On April 24, a group of Syrian women bundled themselves and their children into a car and attempted to flee the small town of Tabqa, outside of Raqqa. In recent months the sleepy principality had become the site of raging battles between Islamic State militants and U.S.-backed proxy forces, waging a campaign to drive ISIS from the country. Packed into the fleeing car were eleven people, including eight members of the al-Aish family: three women between the ages of 40 and 23, and five children, the youngest one just six months old.
The al-Aish family’s flight from a warzone was similar to millions of other desperate journeys made by Syrian civilians over the past six years. But they would not make it to safety. As they fled Tabqa, their car was hit by an airstrike, reportedly carried out by the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. All eleven people were killed in the strike, in what local reports described as a “massacre.”
A U.S.-led coalition warplane targeted heavy machine guns at civilians trying to flee the city of Al-Tabaqa, which is witnessing heavy clashes between gunmen,” reported the local anti-ISIS activist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently. The air raid led to “the death of a whole family.” Following the attack, photos of the young children from the al-Aish family circulated widely on social media and local news sites, including pictures of three-year old Abdul Salam and six-month old Ali.
The strike that killed the al-Aish family was just one of an estimated 9,029 strikes carried out by the U.S.-led coalition in Syria since 2014. The independent monitoring group Airwars estimates that Coalition strikes in Syria and Iraq over the past several years have killed between 3,681 and 5,849 civilians, compounding the suffering of people who have already endured years of civil war. In recent months, local media have reported a steady stream of airstrikes that have hit civilian targets, including several particularly egregious strikes on packed schools and mosques.
But worse days for civilians in northern Syria could still be ahead, as the United States and its allies prepare for a terminal offensive against Raqqa — the last urban stronghold of ISIS and the capital of its deteriorating proto-state.
“Rarely a day goes by now when we don’t see three or four civilian casualty incidents attributed to Coalition airstrikes around Raqqa,” Airwars director Chris Woods told The Intercept. “All of the local monitoring groups are now reporting that the Coalition is killing more civilians than Russia on a regular basis.”
And when Woods refers to the Coalition in Syria, he is largely referring to the United States. Based on announcements from U.S. Central Command (Centcom), Airwars estimates that the overwhelming majority of Coalition strikes have come from U.S. warplanes.
But in contrast to Iraq, where the Coalition is providing air support for local forces fighting to retake the city of Mosul, there has been little public attention paid to the air campaign in Syria. “We have been killing a lot of civilians in and around Raqqa for quite some time now, yet these incidents are rarely admitted by the Coalition and there is almost no interest from international media,” Woods says. “We have to question where the empathy is for the local population.”