A US Department of Defense (DOD) report from April 2018 on the US military’s process for assessing civilian casualties (CIVCAS) was partially declassified and released to the public in early February. The United States has previously been criticized for its extremely low estimates of civilian casualties in Syria and the large discrepancies between its estimates and those reported by NGOs. The DOD report was based on a review of civilian casualty assessments across the Middle East and North Africa, including Operation Inherent Resolve, the US campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. SJAC has previously reported on the civilian toll of the US campaign against ISIS and called for appropriate apology and compensation in cases of civilian casualties. Complicating the issue of acknowledgement is the difficulty of determining precise numbers of casualties in the Syrian conflict; even NGOs that track the number of deaths face challenges related to geographic capacity and duplication of names within data sets. Despite the US Congress’s 2016 authorization for condolence payments to Syrian victims of Coalition airstrikes, it is unclear whether the DOD has ever made any condolence payments in Syria. SJAC highlights the findings and recommendations of the report and provides a series of its own recommendations to improve the US response to civilian casualties in Syria, particularly in light of the US’s impending departure from the country.
The report was based on analysis of the US strike on the Omar Ibn al Khatab Mosque in Al Jinah in March 2017 and three separate meetings with NGOs involved in documenting civilian casualties. However, the report is heavily redacted, including the entirety of the section on civilian casualties in urban environments. However, much can still be understood from the public version. Perhaps most notably, the report acknowledges that “NGOs consulted on this study are frustrated with what they see as decreased transparency in US government reporting. US Central Command’s public release of assessment and investigation findings offers little detail as to why a CIVCAS allegation is considered “not credible.”” The report also acknowledged that access to reporting channels can be difficult and that the US military sometimes fails to follow up after supplementary evidence (such as munitions remnants, photos, or satellite imagery) is supplied.
The report does issue a series of recommendations that, if implemented, could significantly improve the US response to civilian casualty allegations. One recommendation is to offer victims not only compensation, but also an explanation of the circumstances of the event, in-kind aid, community projects, formal apologies, and clearing of their family name. More broadly, the report recommends that the US military “systematically seek out additional sources of information on potential civilian casualties as part of the self-reporting process… [including] social media, NGOs, and local sources.” The report also recommends a shift from reporting a single number of confirmed casualties to reporting a range of estimates, specifying which allegations have been confirmed, disputed, or rejected.
Though the recommendations in the report are a good first step, they are insufficient to address the harm of civilian casualties in Syria and elsewhere. In light of the planned US withdrawal from Syria, the US should take the following steps to ensure that it responds to allegations of civilian casualties in a way that provides acknowledgement of harm and reparations for families.
Reinstate reporting on strike details and locations. Since December 16, when US President Trump announced the US withdrawal from Syria, the Department of Defense has decreased reporting transparency. Rather than issuing information on the locations and details of strikes, it has only reported numbers of targets killed. Making information public on locations and targets allows for individuals and organizations tracking allegations of civilian casualties to provide an initial assessment of the accuracy of claims.
Retroactively acknowledge civilian casualties. Though the number of deaths in the conflict will never be completely accurate, the US record of civilian casualties will be an important component of the historical record of the conflict. The US should allow for submission of civilian casualty allegations from the entire duration of Operation Inherent Resolve. Additionally, the US should be willing to update its numbers to more accurately reflect the impact of the campaign against ISIS on civilians.
Retroactively provide condolence payments and other forms of reparations. The report outlines how the US could expand its notion of reparations for families; however, there is no evidence that the families of any acknowledged civilian victims have been provided with condolence payments, despite authorization for such payments in late 2016. The US should provide reparations not only in previously acknowledged cases, but in new cases as well.
Provide funding for body recovery and mass grave investigation projects. An unknown number of bodies remain trapped in buildings destroyed or damaged by Coalition airstrikes. The US should provide funding for projects to recover and identify these bodies so that they can be returned to families.