have and could have put in to verify the target, because if, time and time again, throughout the entire military operation, we had entire buildings taken out, with, you know, tens of civilians killed, something went horribly wrong. And it should be for the coalition to show an interest, 18 months after the end of the war, in understanding what went wrong, so that the same mistakes won’t be repeated the next time, because lessons should be learned from what has been a very tragic military campaign for so many families in Raqqa.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Donatella, in that the report is also titled—I mean, as you pointed out, the air campaign used relatively precise weapons, despite the resulting devastation, irrespective of their precision, but the artillery fire resulted in so many of these civilian deaths. And the report says that Raqqa was “the most destroyed city in modern times.” You’ve spent time both in Aleppo and in Mosul, both of which, of course, were almost entirely destroyed in war, in coalition airstrikes and NATO airstrikes. Can you talk about what happened in Raqqa that distinguishes it from these two previous wars, in Aleppo and in Mosul, Iraq—Aleppo, Syria?

DONATELLA ROVERA: It’s the scale, really. In Mosul, we saw the Old City, which is a small percentage of the city, that was entirely destroyed. In Aleppo, we saw the part of Aleppo that was under rebel control that was very largely destroyed. In percentage terms, Raqqa is another story, because in Raqqa it’s not one neighborhood or a few neighborhoods. The destruction is everywhere, with, you know, the—we’ve published a map that shows satellite imagery. It’s clear to see there isn’t a single neighborhood that was spared. So, in terms of percentage—I mean, obviously, Mosul is a much bigger city than Raqqa. The destruction there was concentrated in the Old City, which is a small percentage of the city of Mosul, thankfully. And again, in Aleppo, it was part of the city. In Raqqa, the destruction is everywhere. I have been working in a conflict situation all over the Middle East and Africa for the past two decades, and I haven’t seen this level of destruction, in percentage terms, anywhere else.

AMY GOODMAN: Amnesty International’s Strike Trackers project identified more than each of the 11,000 destroyed buildings in Raqqa hit, using this project, 3,000 digital activists in 124 countries. What did they do to determine this?

DONATELLA ROVERA: Basically, we had a project that involved online volunteers examining satellite image frames to locate the precise time when each building was destroyed. And every task was performed by multiple people, so there was a lot of peer review. And then, of course, the final information was reviewed by our qualified analysts. The importance of that project was that it allowed us to scale up the analysis of a very, very large volume of satellite imagery, that was important in understanding how the battle unfolded, troop movements, where the destruction was, and against where troop movements and the front lines were. So, that was a very important component.

And that is what makes this particular investigation different than what we’ve done before. It’s a multidimensional investigation, because it involves both very extensive work investigating on the ground, but also very innovative technology and considerable resources put into the remote sensing, looking at the satellite imagery on a very large scale and all the available information on open sources. And we’ve also done this in partnership with other organizations, such as Airwars and Syrian Archive, whereby we’ve pooled together our data and the data that they had been collecting remotely throughout the time of the military operation. And we’re also visualizing this particular—the findings of this investigation in a different way. It’s not the usual report. It’s a platform. It’s a site that will be live and that contains a lot of audio-visual material that people can explore. There is 360 imagery videos.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Donatalla, we will link to it. We’ll link to it at democracynow.org.


AMY GOODMAN: Donatella Rovera, senior crisis response adviser at Amnesty International, lead investigator of this extensive online resource that’s just been published, headlined “Rhetoric versus Reality: How the 'most precise air campaign in history' left Raqqa the most destroyed city in modern time.”

When we come back, former Vice President Joe Biden enters the 2020 presidential race. We’ll speak with journalist Andrew Cockburn. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: The late Pete Seeger singing “My Dirty Stream (The Hudson River Song).” That’s a never-before-released version of a song that appears on a forthcoming Smithsonian Folkways box set to mark the 100th anniversary of Pete Seeger’s birth, May 3rd, 1919.

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