The US has admitted to killing 1,114 civilians in air and artillery strikes in their coalition operation that targets Isis in Syria. The operation became known under the codename ‘Inherent Resolve’ and was formally established in October 2014 in response to the rising threat posed by ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The new move represents progress in US accountability, however the number of civilian casualties that the US has admitted to is thought to be greatly underestimated.
In a press release issued on 27 September the Pentagon said,
“We continue to employ thorough and deliberate targeting and strike processes to minimise the impact of our operations on civilian populations and infrastructure. This process includes thorough review and vetting of each target package prior to a strike, and another review after that strike.”
“As we have demonstrated, we are willing to consider new civilian casualty allegations as well as new or compelling evidence on past allegations to establish accountability based on the best available evidence.”
Critics worldwide, who have condemned and campaigned for the tragic number of civilian casualties as a result of the ongoing Syria war, estimate that at least 6,500 civilians have been killed. Organisations such as Airwars and Amnesty International estimate that the number of casualties could be considerably higher than stated by the Pentagon. Donatella Rovera, a senior researcher for Amnesty International, said that the US does not take enough measures to assess the impact of its bombs and undercounts unintentional deaths,
“The first problem is that they do not do proper investigations,”
Rovera went on to say that the US military have also categorically dismissed the field research findings of human rights research organisations such as Amnesty or Human Rights Watch, only to admit the same mistakes later.
Chris Woods, director of the UK-based war monitoring organisation Airwars, said that there is evidence that the US are improving on admitting to causing civilian casualties,
“While that number remains far below public estimates of harm we have seen significant improvements in how the coalition monitors battlefield casualties which we hope will be standard practice in future conflicts,”
Although, whilst the US are improving their accountability for civilian casualties, other members of the coalition are not doing as well. Airwars spokesperson Chris Woods went on to say that the UK and France have so far managed to deny responsibility for civilian casualties. He said they continue to claim low or no casualties from their actions, which he describes as “an absurdity given the lethal nature of modern urban warfare.”
Russia, that claims to be fighting extremists on behalf of the Syrian government, has also been heavily condemned for extensive civilian casualties. In July 2018 there was a reported 34% rise in civilian deaths caused by Russian-backed airstrikes. The Airwars report published in July found that Russian airstrikes had killed 2,882 civilians by July 2018, a 34% increase on figures for 2017. Airwars documented an overall total of 3,445 civilian casualties that can be directly linked to Russian aircraft, but said that the actual number of deaths could be as high as 18,000.
The main problem with the denial of civilian casualties lies not only in an inadequate and contemptuous way of dealing with civilian casualties, but also means that lessons cannot be learned from errors if they are not admitted to and accepted as errors in the first place. The international community must press for a diplomatic end to the Syrian conflict, failing that must ensure that governments carry out any strikes with maximum care to minimise civilian casualties.