U.S. Airstrikes Kill Thousands of Civilians in Iraq and Syria
By Gabi Yamout
In the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), U.S.-led coalition air strikes are a common tactic. Particularly concentrated in hotly contested areas like Mosul and Raqqa, these strikes are intended to eliminate ISIS forces without putting Iraqi government or coalition soldiers at risk. However, these coalition missiles often kill large numbers of civilians, and are increasingly permitted with little oversight and intelligence confirmation. With authorization requirements quickly deteriorating, pressure from international organizations like the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International growing, and the civilian death count increasing every day, a change in approach to these coalition airstrikes is necessary.
In 2017, civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria from U.S. airstrikes have spiked. Generals claim this increase is a result of political and military pressure to quickly take back Mosul and the Raqqa region. As of September 2017, over 27,000 U.S. airstrikes have been carried out in the two states, causing a minimum of 5,343 civilian deaths. It is rumored that an additional 4,000-6,000 civilian non-combatants have died as a result of 851 further incidents since August 2014. The coalition has refused to acknowledge any of these incidents.
Strikes causing civilian casualties include an attack on March 17th, 2017, in which an American airstrike destroyed a building in the Jidideh neighborhood in West Mosul, killing over 100 civilians inside, and two strikes during the summer of 2017, one in which the US killed 30 children in a school in Raqqa and another which killed 37 civilians in a mosque because forces failed to accurately aim a missile. The Islamic State has begun to use civilians as “human shields,” herding groups of them into buildings and setting up military artillery on the roof, hoping that the presence of civilians will dissuade an air strike. Unfortunately, that is rarely the outcome; countless citizens have died this way. The Iraqi government has also directed civilians to stay in their homes preceding airstrikes, only to be killed when they could have evacuated in time.
Other actors have also contributed to the civilian death toll in Iraq and Syria. Russian air strikes, Iraqi and Syrian government forced, allied militias and militant and terrorist groups have together with the coalition killed 206,932 civilians since March 2011. The United States’ position as the dominant world power, however, makes its role in creating these civilian casualties more impactful, and raises questions about the nation’s human rights credibility internationally. These strikes put the United States’ legitimacy in enforcing other human rights compacts and sanctions at risk. The air strikes also have negative strategic implications in the fight against ISIS; military commanders worry that these deaths will decrease local cooperation and fuel terrorist propaganda. Of course, the most important implication is the horrifying impact these strikes have had on the people of Iraq and Syria. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein has urged the United States to more sparingly use air strikes, describing its actions as “[a failure] to take adequate precautions to prevent civilian deaths, in flagrant violation of international humanitarian law.”
As a result of these attacks, the United States has been threatened with possible investigations of human rights violations. The Department of Defense claims to have made adjustments to air strike procedures to avoid casualties after the attack in March, but has not “released details on process, findings, or disciplinary measures taken,” according to Human Rights Watch. Counter Terrorism Service personnel are often denied access after strikes have occurred, and journalists have been provided very limited opportunities to document or record the aftermath of these incidents. If history is any guide, it is unlikely the United States will see punishment for these civilian casualties. After the United States was placed under investigation following the bombing of a hospital in Afghanistan in October 2015, consequences were limited to minor administrative punishments.
Despite these horrific events, the Trump administration is exploring ways to dismantle constraints on air strikes meant to protect civilians. Substantially less authorization is now required for strikes, making it easier to kill civilians without oversight. Generals have been given more authority, now able to skip an intelligence check with the coalition “strike cell” in Baghdad, which “provides information about the target areas to coalition aircrafts, confirms enemy presence at targets, and provides targeting recommendations” (HRW, 2017). Additional relaxations of requirements are being tested in Yemen and Somalia. The administration suggests expanding more regions into “standard war zones,” where commanders can approve air strikes without interagency review. In these zones, civilian casualties are acceptable. Current standards require that there be a clear threat to Americans and near certainty there will be no civilian casualties. These new policies, in conjunction with plans to cut foreign aid to the U.S. State Department’s budget, pose serious concerns for human rights activists.
Without serious accountability for civilian casualties, the United States and its coalition will have no incentive to change their procedures. The United States should disclose all airstrikes carried out in Iraq and Syria, so as to allow investigation into whether or not they were necessary. The international community should very seriously scrutinize the United States’ procedures for striking civilian areas. Without pressure to increase barriers against civilian casualties, the loosening of restrictions and lack of accountability will only continue. It is necessary for the U.S. to change its procedures, and for other states to investigate the actions of the coalition. Otherwise, the international community will remain complicit in the deaths of thousands of Iraqi and Syrian civilians. Changes to coalition practices are necessary to counteract the rise of the civilian death count. The people of Iraq and Syria should not be treated as collateral damage in the fight against terror.