While on the campaign trail in late 2015, Donald Trump pledged to “bomb the shit” out of ISIS if he became president. Now, a couple of months after he took office, reports of civilian deaths from U.S. strikes in Syria and Iraq have hit an all-time high. Why exactly that is, however, remains unclear.
According to Airwars, a British monitoring group, alleged civilian casualties linked to U.S. strikes in Syria and Iraq have soared to 1,472 so far this month. In March of last year, 196 civilians were reported killed. The previous all-time high was 613 in January.
“This is worse than anything we have ever seen from the coalition, and it’s up there with the levels of allegations we saw against Russia a year ago,” said Chris Woods, the investigative journalist who heads Airwars. “Something is shifting — a lot more civilians are dying, and it’s happening on Donald Trump’s watch.”
The dramatic jump in civilian casualties could be the result of a directive from Trump to change risk/reward calculations when determining airstrikes, or it could be due to the war he inherited being at its deadly peak, when fighting against ISIS is taking place in the terrorist group’s stronghold of Mosul, where hundreds of thousands of civilians are trapped.
“All of this could be happening under Hillary Clinton,” Woods said. “It may have nothing to do with politics. It’s very hard to tell.”
The civilian death toll under Trump has been in the spotlight since the botched Jan. 29 raid in Yemen that resulted in the deaths of a Navy SEAL and at least 23 civilians. Since then, the U.S. military has been blamed for a string of high-profile attacks resulting in civilian casualties in Syria and Iraq as it pursues its war on ISIS.
These include reported attacks on a school and a mosque in Syria, and, most recently, a building in west Mosul where scores of civilians are reported to have died. The U.S. military is investigating these incidents.
Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of America’s anti-ISIS campaign in Iraq and Syria known as Operation Inherent Resolve, said of the latter attack Tuesday that there was a “fair chance” a U.S. drone strike in the area had played a role in the civilian deaths. But he added that more complex explanations were also being investigated following reports that ISIS may have trapped civilians in the house and rigged it to explode, or that a secondary ISIS vehicle-bomb destroyed the property.
“I’ll say this, if we did it — and I’d say there’s at least a fair chance that we did — it was an unintentional accident of war and we will transparently report it to you when we’re ready,” Townsend said.
Business as usual?
U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Syria has been stepped up recently as the campaign against ISIS enters a critical phase. The U.S. has sent hundreds more military advisers into Iraq to help with the push to liberate western Mosul from ISIS following the successful campaign to drive the terrorists from the eastern half of their major stronghold.
“We are seeing an influx in troops with equipment such as artillery, and they are being moved closer to the front lines,” said Bill Roggio, editor of the Long War Journal, adding that Iraqi troops were reporting that it was easier for them to call for and receive close air support from U.S. planes.
Across the border in Syria, the U.S. has dramatically increased its activity as it closes in on Raqqa, capital of the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate; last week, the U.S. carried out an unprecedented air assault that involved U.S. helicopter landings to transport troops behind enemy lines.
And in Yemen, U.S. drone strikes have ramped up to new levels in the counterterror campaign there against al-Qaida.
In the wake of this increased deployment, Roggio and other observers have claimed that the U.S. has changed the way its fighting its adversaries, with the military showing less regard for preserving civilian life. “They’re going to say it’s business as usual, but I don’t think that’s really credible,” Roggio said. On Tuesday, both the U.N. and Amnesty International urged Iraqi and U.S.-led coalition forces to try harder to spare civilians.
The U.S. military insists nothing has changed in terms of its tolerance for civilian casualties. The military’s rules of engagement are classified, but Townsend said Tuesday there had been some “relatively minor adjustments” in December — before Trump came into office — that decentralized part of the process of approving fire missions as the campaign moved from a largely defensive campaign to an offensive one.
“We have had to return to what is our actual U.S. military war-fighting doctrine for offensive operations,” he said, adding that those changes were “not the cause of what we’re seeing right now.”
“What has not changed is our care, our caution, our applications of the rules of force, how and when we apply our combat power, our tolerance for… civilian casualties.”
Townsend cited the large numbers of civilians in Mosul who haven’t been able to leave or who are being held against their will as the reason for the high civilian toll — a plausible explanation in Iraq, according to analysts who spoke to VICE News.
During the first half of the battle for Mosul, which saw Iraqi coalition forces take the portion of the city east of the Tigris, Iraqi troops “paid a very high price,” Woods said. “One of the criticisms of the coalition was that the kind of airstrikes that Iraqi forces say they needed weren’t given to them, and therefore more Iraqi troops died than was necessary.”
“Part of what we’re seeing in west Mosul is a transferral of risk from military forces onto civilians. In west Mosul, we’re now more likely to see Iraqi forces call in an airstrike on a house than clear it with hand-to-hand fighting.
Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that more aggressive U.S. air support in the battle for Mosul wouldn’t require any loosening of the rules of engagement, as they were already fairly flexible.
“The rules can’t be such that you can’t carry out military operations because you can’t be precise about the presence of civilians,” he said. “If you created a situation where you needed 100 percent assurance, you’d be saying that you couldn’t use airpower.”
Civilian casualties have proven a key factor in driving support for insurgent groups; images of the Yemen raid in January have already been featured in jihadi propaganda. The risk to civilians trapped in Mosul, thought to number 400,000, was increased by ISIS’ tactics, Cordesman said.
“You have an enemy that is using civilians as cover all the time.”
Alarm over Syrian casualties
The U.S. military’s explanations for civilian casualties appeared less plausible when it came to Syria, Woods says, where the recent spike in civilian deaths gave greater cause for concern.
Airwars has recorded a spike in fatalities from coalition airstrikes in villages and towns around Raqqa, as proxy ground forces advance to attempt to complete their encirclement of the city.
“That is much more troubling,” Woods said. “It’s not the densely packed areas where civilian casualties are inevitable — and where we would not have expected to see civilian casualties from coalition airstrikes even a couple of months ago, we’re now recording three, four, five alleged civilian fatality incidents every day now.”
He said the pattern suggested that the U.S. has “changed the way it’s conducting strikes, and that as a result of those changes, civilians are now significantly more at risk.” One factor, he said, could be the involvement of Kurdish ground forces unfamiliar with the area around Raqqa, who could potentially be misidentifying targets.
In Yemen, where CentCom says the U.S. has launched 23 drone strikes against al-Qaeda since Trump took office — comparable to all of 2016, when 27 were conducted — the rules surrounding the America’s military activities are different.
While Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan are designated “areas of active hostility,” counterterror drone strikes in undeclared battlefields such as Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan have so far required high-level approval under an Obama-era doctrine designed to rein in strikes outside active war zones.
Earlier this month, the Washington Post reported that the Trump administration had launched a near-complete review that could give the military more leeway to launch drone strikes in such countries. The new measures would reportedly lower the threshold on acceptable civilian casualties from a “near certainty” of no such deaths to “reasonable certainty” — although the Pentagon maintained the commitment to avoid civilian casualties would remain.
CNN reported that Trump had already approved the new rules in Yemen, and that this was the reason for the steep uptick in strikes. A Department of Defense spokesperson told VICE News that there had been “no change to our day-to-day authorities in Yemen.”
Regardless, America’s war on terror appears set to get bloodier. But Roggio urges keeping the numbers in perspective.
“When you hold back like we have done in Iraq and Syria, you let the Islamic State expand, and how many civilians have they killed?” Roggio said. “If you go about it more aggressively, civilians are going to die in those operations, but we’re talking comparatively small numbers — we’re not talking about carpet-bombing cities.”