While the US claims to have ‘won’ a number of battles against terrorists in Iraq and Syria, latest being the one in the city of Raqqa, these victories—almost all of them—have been achieved at a great human cost, leaving behind tales of destruction, showing minimum to no regard for the preservation of human life or even property. Despite the hard earned victory in Raqqa, the city–once a vibrant metropolis on the Euphrates River–is destroyed almost completely. Thanks to massive US air strikes in support of their ground allies, the Kurds, the United Nation estimates that 80 percent of Raqqa is uninhabitable now, raising a crucial question of who was the city won for and who will be placed there after Daesh has been forced to flee and re-locate?
While the ‘liberators’ of Raqqa have said that the (destroyed) city will return to local governance and leadership and that the city’s residents now have a chance to control their own future, the fact remains that the city has nothing, neither standing buildings nor residents, that the local authorities will be managing or governing. Most of the residents have long fled, with tens of thousands of the city’s former inhabitants scattered across refugee camps or abroad. Plus, there is nothing for them to return to, and many of the predominantly Sunni Arab population distrust their ‘liberators’ and the Raqqa Civil Council, which they see as a cover for the Kurdish-led SDF. In addition to it, the people continue to doubt if international aid would ever reach them to facilitate such large scale rehabilitation.
They have reasons to distrust–reasons that include previous examples of complete post-victory abandonment in cities such as Kobani. While Daesh’s defeat in this pre-dominantly Kurdish town in early 2015 helped turn the tide against the group and marked the start of a more open US military relationship with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, the city was completely destroyed and remains in tatters even after two years. “There were never (reconstruction) projects that reflected the scale of destruction,” said Khaled Barkal, a vice president in the local government.
And, while the Western media seems to defend the destruction of Raqqa, as also other cities, by asking if there was any other way of winning, the fact of the matter is that it is not just Raqqa or Kobani that have been destroyed completely or partially as a result of US bombing. In fact, there is a long list.
For instance, almost a year ago, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, accused the US airstrikes for the death and destruction of many civilians and buildings in the city of Manjib. On July 19, US airstrikes on a Syrian village killed at least 73 civilians, a majority of them women and children. According to AirWars director Chris Wood, “This is likely the worst reported civilian toll of any coalition attack since the bombing campaign against Isis began nearly two years ago.” And, while an investigation into this incident had been ordered and its results confirmed that the US had “inadvertently” killed civilians, its significance was played down by the Centcom, which said that the reason for this incident was the fact that ISIS was “interspersing” civilians with its fighters.
But the destruction of Raqqa has nothing to do with ISIS using buildings or human beings as shields. It is mainly due to thousands of strikes the US did on the city. According to the figures provided by the UNO itself, the US conducted nearly 1,100 air strikes on and near Raqqa in the month of August alone, up from 645 in July, adding that the “attacking forces may be failing to abide by the international humanitarian law principles of precautions, distinction, and proportionality.”
This could only lead to hundreds of civilians killed. As the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said in a recent statement, it had documented 168 civilian deaths from airstrikes in Raqqa since Aug. 14. The Syrian Network for Human Rights has recorded the deaths of at least 458 civilians, including 134 children and 103 women, since June.
This utter disregard for human lives by the US-led coalition is not, however, exclusive to Raqqa only. The same was the case with Mosul victory as well. On June 9, 2o17, the UNO confirmed that about 80 civilians had been killed in a single US airstrike in the city. This was, according to the various reports of organisations including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Centre for Civilians in Conflict, not due to ISIS using human shields but due to the massive use of heavy ordnance, such as 500 pound (227 kilogramme) air-delivered bombs, causing excessive and disproportionate damage to civilian life and property.
It was again the use of such heavy bombs that caused the death of at least 105 civilians in May 2017 in one of the deadliest attacks anywhere in Iraq since the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. According to the Pentagon report, the US jet had dropped a 500lb bomb on a house where ISIS fighters were placed.
While the Centcom officials still have insisted that they take “extraordinary efforts to strike military targets in a manner that minimises the risk of civilian casualties”, independent monitors say that these efforts have not been enough to achieve the stated purpose, leading, according to a report of Airwars, 3,800 civilians deaths due to US airstrikes since the bombing campaign began in 2014.
There are still other examples that reflect the mindless bombing campaign the cities and people of Syria and Iraq have been subjected to. What adds to the sense of desolation is the fear of uncertain future, be it Raqqa or Mosul or Kobani, after liberation from ISIS. Just as elsewhere, an uncertain future awaits the people of Raqqa as the US officials have said that they have no intention of giving the territory back to the Syrian government. In simple words, with no international aid forthcoming, displaced residents of Raqqa will see massive bombing campaigns simply replaced and followed by massive governance and management crisis, providing with little to no incentive to return and re-build.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.