Syrian government attacks 'on Islamic State' killed over a hundred civilians in Raqqa - new report

A mosque was among the buildings badly damaged by November's airstrikes © REUTERS/Nour Fourat

A new report today by Amnesty International provides damning evidence that Syrian government forces unlawfully killed up to 115 civilians in a series of aerial attacks on the city of Raqqa in November, with some of the attacks possibly amounting to war crimes.

The 25-page report Al-Raqqa under attack: Syrian air force strikes against civilians documents a series of airstrikes between 11 and 29 November that killed scores of civilians, including 14 children. The attacks included assaults on a busy market crammed full of civilians, a mosque, shops, a transport hub, a storage facility and a residential building. 

According to the Syrian authorities, the attacks were meant to target members of and bases held by Islamic State, though Amnesty’s evidence shows that in most cases no military targets could be identified in the vicinity of the areas attacked. A witness who described to Amnesty the scene in the aftermath of the heaviest day of attacks - on Museum Market on 25 November, an attack apparently carried out by a Syrian MiG warplane - said 40 buildings were damaged, with no military bases or checkpoints anywhere in the vicinity. He said:

“It was a disaster… it is the main market in Raqqa and is usually packed with people during the day, I saw body parts everywhere. I carried 40 bodies to cars, ambulances and pick-ups that transferred them to [hospitals] … I saw at least 50 people with severe and minor injuries.”

Meanwhile, a witness to an attack on an area of Raqqa known as Industrial City described a similarly terrible scene: “I saw body parts everywhere. I saw bodies that were burnt and people who had injured extremities. I also saw a body hanging on the electricity wire, maybe from the blast.”

Industrial City is a heavily-populated area and residents there said there were no Islamic State bases or checkpoints in the vicinity, though Islamic State fighters sometimes used garages in the area to repair their vehicles. 

Amnesty’s report says that at the very least several of the Syrian government attacks on Raqqa that killed or injured civilians were disproportionate or otherwise indiscriminate. Some are likely to have been direct attacks on civilian objects and civilians, and Amnesty said these types of attacks should be investigated as war crimes. 

Amnesty International Middle East and North Africa Director Philip Luther said:

“Syrian government forces have shown flagrant disregard for the rules of war in these ruthless airstrikes. Some of these attacks give every indication of being war crimes.

“The government appears indifferent to the carnage caused by these strikes, refusing even to acknowledge civilian casualties they have caused. They have carried out repeated attacks on civilian areas without clearly identifying military targets, a blatant violation of the requirement to distinguish between civilians and military targets.

“The residents of al-Raqqa already have to endure the reality of life under brutal Islamic State rule. Punishing an entire civilian population simply because the city where they live is now under Islamic State control can never be justified.

“The government cannot continue to justify mass brutality with the charade that it is solely seeking to target ‘terrorists’. It has repeatedly used this as an excuse to carry out indiscriminate bombardments resulting in thousands of civilian casualties.”

Life in Raqqa under Islamic State 

Islamic State seized Raqqa last June and declared the city the capital of its “Islamic caliphate”, meaning all the territory under its control in both Iraq and Syria. Since then civilians in Raqqa have been subjected to a rule of fear, being forced to comply with the group’s extremist interpretation of Shari’a law. Those whom Islamic State considers have transgressed their edicts or who are suspected of opposing their rule have been punished with summary killings, amputations and floggings. Meanwhile, the Syrian government appears to be repeating a well-established pattern throughout the country of brutally punishing the civilian population for the presence of the government’s armed opponents. 

Devastating toll on civilians

Four years into the crisis in Syria the devastating toll on civilians is clear. All sides in the conflict have completely failed to implement a UN Security Council resolution passed in February 2014 which called for an end to attacks on civilians and indiscriminate attacks, to lift sieges of populated areas, to end arbitrary detention of civilians and torture, and to allow unhindered access for humanitarian aid.

Meanwhile, last week the #withSyria global coalition of humanitarian and human rights organisations revealed that 83% of all the lights in Syria have gone out since the start of the conflict. 

Amnesty International Middle East and North Africa Director Philip Luther said:

“Both Islamic State and government forces have been committing appalling crimes against civilians across Syria. Unless the Security Council enforces its resolution their suffering is only likely to multiply. 

“A referral of the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court would send a message to all warring parties that those who order or commit war crimes will be brought to justice, and an arms embargo would help stem the flow of weapons being used to commit these crimes.” 

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Al-Raqqa under attack: Syrian air force strikes against civilians