Civilian Casualties and the United States’ Dilemma in Syria and Iraq

By: Sara Sirota, Columnist

Photo Credit: The Independent

As many as 200 civilians died on March 17 in western Mosul, when the US-led coalition in Iraq and Syria conducted an aggressive series of airstrikes to destroy ISIS targets.[1] Another 30 died on March 22 in a school, when the coalition pursued targets near Raqqa. And the week before that, US airstrikes targeting al-Qa‘ida operatives in Aleppo supposedly killed 49 civilians—locals said one hit a mosque.[2]

News organizations have highlighted these tragedies over the past few weeks, but there is nothing new or unique about them. Counterterrorism operations, and particularly those that involve aerial tactics, often come with a massive human toll. This problem raises serious concerns as the United States continues to battle terrorist organizations around the world while also trying to uphold its ethical obligations.

Those obligations are included in the distinction and proportionality principles of customary international humanitarian law. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, the principle of distinction holds that parties to a conflict “must at all times distinguish between civilians and combatants.” They must not direct an attack at civilians.[3] The principle of proportionality prohibits “an attack which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.”[4] These principles present a particular challenge for militaries pursuing counterterrorism operations.

Terrorist organizations often use unconventional tactics that make it difficult for militaries to observe international humanitarian law faithfully. ISIS in particular operates in populated urban areas to deter airstrikes, such as in Mosul, where there are an estimated 500,000 civilians trapped. While ISIS militants may be hiding in one building, only a few meters away may be another building where civilians hold prayers, which may explain the deaths in Aleppo airstrikes a few weeks ago. Airstrike precision has improved over the years, but aerial bombardment will never be perfect when fighting in heavily populated areas.[5] In an extreme example, the Defense Department released a video on March 30 that showed ISIS forcing civilians into a building and then using that building as a fighting position against US-supported Iraqi forces.[6] When the United States fights against an enemy that outright ignores the distinction and proportionality principles of international humanitarian law, it becomes evermore challenging to uphold them itself.

However, that does not exempt the US military from observing its legal obligations when conducting counterterrorism operations. The military must always seek to minimize civilian casualties while still conducting an effective campaign. Of course, the important question is: how?

The most obvious answer is to try to separate civilian communities from the battlefield. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has proposed setting up safe zones in Syria and Iraq. But the lessons of Srebrenica in the Bosnian Civil War should serve as a reminder that herding civilians into compact sites, without armed guards on the ground, can leave them vulnerable to a large-scale massacre by militants. Furthermore, the United States and other coalition countries have neither the resolve nor the public support to send in a great number of troops to protect such safe zones.

Another possible option is to rely on surveillance and issue warning signals to civilians when an airstrike is about to occur, as the Obama administration did early during the operation against ISIS oil trucks.[7] However, Israeli signals to Palestinians during the 2014 Gaza War taught us that that leaflets and phone calls do not always motivate civilians to leave their homes, not to mention a terrorist group might be using them as human shields. If the coalition in Iraq and Syria proceeds with this option, it should do its best to avoid airstrikes when civilians remain inside targets.

Of course, civilian casualties are to some extent an inherent part of war, and the coalition by no means can be expected to avoid every civilian when conducting airstrikes. That said, this ethical dilemma, in addition to ISIS’s use of suffering as radicalization and propaganda tools, means the Trump administration must consider its approach carefully as it escalates US counterterrorism operations not only in Syria and Iraq, but in Yemen against al-Qa‘ida and in Somalia against al-Shabab too. Given the recent spike in civilian casualties, the United States must only use these aggressive tactics if it is certain that the advantages outweigh the costs.

[1] Tim Arango and Helene Cooper, “US Investigating Mosul Strikes Said to Have Killed Up to 200 Civilians,” New York Times, 24 March 2017.

[2] Anne Barnard, “US Airstrike in Syria is Said to Kill Dozens of Civilians,” New York Times, 22 March 2017.

[3] Rule 1. The Principle of Distinction between Civilians and Combatants,” International Committee of the Red Cross. Cambridge University Press, 2015.

[4] “Rule 14. Proportionality in Attack,” International Committee of the Red Cross, Cambridge University Press, 2015.

[5] Rachel Baras, “Logistical Challenges of a Military Intervention in Syria,” Tufts University, 2012.

[6] Terri Moon Cronk, “ISIS Hostage-Taking Caught on Video; Mosul Deaths Go To Formal Investigation,” U.S. Department of Defense, 30 Mar. 2017.

[7] Michael R. Gordon, “U.S. Warplanes Strike ISIS Oil Trucks in Syria,” New York Times, 16 Nov. 2015.

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