The liberation of Raqqa by the fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by the military power of the Global Coalition confronting the Islamic State group (IS), was never going to be easy.
Advancing forces fought one of the most brutal terror groups street to street and house to house, pushing through a city which the jihadists had possessed for years and had fortified extensively, planting of thousands of landmines which will take years to clear.
It would have been impossible for this to be done without inflicting hardship on Raqqa’s civilian population, and without some of that population becoming casualties in the war to defeat IS and to recapture the territory it claimed as part of a resurrected caliphate in the Levant and Mesopotamia.
These were the justifications tacitly issued by the generals. And, at least in abstract, they appeared reasonable.
But what happened during the campaign, and decisions which had shaped the offensive in advance, cannot be written off as necessary, or accounted for as an inevitable and regrettable consequence of a vital and brutal fight.
This prompts disquiet – disquiet informed by the suffering of Raqqawis at the hands of their liberators, both documented and presumed. During the campaign, that suffering was both known and unknown, expected and predicted but unconfirmed.
Last week, a report issued by Amnesty International focused minds.
The report, War of Annihilation (which takes for its title a bellicose phrase of the American secretary of defence, James Mattis), documents ‘prima facie evidence that several Coalition attacks which killed and injured civilians violated international humanitarian law’.
But laws matter less than the stories of those whose fates fill the report: Raqqawi families that lost members to oalition air attacks.
Nine members of the Badran family were killed in two air strikes in the Harat al-Sakhani neighbourhood. Sixteen members of the Fayad family were killed by aerial attack – killed in two air strikes which occurred simultaneously.
Ali Habib, of the Fayad family, described that moment. ‘I was sitting on a chair holding my little boy (five years old) and the women were sitting on the floor, huddled together’, he said. ‘I felt the roof of the house collapse on me. I could not move and my little boy was not next to me anymore’.
The Amnesty report is not groundbreaking and it is not exhaustive.
Last year, the New York Times Magazine published “The Uncounted”, a piece containing stories of those who were killed and injured, or who lost family members, in Coalition air strikes against IS in Iraq. That investigation, built on reporting by Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal, elucidated exactly how the Coalition uses its air power in practice.
That similar events occurred on another battlefield in the same war should be unsurprising. But the Amnesty report has forced the issue of civilian casualties during the Raqqa campaign, which may now allow for a serious retrospective assessment of the entire operation.
This report provides evidence of what has been known and suspected since the battle began: that the United States and its allies were willing to hammer Raqqa in pursuit of the city’s rapid liberation.
Some background here is helpful.
Before the attack, the Coalition had its choice of partner. American and European unwillingness to deploy troops in serious numbers on the ground restricted the options available, but not entirely.
Coalition leaders could have chosen to partner with the SDF, a collection of militias organised and controlled by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD); or they could have chosen to co-ordinate with a collection of Syrian rebel groups in alliance with Turkey, an arrangement which had taken significant territory from IS as part of Operation Euphrates Shield.
The SDF was the preferred American proxy in Syria, but its involvement was no panacea. The YPG is closely affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a Turkish terrorist group with Marxist politics and an oppressive and esoteric view of how its territories should be run.
In other parts of the Kurdish-controlled north of Syria, opposition parties have been systematically proscribed and dissenters imprisoned or forced to flee.
Partnering with the SDF was also understood to be risky in another way.
Giving Raqqa over to a Kurdish militia, with little local support, would resemble foreign powers apportioning territory to favoured local elements, rewarding allies rather than attempting to assuage the concerns of locals.
The Coalition chose the SDF as its ‘partner force’, regardless of the above.
Whether this was a reasonable decision in retrospect is not a matter of mere academic speculation. Recent weeks have brought protests over the SDF occupation which were reportedly fired upon.
SDF fighters did their duty during the battle for Raqqa; they fought and died bravely for a city which was not theirs. This must not be forgotten.
But the SDF leadership ended the battle doing something less noble; it bargained with IS, allowing the terror group’s remaining fighters to escape the city with their families and, crucially, with their weapons.
What has happened to Raqqa does not begin and end with the Coalition’s conduct, though examining that conduct is instructive.
The Coalition campaign, designed to defeat IS as rapidly as possible, licensed the use of overwhelming force in ways which devastated Raqqa and killed more of its people than one could expect in such a fight.
Rapid liberation was the sole aim, and it was pursued insensibly.
As more evidence is presented of the errors and even crimes of the struggle to liberate territory from IS, we must not succumb to the pious satisfaction of cheap and context-free condemnation. The fight was necessary and must be worth it.
But this in no way allows the participants of a necessary conflict to escape introspection and blame. Defeating adversaries who are accepted to be evil is easy to justify, but carries its own grave moral responsibilities.
The Coalition and SDF must not be allowed to avoid talk of those responsibilities. Not if they care about Raqqa, and its people, in the final estimation.
This piece was originally published at The New Arab.