Growing Death Toll in al-Raqqa Under Trump

Coalition airstrikes killed fourteen children in al-Raqqa on Monday. The day after, my uncle left the city. He withstood the Nusra Front, ISIL, and other groups that butchered his community because he was a doctor and refused to run when other civilians who didn’t have the means could not. And so, he remained, in the home he couldn’t bear to leave, with the people that suffered a violence that rarely made headlines. Yet, on Monday, the growing number of bombs from the U.S.-led coalition finally forced him to leave. He now travels to Damascus with friends, but he left even more behind.

When I was young, we used to travel to my grandfather’s home in al-Raqqa. An iron gate fences off a small garden at the front of the white house. Inside, the hallways are narrow. As kids, my father and uncle would brace their legs on the walls and climb to the ceiling, hiding there to read comic books beside the iron chandeliers. Just outside the large kitchen, there is a door to a walled-off backyard with an old shed in the middle. If you go to the shed, you don’t find tools, but a large library my grandfather built underground. During the war, the library flooded. The rooftops my cousins and I used to play flashlight tag on turned into perches for snipers, and the small, quiet city became a battlefield for fighting factions.

A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces during the Raqqa campaign.

UN war crimes investigators are currently examining the number of civilian casualties in the U.S.-backed campaign to reclaim al-Raqqa. So far, they believe there has been a “staggering loss of civilian life.” They already documented 300 civilians killed in U.S.-coalition airstrikes — 200 in one village, al Mansoura, alone. However, these numbers might be conservative. Airwars, a U.K.-based group that monitors civilian airstrike casualties, estimated the death toll from airstrikes in Iraq and Syria at over 3,800.

These numbers shouldn’t be surprising. In March, the Washington Post reported that “the Trump administration is exploring how to dismantle or bypass Obama-era constraints intended to prevent civilian deaths from drone attacks, commando raids, and other counterterrorism missions outside conventional warzones.” The apparent disregard for civilian casualties may be manifesting in the growing death toll in al-Raqqa.

However, the unrepentant bombs appear to be having their intended effect. On August 5, President Trump tweeted a Washington Post article titled, “Under Trump, gains against ISIL have ‘dramatically accelerated’” — which is true. A senior State Department official states that one-third of the territory reclaimed from ISIL has been done since Trump became president. What the article doesn’t comment on is the cost of this victory: civilian lives.

When people ask why my uncle and the other civilians in al-Raqqa never fled before, I repeat what he told my father. Many civilians don’t have the money it takes to move to another country and start a new life. ISIL cannot know they are leaving, so they must flee leaving all their belongings behind. Then once they leave their home, where do they go? Today, Syrian refugees linger forgotten in refugee camps; the al Za’atari camp is now the fourth largest “city” in Jordan. And the refugees cannot leave — countries are only taking a few thousand of the over five million. Other refugees are trapped between countries. They take sailboats to nations, but all the doors are shut and locked, if the refugees reach the doors at all. The civilians in al-Raqqa have seen what happens to Syrian refugees when they flee violence, and my uncle shares their belief: better to die with dignity at home than become a beggar on the doorstep of a country that does not want you.

The United States claims it is coming to reclaim and liberate the city from ISIL. But reclaim and liberate who? If the people of al-Raqqa die during the assault, all the United States is liberating are broken houses and empty streets. And if all that is left of the people of al-Raqqa are the refugees who fled it, who live between nations who won’t welcome them, we cannot expect the desperation to turn to anything but rage. It’s a failure of strategy to aggravate preexisting anger in the Middle East, an anger that led to the creation of groups like ISIL to begin with. If the United States does not care for the civilians in the fight against ISIL, all it does is continue the cycle of violence and resentment in the Middle East. Apologies for war crimes committed in the process of eliminating a terrorist group won’t stop the recruitment for another.

Even if the administration is adamant in its disregard for Syrian life, the bombs they drop in the name of our national security put the lives of American troops and civilians at risk by growing anti-American sentiment and threatening cooperation with local Syrian communities in the fight against ISIL. The national security community must advocate for civilian lives in al-Raqqa, not just because it is right, but because it is integral to fighting ISIL and searching for stability in Syria. Otherwise, like in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States will be caught in another perpetual war, its cost paid highest by civilians and veterans.

So, as the headlines track growing escalation in North Korea and White House scandals, remember that bombs are falling in Syria and civilians are dying, without question, without criticism, without attention. Our silence deafens, and its consequences are bloody.

Zaina Ujayli is a Policy Intern at the Truman National Security Project and an English student at The Ohio State University. Views expressed are her own.

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