‘No proper precautions’: US-led coalition airstrikes near Raqqa killed 84 civilians, HRW says

The US-led coalition fighting ISIS in Syria killed at least 84 civilians, 30 children among them, when it carried out two lethal airstrikes near Raqqa in March, HRW said, adding that “no precautions” to minimize civilian losses were taken.

“In the two deadliest attacks, the US-led coalition struck a school and a market killing at least 84 civilians,” including 30 children, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a 42-page report released on Monday, adding that the coalition did not take adequate precautions to minimize civilian casualties.

“Although ISIS [Islamic State] fighters were also at these sites, the high civilian death toll raises concerns that military forces of the US-led coalition failed to take necessary precautions to avoid and minimize civilian casualties, a requirement under international humanitarian law,” it added.

The rights group said that the conclusions of the report, entitled ‘All Feasible Precautions? Civilian Casualties in Anti-ISIS Coalition Airstrikes in Syria,’ are based on an on-the-ground investigation into the attacks.

“The coalition should conduct thorough, prompt, and impartial investigations of the attacks, do everything feasible to prevent similar attacks, and provide compensation or condolence payments to people who suffered losses due to the coalition’s operations,” according to HRW.

“The new Trump administration has this extraordinary, malevolent attitude towards human rights and international laws,” Beirut-based journalist Martin Jay told RT.

“You’ve got to question, as the [HRW] report does, the quality of the [US] intelligence – which is sketchy at best and completely missing at worse. A school which apparently was being used as a weapons facility – which is very hard to prove or disprove, isn’t it? – and which as it turns out was actually being used as a refugee makeshift camp, a breadline which surely would have been visible from the sky by any pilot carrying out the campaign. It’s a really shocking indictment by the Trump administration.”

In two of the deadliest attacks in Tabqa and Mansourah, a Coalition aircraft struck a school housing displaced people in Mansourah on March 20, and a market and a bakery in Tabqa on March 22, HRW said. It added that IS fighters were present at both sites, along with a number of civilians.

The US-led coalition's Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF), in response to questions from Human Rights Watch, acknowledged that coalition forces carried out the Mansourah attack, saying that coalition forces targeted what they believed to be an IS intelligence headquarters and weapons storage facility.

Local residents, relatives of those killed, and survivors told HRW, however, that there were “dozens, if not hundreds” of civilians at each location at the time of the US-led strikes. They said the Mansourah school housed a large number of civilians, including many completely unaffiliated with IS. They also said the Tabqa market, which included a bakery, overwhelmingly served civilians, many of whom were queuing at the bakery at the time of the attack.

“The coalition should conduct thorough, prompt, and impartial investigations of the attacks, do everything feasible to prevent similar attacks, and provide compensation or condolence payments to people who suffered losses due to the coalition’s operations,” HRW noted.

“These attacks killed dozens of civilians, including children, who had sought shelter in a school or were lining up buy bread at a bakery,” Ole Solvang, deputy emergencies director at HRW, said in a statement.

“If coalition forces did not know that there were civilians at these sites, they need to take a long, hard look at the intelligence they are using to verify its targets because it clearly was not good enough,” he added.

These attacks are not unique, HRW noted, adding that on March 16, US aircraft struck a mosque near al-Jinah, west of Aleppo, killing dozens of people whom residents identified as civilians.

The authority that approved the strikes did not know that the target was a mosque, a military investigation concluded. The investigation denied the presence of large numbers of civilians, however, and only admitted that one civilian had probably been killed.

US-led coalition airstrikes on Raqqa, an Islamic State stronghold in Syria, have claimed many civilian lives and forced tens of thousands to flee. The ancient city is currently under siege by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-led militia backed by the US-led coalition. The besieged city has come under heavy air bombardment while civilians are trapped in IS-occupied neighborhoods.

“The coalition launched heavy airstrikes over the residential areas and nearby towns in the western and northern sectors, especially northward, where they targeted ISIS headquarters, and also locations where civilians were killed,” one displaced local, Ahmad Ibrahim, told Ruptly last week.

Schools, where students were studying, have been targeted as well. There was nothing there, and they have just been hit and destroyed,” he added.

Earlier this month, the US-led coalition confirmed another 61 “unintentional civilian deaths” caused by its airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, raising the number of civilians it has acknowledged killing since 2014 to at least 685. 

The deadliest incident occurred in a March 14 strike near Mosul, Iraq, in which the US-led forces attacked an Islamic State position where militants were firing at its allies, and 27 civilians were killed.

The coalition is currently investigating a total of 455 reports of civilian casualties caused by its artillery or airstrikes, the statement said. Between August 1 and 29, it conducted 1,094 airstrikes in and near the city of Raqqa – up from 645 in July.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, said late last month that the battle to regain Raqqa and Deir-ez-Zor from Islamic State must not be waged at the expense of the lives of civilians.

“Given the extremely high number of reports of civilian casualties this month and the intensity of the airstrikes on Raqqa, coupled with ISIL’s use of civilians as human shields, I am deeply concerned that civilians – who should be protected at all times – are paying an unacceptable price and that forces involved in battling ISIL are losing sight of the ultimate goal of this battle,” he said.