MINNEAPOLIS– Today marks the 1,000th day of the beginning of the U.S.-led coalition’s controversial bombing campaign in Syria and Iraq, a campaign that has become mired in controversy as the U.S. government continues to downplay the resulting civilian death toll.
Originally described by former President Barack Obama as a necessary move to avert the fall of the Kurdish city of Erbil in northern Iraq, the campaign soon morphed to include targets throughout Iraq, as well as neighboring Syria, with the stated goal of targeting Daesh (ISIS).
Obama, at the time, was careful to insist that the strikes did not amount to a full-scale re-engagement in Iraq and argued that it was a humanitarian necessity to prevent the massacre of civilians who were gathered on Mount Sinjar in northwest Iraq at the time.
Though Obama’s remarks painted the airstrike authorization as temporary and under strict limits of engagement, he announced days later that the bombing campaign would last for several months or longer. One month later, on the eve of the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Obama announced that the bombing campaign would escalate even further and would involve an “international coalition” as part of a broader strategy to “degrade, and ultimately destroy” Daesh. That coalition now includes dozens of countries, yet only a handful have actively participated in the bombing campaign.
While the bombing campaign may have been intended to prevent a humanitarian disaster, statistics indicate that it has instead created one. According to the non-profit transparency group AirWars, which has been tracking the multinational bombing campaign, a minimum of 3,164 civilians have been killed in 21,064 coalition airstrikes.
However, the figure is likely much higher. AirWars admits that the number of civilians killed is based only on strikes that have been confirmed to have been launched by the U.S.-led coalition. For example, in 481 incidents that the group labeled as likely to have occurred – and where coalition strikes were confirmed in the vicinity on the dates specified – an additional 2,738 to 4,323 civilians were estimated to have been killed. A total of 163 of those incidents took place in Iraq, while the other 318 incidents took place in Syria.
A further 3,076 to 4,628 civilian deaths are also said to have resulted from the strikes, although the authenticity of this claim has proven difficult to confirm. However, the likely civilian death toll of the bombing campaign likely hovers well above the minimum number of casualties AirWars has reported.
U.S. military indifferent to civilian losses
Since the beginning of the campaign, the U.S.-led coalition has repeatedly stated that it seeks to keep civilian casualties at a minimum. However, recent incidents suggest a different and much more disheartening reality. In March, the Pentagon carried out a strike in Mosul that claimed the lives of hundreds of civilians. While the Pentagon initially denied the high number of casualties, it later confirmed that it had video footage of Daesh forcing hundreds of Iraqis into a building it later bombed. General Stephen Townsend confirmed that dozens of civilians were “probably” killed in the strike.
Following the release of the “Drone Papers” in 2015, it became known that the U.S. military masks civilian death tolls by labeling unidentified victims as enemy combatants, even if they were not the strike’s intended targets. The papers also revealed chronic intelligence flaws that have affected drone strikes, a factor that has contributed to the high civilian death toll resulting from the U.S. bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria, as evidenced by intelligence failures that have been implicated in the U.S.’ recent bombing of a Syrian mosque.
In addition, U.S. military commanders have implied that civilian deaths are of little concern. For example, a U.S. military official who spoke anonymously to journalist Micah Zenko in 2012 described the use of drones as “like swatting flies. We can do it forever easily and you feel nothing. But how often do you really think about killing a fly?” Though this statement was delivered two years before the bombing campaign began, it is unlikely that attitudes have changed, given that the Pentagon has responded with defiance when asked to justify high civilian death tolls.
“Accidental” bombings empower Daesh, weaken pro-government fighters
It has been speculated that the bombing campaign has failed to have any effect on Daesh activity in Iraq and Syria, with some saying that the coalition airstrikes have actually served to embolden the group. Just three months into the bombing campaign, Daesh managed to triple the size of its territory in Syria, suggesting that the U.S. effort to weaken Daesh had been ineffective. The trend continued until Russia was invited to aid Syria in fighting Daesh in September 2015.
Not only that but the U.S. military has declined to release official statistics regarding the death toll of Daesh members throughout the campaign, instead listing estimates for individual strikes that the military chooses to confirm. However, U.S. generals and officials told U.S. media outlets that thousands upon thousands of Daesh militants were killed within the first year of the bombing campaign, despite the group’s massive territorial gains during that time. Yet, in the year since, such estimates have not been made public by U.S. officials.
On numerous occasions, U.S. strikes in Syria have targeted pro-government fighters in both Iraq and Syria who were battling Daesh at the time of the strikes. In one example from last October, 21 pro-government militia members were killed in an airstrike that hit the Qayyara region of Iraq – only 60 kilometers from the contested and strategically important city of Mosul.
The Iraqi militia, which is one of the few pro-government militias fighting extremists in the country, had just finished successfully repelling a Daesh attack when it was bombed. The militia’s outpost was also bombed in the airstrike and was the group’s most crucial outpost in the area.
A month earlier, the U.S. also “accidentally” bombed Syrian government fighters who were surrounded by Daesh militants. The blast killed 62 Syrian soldiers and allowed Daesh to make a major advance, as they attacked the army’s position immediately after the strike, suggesting that they may have had prior knowledge that the strike would take place. The Syrian government later obtained a recording of U.S. military communication with Daesh that took place immediately prior to the strike, leading Syria to describe the bombing as a “deliberate act.”
President Donald Trump’s recent strike against the Syrian government also aided Daesh militants, as they launched a major offensive near an airbase that was targeted by the strike. The base is known as one of the Syrian government’s most strategically important bases in waging its own bombing campaign against Daesh.
While this most recent strike was not part of the anti-Daesh bombing campaign, it showed that the U.S.’ overarching interest in Syria is not the defeat of the infamous terrorist group, but instead weakening the Syrian government and strengthening the likelihood of regime change.
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