‘House to house’ fight for Raqqa’s Old City amid reports of mass civilian casualties

AMMAN: The battle for Raqqa’s Old City hit a fever pitch on Thursday as US-backed forces battle Islamic State fighters from “house to house,” while accelerated airstrikes continue to devastate civilians trapped in the city.

“We are focusing on Old Raqqa because the terrorist organization’s forces have fortified themselves there,” Muhammad Abu Adel, a commander with the Manbij Military Council forces on the ground, referring to the Islamic State, told Syria Direct this week.

On Thursday, fighting centered on the al-Mansour district, the last Old City neighborhood separating US-backed forces from reaching central Raqqa’s clock tower square.

The distance left to advance to the center of Raqqa city is “no more than hundreds of meters,” SDF media official Mustafa Bali told Syria Direct on Thursday.

But in the oldest districts of Raqqa, territorial gains are hard won.

“In the Old City, we are battling from house to house, sometimes from room to room,” said commander Abu Adel. The narrow alleyways of Raqqa’s old neighborhoods make it difficult for military vehicles to pass, meaning a close quarters urban fight.

SDF forces receive civilians fleeing Raqqa’s southern Nazlat a-Shahadah district this week. Photo courtesy of Raqqa Campaign.

Abu Adel’s fighters are part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a multi-ethnic Syrian coalition made up of mostly Kurdish and Arab fighters that launched their battle for Raqqa city on June 6.

Since then, the SDF—with the support of US-led airstrikes and artillery fire—have captured an estimated 60 percent of the Islamic State capital in Syria.

On Tuesday, the US-backed fighters captured the a-Rasheed district of Raqqa’s Old City, which Bali described to Syria Direct as “the door to central Raqqa.”

‘Indiscriminate airstrikes’

But as SDF forces advance in the third month of the battle for Raqqa city, grim reports emerged this week of civilians killed en masse by coalition airstrikes.

Over the space of a week leading up to this past Tuesday, approximately 170 civilians were killed by coalition bombardment, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported. Nearly 800 civilians have been killed since the battle for Raqqa began, two and a half months ago, according to SOHR.

On Tuesday, more than 40 people were reportedly killed in a single incident when a coalition airstrike allegedly struck a residential building near the city’s amusement park, citizen journalist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently reported via messaging app Telegram.

The remains of a building near Raqqa city’s amusement park where dozens of civilians were allegedly killed by a coalition airstrike on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently.

In response, United Nations relief officials issued a joint statement on Tuesday, condemning what they called “attacks directed against civilians and civilian infrastructure.”

Ali Al-Za’tari, UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria, and Ramesh Rajasingham, the UN’s Acting Regional Humanitarian Coordinator, expressed concern for the lives of an estimated 18,000-25,000 civilians thought to remain in IS-held districts of Raqqa city amid Islamic State attacks and “indiscriminate airstrikes.”

In the past two weeks, US-led coalition aircraft conducted at least 592 airstrikes in Raqqa city, according to daily strike release reports.

Speaking to reporters in Baghdad on Tuesday, Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, the commander of the US-led coalition, confirmed that airstrikes in Raqqa city had increased.

“The fight has now entered the very hardest parts of the city,” Townsend told reporters, “and so our partners are needing greater assistance.”

“It’s probably logical to assume that there has been some increase in the civilian casualties,” said Townsend, adding that he would like to be shown “hard information” proving an increase in civilian casualties in Raqqa.

“Losing a single civilian, to us, is a great loss,” SDF media official Mustafa al-Bali told Syria Direct on Thursday. “We do not request that airplanes bomb an area or position, no matter its military importance, if there is a single civilian there.”

Al-Bali added civilians were also being killed by mines planted by IS along routes used to flee towards positions held by the US-backed forces.

“Every day, we open new corridors for civilians,” regularly changing their location to prevent IS attacks, said al-Bali.

Raqqa residents fleeing IS-held areas reach SDF positions on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Raqqa Campaign.

Amnesty International published a report on Thursday documenting the killing and injuring of hundreds of civilians inside Raqqa city since the battle began in June.

“Things will only get more dangerous as the battle reaches its final stages in the city center,” Donatella Rovera, Amnesty’s Senior Crisis Response Adviser said the same day.  “More can and must be done to preserve the lives of civilians trapped in the conflict.”

“We’re not the perfect guys,” United States Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters in Baghdad on Tuesday. “We can make a mistake, and in this kind of warfare, tragedy will happen. But we are the good guys, and the innocent people on the battlefield know the difference.”

Hundreds of Raqqans have already died in US-led coalition airstrikes and shelling, with residents now taking measures to ensure their corpses can be identified.

“We’ve asked people to put a piece of paper in their pockets with their name and addresses written on them so we can know who they are after a bombing,” Zaid a-Thabit, a Syrian journalist and Raqqa resident told Syria Direct in an interview last week. “I can’t describe the situation as anything besides hellish.”

Defense Secretary Mattis said in Tuesday’s Baghdad press conference that “no military in the world’s history” has done more to avoid civilian casualties than the US-led coalition.

Airwars, an independent monitor that tracks casualties and US-led coalition airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, currently estimates that a minimum of 5,000 civilians have likely been killed by coalition actions in Iraq and Syria since 2014.

Some 55 percent of those reported deaths occurred in the first seven months of the Trump administration alone. 

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He moved to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.