from Politics, Power, and Preventive Action and Center for Preventive Action

Why Are Civilian Deaths in Iraq and Syria from U.S. Airstrikes Up 60% Under Trump?

Last updated June 19, 2017

People run in panic after a coalition airstrike hit Islamic State fighters positions in Tahrir neighborhood of Mosul, Iraq, on November 17, 2016. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic
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Today, I have an op-ed in the New York Times, which they titled: “Why Is the U.S. Killing So Many Civilians in Syria and Iraq?” The piece documents the sudden increase in civilian deaths from the U.S.-led coalition airstrikes against the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. According to numbers provided by the U.S. military, 60 percent of all the documented noncombatant deaths in the thirty-four-month air war have occurred in the past four months—or since Donald Trump took office.

Two important caveats: First, "coalition" means primarily American soldiers and airmen—the U.S. military has been responsible for 95 percent of airstrikes in Syria and 68 percent in Iraq. Second, non-governmental organizations, such as the monitoring group Airwars, has assessed that there are more than eight times as many civilian deaths (3,962) from coalition strikes, than the latest military estimate (484).

U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), the military command responsible for overseeing the air war, has become far more forthcoming and honest about its claims of civilian harm. Recall that by November 2015, the command had only admitted to two instances of “likely” civilian fatalities in the 8,300 airstrikes that had killed more than 20,000 Islamic State fighters in a fifteen month period. By the following November, CENTCOM had acknowledged one hundred and seventy-three civilians inadvertently killed. In addition, it began offering monthly estimates of civilian fatalities, and provided far greater access to journalists investigating the target selection and decision-making processes.

Despite the limited efforts at greater transparency, we know relatively little about how airstrikes are conducted in Iraq and Syria, nor the procedures for evaluating the possibility of civilian deaths from those strikes. Pentagon officials have contended for months that the rules of engagement—or guidance that delineates the circumstances and limitations under which bombs may be dropped—have not changed under Donald Trump. At the same time, Secretary of Defense James Mattis has emphasized repeatedly that the goal is no longer to “defeat” the Islamic State, but rather an “annihilation campaign so we don't simply transplant this problem from one location to another."

Why then, have so many more civilians been killed recently compared to earlier stages of the war? What specific steps could CENTCOM undertake to prevent and mitigate harm to noncombatants trapped between a horrifically brutal terrorist army, and U.S.-allied ground forces backed by close air support? Read my piece in the Times today for my best answers to these two framing questions. It is an honor to be published in this so-called “paper of record,” and I sincerely hope that, in some small way, it elevates the importance of this issue within the White House, the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill, and among concerned American citizens.”

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