20+ civilians killed in Raqqa province in unclaimed attacks amidst US-backed war on Islamic State

AMMAN: Residents of the northwestern Raqqa countryside say that airstrikes and ground artillery fired by the US-led international coalition killed 23 civilians Tuesday night, while a spokeswoman for American-allied Kurdish ground forces leading the operation dismissed the claims as “Islamic State propaganda.”

While the details were not immediately clear, Syria Direct reporting indicates that some party struck civilian homes in the IS-held village of Heesha in Raqqa’s countryside, as Abu Moaz, a citizen journalist who lives near Heesha, told Syria Direct on Wednsday. The activist withheld his exact location for fear of reprisal.  “As many as 25 people were killed,” he said, citing local sources.

“We’d class this as a contested event,” Chris Woods, the director of Airwars, a London-based monitoring group that tracks the war against the Islamic State, told Syria Direct on Wednesday. “We’re unclear if it was a coalition airstrike or artillery strike.”

Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), a group of Raqqa-based media activists, counted at least 23 civilians reported killed by “coalition airplanes” on Wednesday morning. The opposition-run Local Coordination Committees in Syria (LCCs) also reported the incident, claiming Tuesday night that “nine people from Raqqa [province] passed away as Syrian Democratic Forces shelled Heesha [sic] village.”

The SDF, founded one year ago, is a mixed-ethnicity military coalition comprised mostly of Kurdish People’s Protection Units and their female counterparts, the Women’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ). The umbrella group also contains Sunni Arab, Assyrian, and Turkmen brigades. The forces are based in Kurdish-held territories south of Syria’s northern border with Turkey.

The SDF denied to Syria Direct it attacked civilians in Raqqa. “No such thing happened, and such claims are Islamic State propaganda,” SDF spokeswoman Jehan Sheikh told Syria Direct on Wednesday. 

A Kurdish journalist currently embedded with the SDF in northern Raqqa province also denied Tuesday night’s bombing. “I’m very close right now to Heesha and the news [of the attack] isn’t true. We have reliable information that IS is using civilians there as human shields, according to people who have fled the village,” the journalist, Sardar Hajji Mohammad, told Syria Direct Wednesday.

 Heesha’s residents fled after the reported airstrike Tuesday, activists say. Photo courtesy Raqqa Post.

Pro-SDF social media also accused IS on Wednesday of using Heesha’s residents as “human shields” as coalition forces push south toward Raqqa city. 

The US-led international coalition did not comment on the alleged bombardment on Heesha, but released a statement Wednesday saying “seven strikes engaged six ISIL tactical units and destroyed three fighting positions” on Tuesday near Ayn Isa, a town north of Heesha.

Heesha, a rural village of 10,000 people, is located within IS territory on the frontline of a US-backed campaign to capture Raqqa city, the group’s self-styled capital. The village lies 45km north of the provincial capital.

An alliance of SDF forces, backed by US air support and American military “consultants” launched the offensive—dubbed “Euphrates Wrath” —this week to “isolate and capture Raqqa,” SDF spokeswoman Jihan a-Sheikh told Syria Direct earlier this week.

“Our forces have advanced 10km from the directions of Ayn Issa town and Suluk,” two towns northwest and northeast of Raqqa city, she said.

Fearing further bombings as SDF militias reportedly move closer, “most of Heesha’s residents fled on Wednesday,” a citizen journalist inside Raqqa province told Syria Direct Wednesday.

“They are afraid of what will happen to them, and fear another massacre against the women and children here,” he said.

Most residents drove away in cars for nearby villages in Raqqa’s remote desert countryside, a second citizen journalist with the Raqqa Post, who requested anonymity and also accused the US-backed coalition of being behind the attacks, told Syria Direct. 

Reports of civilian casualties in Heesha harken back to a previous campaign to capture the north Aleppo city of Manbij from the Islamic State this past May.

SDF forces, backed by coalition airpower, wrested Manbij from IS control over a grueling three-month offensive during which at least 190 civilians were killed by coalition airstrikes, independent monitor Airwars reported.

As many as 20,000 residents of Manbij city and its surrounding countryside fled their homes as the SDF made gains against IS forces amid heavy airstrikes, Syria Direct reported.

The fact that the coalition, and the United States in particular, is intensifying its involvement in the battle for Raqqa, makes documenting civilian casualties and displacement more complex, Chris Woods, Airwars’ director, told Syria Direct on Wednesday.

“It’s never been more important for belligerents to declare where and when they’re bombing in Syria.” 

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He mvoed 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.

Malek Hafez

Malek is originally from Damascus and moved to Jordan in 2013. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Middle East University in Jordan.

Osama Hmaidi

Originally from Azzaz in northern Aleppo province, Osama studied political science in Damascus before moving to Jordan in 2013.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Political Science in 2016. She was a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) recipient in Arabic in 2013. Her studies have brought her to Jordan, Palestine and Turkey.