SYRIA

Raqqa airstrikes 'hit more civilians than IS group positions'

The airstrikes carried out by the Syrian regime on the city of Raqqa in the past 72 hours were the most deadly to hit the bastion of the Islamic group (IS) in the past three years. Officially, these air strikes were meant to target positions held by the jihadist organisation. However, the extensive damage and the high death toll in civilian zones has made some residents question the regime’s strategy.

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Airstrikes on Raqqa on November 25, 2014. Source: Facebook page Raqqa is Being slaughtered Silently.

The airstrikes carried out by the Syrian regime on the city of Raqqa in the past 72 hours were the most deadly to hit the bastion of the Islamic State group (IS) in the past three years. Officially, these air strikes were meant to target positions held by the jihadist organisation. However, the extensive damage and the high death toll in civilian zones has made some residents question the regime’s strategy.

The destruction after an air strike on November 25, 2014 on the square by the Syrian national museum in Raqqa. Source: Facebook page "Raqqa is Being slaughtered Silently".

On November 25 and 27, airstrikes carried out by the Syrian regime once again targeted Raqqa, a city located in northern Syria, which has been under the total control of the IS group since January 2014. According to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), 95 people died in these airstrikes. SOHR said that 50 of them were civilians, but it could not confirm if the other causalities were IS militants or not.

However, the death toll is even higher, according to the network of Syrian activists called "Raqqa is being slaughtered silently." They say that more than 200 people died and a hundred more were seriously wounded, the great majority of whom were civilians.

This information was confirmed by a member of the IS group in Raqqa contacted by FRANCE 24. He only confirmed three deaths from the ranks of the IS forces.

The minaret of the historic Al-Hinni mosque was destroyed in an air strike on November 25, 2014.  Source: Facebook page "Raqqa is Being slaughtered Silently"

FRANCE 24 built this map showing both the known IS group positions in the city and the zones bombed between November 25 and 27. Raqqa residents interviewed by FRANCE 24 say that, over this three day period, the regime targeted numerous civilian zones that do not have IS posts. Moreover, they said that the strikes did not hit the positions known to be controlled by the jihadists.

This map shows the areas bombed on November 25 and 27, 2014 as well as the known positions held by the Islamic State group.

"Ils n’ont bombardé que des zones habitées, les quartiers populaires, très pauvres"

Our Observer in Raqqa, Abou Mustafa (not his real name), survived the strikes on November 25. He told his story.

The regime started to bomb the city at 2pm. First, they hit the north of Raqqa, then the industrial zone located in the eastern part of the city. Next, the regime bombed the centre of town in numerous locations, notably in the area close to the historic Al-Hinni mosque and the national museum. It’s a busy shopping area and a working-class neighbourhood. Finally, they struck near Poulman train station, where the Post Office is located.

I was at home. By sheer luck, the neighbourhood where I live was not bombed. When the strikes finally stopped, I went out into the street. The ground was strewn with bodies. I even recognised some of my friends. There were more than 200 deaths in Raqqa. It was a massacre. For the moment, only 70 people have been identified. The others were found in such terrible conditions that they are not even recognizable. The medical services and paramedics did everything possible to save lives, despite the extreme limitations of being in Raqqa.

Members of the IS group helped them to transport bodies. Those who weren’t helping were watching us closely. They forbid us from taking pictures or filming. They have their own official press agencies like AAMAQ.

The regime is punishing the IS group for the video they published of the execution of 18 officers from the Syrian Army. We were expecting a response but it was much more ferocious than we could have possibly imagined.

They only bombed residential areas—very poor, working class neighbourhoods. The regime didn’t bomb IS positions. They didn’t touch the Governor’s building, for example. It’s a 200 square metres! The regime could have targeted it, but they didn’t. Each time, they chose to bomb residential zones instead and kill dozens of people.

Air strike on Raqqa on November 25, 2014. Source.

Contrary to the Syrian regime, the international coalition doesn’t strike civilian areas. They always strike IS targets with precision. [Editor’s note: Coalition strikes have also caused civilian victims.]

Raqqa’s residents are used to airstrikes and they can tell which are from the regime and which are from the coalition. They recognise the coalition airplanes from the noise made by their motor and the speed with which they fly. They are both louder and faster than those belonging to the Syrian army but people are much less afraid of them. In fact, when they hear the regime planes coming, people run towards IS positions because they know that those will be the safest areas. [Editor’s note: Another source who knows Raqqa explained that it is now a dark joke between the residents. However, it is based on the very real observation that known IS targets are less frequently targeted than certain civilian zones.]

Air strike on Raqqa on November 25, 2014. Source.

Most of the time, the residents are hit while trying to run. They have about 30 seconds from when they first hear the aircraft to the first air strike. If they are at home, they go down to the basement. If they are in the street, they just have to find shelter as best they can, but nothing really protects them from these random strikes.

Theory of "collective punishment" and technical inability to target strikes

FRANCE 24 managed to contact a member of the IS group who confirmed that none of the jihadist group’s positions were hit during the strikes carried out on November 25 and 27. He did not, however, specify where these positions were located.

The militant also said that he thinks the Syrian regime deliberately targets civilian and commercial zones in order “to cause the maximum amount of destruction and loss of human life.”

On the other hand, he refuted the claim that IS group posts are not targeted by the Syrian regime.

“The Syrian regime continues to try to locate our posts and our bases. Spies plot, or at least try to plot, our coordinates in order to guide the air raids, but they haven’t been successful up to this point.”

Video filmed after the air strikes on November 27, 2014 in Raqqa's city centre. Source.

Some IS group positions are well-known in Raqqa, but many are secret. Some sources describe hidden hospitals and requisitioned apartments that now serve as IS group bases. It’s a way for the IS group to melt into the civilian population.

Peter Harling is the Middle East project director for the International Crisis Group. He said that even if the Syrian army knew about these locations, they aren’t concerned about civilian casualities.

“Civilian casualties are not rare in these kinds of strikes, including ‘targeted’ strikes and those undertaken by the Americans. But the Syrian regime often strikes entire neighbourhoods— because they are technically incapable of hitting precise targets, because they are completely indifferent towards the fate of civilians and because they believe in the idea of ‘collective punishment’ in the regions outside of their control.

Bashar al-Assad also has another reason for launching air strikes in this zone, according to numerous specialists. By bombing the same targets, he wants to appear to be an ally to the international coalition against the IS group led by the United States. The reality, however, is much more complex.

"It’s another way to reinforce the perception of coordination, a de facto alliance or even a real coming together with the international coalition,” said Peter Harling.

This article was written with FRANCE 24 journalist Dorothée Myriam KELLOU (@dorakellou).