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Syria: massive destruction of Raqqa mapped out

A residential neighbourhood in Raqqa, Syria
A residential neighbourhood in Raqqa, Syria RFI/Filip Warwick

"Decoding Raqqa", a crowd-participant project of Amnesty International and has been launched, with the aim of mapping out the under-reported destruction of the former capital of the Islamic State armed group.


The Battle of Raqqa lasted from 6 June through 17 October 2017, launched by the Syrian Democratic Forces and supported by massive air strikes and ground troops of a US-led coalition.

A relentless bombing campaign resulted not only in the collapse of Islamic State (IS) but also in the total destruction of the city, with up to 6,000 civilian casualties, according to human rights organisations.

“Raqqa is the most destroyed city in modern times,” says Donatella Rovera, a veteran researcher with Amnesty International, who is directly involved in the "Decoding Raqqa" project.

“Certainly much more destroyed than Aleppo, in percentage terms, because the parts of Aleppo that were destroyed are the parts that were bombed repeatedly by the Syrian regime and by Russian forces.

“That was the price. Half of the city, the half that was under control of the opposition. In the case of Raqqa, it is not a part of the city. It is the whole city,” she says.

Decoding Raqqa a huge task

The “” project aims to raise awareness about the total destruction of the city. Amnesty hopes to draft 50,000 volunteers in over 150 countries.

“The reason why we are doing this type of project this way, using volunteers,” says Rovera, “is because it is a huge task, and it is something that is possible and interesting to do for ordinary people. They can do it from their home, as long as they have a mobile phone or a laptop or some sort of mobile device.”

Volunteers are asked to sift through satellite imagery obtained during different days throughout the whole military to identify precise moments when buildings - of which there were more than 11,000 - were destroyed.

US responsibility

Raqqa's destruction has gone relatively under-reported. Professor Guenter Meyer, director of the Center for Research of the Arab World at the University of Mainz, says that this is all part of a propaganda war.

The Syrian regime and the Russians are seen as the "bad guys", and they destroyed parts of Aleppo, while the Americans and their allies are the proverbial "good guys", who defeated IS, also known as Isis, in their self-proclaimed capital Raqqa.

But Meyer thinks some of Washington’s estimates may be incorrect.

“The US army said there were just 23 civilian victims as a result of this massive destruction,” he says, pointing at reports by Amnesty and that the number of civilian casualties run as high as 6,000. “American soldiers were interviewed, and they said, ‘for us, everybody who was within Raqqa, was regarded to be a fighter of Isis.’ The result: whole families, who tried to flee the violence were massacred indiscriminately.

On top of that, artillery shells used by the US-led coalition were “basically unguided with a margin of error of over 100 metres,” he says.

“The Americans are basically responsible for 90 percent of the bombing and 100 percent of shelling by artillery. From this perspective it is quite clear who is responsible for this massive destruction which we have in Raqqa,” he says.

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