Killing Civilians to Save Civilians in the Fight Against ISIS

Bottom Line Up Front:

  • On September 27, the U.S. Defense Department reported that 1114 civilians have been unintentionally killed in anti-Islamic State airstrikes since August 2014.
  • The monitoring group Airwars has counted 6575 civilians killed by coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria throughout the same time period.
  • Russia incredulously denies its airstrikes in Syria have killed any civilians, blithely labeling all causalities ‘terrorists.’
  • While civilian deaths might be ‘unavoidable’ in a conflict as bloody as the Syrian civil war, the consequences are nevertheless devastating for communities already traumatized by death and destruction.

The U.S.-led military campaign to dislodge the so-called Islamic State from its territorial holdings in Iraq and Syria is designed kill and capture militants while minimizing civilian deaths. This objective of mitigating collateral damage must remain at the forefront of the American-led coalition strategy, as its forces seek to dismantle the last remnants of this murderous group. While far from perfect, the U.S. has been exceedingly transparent in its attempts to account for the unintentional killing of civilians in air strikes targeting the Islamic State. An undeniable and uncomfortable truth of coalition operations is that in the fight to save civilians from the Islamic State, the coalition has unintentionally killed many. That these deaths are militarily unavoidable does not make it more acceptable to the families of those lost, but transparency and accountability do help.

On September 27, the U.S. Defense Department reported that, by its own accounting, coalition airstrikes had killed 1,114 civilians in Iraq and Syria since August 2014. In an official statement, the DOD also noted that the coalition continues ‘to employ thorough and deliberate targeting and strike processes to minimize the impact of our operations on civilian populations and infrastructure.’ Obtaining accurate information on civilian deaths in the areas occupied by the Islamic State has been, for all involved, highly fraught with risk. Collecting information on civilian casualties and attempting to confirm its veracity amid the collapsing caliphate is perhaps among the most dangerous tasks in journalism and government accountability. Airwars, a group that monitors causalities from airstrikes, has reported that, by its count, coalition airstrikes have killed 6575 civilians since August 2014.

The situation which the U.S. coalition finds itself operating in is, particularly from a targeting and intelligence perspective, exceedingly complicated and crowded. The fight against the Islamic State has always been a struggle of restraint and persistence, of not killing people in order to save people. Eliminating terrorists and insurgents from the battlefield while protecting the population is the age-old conundrum of counterinsurgency, an objective that remains difficult even with the advent of modern precision weaponry. As the Islamic State is diminished militarily, the goal is to increase human intelligence operations to better focus strikes, eventually attenuating the problem to one that can be more adequately addressed by law enforcement intelligence capabilities. The discrepancy between the figures presented by the DoD and those recorded by Airwars matters, because it is important to account for all deaths attributed to the coalition, regardless of intention. Reconciling the significant gap between the two estimates might not be feasible, but it is a positive step that the U.S. is at least discussing and addressing the issue.

In terms of accepting responsibility for civilian deaths in Syria, the difference between the U.S.-led coalition and Russia, is striking. Moscow’s response has been twofold. The first is that all reports of civilian casualties from Russian strikes in Syria are ‘fake news.’ Second, the official line from the Kremlin is that even if these reports weren’t ‘fake news,’ every individual ever killed at the hands of Russian forces in Syria has been a terrorist. In reality, the indiscriminate bombing of hospitals and schools by Assad’s forces, backed and facilitated by the Russians, has killed thousands of civilians. The labeling of all civilians as terrorists to justify such actions is an enduring feature of Russia’s draconian and heavy-handed approach to counterterrorism and counterinsurgency. Accordingly, Russia’s blatant disregard for acknowledging civilian casualties has further solidified its reputation as a rogue state that operates well outside widely accepted international norms.

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