Military's Bloody Battle for Raqqa Seen as ‘Cautionary Tale’ as Pentagon Promises to Limit Civilian Deaths

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A U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighter runs in front of a damaged building in Raqqa, Syria.
In this July 27, 2017, file photo, a U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighter runs in front of a damaged building as he crosses a street on the front line in Raqqa, Syria. (Hussein Malla/AP File Photo)

The U.S. military could have done more to protect civilians trapped in Raqqa, Syria, as it pummeled the city to rubble during a climactic battle with the Islamic State group in 2017, the Rand Corp. found in a Pentagon-ordered review released Thursday.

The brutal battle and ultimate U.S.-led coalition victory over the terror group came at a heavy price -- as many as 1,600 civilians were killed and much of the city, including residential neighborhoods, were leveled by intense American and coalition bombing, according to investigations by watchdog groups.

The most likely estimate of deaths due to the coalition is 774, said Rand, a nonprofit think tank frequently contracted by the Pentagon for research. Kurdish forces who helped the coalition fight on the ground reported recovering 4,000 civilians from the city rubble, though it remains unclear how they were killed, the Rand review said.

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The U.S. coalition gave a much lower estimate of 178 killed.

The strategy to encircle the city, gather intelligence and strike from the sky, and rely on Kurdish allies on the ground to eliminate dug-in Islamic State fighters, who intentionally targeted residents, led to more civilian deaths and harm, including widespread destruction that left little future for the city, Rand found.

"Although coalition forces focused intently on the civilian casualty risk for each strike, they largely ignored the impact of their actions on civilian livelihoods over the long term," its review said. "As a result, Raqqa endured the most structural damage by density of any city in Syria."

About 60%-80% of the city was left uninhabitable after the conflict, it said.

Amnesty International and Airwars, a London-based nonprofit group that monitored the war, investigated the civilian death toll in 2019 and said it had gathered 1,000 names of victims, verified 641 deaths on the ground in Raqqa and estimated the total toll at 1,600.

In one instance, a five-story residential building sheltering families in the basement was destroyed by a coalition airstrike and at least 32 people, including 20 children, were killed, the two groups said. Another strike a week later killed 27 civilians in a nearby building, and many were relatives of the earlier victims.

Rand called the battle a "cautionary tale about civilian harm in 21st-century conflicts" that likely reveals how future conventional wars in cities will play out. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin asked for the review as part of a larger ongoing effort to overhaul the military's efforts to reduce death and destruction on civilian populations when the U.S. goes to war.

The overhaul plans were unveiled in January, along with an initial Rand report detailing how the military has fallen short in its efforts to protect civilians. The secretary ordered the creation of a "civilian protection center of excellence" to coordinate and improve the efforts.

Austin's push was partly spurred by a botched U.S. strike during the Afghanistan withdrawal in August that killed 10 civilians, including children. Another strike in Baghuz, Syria, in 2019 killed about 70 civilians, including women and children, The New York Times reported in November.

Rand said the lessons of Raqqa are likely to be relevant for future conflicts. As the war on terrorism wanes, the Pentagon is focused on China and its growing military might and assertiveness, as well as Russia and its dangerous new stance on the world stage, as part of the new National Defense Strategy, a classified document turned over to Congress this week.

The unintentional deaths of innocents plagued the U.S. post-9/11 wars, because the military often relied on drones and air power in areas -- especially cities -- where no American troops are on the ground to guide or wave off strikes that threaten civilians.

In 2017, Raqqa had been the Islamic State's last stronghold after three years of war with the U.S. and its allies in Syria and Iraq, with the group's wave of global terrorist attacks including mass shootings and the video beheading of journalists and aid workers.

The U.S. and coalition partners, including the UK and France, bombarded the city between June and October in 2017 following months of preparation. There was a cap on the U.S. troops presence in Syria of 500, but by the end of the battle, there were about 2,000 troops deployed to the country because commanders were given the authority to exceed the cap if needed, Rand reported.

The Raqqa review found the U.S. and its allies followed the laws of war during the battle, and even went beyond international conventions when trying to protect Syrians who were hunkered down in the city after being occupied and terrorized by the Islamic State.

But the relatively small U.S. footprint meant a reliance on the allied Kurdish Self Defense Force troops and airpower. The U.S. "conducted an estimated 95% of the total airstrikes during the Raqqa operation and all of the artillery strikes," according to Rand.

-- Travis Tritten can be reached at travis.tritten@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Tritten. 

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