My colleague Adam Garrie has written a vivid description of the footage showing the destruction of the Syrian city of Raqqa, once capital of ISIS’s self-proclaimed ‘Caliphate’ and now reduced to an almost total ruin. As Adam Garrie rightly says, Raqqa has not been liberated so much as totally destroyed.
This gives rise to many bitter thoughts.
Firstly, it is only last year that Western governments and the Western media were furiously denouncing the Russians for their supposed indiscriminate bombing of the Syrian city of Aleppo, of which a section was at that time occupied by Jihadi fighters aligned with Al-Qaeda.
As I remember all too clearly, the Russians and the Syrian military were regularly accused of committing war crimes in Aleppo, with particular stress given to the supposedly deliberate killing of civilians in Aleppo and the bombing of hospitals the matter.
The question of Aleppo regularly came up in the UN Security Council, leading to angry exchanges and abuse of the Russians there, with the situation becoming so charged that President Putin even felt obliged to put off a visit to France when he was told that French President Hollande would refuse to speak to him.
Meanwhile those Western journalists such as Vanessa Beeley and Eva Bartlett who actually travelled to Aleppo and reported that the situation there was completely different from the way it was being described were subjected to relentless abuse (which still continues) by the Western media, even as the lurid and on occasion fantastic claims of Russian and Syrian government atrocities which poured out of the Jihadi controlled enclave were given instant credence.
The reality is that Aleppo after the fighting ended there in December emerged intact, and is now once more a populous and industrious city, with the great majority of its buildings still standing, most of its people still there (in fact they remained there throughout the four years of the Jihadi siege) and many of its people who fled coming home.
Though the task of reconstruction is enormous, there is at least a city still left to rebuild, as even the BBC is reporting.
The contrast with Raqqa could not be starker. Not only is Raqqa all but completely destroyed (the UN says 80% of its buildings have been destroyed, with other eyewitness reports saying there is hardly a building left standing) but it has all happened in total silence, with no words of condemnation from Western governments or the Western media whilst it was happening or since then..
By way of example, David Gardner in the Financial Times has only this to say
…..after a five-month siege spearheaded by Syrian Kurdish fighters under the cover of US air strikes, the black flags have gone, the Isis reign of terror is over, but much of Raqqa lies in rubble
This apparently is a sufficient statement to describe the total obliteration of a whole city.
As for the Guardian – in Britain perhaps the most relentless critic of Russia’s operation in Aleppo last year – in an editorial welcoming ISIS’s defeat in Raqqa it has nothing to say about the city’s destruction at all.
Perhaps given the kind of organisation ISIS is there was no alternative way to defeat it in Raqqa other than to destroy the city. That is the argument made for example by a commentary by CTV News
……the spectacular devastation of the depopulated city raised questions about the cost of victory against a fanatical opponent and laid bare the difficulties of rebuilding areas where the jihadis put up a ferocious defence, leaving scorched earth and traumatized societies in their wake.
From Fallujah, Ramadi and Mosul in Iraq to Kobani, Manbij and Raqqa in Syria, protracted military campaigns that eventually succeeded in flushing out the militants have left behind a trail of destruction so vast that they appeared to have been undertaken with little regard for the day after….
Still, whether there was another way to wrest control of the city from the extremists is debatable.
Perhaps so, but one wonders why in that case the same argument – or excuse – did not apply last year to Aleppo where the devastation was far less than in “Fallujah, Ramadi and Mosul in Iraq (and) Kobani, Manbij and Raqqa in Syria”.
In reality it is difficult to disagree with the assessment of Major General Igor Konashenkov, the Russian Defence Ministry’s spokesman, who spoke of the “liberation” of Raqqa in this way
Washington’s imagination is that IS controlled in Syria only Raqqa – a provincial city, where about 200,000 lived before the war, and by beginning of the coalition’s five-months operation to liberate it – not more than 45,000. Compare: Deir ez-Zor with the vast suburbs by the Euphrates before the war had a population of more than 500,000, and it took the Syrian forces with support from the Russian Aerospace Force ten days to liberate all that territory.
The Syrian army’s rapid sweep through territory once held by ISIS, and its successful and rapid liberation with a minimum of destruction of formerly ISIS controlled towns like Palmyra, the ISIS controlled area of Deir Ezzor, and ISIS’s alternative ‘capital’ of Mayadin, does in fact make for a remarkable contrast.
Here it is important to reiterate a point which in all the various discussions about ISIS’s defeat in Raqqa gets almost completely forgotten.
This is that the US had no legal authority to bomb ISIS in Raqqa in the way it did. Raqqa is a Syrian city in Syria, and its population are (or were) Syrians. The US nonetheless bombed Raqqa to destruction in order to ‘liberate’ it from ISIS, even though it did so without the agreement of the Syrian government or of the UN Security Council.
By any objective assessment the US’s bombing of Raqqa violated international law, a fact all but confirmed by the convoluted arguments US lawyers have come up with in order to justify the US’s armed intervention in Syria (I discussed these arguments in detail right at the start of the US intervention in Syria and showed why these arguments are wrong in an article I wrote for Sputnik which can be found here).
During the furore last year over the bombing of Aleppo there was much wild talk of Russian officials being prosecuted for war crimes. In reality Western governments have produced no evidence that the Russians committed any war crimes in Aleppo, a fact which a parliamentary report in Britain has admitted.
By contrast there is at least a prima facie case that the bombing of Raqqa – illegal, disproportionate and obviously indiscriminate as it clearly was – is indeed a war crime, though needless to say there is no possibility that any US official will be prosecuted for it.
The outstanding question about Raqqa, and the one which is the most difficult to answer, is why the city had to be destroyed in the way it was.
There are disagreements about the number of ISIS fighters in Raqqa but the highest total I have seen is that there were 6,000 before the battle began (other estimates are much lower; one I saw put the number as low 2,000).
This is significantly less than the total number of Jihadi fighters engaged in the ‘Great Battle of Aleppo’ last year, which at its peak may have been as high as 30,000.
Given the relatively small number of ISIS fighters in Raqqa, why did the siege take so long (four months) leaving the city so completely destroyed?
Possibly the Kurdish fighters the US used to fight ISIS in Raqqa were simply not up to the job. There may not have been enough of them, and they may not have been adequately trained. The YPG – the core of the ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ which ‘liberated’ Raqqa – is ultimately a locally raised militia rather than a trained army, and – like the Peshmerga in Iraq – it may not be the formidable force it is sometimes made out to be.
There are also reports that some elements of the Arab population of Raqqa were less than happy that their ‘liberators’ were Kurds, and that this made them less forthcoming with intelligence about ISIS positions than had been expected. By contrast one of the reasons the Syrian army has been fighting ISIS so successfully in eastern Syria is because of the abundant intelligence it receives from local people.
Possibly the US was obliged to make up with air power for the failure of the Kurds on the ground, and their inability to obtain good intelligence about ISIS’s positions.
However judging from the history of US wars it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the reason Raqqa was so completed destroyed was because the US ultimately didn’t care whether it was destroyed or not.
This has been the recurring pattern of US war fighting ever since the Second World War: unconstrained bombing to achieve mostly ill-though-out political objectives heedless of the cost or the consequences for the local people.
The result is wars that seem to go on forever amidst terrible destructiveness, and which in the end almost invariably fail.
Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s former President, at Russia’s Valdai Forum recently described this style of war-fighting and its terrible effect
But soon, we began to get troubles. Extremism arrived again, violence erupted again, terrorism arrived again. And the US did not pay attention to where it was coming from. It began bombing Afghan villages, it began killing Afghan people, it began putting Afghan people in prisons. And the more they did the more we had extremism.
Raqqa was destroyed because ultimately the US military knows no other way.
The result in Raqqa is there for all to see. The US made a desert, and calls it peace.