Thousands of Syrians are dead and their city devastated. How dare the US, UK and French militaries speak of ‘surgical strikes’?
May 23, 2019
Source: The Guardian | Kate Allen
From Kosovo to Iraq and Syria, the US and its military allies have for years told a tale of “precision bombing” and “surgical strikes”. It was a lie then and it’s a lie now. When huge numbers of bombs and missiles are unleashed on densely populated cities like Mosul or Raqqa, civilians are killed in their hundreds – possibly thousands. But still, the myth of precision and “meticulous processes” persists. Not least because militaries like our own refuse to even go back to the cities they’ve bombed, and refuse to acknowledge deaths unless presented with irrefutable evidence from the likes of Amnesty.
Last week I did what UK, US and French military officials refuse to do: I went to Raqqa to see for myself what has happened to this city as a result of mass bombardments by the US-led coalition between June and October 2017.
Never before have I seen a city so completely devastated. Not just in one district area, but almost entirely. Think Dresden and you’d be close. Street after street of windowless, hollowed-out buildings. Miles of rubble. Piles of twisted metal. Utter ruin. There has been no assistance for residents desperate to rebuild, and entire families are reduced to living in bombed-out husks of buildings. Meanwhile, many children spend all day scavenging in the rubble for bits of steel and plastic they can sell so as to buy food. They risk injury and death from unsafe buildings and uncleared landmines.
Among those I met in this ruined city was Mohamed, a 28-year-old carpenter who cares for his younger brother, Rabi’a, who is now paralysed after a coalition airstrike destroyed the building where his family was sheltering in October 2017. Most of his family were killed. Mohamed lost his wife, two children (the youngest of whom was 11 days old), his parents, his sister, her husband and their four children. With his family as devastated as the city he still inhabits, Mohamed has devoted himself to looking after his brother. It’s heartbreaking, tragic and deeply moving.
The battle to oust Islamic State from Raqqa followed the modern US military playbook. A massive aerial assault conducted with willing military powers (here, the UK and France); zero use of ground troops; and a reliance on proxy fighters at street level (here, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces militia). The bombardment was immense. For four months the coalition pounded the city into the ground – with thousands of airstrikes (215 from the UK, says the MoD) and 30,000 US artillery rounds. Never mind that artillery is notoriously imprecise and should not be used in heavily populated areas (such use is “indiscriminate” in international legal parlance), the coalition fired artillery round after artillery round into residential areas for four solid months. In fact, as US forces themselves boasted, more artillery was fired into the streets, squares and homes of downtown Raqqa than has been fired in any conflict in the world since Vietnam.
As I saw for myself, the results are predictably apocalyptic; 80% of the city has been reduced to ruins. More than 11,000 buildings are uninhabitable and Raqqa is widely considered the most-destroyed city of modern times.
On top of this lethally irresponsible behaviour, the coalition has refused to send investigators into the ruined city to establish the truth of its boast about “precision”. It has refused to set up a compensation fund for those maimed or bereaved by its handiwork. And – perhaps most worryingly of all – it has refused to even try to learn lessons from this latest exercise in mass bombing without responsibility.
Recently, Amnesty and Airwars presented the UK, US and French authorities with detailed evidence from our own painstaking on-the-ground investigation showing that at least 1,600 civilians in Raqqa were killed by the coalition’s aerial attacks, 10 times more than previously acknowledged. Collating huge data streams from investigations spanning almost two years and including multiple visits to Raqqa, we built a database of the victims, with names for more than 1,000 of the dead.
For the last two years, the coalition’s responses have been a mix of denial, attacks on the messenger and grudging acknowledgement of a small number of deaths when presented with irrefutable evidence.
Last year, after Amnesty published a 70-page report based on 42 site visits in Raqqa and interviews with 112 beleaguered Raqqa residents, then defence secretary Gavin Williamson responded not with alarm at the report’s findings but with a broadside against Amnesty from the House of Commons despatch box. Our report was “deeply disappointing” and “disgraceful”. We needed to recognise the “amazing professionalism of our Royal Air Force”. Flag-waving rather than dealing with the unpalatable facts – this was yet another aggressive denial from a government increasingly unwilling to hold its own military forces to account.
Last week, Willamson’s successor Penny Mordaunt signalled that the UK would in future go even further in its refusal to deal with alleged war crimescommitted by UK forces overseas.
The fact that Isis fighters terrorised and effectively held hostage vast populations in Syria and Iraq doesn’t justify the coalition in indiscriminate bombing campaigns. Our armed forces are supposed to be better than that. If they are not, it is largely because our politicians and top brass continue to wave their flags and hide behind the lie of precision.