Dozens of civilians died in Syrian government air strikes on the Islamic State (IS) stronghold of Raqqa in November in what may have been a war crime, rights group Amnesty International has said.
In a report published on March 17 Amnesty said that Bashar al-Assad's government targeted Raqqa in 23 air strikes between November 11 and 29. Syrian state news agency SANA reported at the time that the government had attacked IS militants in Raqqa but did not admit to any civilian casualties.
Amnesty said that some of the air strikes may have contravened humanitarian law because they targeted civilians or civilian buildings.
Other strikes, in which the presence of IS militants was "confirmed or likely," raised the question "of whether the attacks were disproportionate or otherwise indiscriminate," Amnesty wrote.
"However atrocious the crimes committed by IS forces in both Syria and Iraq have been in recent months, there can be no justification for Syrian forces attacking al-Raqqa as if the whole city was an IS base, unlawfully killing civilians in their dozens," Amnesty wrote in the report.
Amnesty spoke to contacts in Raqqa who witnessed the strikes, in an attempt to ascertain whether the strikes had hit IS or civilian targets.
In most cases, Amnesty found that there were no military targets in the vicinities of the air strikes, "indicating that they were either direct attacks against civilians or indiscriminate attacks."
Other attacks, where IS militants were present, "may have been disproportionate," Amnesty found.
One of Amnesty's contacts in Raqqa, a man named as Mohammad, said that he had identified four people, including two children, who had been killed in one of the air strikes on November 11. Syrian state media reported at the time that government forces had "destroyed [a] hideout for terrorists in Raqqa, killing and injuring a number of them." According to Mohammad, however, the four people he knew who were killed in the air strike were civilians from the same family, who had been unaffiliated with IS.
"I saw six bodies, four of them belonging to the al-Shamti family and the two other being civilians I didn't know who happened to be walking on the street. The building is next to the al-Salam hospital.... It is a private hospital and there are no fighters in the hospital," Mohammad told Amnesty.
Based on the witness testimonies, Amnesty said that the nearest IS base to the November 11 strike was a building around a kilometer from where the strike had hit. The closest locations where IS militants gathered were around 100-200 meters away from the strike.
Assad Targets IS
The November air strikes by the Syrian air force against IS in Raqqa came as part of a campaign by the Assad government to demonstrate its effectiveness against IS, largely in response to operations by the U.S.-led coalition against IS in Syria.
Since the U.S.-led coalition began to strike Islamic State positions in Syria in September, the Syrian air force stepped up its own strikes against the militant group. At the same time, the Syrian government began to emphasize, via state media, that its forces were waging an effective ground and air war on the militants. This narrative has been backed up and given further emphasis by Damascus's main ally, Russia.
At the same time as highlighting its role in fighting IS militants, the Assad government and its allies have insisted that the U.S.-led coalition against IS in Syria is both ineffective and -- because Washington did not request permission from Assad for operations on Syrian soil -- illegal.
In more recent months, the Assad government has adapted its position to say that it could be willing to cooperate with other countries in the fight against IS, a stance that has been backed by Moscow.
It is perhaps no coincidence, then, that the Syrian government sought to assert its military strength with respect to IS by conducting a large-scale "shock and awe" campaign in Raqqa in November, after the U.S.-led coalition had carried out a number of air strikes on the IS stronghold in October.
The United States and its allies, which said they did not carry out any strikes in Raqqa during November 11-29 when the Syrian air force was conducting its sorties in the city, struck the IS stronghold again on November 30.
The U.S.-led coalition has also been accused of causing civilian deaths in air strikes in Syria, although not in Raqqa. As many as 50 civilians were reported to have been killed in a December strike on an IS headquarters in the town of al-Bab in northern Syria. In January, the U.S. Central Command confirmed that coalition war planes had struck the building on the evening of December 28. U.S. officials said in January that they were investigating "at least a few" claims of civilian casualties.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk