ISTANBUL—Three weeks into a major military operation to destroy the so-called Islamic State in its self-styled capital of Raqqa, Syria, the U.S.-led international coalition has yet to confirm a single civilian casualty.
Last week, coalition forces bombed and shelled a mosque in central Raqqa, killing 18 civilians, and shelled a bakery, killing 10 or more civilians, according to two Syrian opposition news agencies and a Raqqa human rights monitoring group.
But the coalition declined to confirm either incident and told The Daily Beast it would address the allegations only in its monthly report on civilian casualties.
The U.S. military, which dominates and directs the Raqqa operation, has refused thus far to embed reporters with its forces on the ground or to provide photos, whether from the ground or from satellites, showing the extent of destruction.
According to Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RIBSS), an internationally known human rights monitor, 88 civilians died or are missing following coalition shelling or bombing from July 21 to July 26, compared to nine civilians killed by ISIS mines or mortars. At least 18 were civilians fleeing in cars or boats across the Euphrates river, the RIBSS said.
Airwars, a British-based monitoring group, said it had tracked 60 allegations of civilian casualties in Raqqa last week alone.
But under the current information set-up, it is almost impossible for the public to know what really happened on a given day. This includes the number of civilian casualties, the level of destruction inflicted by the coalition or the possibility of war crimes by the United States or its proxy on the ground, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
The Coalition issues daily a brief compilation of air strikes that doesn’t specify the exact location, and there is no way to construct an independent narrative of an event or to seek accountability for military operations in real time.
Col. Ryan Dillon, the U.S. spokesman for the coalition, told reporters Friday that the U.S. has an obligation to report any violation of the Law of Armed Conflict by the SDF, but said: “We have not seen that.”
The coalition for its part “strikes only valid military targets” in line with “the principles of military necessity, humanity, proportionality and distinction between civilians and military targets,” the U.S. Central Command said in an email to The Daily Beast.
There’s no way to verify these assertions, even when cases cry out for an immediate investigation.
According to Chris Woods, the head of Airwars, it takes an average six weeks for the U.S. to acknowledge the killing of civilians in an incident. That’s actually an improvement in timeliness from last year, when it took on average six months for the U.S. military to acknowledge deaths of civilians, he said.
Although American military advisers are on the ground and at the front lines, and the U.S. controls both the air and artillery wars, the U.S. has refused to embed reporters, saying that it is only playing a support role for the SDF, which is taking the lead.
The SDF has brought a number of foreign journalists to select locations, but many are wary of the organization, whose top officers are from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units or YPG. But the YPG is the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK, which is listed by the U.S., the E.U. and Turkey as a terrorist group. And the SDF has a history of denying civilian casualties, according to Woods. Typically it charges that groups collecting data are propagandists for the Islamic State.
Last week, after RIBSS charged that the coalition had destroyed two neighborhoods in Raqqa, Al Battani and Al Sinaa, in the course of military operations, the coalition refused to make photos from those two neighborhoods available.
“No, in order to protect operational security we are generally not making images available of ongoing operations,” a coalition spokesman responded by email. “We are supporting SDF operations in Syria. They are the lead and we are supporting. Please request specific operational information from the SDF.”
But to point to SDF operations in Syria as if they are happening independently of the Americans is misleading. The U.S. military, despite heavy criticism from Turkey, which is at war with the PKK, set up the SDF in late 2015 to incorporate Arab fighters into the Kurdish-led militia and it provides funds, weapons, ammunition, advisors, and every form of military support for the SDF.
Even under its new hubrid name, the SDF had no interest in the liberation of Raqqa, a predominantly Arab city, but was pressed into it by the U.S. government. And according to Chris Woods of Airwars, the U.S. military is carrying out 95 per cent of the airstrikes in Raqqa as well as all the shelling by heavy artillery.
The U.S. military says it’s watching the SDF closely, but spokesman Dillon could not assure reporters that the SDF was investigating allegations of civilian abuse or war crimes. “I do not know if they are investigating or looking into allegations,” he said Friday. “I can’t speak for the SDF.”
It sounds like passing the buck, but even that’s a deception.
The Daily Beast contacted Col. Talal Silo, the SDF spokesman, with a request to discuss civilian casualties, but he said he was not authorized to discuss the Raqqa operation and referred questions to “Comrade” Jihan Sheikh Ahmed, the official spokeswoman for the Raqqa operation.
Over two days, The Daily Beast telephoned her or sent half a dozen messages via WhatsApp. She did not respond to messages sent in Arabic; when addressed in English, she responded in Arabic: “Hi. I don’t speak English.”