This piece has been corrected.
When asked Thursday about the U.S. dropping its largest non-nuclear bomb on an ISIS target in rural Afghanistan, President Donald Trump praised the U.S. military as the “greatest” in the world and celebrated its recent conduct. He was, he said, giving his generals “total authorization.”
“If you look at what’s happened over the last eight weeks and compare that really to what has happened over the last eight years,” Trump said, “you’ll see there is a tremendous difference.”
That’s certainly true of reported civilian casualties allegedly resulting from U.S.-led coalition strikes in Syria and Iraq. According to a new report from independent monitoring group Airwars, March was the deadliest month in the U.S.-led coalition’s 32-month campaign in Iraq and Syria, and the third straight month the coalition has been responsible for more reported civilian casualties in Syria and Iraq than Russia was responsible for in Syria.
At least 1,782 civilians were allegedly killed by coalition airstrikes in March alone, according to an analysis by Airwars — numbers the research organization says are comparable to the deadliest period of Russia’s 2016 air campaign in Syria. Of this number, Airwars assesses between 477 and 1,216 civilian casualties to be likely, meaning the organization has identified two or more credible sources reported within an area where coalition airstrikes were declared nearby. Airwars has thus far named and recorded 359 of the victims killed in March. The research group tracks all reported incidents and pulls its information from local sources, such as NGOs and independent monitoring groups on the ground in Syria and Iraq, and compares this information against official military reports.
“Nothing had prepared us for that level of civilian casualties,” said Chris Woods, director of Airwars.
VICE News reached out to coalition officials for comment, and will update this story if they respond.
The coalition is in the final and most difficult stages of liberating the western half of Mosul from ISIS control. Fighting has often played out in close, urban quarters, and an estimated 400,000 civilians remain trapped in the city, according to U.N. estimates.
“This was always the time when most civilian casualties were expected, but the huge, huge increase we saw in reported civilian deaths in March were simply overwhelming,” Woods said.
That increase has prompted independent monitors like Human Rights Watch to ask if America’s typically strict rules of engagement designed to minimize civilian casualties have been loosened under Trump.
“The high number of civilian deaths in recent fighting, as well as recent announcements about changed procedures for vetting airstrikes, raise concerns about the way the battle for west Mosul is being fought,” Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in late March.
Military officials have insisted that the rules of engagement remain unchanged.
The military’s official estimate of civilians killed in coalition strikes since the war began in August 2014 stands at 229, an estimate that diverges enormously with those of Airwars and other independent monitors in the region.
“The U.S. military is extremely transparent about how it should theoretically conduct military operations while needlessly secretive about whether the many tactics, techniques, and procedures are actually and faithfully followed,” said Micah Zenko, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in Foreign Policy magazine.
Woods couldn’t comment on any possible protocol changes in the military, but he has noticed a difference in the way strikes are being carried out. “One of the things that characterized the coalition campaign earlier on was the relative care they were taking over their strikes,” he said. “[Now] they are substituting caution for speed and ferocity. And the consequence of that has been a staggering increase in civilian casualties.”
The stark rise in reported civilian deaths coincides with an equally staggering increase in the number of bombs and missiles dropped on Iraq and Syria in the first three months of 2017 — 10,918, according to official military data. In March the coalition bombed Iraq and Syria a whopping 3,878 times — the most ever in the 32-month campaign, and the third straight record month. It’s a 59 percent rise in the number of munitions released during the same time period last year, Airwars points out.
And a majority — 57 percent — of all alleged coalition-caused civilian casualties in March recorded by Airwars took place in Syria. Woods said that’s particularly worrisome considering the assault on the de facto ISIS capital of Raqqa hasn’t even begun yet. He says it all suggests one thing:
“President Trump’s promise of bombing the shit out of ISIS appears to be coming true.”
Correction: A previous version of this article and its headline improperly characterized the estimates put forth by Airwars. This story has been updated with more information on Airwars’ estimates and methodology.