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Strikes on Raqqa in Syria lead to more questions than results

BEIRUT >> First France and then Russia answered Islamic State attacks on their citizens with a strategy of direct reprisal: intensified airstrike campaigns on Raqqa, the militants’ de facto capital within Syria, meant to eliminate the group’s leadership and resources.

But on Tuesday in the early hours of those new campaigns, there seemed to be more questions than decisive results. Chief among them: Why, if there were confirmed Islamic State targets that could be hit without killing civilians, were they not hit more heavily long ago? And what, in fact, was being hit?

More broadly, the Raqqa airstrikes are renewing a debate about how effective such attacks can be in defeating or containing the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, without more commitment to measures like drying up its financial support, combating its ideology or — what outside forces on all sides so far appear to have ruled out — conducting a ground assault.

Several people in Lebanon, Syria and Turkey who have been able to make contact with relatives in Raqqa say the recent French airstrikes — a barrage of about 30 on Sunday night and seven more on Monday — did not kill any civilians. But neither did they inflict serious military damage, those people said, instead hitting empty areas or buildings, or parts of the territory of factory complexes or military bases used by the Islamic State.

Abdullah, a Syrian concierge in Beirut who reached his sister in Raqqa on Tuesday, said that in the case of the seven French airstrikes on Monday, “all these strikes are targeting abandoned empty locations.” The day before, he said, the 30 French airstrikes hit mainly the outskirts of the city. “Thank God, no civilians died,” he said.

The activist group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, which opposes both the Islamic State and the Syrian government, also insisted that no civilians had been killed in the French barrages. It had yet to post information about the Russian airstrikes that took place Tuesday, lacking more recent updates.

More French airstrikes, reaching 25 to 30, struck Raqqa late Tuesday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group in Britain that has a network of contacts in Syria. Many of the strikes hit deserted areas that had already been struck, but casualties were reported in addition to property damage, the group said.

Although the United States has conducted spot strikes within Raqqa, like the one said to have killed the Islamic State media figure known as Jihadi John, U.S. officials say concern about the large civilian population remaining in the city has precluded heavier bombing. And even under the current rules of engagement, Syrians have reported numerous instances of civilian casualties from American airstrikes, including one in May in the town of Bir Mahli that killed at least 60 people.

Many of the group’s command posts in Raqqa were identified long ago, but they are in places that get heavy civilian traffic or where the Islamic State is holding civilian prisoners, like the main security office known as Point 11, inside a soccer stadium.

Despite its importance as an Islamic State operational center, Raqqa has remained much more intact than Syrian cities like Homs and Aleppo, where the Syrian government has focused its efforts to eliminate rebel groups. Over the past year, though, government bombardments of the city have become more frequent, sometimes hitting schools and other civilian infrastructure, residents say.

Still, even in recent months, people have fled to Raqqa from places they perceive as more dangerous. Numerous residents have moved there from Palmyra, recently taken by the Islamic State and newly coming under government airstrikes.

Outside of anecdotal accounts, damage assessment in Raqqa is inherently difficult. Islamic State fighters over the past several months have been closing Internet cafes and monitoring the remaining ones more closely, making it difficult for residents to reach the outside world and to speak freely when they do. Talking to journalists is particularly risky, as was demonstrated in dramatic fashion by the murder in southern Turkey of two activists for Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently.

A Syrian government supporter from Raqqa who now lives in Beirut and describes himself as a kind of freelance informant for government forces, said there had long been airstrikes in or around Raqqa nearly every day. Sometimes they are executed by Syrian warplanes, other times by the U.S.-led coalition and more recently by Russia, the informant said, using only a nickname, Shadi, to protect family members still in Raqqa. But he added: “They don’t have too much impact on ISIS’ military situation.”

Instead, the strikes within Raqqa have hurt locals at least as much as the Islamic State fighters who live among them, he said. In the airstrikes that have hit crowded city areas, “one Daesh member gets killed, and 10 civilians,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for the group.

And while strikes are sometimes reported to have hit Islamic State military bases, Shadi said such strikes may sound more significant than they really were, because the bases are large and open and their territory may be hit without doing any real damage.

Despite his allegiance to the Syrian government, Shadi said that as a practical matter government airstrikes tended to hit less precisely, whereas American ones had sometimes been accurate enough to kill Islamic State commanders in their cars.

Earlier Russian airstrikes in Syria, including a few on Raqqa but also in other parts, had not proved much better than the government ones, because, he said, Russians lacked “people on the ground.”

Also complicating the international effort is the disagreement between Russia and the United States over whom and what to target. Russia insists that there is little distinction between the Islamic State and other insurgent groups, like the Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front and some U.S.-backed factions. The United States insists that the focus should be on the Islamic State, and that some other insurgent groups are legitimate opposition forces.

That lingering dispute was on display Tuesday as Russian missile strikes hit the provinces of Idlib and Aleppo farther west, in areas where the Islamic State has no known territory. In the town of Atareb, according to local insurgents, a group that has been battling the Islamic State and receiving U.S. support was hit.

The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington research group that has advocated more robust American intervention in Syria, recently called for a loosening of the rules of engagement for U.S. warplanes — in other words, a relaxing of efforts to avoid killing civilians.

Shadi and other Raqqa residents said that — aside from the moral objections — such a plan made little sense: Islamic State fighters in Raqqa seem more concerned about the ground offensive being prepared by Kurdish militias that have received U.S. support.

Shadi said the fighters had been pressuring males as young as 15 to join them to “fight the Kurds” and, if they refuse, imposing a “tax” to be used to buy a weapon for a fighter.

“They are facing death every day,” Shadi said of residents, adding many families had sent a member to join the Islamic State because they need money or protection against the group.

The Raqqa activists insisted there were no civilian casualties in the French airstrikes, and insisted in a Twitter post that they would not withhold such information.

“Our group will be the first who will report about any civilians who will be killed or injured by any Airstrikes, whether this Airstrikes by Coalition or #France or #USA or #Russia” or by the Syrian army, “so please stop Publishing lies.”

They added: “of course we don’t like to see people afraid from the Airstrikes and Explosion but we support any action will take #ISIS out from #Raqqa.”

At the same time, they posted maps from Google Earth of the areas where they said some of the strikes had hit — some of which are in open areas and some of which have been abandoned.

The activists said that despite the fear, some residents enjoyed a few moments of freedom when fighters took cover during airstrikes, especially women who step out on their balconies without worrying that the fighters will order them to cover up.

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