Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov accused the United States and its coalition allies of bombing the Syrian city of Raqqa into oblivion, comparing the destruction to that of the German city of Dresden in February 1945. The statement is particularly noteworthy, considering that the Russian Defense Ministry has long been accused of indiscriminate bombing of residential areas in Syria and has categorically denied claims about civilian casualties.
A source at the Pentagon denied accusations of indiscriminate bombing in Raqqa.
“These claims represent a continued Russian and regime propaganda campaign to discredit the U.S. and our successful coalition fight against ISIS in Syria. They are false,” Pentagon Spokesman Marine Major General Adrian Rankine-Galloway told VOA.
Rankine-Galloway said the coalition and its partner forces “do everything possible to avoid unnecessary human suffering and damage to civilian infrastructure in the fight to defeat ISIS,” hold themselves “accountable for the use of force in accordance with the Law of Armed Conflict,” and “take extraordinary care in the protection of civilians and supporting humanitarian efforts.”
The U.S. official also said the coalition continues to allow safe passage for displaced persons.
The Pentagon has put out similar statements throughout the campaign against the Islamic State. This time, however, various NGOs have criticized the coalition’s airstrikes, claiming that civilian casualty numbers are higher than the coalition admits.
On October 19, Samuel Oakford of Airwars.com reported that monitors estimate there were approximately 1,800 civilian casualties in the battle for Raqqa.
The Airwars’ article gives the following breakdown of the casualties: “Overall, local monitors say at least 1,800 civilians were killed in the fighting. Fadel Abdul Ghany, Director of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, said his researchers estimated a civilian death toll in Raqqa since June of 1,854, of which 1,058 were the responsibility of Coalition forces. According to the Network’s estimates, ISIS was responsible for 311 deaths, and SDF ground forces for 191 civilian fatalities.”
Airwars also points out that in Raqqa, much like in the battle of Mosul last year, ISIS fighters deliberately positioned their forces amid the civilian population, using them as “human shields.” In March, The New York Times reported on an incident from the Mosul battle when ISIS positioned snipers on the roofs of buildings in which civilians had taken shelter. A coalition airstrike on the snipers killed as many as 200 civilians hiding in the buildings’ basements.
Since the battle of Mosul, the use of human shields has been established as a deliberate tactic used by ISIS. As such, it is unlikely that the tactic was abandoned in the battle for Raqqa.
In the March battle for Mosul, military sources in Iraq reported the Trump administration had eased rules established to avoid civilian casualties from air strikes. Western news reports indicated the White House gave commanders in the field more authority to order air strikes, although the Pengagon denied the official “rules of engagement” had been changed. In October, Trump himself claimed in an interview that he had “changed the rules of engagement.”
While Raqqa has indeed been left mostly in ruins, this was the result of a fierce battle, not an indiscriminate bombing campaign reminiscent of the Second World War, long before the advent of precision guided weapons.
The bombing of Dresden referenced by Major General Konashenkov took place during the night of February 13, 1945 and was carried out by the British Royal Air Force and the U.S. Army Air Force.
Using strategic bombing tactics that had been perfected during the war, British bombers dropped a mixture of high-explosive and incendiary bombs on the city, which caused a conflagration and eventually a fire storm that killed an estimated 25,000 people. Since then, various political groups have often highly exaggerated the death toll and insisted that the bombing of Dresden was unnecessary and that the city was not a valid military target. In more recent times, historians such as Frederick Taylor have challenged this characterization, pointing out the presence of military targets in the city, as well as the fact that the strike was partially aimed at assisting the Soviet Red Army in its Lower Silesian Offensive, which had begun five days earlier.