Rising Toll on Civilians Haunts Victories against ISIS

Trump military
Photo: Alex Brandon/AP

The fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq is nearing its second major victory this year as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – an allied anti-ISIS militia umbrella group – close in on the last remaining pockets of ISIS forces in their self-proclaimed “capital” of Raqqa. The success of the SDF mission in Raqqa, combined with the group’s defeat in the Iraqi city of Mosul this July, will mark a major win for the Trump Administration’s military policy and signal that the end is near for ISIS’ physical “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria.

However, these military gains have come at a cost. According to the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), over 600 civilians have been unintentionally killed by coalition strikes since the beginning of the war against ISIS in 2014, but the independent UK-based monitor Airwars claims that the number is actually more than 5,000, with nearly 60 percent of those deaths occurring since Donald Trump took office eight months ago.

Precise numbers are difficult to lock down, but these numbers combined with corroborating reports on the ground have led some to question whether President Trump and his team have loosened rules of engagement designed to protect civilians on the battlefield. Meanwhile, reporting by the New York Times suggests that the Trump Administration is considering removing further restrictions on military strike authorization procedures, which may allow U.S. forces to target lower level terrorist operatives on far-flung “battlefields” across the world.

In his speech to the United Nations this month, President Trump seemed to acknowledge the revision, stating that “I have…totally changed the rules of engagement in our fight against the Taliban and other terrorist groups” in reference to his new strategy for Afghanistan. However, according to former Secretary of the Air Force and Cipher Brief Expert Deborah Lee James, that is not exactly accurate. For the moment, says James, “the rules of engagement remain the same, and those rules say that there needs to be near certainty that no civilians will be killed in the operation.”

What has changed under Trump is the way in which air strikes and special forces raids against terrorist targets are reviewed by the White House. According to James, there were many decisions that “President Obama used to pull up to the NSC [National Security Council] level and have a lot of senior level vetting…it was pretty specific and it would happen frequently.” Now, however, authority has been pushed back down to on the ground military decision makers. This means that strikes on targets identified by intelligence can happen faster and more frequently but, says James, “having that high level of review [under Obama] … meant that the level of near certainty for no civilian casualties was adhered to.”

Although safer, that higher level of review also slowed down the cycle of converting intelligence collection and analysis on terrorist targets into military action. According to former U.S. Army Vice Chief of Staff and Cipher Brief Expert General Jack Keane, “what this [the new policy] actually produces is considerably more effective operations because…commanders don’t have to check with higher authorities before they maneuver on an objective or target enemy forces, vehicles, or facilities… Our operational effectiveness has gone up as a result.”

Delegating more authority to on the ground commanders is not the only factor that might drive higher civilian casualties, the nature of the war against ISIS has also changed drastically over the course of this year and the end of last year. The campaigns to liberate Mosul and Raqqa – both launched late last year – have resulted in intense urban fighting against a deeply entrenched enemy that is willing to both sacrifice the lives of its fighters and use innocent civilians as a shield against coalition airstrikes. Civilian casualties have naturally increased as a result of this brutal type of warfare.

The destruction of a building in Mosul on March 17, which killed 105 civilians in one of the worst collateral damage incidents since Vietnam, is a perfect illustration of the problem. That strike responded to a request from Iraq’s Counterterrorism Service (CTS), which reported ISIS targets in the structure. However, not only was the building located in a densely populated district of Mosul, military investigation later discovered that ISIS may have placed explosives on the second floor with the specific goal of collapsing the building and placing blame for the civilian deaths on coalition forces.

Whether this is true or not, there can be little doubt that, as Keane describes, urban warfare “is the toughest fight ground forces can get involved in.” In addition, whereas the battle in Mosul was primarily fought by Iraq’s highly trained and experienced CTS, Raqqa is being fought by a loose alliance of militias. Despite coalition training, weapons, and air support, says Keane “there’s a huge difference between a Syrian militia and an official Iraqi counterterrorism force.”

Nevertheless, the increased tempo and loosened oversight on strike authorizations is likely to have had an effect on civilian casualties. It is important to remember, notes James, that beyond the humanitarian toll, “whenever there are civilian casualties – the enemy of course gets a PR bonanza to use against us in the court of public opinion [but] the process right now unprecedented in modern warfare in terms of the protection of civilians.”

Fritz Lodge is a Middle east and international economics analyst at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @FritzLodge.