The Wrath of U.S. Air Strikes Along the Euphrates River

Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve

27 July 2017 |Laura Gottesdiener| War is Boring/TomDispatch

The Wrath of U.S. Air Strikes Along the Euphrates River Falls on Civilians

American bombs are responsible for a staggering increase in civilian casualties

“It was midday on Sunday, May 7, when the U.S.-led coalition warplanes again began bombing the neighborhood of Wassim Abdo’s family.

They lived in Tabqa, a small city on the banks of the Euphrates River in northern Syria. Then occupied by Islamic State, Tabqa was also under siege by U.S.-backed troops and being hit by daily artillery fire from U.S. Marines, as well as U.S.-led coalition air strikes. The city, the second largest in Raqqa province, was home to an airfield and the coveted Tabqa Dam.

It was also the last place in the region the U.S.-backed forces needed to take before launching their much-anticipated offensive against the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed capital, Raqqa.

His parents, Muhammed and Salam, had already fled their home once when the building adjacent to their house was bombed, Wassim Abdo told me in a recent interview. ISIS had been arresting civilians from their neighborhood for trying to flee the city. So on that Sunday, the couple was taking shelter on the second floor of a four-story flat along with other family members when a U.S.-led air strike reportedly struck the front half of the building.

Abdo’s sister-in-law Lama fled the structure with her two children and survived. But his parents and 12-year-old cousin were killed, along with dozens of their neighbors, as the concrete collapsed on them.

As an exiled human rights activist, Wassim Abdo only learned of his parents’ death three days later, after Lama called him from the Syrian border town of Kobane, where she and her two children had been transported for medical treatment.

Her daughter had been wounded in the bombing and although the U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led troops had by then seized control of Tabqa, it was impossible for her daughter to be treated in their hometown, because weeks of U.S.-led coalition bombing had destroyed all the hospitals in the city. 

SDF fighters in Tabqa, Syria. VOA photo

 

A war against civilians

Islamic State fighters have now essentially been defeated in Mosul after a nine-month, U.S.-backed campaign that destroyed significant parts of Iraq’s second largest city, killing up to 40,000 civilians and forcing as many as one million more people from their homes. Now, the United States is focusing its energies — and warplanes — on ISIS-occupied areas of eastern Syria in an offensive dubbed “Wrath of the Euphrates.”

The Islamic State’s brutal treatment of civilians in Syria has been well reported and publicized. And according to Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the commander of the U.S.-led war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the battle to “liberate” these regions from ISIS is the “most precise campaign in the history of warfare.”

But reports and photographs from Syrian journalists and activists, as well as first-person accounts from those with family members living in areas under U.S. bombardment, detail a strikingly different tale of the American offensive — one that looks a lot less like a battle against the Islamic State and a lot more like a war on civilians.

These human rights groups and local reporters say that, across Syria in recent months, the U.S.-led coalition and U.S. Marines have bombed or shelled at least 12 schools, including primary schools and a girls’ high school; a health clinic and an obstetrics hospital; Raqqa’s Science College; residential neighborhoodsbakeries; post offices; a car wash; at least 15 mosques; a cultural center; a gas station; cars carrying civilians to the hospital; a funeral; water tanks; at least 15 bridges; a makeshift refugee camp; the ancient Rafiqah Wall that dates back to the eighth century; and an Internet café in Raqqa, where a Syrian media activist was killed as he was trying to smuggle news out of the besieged city.

The United States is now one of the deadliest warring parties in Syria. In May and June combined, the U.S.-led coalition killed more civilians than the Assad regime, the Russians, or ISIS, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, a nongovernmental organization that has been monitoring the death toll and human rights violations in Syria since 2011.

“This administration wants to achieve a quick victory,” Dr. Fadel Abdul Ghany, chairman of the Syrian Network for Human Rights recently told me, referring to the Trump White House. “What we are noticing is that the U.S. is targeting and killing without taking into consideration the benefits for the military and the collateral damage for the civilians. This, of course, amounts to war crimes.”

And nowhere is this war against civilians more acute than in ISIS-occupied Raqqa, where trapped families are living under dozens of air strikes every day.

A defaced portrait of Bashar Al Assad in Raqqa in April 2013. Beshr Abdulhadi photo via Flickr

Hotel of the revolution 

Located at the confluence of the Euphrates and Balikh rivers in northern Syria, Raqqa was first settled more than 5,000 years ago.

By the late eighth century, it had grown into an imperial city, filled with orchards, palaces, canals, reception halls and a hippodrome for horse racing. Its industrial quarters were then known as “the burning Raqqa,” thanks to the flames and thick smoke produced by its glass and ceramic furnaces. The city even served briefly as the capital of the vast Abbasid Empire stretching from North Africa to Central Asia.

Toward the end of the 13th century, wars between the Mongol and Mamluk empires annihilated Raqqa and its surrounding countryside. Every single resident of the city was either killed or expelled. According to Hamburg University professor Stefan Heidemann, who has worked on a number of excavations in and around Raqqa, the scorched-earth warfare was so extreme that not a single tree was left standing in the region.

Only in the middle of the 20th century when irrigation from the Euphrates River allowed Raqqa’s countryside to flourish amid a global cotton boom did the city fully reemerge. In the 1970s, the region’s population again began to swell after then-Pres. Hafez Al Assad — the father of the present Syrian leader, Bashar Al Assad — ordered the construction of a massive hydroelectric dam on the Euphrates about 30 miles upstream of Raqqa.

Wassim Abdo’s father, Muhammed, was an employee at this dam. Like many of these workers and their families, he and Salam lived in Tabqa’s third neighborhood, which was filled with four-story apartment flats built in the 1970s not far from the dam and its power station.

Despite these agricultural and industrial developments, Raqqa remained a small provincial capital. Abdalaziz Alhamza, a cofounder of the watchdog group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, which is made up of media activists from Raqqa living in the city as well as in exile, writes that the local news normally didn’t even mention the city in its weather forecasts.

In the mid-2000s, a drought began to wither the local cash crops — cotton, potatoes, rice and tomatoes. As in other regions of Syria, farmers migrated from the countryside into the city, where overstretched and ill-functioning public services only exacerbated long-simmering dissatisfactions with the Assad regime.

As the 2011 rebellion broke out across Syria, Wassim Abdo and thousands of others in Raqqa, Tabqa and nearby villages began agitating against the Syrian government, flooding the streets in protest and forming local coordinating councils. The regime slowly lost control of territory across the province.

In March 2013, after only a few days of battle, anti-government rebels ousted government troops from the city and declared Raqqa the first liberated provincial capital in all of Syria. The city, then the sixth largest in Syria, became “the hotel of the revolution.”

Within less than a year, however, despite fierce protests and opposition from its residents, ISIS fighters had fully occupied the city and the surrounding countryside. They declared Raqqa the capital of the Islamic State.

Despite the occupation, Wassim’s parents never tried to flee Tabqa because they hoped to reunite with one of their sons, Azad, who had been kidnapped by ISIS fighters in September 2013. In retirement, Muhammed Abdo opened a small electronics store. Salam was a housewife.

Like tens of thousands of other civilians, they were living under ISIS occupation in Tabqa when, in the spring of 2017, U.S. Apache helicopters and warplanes first began appearing in the skies above the city. U.S. Marines armed with howitzers were deployed to the region.

In late March, American helicopters airlifted hundreds of U.S.-backed troops from the Kurdish-led militias known as the Syrian Democratic Forces to the banks of the dammed river near the city. Additional forces approached from the east, transported on American speedboats. 

By the beginning of May, the Abdos’ neighborhood was under almost daily bombardment by the U.S.-led coalition forces. On May 3, coalition warplanes reportedly launched up to 30 air strikes across Tabqa’s first, second and third neighborhoods, striking homes and a fruit market and reportedly killing at least six civilians.

The following night, another round of coalition air strikes battered the first and third neighborhoods, reportedly killing at least seven civilians, including women and children. Separate air strikes that same night near the city’s center reportedly killed another six to 12 civilians. 

On May 7, multiple bombs reportedly dropped by the U.S.-led coalition struck the building where Muhammed and Salam had taken shelter, killing them and their 12-year-old grandson. Three days later, the Syrian Democratic Forces announced that they had fully seized control of Tabqa and the dam. The militia and its U.S. advisers quickly set their sights east to the upcoming offensive in Raqqa.

But for the Abdo family, the tragedy continued. Muhammed and Salam’s bodies were buried beneath the collapsed apartment building. It took 15 days before Wassim’s brother Rashid could secure the heavy machinery required to extract them.

“Nobody could approach the corpses because of the disfigurement that had occurred and the smell emanating from them as a result of being left under the rubble for such a long period of time in the hot weather,” Wassim told me in a recent interview. 

That same day their bodies were finally recovered. On May 23, his parents and nephew were buried in the Tabqa cemetery.

 

Laura Gottesdiener is a freelance journalist and a news producer with Democracy Now! Her writing has appeared in Mother JonesAl JazeeraThe NationPlayboyRolling Stone and frequently at TomDispatchSpecial thanks on this piece go to Alhasan Ghazzawi. This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.

 

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