A version of this story first appeared on TomDispatch.
It was midday on Sunday, May 7, when the US-led coalition warplanes again began bombing the neighborhood of Wassim Abdo’s family.
They lived in Tabqa, a small city on the banks of the Euphrates River in northern Syria. Then occupied by the Islamic State (a.k.a. Daesh), Tabqa was also under siege by US-backed troops and was being hit by daily artillery fire from the Marines, as well as coalition airstrikes. The city, the second largest in Raqqa Province, was home to an airfield and the coveted Tabqa Dam. It was also the last place in the region the US-backed forces needed to take before launching their much-anticipated offensive against ISIS’ self-proclaimed capital, Raqqa.
His parents, Muhammed and Salam, had already fled their home once when the building adjacent to their house was bombed, Wassim Abdo told me in a recent interview. ISIS had been arresting civilians from their neighborhood for trying to flee the city. So on that Sunday, the couple was taking shelter on the second floor of a four-story flat along with other family members when a US-led airstrike reportedly struck the front half of the building. Abdo’s sister-in-law Lama fled with her two children and survived. But his parents and 12-year-old cousin were killed, along with dozens of their neighbors, as the concrete collapsed on them.
As an exiled human rights activist, Wassim Abdo only learned of his parents’ death three days later; Lama called him from the Syrian border town of Kobane, where she and her two children had been transported for medical treatment. Her daughter had been wounded in the bombing and although the US-backed, Kurdish-led troops had by then seized control of Tabqa, it was impossible for her daughter to be treated in their hometown, because weeks of coalition bombing had destroyed all the hospitals in the city.
Islamic State fighters have essentially been defeated in Mosul after a nine-month, US-backed campaign that destroyed significant parts of Iraq’s second largest city, killing up to 40,000 civilians and forcing as many as one million more from their homes. Now the United States is focusing its energies—and warplanes—on ISIS-occupied areas of eastern Syria in an offensive dubbed “Wrath of the Euphrates.”
The Islamic State’s brutal treatment of civilians in Syria has been well reported and publicized. And, according to Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of American efforts against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the battle to “liberate” these regions is the “most precise campaign in the history of warfare.”
Yet reports and photographs from Syrian journalists and activists, as well as first-person accounts from people with family members in areas under US bombardment, detail a strikingly different tale of the offensive—one that looks a lot less like a battle against the Islamic State and a lot more like a war on civilians.
These human rights groups and local reporters say that, across Syria in recent months, the US-led coalition and Marines have bombed or shelled at least 12 schools (including primary schools and a girls’ high school), a health clinic and an obstetrics hospital, Raqqa’s Science College, residential neighborhoods, bakeries, post offices, a car wash, at least 15 mosques, a cultural center, a gas station, cars carrying civilians to the hospital, a funeral, water tanks, at least 15 bridges, a makeshift refugee camp, the ancient Rafiqah Wall that dates back to the eighth century, and an Internet café in Raqqa where a Syrian media activist was killed as he was trying to smuggle news out of the besieged city.
The United States is now one of the deadliest warring parties in Syria. In May and June combined, America’s coalition killed more civilians than the Assad regime, the Russians, or ISIS, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, an NGO that has been monitoring the death toll and human rights violations in Syria since 2011.
“This [Trump] administration wants to achieve a quick victory,” Dr. Fadel Abdul Ghany, chairman of the Syrian Network for Human Rights recently told me. “What we are noticing is that the US is targeting and killing without taking into consideration the benefits for the military and the collateral damage for the civilians. This, of course, amounts to war crimes.”
And nowhere is the assault more acute than in ISIS-occupied Raqqa, where trapped families are living under dozens of airstrikes every day.
Located at the confluence of the Euphrates and Balikh rivers in northern Syria, Raqqa was first settled more than 5,000 years ago. By the late eighth century, it had grown into an imperial city, filled with orchards, palaces, canals, reception halls, and a hippodrome for horse racing. Its industrial quarters were then known as “the burning Raqqa” thanks to the flames and thick smoke produced by its glass and ceramic furnaces. The city even served briefly as the capital of the vast Abbasid Empire stretching from North Africa to Central Asia.
Toward the end of the 13th century, wars between the Mongol and Mamluk empires annihilated Raqqa and its surrounding countryside. Every single resident of the city was either killed or expelled. According to Hamburg University professor Stefan Heidemann, who has worked on a number of excavations in and around Raqqa, the scorched-earth warfare was so extreme that not a single tree was left standing in the region.
Only in the middle of the 20th century, when irrigation from the Euphrates allowed Raqqa’s countryside to flourish amid a global cotton boom, did the city fully reemerge. In the 1970s, the population again began to swell after then-President Hafez al-Assad—the father of current leader Bashar al-Assad—ordered the construction of a massive hydroelectric dam on the Euphrates about 30 miles upstream of Raqqa. Wassim Abdo’s father, Muhammed, was an employee at this dam. Like many of these workers and their families, he and Salam lived in Tabqa’s third neighborhood, which was filled with four-story apartment flats built in the 1970s not far from the dam and its power station.
Despite these agricultural and industrial developments, Raqqa remained a small provincial capital. Abdalaziz Alhamza, a cofounder of the watchdog group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently consisting of media activists from Raqqa—living in the city as well as in exile—writes that the local news normally didn’t even mention the city in its weather forecasts.
In the mid-2000s, a drought began to wither the local cash crops: cotton, potatoes, rice, and tomatoes. As in other regions of Syria, farmers migrated from the countryside into the city, where overstretched and ill-functioning public services exacerbated long-simmering dissatisfactions with the Assad regime.
As rebellion broke out across Syria in 2011, Wassim Abdo and thousands of others in Raqqa, Tabqa, and nearby villages began agitating against the government, flooding the streets in protest and forming local coordinating councils. The regime slowly lost control of territory across the province. In March 2013, after only a few days of battle, anti-government rebels ousted government troops from the city and declared Raqqa the “first liberated provincial capital” in all of Syria. The city, then the country’s sixth largest, became “the hotel of the revolution.”
Within less than a year, however, despite fierce protests and opposition from its residents, ISIS fighters had fully occupied the city and the surrounding countryside. They declared Raqqa the capital of the Islamic State.
Wassim’s parents never tried to flee Tabqa because they hoped to reunite with one of their sons, Azad, who had been kidnapped by ISIS fighters in September 2013. In retirement, Muhammed Abdo opened a small electronics store. Salam was a housewife. Like tens of thousands of other civilians, they were living under ISIS occupation in Tabqa when, in the spring of 2017, US Apache helicopters and warplanes began appearing in the skies. Marines armed with howitzers were deployed to the region. In late March, American helicopters airlifted hundreds of allied troops from the Kurdish-led militias known as the Syrian Democratic Force to the banks of the dammed river near the city. Additional forces approached from the east, transported on American speedboats.
By the beginning of May, the Abdos’ neighborhood was under almost daily bombardment. On May 3, coalition warplanes reportedly launched up to 30 airstrikes across Tabqa’s first, second, and third neighborhoods, striking homes and a fruit market and reportedly killing at least six civilians. The following night, another round of airstrikes battered the first and third neighborhoods, reportedly killing at least seven civilians, including women and children. Separate airstrikes that night near the city’s center reportedly killed another 6 to 12 civilians.
On May 7, multiple bombs reportedly dropped by the US coalition struck the building where Muhammed and Salam had taken shelter, killing them and their 12-year-old grandson. Three days later, the Syrian Democratic Forces announced that they now controlled Tabqa and the dam. The militia and its US advisers quickly set their sights east to the upcoming offensive in Raqqa.
But for the Abdo family, the tragedy continued. Muhammed and Salam’s bodies were buried in the rubble of the collapsed building. It took 15 days before Wassim’s brother Rashid could secure the heavy machinery required to extract them.
“Nobody could approach the corpses because of the disfigurement that had occurred and the smell emanating from them as a result of being left under the rubble for such a long period of time in the hot weather,” Wassim told me on the day the bodies were finally recovered. On May 23, his parents and nephew were buried in the Tabqa cemetery.
A few days after the funeral, the coalition began airdropping leaflets over Raqqa instructing civilians to flee the upcoming offensive. According to photos published by Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, the leaflets read, in part, “This is your last chance…Failing to leave might lead to death.”
ISIS fighters, in turn, prohibited civilians from escaping, and planted landmines in Raqqa’s outskirts. Nevertheless, on June 5, dozens of civilians heeded the coalition’s warnings and gathered at a boat stand on the northern banks of the Euphrates, where they waited to be ferried out of the city. Before the war, families had picnicked along this riverbank. Teenagers jumped into the water from Raqqa’s Old Bridge, built in 1942 by British troops. A handful of riverfront cafés opened for the season.
“The river is the main monument of the city, and for many people there’s a romantic meaning to it,” said Syrian journalist Marwan Hisham, who is co-writing Brothers of the Gun, a book about life in ISIS-occupied Raqqa.
But even as the families waited to cross the river to escape the impending offensive, coalition warplanes launched a barrage of airstrikes targeting the boats, reportedly massacring as many as 21 civilians. The coalition acknowledges launching 35 airstrikes that destroyed 68 boats between June 4 and June 6, according to the journalistic outlet Airwars. Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend later boasted to the New York Times: “We shoot every boat we find.”
The day after the attack at the boat stand, the long-awaited ground offensive officially began.
After three years of ISIS rule, Raqqa had become one of the most isolated cities in the world. The militants banned home internet service, satellite dishes, and wifi hotspots. They arrested and killed local reporters and banned outside journalists. On the day US-backed troops began storming the city, ISIS further sought to restrict reporting on conditions there by ordering the shutdown of all internet cafés.
Despite the restrictions, dozens of Syrian journalists and activists have risked (and still risk) their lives to smuggle information out of besieged Raqqa—and their efforts are the only reason most Western reporters (including myself) have any information about the war our countries are waging there.
Every day, these activists funnel news to exiled Syrians running media outlets and human rights organizations. The best known of these groups, Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, won the 2015 International Press Freedom Award for its reporting on the ISIS occupation, and now publishes hourly updates on the Raqqa offensive. The information is then compiled and fact-checked by international monitoring groups such as Airwars, whose researchers have found themselves tracking as many as a half-dozen daily coalition attacks that result in civilian casualties.
It’s because of this work that we know the Raqqa offensive officially began on June 6 with a barrage of airstrikes and artillery shelling that reportedly hit a school, a train station, the immigration and passport building, a mosque, and multiple residential neighborhoods, killing between six and 13 civilians. Two days later, bombs, artillery shells, and white phosphorus were reportedly unleashed across Raqqa, hitting (among other places) the Al-Hason Net Internet café and killing a media activist—one of at least 26 killed in Syria so far this year—and at least a dozen other people. Other bombs reportedly hit at least eight shops and a mosque. Photos also showed white phosphorus exploding over two residential neighborhoods.
White phosphorus is capable of burning human flesh to the bone. When exposed to oxygen, the chemical ignites, reaching a temperature of 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s so flammable that its burns can actually reignite days later if the bandages are removed too soon.
US military officials have not denied using white phosphorus in the city. The Pentagon has even published photos of Marines deployed to the Raqqa region transporting white phosphorus munitions. Defense spokespeople claim the US military only uses this incendiary agent to mark targets for air strikes or to create smoke screens—and therefore remains in accordance with international law. But in the days after the reported attack, Amnesty International warned, “The US-led coalition’s use of white phosphorus munitions on the outskirts of al-Raqqa, Syria, is unlawful and may amount to a war crime.” (Amnesty similarly accused the US of potentially committing war crimes during its campaign against ISIS in Mosul.)
Following the white phosphorus sightings, Raqqa’s main commercial and social avenue—February 23rd Street—reportedly came under three straight days of bombing. Syrian journalist Marwan Hisham, who grew up in Raqqa, recalls how the street was once lined with cafés, entertainment venues, and shops. Its western edge runs into Rashid Park, one of the city’s main public spaces. Its eastern edge stretches to the ancient Abbasid Wall.
From June 9 through June 11, as many as 10 civilians were killed in repeated bombings of February 23rd Street and its major intersections, according to reports compiled by Airwars. (These sorts of air strikes, ostensibly aimed at limiting the mobility of ISIS fighters, were also employed in Mosul, parts of which are now in ruins.) During the same period, four adults and four children were reportedly killed in strikes on Raqqa’s industrial district, another 21 civilians were killed in the west of the city, and at least 11 more, again including children, were killed when airstrikes reportedly destroyed homes on al-Nour street.
The al-Rayan Bakery, just around the corner, was bombed less than two weeks later. On June 21, a local resident named Abu Ahmad was returning from getting water at a nearby well when, he later told Reuters, he began hearing people screaming as houses crumbled. He said as many as 30 people died when the apartment flats around the bakery were leveled. “We couldn’t even do anything,” he added. “The rocket launchers, the warplanes! We left them to die under the rubble.” Days earlier, coalition warplanes had destroyed another source of bread, the al-Nadeer bakery on al-Mansour Street, one of Raqqa’s oldest thoroughfares.
More and more names, photographs, and stories of the coalition’s civilian victims were smuggled out by local journalists. According to these reports, on July 2, Jamila Ali al-Abdullah, her three children, and up to 10 of her neighbors were killed. On July 3, at least three families were killed, including Yasser al-Abdullah and his four children, A’ssaf, Zain, Jude, and Rimas. On July 5, an elderly man named Yasin died in an airstrike on al-Mansour Street. On July 6, Anwar Hassan al-Hariri was killed along with her son Mohammed, daughter Shatha, and toddler Jana. Five members of the al-Sayyed family perished on July 7. Sisters Hazar and Elhan Abdul Aader Shashan died in their home on July 12. Seven members of the Ba’anat family were killed on July 13, as was Marwan al-Salama and at least 10 family members on July 17. Hundreds more were reportedly wounded, including Isma’il Ali al-Thlaji, a child who lost his eyesight and his right hand.
“In Raqqa, there are many causes of death,” wrote the journalists of Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently. These include “indiscriminate airstrikes by international coalition warplanes, daily artillery shelling by Syrian Democratic Forces, and ISIS mines scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.”
For those who survive, conditions inside the city continue to worsen. Coalition bombing reportedly destroyed the two main pipes carrying water into the city in the 100-degree July heat, forcing people to venture to the banks of the Euphrates, where at least 27 have been reportedly killed by the bombing.
The United States has itself launched nearly 95 percent of all coalition airstrikes in Syria in recent months, meaning the campaign is, in fact, almost exclusively an American affair. “The French and British are launching about half a dozen strikes a week now,” Chris Woods, director of Airwars, explained to me. “The Belgians maybe one or two a week.” By comparison, in Raqqa province last month the US launched roughly 20 air or artillery strikes per day.
In June alone, the US-led coalition and Marines fired or dropped approximately 4,400 munitions on Raqqa and the surrounding villages. According to Mark Hiznay, the associate director of Human Rights Watch’s arms division, the munitions included 250-pound precision-guided small diameter bombs and MK-80 bombs, which weigh between 500 and 2,000 pounds and are equipped with precision-guidance kits. The bombs are dropped by B-52s and other warplanes taking off from the al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar, Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, or the USS George H.W. Bush, a carrier stationed off Syria’s coast in the eastern Mediterranean.
Hundreds of Marines, most likely from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, are also positioned outside Raqqa and are firing high explosive artillery rounds into the city from M777 Howitzers. In late June, the Marines’ official Twitter feed boasted that they were conducting artillery fire in support of US-backed troops 24 hours a day.
The result of this type of warfare, says Airwars’ Chris Woods, is a staggering increase in civilian casualties. According to the group’s analysis, since President Trump took office six months ago, the US-led bombing campaign has reportedly killed nearly as many civilians in Syria and Iraq as were killed in the previous two and a half years of the Obama administration.
The conditions of war don’t end when the bombing stops. As of mid-July, according to Wassim Abdo, Tabqa still has neither running water nor electricity, even though displaced families have begun returning to their homes. There’s a shortage of bread, and still no functioning schools or hospitals. The Tabqa Dam, which once generated up to 20 percent of Syria’s electricity, remains inoperable. (Coalition airstrikes reportedly damaged the structure repeatedly in February and March, burning the main control room and prompting the United Nations to warn of a threat of catastrophic flooding downstream.) The US-backed troops in Tabqa have also, according to Abdo, banned the internet. US officials admit that children in the area have been infected by diseases carried by flies feeding off corpses buried in the rubble.L
Less than 30 miles to the east, the battle for Raqqa continues, with tens of thousands of civilians still trapped inside the besieged city. Lt. Gen. Townsend has indicated that the US-led coalition may soon increase its rate of airstrikes.
From Wassim Abdo’s perspective, none of this feels like a war against ISIS. “My opinion of the international coalition,” he told me, “is that it’s a performance by the international community to target civilians and infrastructure and to destroy the country.” And this type of warfare, he added, “is not part of eliminating Daesh.”
Special thanks to Alhasan Ghazzawi for assistance with this piece.