Syrian civilian deaths mount as United States led coalition forces rely on airstrikes to combat Islamic State militants in the region around Raqqa. Local groups ousted the pro-Assad government in 2013, but were unable to hold onto power after ISIS forces entered the city in 2014. After naming Raqqa their capital in Syria, ISIS tightened their grip on power through assassinations and public executions. Independent monitoring groups note that the nearly 200,000 civilians left in the city are the ones who lacked the money or contacts needed to escape the region.
Since January, the airstrikes and civilian deaths have increased as U.S. led forces embrace what James Mattis, U.S. Secretary of Defense, calls “annihilation tactics.” Civilian deaths number between 3,681 and 5,849 in the last few years according to outside monitoring groups. The U.S. coalition is composed primarily of U.S. forces supported by Australia, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. They have conducted over 9,000 airstrikes since 2014, but ceased reporting which coalition country participated in strikes that killed civilians. The number of civilian deaths reported by U.S. Central Command skew far smaller than what independent groups report.
Local media in the Middle East frequently report about the civilian casualties of the U.S. coalition airstrikes while international media focus on Mosul in Iraq instead. Urban areas like Mosul and Raqqa, with their closely packed buildings, will inevitably incur civilian deaths during fighting explains military experts. With thousands of civilians still in the cities, military forces find it difficult to locate ISIS targets independent of the populace. Still, when civilian deaths occur, official reports place the blame onto ISIS rather than the coalition. The deaths of over 100 civilians during one airstrike was attributed to booby-traps placed by ISIS that reportedly magnified the destructive capability of the airstrike.
Airstrikes are viewed as a more effective method of defeating ISIS while minimizing the risk to coalition forces. Critics, however, warn ignoring the effect the airstrikes have on the civilian population benefits ISIS. Fighting in the area has increased as the Syrian Democratic Forces prepare to send ground troops into Raqqa. U.S. ground troops are expected to take part as artillery support in the final push in the city. The desperate situation in Raqqa propels countless people to try to flee the area by car. Videos have surfaced recently of ISIS forces intercepting fleeing cars and killing the occupants. More damaging to the coalition are videos and reports of fleeing civilians targeted by airstrikes.
One car filled with women and children escaping from the embattled town of Tabqa was destroyed in late April killing all 11 people inside. An anti-ISIS group in the region claims U.S. planes frequently target civilian cars by strafing them with machine gunfire. Photos of airstrike victims, especially children, circulate on social media fueling anger against the U.S. Described as massacre victims, civilian casualties become both collateral damage and recruitment tools for ISIS.