Where is the outrage over the Raqqa bloodbath?
by Ian Sinclair
7 February 2019
I’m guessing very few readers of the Morning Star read The Times. This is understandable but it’s important to remember even Tory-supporting newspapers often publish useful information.
For example, Morning Star readers will have found much of interest in Anthony Loyd’s dispatch from Raqqa in Syria subtitled “Civilians Bore the Brunt of Allied Bombing,” published in The Times just before Christmas.
The report concerned the US-led military operation undertaken between June and October 2017 which drove the Islamic State (IS) from the northern Syrian city, which it had taken control of in early 2014.
The US-led coalition carried out airstrikes and artillery barrages in support of Syrian Democratic Forces on the ground as part of what US defence secretary James Mattis stated was a larger war of “annihilation.”
Speaking to Reuters at the beginning of the incursion, United Nations (UN) humanitarian spokesman Jens Laerke said the UN estimated 160,000 people remained in the city.
The First Response Team Loyd spoke to in Raqqa said they had recovered 3,280 corpses since January 2018, including the bodies of 604 children.
“In some instances it can be difficult to tell the exact manner of death,” explained first responder Riyad al-Omeri, who is responsible for the organisation’s records. “But let’s be clear about this. Most of the dead are civilians killed in airstrikes.”
“Islamic State was cruel to all but the coalition used airstrikes against us as if we were animals,” Hannan Mukhalf, who lost 11 members of her family in a coalition airstrike, told Loyd.
“I challenge anyone to find a more precise air campaign in the history of warfare,” coalition commander Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend stated at the time of the offensive.
A plethora of sources corroborate Omeri’s and Mukhalf’s testimonies rather than Townsend’s fantastical claim.
“The intensification of airstrikes … has resulted not only in staggering loss of civilian life, but has also led to 160,000 civilians fleeing their homes and becoming internally displaced,” Paulo Pinheiro, chair of the UN independent international commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, noted early on in the assault.
In addition, the Guardian reported on footage showing the coalition firing white phosphorus into built-up areas, while Amnesty International has noted the so-called battle for Raqqa destroyed 80 per cent of the city.
According to independent monitoring group Airwars, “Most damage to the city — described in January 2018 by USAid chief Mark Green as devastation ‘almost beyond description’ — was the result of US air and artillery strikes.”
In February 2018 the Marine Corps Times provided more detail about the offensive, reporting that “a small marine artillery battalion,” using M777 howitzers, fired 35,000 rounds in Raqqa — “more rounds than any artillery battalion since Vietnam.”
The newspaper helpfully put these numbers in context: during the whole of the 2003 invasion of Iraq just over 34,000 artillery rounds were fired by all US forces.
Amnesty International also provided helpful context in its June 2018 investigation into the attack on Raqqa: “Given that standard artillery shells fired from an M777 howitzer have an average margin of error of over 100m, launching so many of these shells into a city where civilians were trapped in every neighbourhood posed an unacceptable risk to civilians.”
Based on fieldwork in Raqqa, including visits to 42 sites of air strikes, artillery and mortar strikes, Amnesty concluded the coalition strikes detailed in their report “appear either disproportionate or indiscriminate or both and as such unlawful and potential war crimes.”
Responding in part to the brilliant investigative work done by Airwars and Amnesty, in July 2018 the US military conceded its aerial bombardment of Raqqa “unintentionally killed” 77 civilians, in addition to 23 civilian deaths they had already admitted to.
Incredibly, the British military maintains they are not aware of any civilian deaths caused by the 275 airstrikes Loyd reports Britain carried out in Raqqa. “We conduct detailed assessments after every strike and we have not seen any evidence to suggest there were civilian casualties as a result of RAF strikes in Raqqa,” a Ministry of Defence (MoD) spokesperson told me.
“Through our rigorous targeting processes we will continue to seek to minimise the risk of civilian casualties, but that risk can never be removed entirely, particularly given the ruthless and inhumane behaviour of our adversary, including the deliberate use of human shields.”
In October, Amnesty described the MoD’s continued denial of civilian casualties as “a clear statistical improbability.”
In contrast to the public statement from the US and Britain, as of March 2018 Airwars had tracked “1,400 likely coalition-inflicted deaths” during the four-month assault.
“The intent may have been different … but through modelling the impacts, we have determined that there was not a huge difference in terms of civilian harm between the coalition in Raqqa and Russia in East Ghouta and Aleppo,” Airwars director Chris Woods told Loyd.
“In the end there does not always seem to be so much difference in harm caused by dumb weaponry versus smart weaponry when you are intensely bombing an area with a high civilian concentration,” he added.
As predicted by sharp media analysts like Media Lens and Dr Florian Zollmann, the mainstream media’s coverage of US and British actions in Raqqa has been woeful.
“Despite the horrors experienced by civilians during recent fighting, press reports from Raqqa have been filed far less regularly than its status as the former ‘Isis capital’ might have suggested,” Airwars noted in March 2018.
The de facto silence surrounding the West’s attack on Raqqa mirrors how the media has downplayed the West’s involvement in Syria since 2011.
The “Western democracies” have been “hovering passively on the sidelines in Syria,” was Simon Tisdall’s expert take in the Observer in February 2018.
In reality, “Washington did provide aid on a large scale to Syrian armed opposition,” Steven Simon, the senior director for Middle Eastern and north Africa affairs on the US national security council during the Obama administration, wrote in the New York Times in January.
Robert Malley, who served in the Obama administration as the White House co-ordinator on the Middle East, north Africa, and Gulf region, echoed Simon’s analysis on The Real News Network in August 2018: “We became part of the regime change — by definition, even if we denied it — once we were supplying the armed opposition which had only one goal … which was to topple the regime.”
The deaths of four Americans — two US soldiers, a civilian Department of Defence official and private contractor — last month in the northern Syrian town of Manbij confirms the US is very much involved in the Syrian war.
Indeed, before President Donald Trump’s recent withdrawal announcement, the US military had 2,000 troops stationed (illegally) in Syria, according to a November 2018 New Yorker article: “The United States has built a dozen or more bases from Manbij to al-Hasakah, including four airfields, and American-backed forces now control all of Syria east of the Euphrates, an area about the size of Croatia.”
As ever, where the US goes, Britain blindly follows. In March 2018, a British soldier from the Parachute Regiment was killed by an improvised explosive device while embedded with US forces in Manbij and last month two British Special Forces soldiers were seriously injured in an IS missile attack in eastern Syria, according to the Guardian.
Where is the media scrutiny into British forces fighting on the ground in Syria? Where are all the investigative journalists focusing on Britain’s laughable claims about civilian deaths? And where are the outraged editorials and comment pieces denouncing Britain’s involvement in the slaughter in Raqqa?
Fallujah in 2004, Sirte in 2011 and Mosul in 2016-17: is Raqqa destined to become another forgotten US-British bloodbath in the Middle East?
Follow Ian Sinclair on Twitter @IanJSinclair.