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Coalition Airstrikes in Syria and the Issue of Civilian Harm

Home of activist Wassim Abdo in Tabqa where his family was killed allegedly by US airstrike

As the US-led global coalition fights the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the Syrian Democratic Forces, the coalition’s partner on the ground, have advanced on Raqqa. But as ISIS’s so-called capital and military stronghold is giving way, civilians have been stuck in the middle of intense fighting. Between August 2014 and April 2017, the Coalition conducted over 20,000 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, but since US President Donald Trump took office in January, the number of airstrikes in Syria has increased significantly with over 2,800 strikes in the past five months. As the fighting has moved closer to population hubs like Raqqa, the strikes have taken a toll on civilians. While it is difficult to verify every claim of civilian death, the number of civilians the Coalition has confirmed dead in both Iraq and Syria increased by 90% from January to April as compared to all of 2016. According to statistics compiled by Airwars. from January to June, there have been 977 reports of civilian causalities that are unconfirmed but credible (“reasonable level of public reporting of alleged incident from two or more generally credible sources, often with biographical, photographic or video evidence”), a stark increase from the previous year.

Through the Coalition’s strategy of insulating ISIS by bombing bridges and ISIS’s strategy of using civilians as human shields, the fighting has severely hindered civilians from escaping Raqqa. Those who are able to flee the city have sometimes been met with a shortage of humanitarian supplies. Increased airstrikes, an inadequate humanitarian response, alleged abuses by SDF affiliated forces, and a lack of accountability have led to increased resentment among the local population that will be difficult to overcome as anti-ISIS forces attempt to reestablish security in the area. In Iraq, for example, civilian casualties due to Coalition airstrikes caused such anger in Mosul that in late May, Iraqi forces halted their efforts to in order to reassess tactics.

This ongoing bombardment campaign has received wide criticism from international human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch (HRW). Under US Military Rules of Engagement (ROE), coalition forces must adhere to the proportionality rule, whereby combatants are obligated to mitigate excessive damage to civilian objects, and to prevent unreasonable civilian injury or deaths relative to the military advantage gained from an action. Military officials claim that the coalition takes extraordinary precautions to avoid killing civilians. Despite such assurances, there is also indications that the Coalition is bypassing standard civilian protections to allow for greater flexibility in coalition military operations. In mid-May, US military officials announced that after a comprehensive review of the Coalition’s campaign to defeat ISIS, it would loosen ROE to allow tactical decisions such as airstrikes to be made by commanders on the ground. While Defense Secretary James Mattis has stated that there has “been no change to our continued extraordinary efforts to avoid innocent civilian casualties,” reports from the ground would indicate that practice has deviated from principle.

Recently, the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC) interviewed Wassim Abdo, a Kurdish activist originally from Tabqa, a village located in Raqqa province. He described the horrific toll Coalition strikes have taken on civilians. In early May, an airstrike allegedly carried out by the US-led coalition demolished his childhood home in Tabqa. His brother’s daughter was injured in the airstrike and taken to a medical facility in Kobani, but his mother, father, and brother’s son died as a result of the strike. After 15 days, heavy equipment finally arrived to excavate the rubble, and Wassim’s three family members were found dead. According to Wassim, there were no fighters or weapons in the apartment complex or anywhere nearby. As an activist, Wassim is against ISIS’s presence in Raqqa – in fact, ISIS kidnapped Wassim’s brother in September 2013, the reason why his family remained in Tabqa, hoping to reunite with their son – but he demands to understand why the Coalition struck his home and seeks justice for his family. Wassim and his family’s experience cannot be viewed in isolation. Over 400,000 civilians in Raqqa province reside in high-risk areas.

During the campaign, Trump boasted that he would defeat ISIS within his first 90 days in office by bombing “the s⸺ out of them.” Even though as president, Trump is constrained by the professionalism of the US military and allied forces, there appears to be increased pressure on the Coalition to take a more hardline approach in order to fulfill campaign promises. HRW warns against this decision in its Five Guidelines to Promote Respect for International Law in Combatting ISIS, which call for evaluating all risks to civilian populations when conducting airstrikes.

The United States is not the only responsible country in the Coalition – other members must become more vocal in upholding compliance to international law and investigating allegations of civilian casualties, rather than denying any and all allegations. These calls to respect international law should also be met with the threat of withdrawal from the Coalition if certain members do not meet this standard.

As SJAC has previously written, coalition forces should integrate public apologies and condolence payments into their operations when civilians are injured or killed. The United States military has previously issued such apologies and compensation to victims and their families in the Iraq War. In Syria, however, Coalition responses have often come after delayed investigations sparked by denials of civilian casualties. Another form of acknowledgement would be to make robust changes to ROE that reflect lessons-learned from excessive civilian causalities on the battlefield. Simply declaring that existing ROE are sufficient will leave victims wondering whether their grievances are being taken seriously.

The coalition must build and maintain trust with civilians if it is to cultivate a relationship with the Syrian people that could facilitate stability and comprehensive peace. The assistance of reputable documentation groups can help in this regard by facilitating investigations into civilian deaths. Active and robust coordination of Coalition military operations with relevant Syrian civil society can also ensure local buy-in as part of a broader civil-military stabilization strategy. Most importantly, Coalition forces need to set a strong example that foreign national security interests will not undermine the lives and dignity of the local population. As has been repeatedly stated by SJAC and other human rights organizations, defeating extremism requires long-term thinking that incorporates robust humanitarian and human rights frameworks, both during the fighting and in the establishment of post-ISIS governance.

For more information or to provide feedback, please contact SJAC at [email protected].