U.S.-led Coalition Accused of War Crimes in Syria, May Have Killed Hundreds of Raqqa Civilians

The U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS may have committed war crimes as its airstrikes rained down on civilians trapped by the brutal fighting in the Syrian city of Raqqa last year, a new report claims.

According to an investigation by Amnesty International, American, British and French strikes on the city from June to October 2017 "decimated extended families and neighborhoods" as the coalition embarked on a "war of annihilation."

Amnesty alleged that the western powers did not do enough to protect civilians during the assault on Raqqa, claiming its investigation provided "prima facie evidence that several coalition attacks that killed and injured civilians violated international humanitarian law."

A Syrian woman looks back as civilians gather on the western front after fleeing the center of Raqqa on October 12, 2017. Coalition forces have been accused of not doing enough to avoid civilian casualties during the assault on the city. BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images

The last major city held by ISIS, Raqqa's fall became a powerful symbol of the group's ongoing collapse. June 6 marks the one-year anniversary of the beginning of the operation to take the city, as Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias advanced under the cover of coalition strikes.

After heavy fighting, surviving ISIS fighters were allowed to leave the city in October 2017. The U.S., British and French militaries claimed they did everything possible to minimize the risk of collateral damage during the operation, but Amnesty says hundreds died and thousands more were injured during the assault.

The U.S. said it fired more than 30,000 artillery rounds during the five-month operation, and American forces were responsible for 90 percent of the airstrikes on the city, Amnesty reported.

The organization interviewed 112 civilian residents of Raqqa and visited the sites of 42 air, artillery and mortar strikes. The report focused on four cases in particular, which Amnesty said amounted to war crimes. The group detailed attacks on the Aswad family, which lost eight family members in a single airstrike; the Badran family, which lost 39 members; the Hashish family, which lost 18 members; and the Fayad family, which lost 16 members.

Heavy smoke billows following an airstrike in Raqqa on July 17, 2017 during an offensive by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces to retake the city from ISIS. BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images

In all cases "witnesses reported that there were no fighters in the vicinity at the time of the attacks," Amnesty said. "Such attacks could be either direct attacks on civilians or civilian objects or indiscriminate attacks."

Amnesty acknowledged that the situation in Raqqa was dire, as ISIS used minefields, booby traps and snipers to stop civilians fleeing the besieged city. Many innocent residents died alongside the militants, used as human shields.

Despite these challenges, Benjamin Walsby, an Amnesty International Middle East Researcher, asked: "If the coalition and their SDF allies were ultimately going to grant ISIS fighters safe passage and impunity, what possible military advantage was there in destroying practically an entire city and killing so many civilians?"

"When so many civilians are killed in attack after attack, something is clearly wrong, and to make this tragedy worse, so many months later the incidents have not been investigated," said Donatella Rovera, a senior crisis response adviser at Amnesty International. "The victims deserve justice."

In a statement sent to Newsweek, Britain's Ministry of Defence asserted its forces "do everything we can to minimize the risk to civilian life through our rigorous targeting processes and the professionalism of the [Royal Air Force] crews." The statement said ISIS tactics and Raqqa's "congested, complex urban environment" meant "the risk of inadvertent civilian casualties is ever present."

The ministry explained that all reports of civilian deaths "are and will continue to be taken very seriously," and said all missions "comply fully with international humanitarian law" and are planned "meticulously" to avoid civilian casualties.