US-led coalition purportedly levels northeast Aleppo school with internally displaced Syrians inside

AMMAN: US-led warplanes reportedly fired six missiles at a school in northeast Aleppo on Tuesday, sources on the ground told Syria Direct, in what may be the coalition’s deadliest attack on civilians in the two-year air campaign in Syria.

The airstrike, at 3:00am Tuesday morning, destroyed a school in a-Tokhar, a 3,500-person town 15km northeast of IS-controlled Manbij city and killed anywhere from 65 to 160 people.

CENTCOM reported Monday that “near Manbij, 11 strikes struck eight separate [IS] tactical units,” referring to Aleppo province’s second-largest city, over the past 48 hours. CENTCOM has not yet commented on the alleged airstrike in a-Tokhar, where the school was used as a shelter for internally displaced Syrians.

“That school housed displaced people from neighboring villages,” Abu Omar al-Manbiji, a local citizen journalist, told Syria Direct on Tuesday from Manbij. “So far we count 124 dead from the attack, and that number could very well increase.”

Since late May, coalition-guided airstrikes have assisted the multi-ethnic, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in a campaign to reclaim Manbij city, which fell to IS in early 2014.

 A June 30 airstrike near Manbij by US-led international forces. Image courtesy of CJTF Operation Inherent Resolve.

“The coalition has just confirmed 450 strikes in the [Manbij] vicinity since May 21,” Chris Woods, director of Airwars, a London-based non-profit organization monitoring international airstrikes against IS and tracking civilian casualties, told Syria Direct on Tuesday.

Manbij, a 70,000-person city situated 30km south of the Turkish border and 100km northeast of Aleppo city, serves as a critical waystation for the Islamic State between Aleppo and Raqqa provinces.

However, since the start of the nearly two-month campaign for Manbij, civilian casualties have been high.

“We've tracked 37 separate civilian casualty allegations in and around Manbij, including Tuesday's event at a-Tokhar,” Woods said.

With 13 reported civilian casualties in the past week alone, “this is the highest number of claimed civilian casualty events we've seen for the entire two-year war, with almost all focused in just one area,” Woods added.

While estimates vary, the Manbij Coordination Committee claimed Tuesday morning that following this most recent airstrike, 368 people have died throughout the battle to reclaim Manbij.

“These airstrikes hurt civilians more than anyone,” Sa’ad al-Manbaji, a citizen journalist in the area, told Syria Direct on Tuesday. What’s more, “IS didn’t even have a military presence in a-Tokhar.” While the Islamic State controls the town, it was not immediately clear whether its fighters were present during Tuesday’s airstrikes.

Embattled civilians

In Manbij city, US-backed SDF forces are making slow progress in bloody urban warfare against the Islamic State.  

“Manbij’s parks have turned to graves in order to absorb the city’s dead—both civilians and soldiers with Daesh (the Islamic State),” a Manbij city resident who requested anonymity told Syria Direct’s partner website the Syrian Voice over the weekend.

Bodies are decaying in the streets while ongoing fighting prevents residents from clearing them, said the same anonymous Manbij city resident.

US-led international coalition bombings have knocked out Manbij city’s infrastructure and municipal facilities, leading to shortages of fuel, food, water and electricity.

“Vegetable prices have doubled,” the Manbij resident told the Syrian Voice. “Sugar is now SP1,400 for a kilogram ($6.48), a 50kg bag of flour is SP15,000 ($69.48), and 1km of tomatoes SP4,000 ($18.53).”

At least 70,000 civilians remain trapped in Manbij city, under siege by the SDF, while thousands of others in IS-controlled territories outside the city are threatened by airstrikes and ground advances.

Thousands of civilians have fled Manbij since the beginning of fighting between the SDF and the Islamic State in May.

“We understand the civilians in Manbij are in a dire position as they are trapped between the warring parties,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein stated last Friday. 

With thousands of civilians “trapped between coalition airstrikes, [SDF] and IS snipers in Manbij, the potential for a catastrophe here is great,” Airwars’ Chris Woods told Syria Direct on Tuesday.

“We urgently call on the coalition to reassess those tactics being used in the liberation of Manbij, which reports indicate are causing disproportionate harm to civilians on the ground.”

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting.

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.

Justin Schuster

Justin Schuster graduated from Yale University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Affairs and Modern Middle Eastern Studies. He was a 2015-2016 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. Justin worked as a reporter and translator with Syria Direct before serving as the Managing Director.