CAIRO – 14 August 2017: U.S.-led coalition airstrikes have killed at least 29 civilians in Raqqa in 24 hours, the British-based war monitor The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported late on Tuesday. The fatalities include 14 children, as well as a family of 14, who had attempted to seek refuge in Raqqa after leaving Palmyra.
The U.S. has been engaged in a fierce battle from the air with the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group across Syria and Iraq. The Battle for Mosul has been referred to as the greatest urban conflict since World War II, and the defeat of IS signaled a major shift in the conflict. Raqqa, the capital of its self-proclaimed caliphate, now remains the jihadists’ last major, urban stronghold.
The U.S.-led coalition persistently defends the air campaign, claiming precision weapons minimize the risk of collateral damage. This may be true – but is this a sufficient excuse?
Airwars, a non-profit group that monitors civilian deaths from coalition airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, estimates that at least 4,887 to 7,528 civilians are “likely to have died in Coalition actions,” in the past three years.
: Table from Airwars, a nonprofit group that monitors civilian deaths from coalition airstrikes in Syria and Iraq
This report adds to the barrage of criticism the coalition has faced, and draws more light on the questions surrounding the effectiveness of a war, which is dominated by unchallengeable air superiority.
The coalition has argued that it tries relentlessly to avoid civilian casualties, and where reports claim that they have occurred, they conduct a thorough investigation. Yet, similar to artillery and missile strikes, those who order the airstrikes emphasize the meticulous attention paid to avoid civilian casualties, and when they do occur they absolve themselves of blame and argue that it is the result of the depraved practices of the opposition.
Nevertheless, bombing an area, which is occupied by both militant and civilians will inevitably result in the death of many civilians. Explosives cannot differentiate between combatant and non-combatant. The myth that precision weapons can distinguish the guilty from the innocent is repeatedly falsified.
Furthermore, the use of civilians as human shields has increased the complexity of the situation.
“We think there’s about 2,000 ISIS fighters left in Raqqa, and they will – they most likely will die in Raqqa,” U.S. Counter-Terror Special Envoy, Brett McGurk, said during a special briefing in Washington on August 4. They are estimated to be holding 25,000 civilians as human shields, to prevent airstrikes.
“And what’s really happening in Raqqa – similar to what we saw in Mosul but on a smaller scale – the Isis fighters on the ground are using these civilians as their own shields, as their own hostages. They are using snipers to kill civilians who are trying to escape,” he added.
In Mosul, the U.S.-led coalition airstrikes have resulted in civilian fatalities on a massive scale.
In the largest incident of civilian deaths since the U.S. air-campaign against IS began in 2014, at least 100 civilians were killed in a U.S. airstrike in the al-Jadidah neighborhood of Western Mosul. With sources naturally being hard to confirm, some estimates put the real number at closer to 200.
Captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesperson, said that “There’s been no loosening of the rules of engagement,” said to the New York Times on March 24. However, the rules have
become increasingly blurred. The Rules of Engagement prevent the U.S.-led coalition from firing “into civilian populated areas or buildings unless the enemy is using them for military purposes.” In Raqqa, much like in Mosul, IS militants live amongst civilians, yet airstrikes are still being used abundantly and indiscriminately.
Table from Airwars, a nonprofit group that monitors civilian deaths from coalition airstrikes in Syria and Iraq
Bombs continue to fall over Raqqa. Again similarly to Mosul, the city has a high population density in the urban areas, and consequently it is of no surprise that the civilian death toll is constantly on the rise.
Nevertheless, the complexity of the situation makes any other form of involvement far from likely. At loggerheads with Russia, the U.S. will not pull out of the conflict at the risk of losing regional influence relative to Russia. But like Russia, the U.S. does not want to commit to deploying ground troops to Syria beyond a small, secret numbers of Special Forces.
Furthermore, any attempt to defeat these fanatic, jihadist fighters in Raqqa without the use of airstrikes will result in a longer campaign and consequently a far greater death toll on the ground.
The issue remains that airstrikes do not distinguish between soldier and civilian, hospital or house, boy or girl – but people can. So maybe the answer to this dilemma lies in not eliminating the use of air strikes completely but rather enhancing the coalition’s knowledge of the situation on the ground. A greater understanding of the population realities on the ground would help to avoid unnecessary causalities.
Houses and infrastructure can be rebuilt in the future, but a life cannot be replaced.
Instead of placing the blame entirely on the parties responsible for such airstrikes, it may be more appropriate to blame the lack of assistance and humanitarian support provided to those on the ground who wished, or even didn’t wish, to remove themselves from conflict zones. Not only would this help to minimize civilian casualties, it would shorten the conflict period since IS militants would have less ability to abuse civilians for their military gain as a human shield.
But “blame” is not the correct term. Air support is arguably the most effective form of assistance the international community can provide to assist their allies on the ground. However, in order to move forward, important lessons need to be learned from what has happened across Syria and Iraq. More appropriate strategies for using airstrikes in urban areas with large civilian populations needs to be devised, with a greater appreciation for civilian life.
Almost 600 civilians have been killed in Raqqa since the start of the battle, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights report that was published on July 23.