Civilian Casualties Rising as Those Trapped in Raqqa Face Impossible Choices

A sustained jump in reported civilian deaths from U.S.-led coalition airstrikes since the start of the year, when campaigns to capture Raqqa and Mosul from the Islamic State, started to escalate, is prompting mounting alarm from Syrian opposition and international rights groups.

Syrian political activists blame U.S.-led coalition airstrikes for the deaths of 370 civilians, more than 100 of them women and children, last month in Syria. That's half of the 740 civilian deaths that activists say they have documented across the war-torn country.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based watchdog group that relies on a network of activists in Syria, reported Monday that 11 civilians from two families, including four women, were killed in bombing runs by coalition warplanes in Raqqa.

About 95 percent of anti-IS coalition airstrikes are carried out by U.S. warplanes, according to a VOA tally.

'Staggering' number of civilians killed

U.N. officials have expressed alarm about what they term the "staggering" numbers of civilians killed in airstrikes by coalition jets against IS. U.S. commanders are seeking to give allies, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, a competitive edge over an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 mainly foreign fighters mounting a fierce resistance in Raqqa, the de facto capital of the terror group's self-proclaimed caliphate.

Most of the terror group's leaders are thought to have fled south of the besieged city or further east to towns on the Syrian-Iraq border.

The U.N. human rights chief called in May for coalition air forces to take greater care to distinguish legitimate military targets from civilians in Syria. "The same civilians who are suffering indiscriminate shelling and summary executions by ISIL [Islamic State] are also falling victim to the escalating airstrikes, particularly in the northeastern governorates of Al-Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor," Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said.

Human shields

But since his remarks, civilian deaths have risen. U.S. commanders say they are taking all the precautions they can to protect civilians from direct bombardment. In a reversal of policy, they are recently more ready to acknowledge civilian casualties, but say with IS forces mixing in with non-combatants and fighting in populated areas of Raqqa and the Iraqi city of Mosul, it is virtually impossible to avoid some civilians casualties.

They blame IS for using civilians as human shields.

They dismiss claims the jump in civilian deaths is the result of any change in the rules of engagement by the Trump administration, saying there has been no change.

On June 2, the United States Central Command � or Centcom, the military command responsible for the Middle East � issued a statement saying, "At least 484 civilians have been unintentionally killed by coalition strikes." Four months earlier, Centcom had said at least 199 civilians had been killed in the coalition bombing campaign.

Independent monitors put civilian casualties much higher.

Airwars, a watchdog group, estimates coalition airstrikes have killed between 4,118 to 6,360 civilians in Syria and Iraq since August 2014. Activists estimate Russian airstrikes have killed about 5,300 Syrian civilians in the 21 months since Moscow intervened to prop up the regime of its ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Pentagon faulted

Sunday, another watchdog, the Syrian Network for Human Rights, whose statistics are often used by the United Nations, said in June it found "international coalition forces continue to be a prominent party in killing civilians in Syria ... responsible for the killing of 32 percent of the total number of civilian victims, only surpassed by Syrian regime forces." The deaths were concentrated in the eastern region of Syria in general and in Raqqa province, it said.

Some analysts fault the Pentagon for not deploying enough investigators to probe airstrikes and offer assessments. Last month, the Pentagon increased the number of airstrike investigators from two to seven, still an insufficient number, critics say.

For civilians, death in Raqqa comes in many forms. Thousands of civilians have managed to flee Raqqa and they say IS militants slaughter civilians seeking to escape, much as they have been doing in Mosul, Iraq.

Impossible position

The group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently says civilians are being placed in a desperate and impossible position.

On Sunday, the group reported that landmines planted by IS claim the lives of two or three fleeing civilians daily along smugglers' routes.

"Civilians in Raqqa must choose to remain in the city under daily bombardment and shelling, or attempt to use these potentially deadly smuggling networks," the group said.

In the city and outlying villages, an estimated 100,000 civilians have no access to drinking water in their homes and have to go to the Euphrates River to collect water, where they risk being shot or bombed. Food is also in short supply, especially in the past few days as Kurdish forces have encircled Raqqa.

Source: Voice of America