Tag Archives: Raqqa

Spot the difference

Remember this story, which appeared on the BBC in September 2016?

The US ambassador to the UN has accused Russia of “barbarism” over the bombing of the Syrian city of Aleppo. At an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, Samantha Power said Russia had told the council outright lies about its conduct in Syria. She said Russia and the Syrian regime were “laying waste to what is left of an iconic Middle Eastern city”.

Samatha Power’s accusations against the Russians were hardly unique. They were in fact pretty much the norm among American commentators throughout the battle for the Syrian city of Aleppo. For instance, Max Fisher of the New York Times wrote the following denunciation of Russian ‘brutality’:

The effects of Russia’s bombing campaign in the Syrian city of Aleppo — destroying hospitals and schools, choking off basic supplies, and killing aid workers and hundreds of civilians over just days — raise a question: What could possibly motivate such brutality?

Observers attribute Russia’s bombing to recklessness, cruelty or Moscow’s desperate thrashing in what the White House has called a “quagmire.”

But many analysts take a different view: Russia and its Syrian government allies, they say, could be massacring Aleppo’s civilians as part of a calculated strategy, aimed beyond this one city.

Meanwhile, the ‘brutal’ and ‘barbaric’ methods of the Russians were contrasted with the relatively benign tactics of the American military. As Zack Beauchamp commented in Vox:

While the United States and its allies are waging a targeted air campaign against ISIS and other extremists, Russia and the Syrian government are launching an all-out assault on a single city, an assault heedless of the civilian casualties. Washington and its allies have killed innocents but work to avoid it. Russia and Syria — which are carpet-bombing densely populated civilian areas with indiscriminate weapons like barrel bombs — don’t.

Americans weren’t the only ones to take this line. Former British foreign minister Boris Johnson, for instance, remarked that Russia was becoming a ‘pariah nation’ due to its attacks on Aleppo, some of which, he claimed, were ‘unquestionably a war crime’.  And Mark Galeotti commented in Foreign Policy magazine, that:

Anyone trying to understand Russia’s military strategy in Syria would be wise to examine the heavy-handed methods Vladimir Putin used during his first war as Russia’s commander in chief, the bloody Second Chechn War. … These are very different wars, fought in different ways by different forces, but they nonetheless highlight one central aspect of Putin’s approach to fighting insurgents: the value of brutality.

Fair enough, you might say – a lot of innocent people died in Aleppo. According to Wikipedia:

The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), a pro-opposition non-governmental organization, reported that the Russian bombardments killed at least 1,640 civilians in the Aleppo area: 1,178 civilians died between 30 September 2015 and 1 August 2016, while additional 462 civilians were killed from 19 September 2016 until 30 November 2016.

It’s impossible for me to validate these figures, which could be criticised for the fact that they come from a ‘pro-opposition’ organization. But for simplicity’s sake, let’s take them as reasonably accurate. Now let’s compare them with something else – the numbers killed by air and artillery strikes carried out by American forces and their coalition allies in the battle for the Syrian city of Raqqa. As I reported a year ago, when a team from the  UNHCR entered Raqqa after its liberation from the forces of the Islamic State, its members recorded that they witnessed a ‘level of destruction which exceeded anything they had ever seen before.’  Since then, analysts have been trying to calculate the human cost of this destruction, and today we have the results.  According to the BBC:

More than 1,600 civilians were killed in US-led coalition air and artillery strikes during the offensive to oust the Islamic State group from the Syrian city of Raqqa in 2017, activists say.

Amnesty International and monitoring group Airwars said they had carried out investigations at 200 strike locations … Researchers spent about two months on the ground in the city, carrying out investigations at strike locations and interviewing more than 400 witnesses and survivors. They were able to directly verify the names of 641 victims, and there were very strong multiple sources for the rest, Amnesty said.

So, there we have it. In a campaign marked by ‘war crimes’, ‘brutality’, and ‘barbarism’, the Russians killed 1,600 civilians. Meanwhile, in the campaign for Raqqa, the Americans killed … 1,600 civilians! Can you spot the difference? I can’t.

 

Unprecedented destruction

In October last year, troops of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, with the assistance of the US Air Force, finally captured the city of Raqqa, which had previously been the capital of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). On 1 April this year, an inter-agency team from the United Nations (UN) entered Raqqa in what was the first UN visit to the city since ISIS’s defeat. According to the website of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR:

The UN team entering Raqqa city were shocked by the level of destruction, which exceeded anything they had ever seen before. A cascade of rubble lies along the streets with hardly a single building intact.

It’s worth repeating some of that again. The UN team found a

level of destruction, which exceeded anything they had ever seen before.

That’s quite something. There have been a fair number of destructive wars in recent years, including some which have done quite a lot of damage to urban infrastructure (e.g. the various wars in Iraq, the war in Libya, and so on). Yet Raqqa exceeds them all. Specifically, the UN reports that in Raqqa:

With nearly the entire infrastructure totally destroyed, public services barely exist and no safe water or electricity. The widespread presence of explosive hazards, including unexploded ordnance, landmines and improvised explosive devices, particularly in those neighborhoods of the city that were the stronghold of ISIS towards the end of hostilities, pose a significant threat to civilians; some 130 civilians having been killed and a further 658 injured in blasts since the city was retaken from ISIS in October 2017.

In addition to unexploded ordnance, the UNHCR protection team on the mission, who met with women, men and the youth, identified numerous protection and other challenges, risks and threats, ranging from criminality, early marriages and other SGBV [sexual and gender based violence] concerns, to lack of safe water, electricity, healthcare and education services. But these are just a few of the many challenges preventing people from regaining their dignified life.

I mention all this because throughout the civil war in Syria, and particularly since the Russian Federation became involved, we have bombarded with complaints about the particularly barbaric methods of war used by the Syrian Arab Army and the Russians. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, for instance, ranted about the ‘flagrant disregard for human life’ displayed by the Syrian government during the battle for East Aleppo.  Former American ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, accused Russia of ‘barbarism’ in Syria.  ‘Russia is abetting mass murder in Syria’ shouted the headline of a recent article in The Atlantic magazine. And so on. There’s far too many such statements to count.

Accompanying these complaints are repeated claims that ‘something must be done’. This normally means something military. The aforementioned Atlantic article, for instance, claims that,

Military force and deterrence may also be the key to ending the Syrian war. … The war in Syria will only end when the aggressors know America is serious—about diplomacy, about sanctioning the aggressors, and about using military force not just to fight isis, but to protect Syrians. Continued failure to take these steps will only make America an accessory to evil.

And yet, if we are to believe the UN report I began with, the United States and its allies have been more destructive than the Syrian government and the Russians. Raqqa is not a unique case either. Patrick Cockburn of The Independent newspaper, for instance, has described the ‘mass slaughter’ of civilians in Mosul, with ‘appalling damage inflicted by continuing artillery and rocket fire aimed over a five-month period at a confined area jam-packed with civilians who were unable to escape.’ Despite this, there seems to be an extraordinary lack of indignation over such matters, let alone any calls to ‘do something’ to stop the Americans and their allies from killing civilians.

Of course, none of this excuses any excesses committed by the Syrians and the Russians, or means that they have been particularly mindful of civilian casualties during their military operations. It also shouldn’t be interpreted as meaning that the Americans are worse than the Russians. In my view, they’re one and the same. The massive destruction one can see in places such as Raqqa, Mosul, and Aleppo is simply an inevitable consequence of urban warfare. There is no way that you can destroy an enemy who is in a city and who is determined to stand and fight without destroying much of the city in the process. And if a lot of civilians are present (perhaps because the defenders won’t let them leave), there’s no way that you can do it without killing large numbers of civilians as well. This is reality, and the fact that both Americans and Russians end up doing much the same thing is a reflection of it.

In short, the problem isn’t that either the Russians or the Americans are particularly barbaric, it’s that war itself is brutal, and there is no getting around it. This is a message that the ‘something must be done’ crowd seem unwilling to learn. They seem to believe that there is some simple, cheap, and relatively benign way of applying force, which will solve all sorts of problems without killing a lot of innocent people along the way. This is (99 percent of the time) a myth.

Yes indeed, the Syrian government led by Bashar al-Assad is hardly a shining example of liberal democratic values. Yes, it would be nice if it could be replaced by something which was. But how exactly do the would-be intervenors imagine that Assad could be overthrown? Their problem is that they don’t have a plan. Well, let me tell them what their plan would have to be if they were serious about ‘regime change’. They couldn’t just drop a few bombs or fly in a few rockets, and expect that to do the job. It wouldn’t. They’d have to create a land army, and support it over a prolonged period of time as it ground its way slowly forward taking government-held cities one by one: Aleppo, Homs, Latakia, and others, and ultimately Damascus. And every time, they’d have to do to them what they did to Raqqa.

So, I have a simple question to our armchair humanitarian warriors: How on earth would that help save the lives of innocents?