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Research Questions

  1. What were the causes of civilian harm in Raqqa?
  2. How can DoD reduce civilian harm in future operations?

The battle for Raqqa, Syria, seemed like a perfect storm of strategic and operational challenges. When the city was finally liberated from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in October 2017, 60 to 80 percent of it was estimated to be uninhabitable. In fact, the battle for Raqqa is a cautionary tale about civilian harm in 21st-century conflicts.

The purpose of this report is to discuss how the U.S. military — which is the best-trained and most technologically advanced military in the world, is supported in Operation Inherent Resolve by an international coalition of more than 80 countries, and was partnered in Raqqa with a well-respected militia force on the ground — could cause significant civilian harm despite a deeply ingrained commitment to the law of war.

In this report, RAND researchers study the causes of civilian harm in Raqqa and provide insights into how the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) can reduce civilian harm in future operations.

Key Findings

  • U.S. strategic choices, such as the encirclement of Raqqa, likely increased civilian harm.
  • The coalition made considerable efforts to protect civilian life, but there remains room for improvement.
  • Civilian casualties in Raqqa were not as high as one might predict, given the high levels of structural damage.
  • ISIS's defensive tactics deliberately put civilians in harm's way.
  • Extensive structural damage in Raqqa undermined post-battle governing prospects and long-term U.S. interests.
  • Airpower was not used to shape the battlefield in Raqqa, which made civilian-harm mitigation more difficult.
  • Restrictions on U.S. ground forces made preventing civilian harm more difficult.
  • Irregular partner forces were less precise than U.S. forces would be and increased the risk of civilian harm.
  • A lack of sources to provide better local information impeded civilian-harm mitigation efforts.
  • Flawed DoD processes and poor collection of civilian casualty data hindered the military's ability to assess and analyze civilian harm in Raqqa.


  • Prior to the start of military operations, DoD must take a broader approach to civilian harm that considers how strategic choices might affect civilian-harm risks.
  • DoD can improve its application of targeting processes, targeting tools, and force preparation.
  • DoD should harness the considerable lessons learned from Raqqa — and from past operations — to better prepare ground forces, pilots, and targeting teams for future urban engagements, partly through improved education and training.
  • An increased emphasis on information operations could reduce civilian-harm risk.
  • Partnering efforts between the United States and local forces should prioritize strategies and tactics to mitigate civilian harm during military operations.
  • The U.S. military and intelligence community should investigate opportunities to develop tools and practices that improve understanding of the civilian environment and better leverage open-source intelligence, publicly available information, and human intelligence.
  • DoD must take several steps to improve its ability to assess and investigate civilian harm, including improving collection and analysis of civilian casualty data, simplifying reporting procedures and making them consistent, and establishing criteria for when the military should conduct site visits.
  • DoD must go beyond the identification of lessons regarding civilian harm — exemplified in this study but also in past studies on civilian harm — and ensure that they are acted on.

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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