The Observer view on the civilian casualties in the fight against Isis  • The Syrian Observatory For Human Rights
The Syrian Observatory For Human Rights

The Observer view on the civilian casualties in the fight against Isis 

The coalition must address the worrying rise in recent months in deaths in the airstrikes on Raqqa and Mosul


The arduous battle to defeat Islamic State (Isis) appears to be entering its final stages in the group’s two main strongholds, Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq. Notwithstanding a chronic lack of co-operation between myriad anti-Isis forces, the caliphate promulgated by the Isis leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi from a mosque in Mosul in 2014, is close to collapse. Many Isis senior commanders have been killed. Jihadis are reportedly fleeing the combat zone (and heading for Europe). Now, Russia claims Baghdadi, too, may have died in an airstrike last month, although this is unconfirmed.

The long-sought victory over Isis, while evidently welcome, is coming at a terrible cost. Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, chief war crimes investigator on the UN’s independent international commission of inquiry on Syria, said last week that US-led coalition airstrikes were devastating Raqqa’s civilian population. “We note in particular that the intensification of airstrikes… has resulted not only in staggering loss of civilian life, but has also led to 160,000 civilians fleeing their homes and becoming internally displaced,” Pinheiro told the UN human rights council in Geneva. The commission says 300 civilians died in Raqqa province in the three months to 31 May. About 200 of these deaths reportedly occurred in an airstrike in March on the village of Mansoura, to which many displaced families had fled.

The US-led coalition, which includes Britain and France, says that Operation Inherent Resolve, the Pentagon’s name for the campaign against Isis in Syria and Iraq, has caused 484 civilians deaths in both countries since the beginning of February, up 60% on the preceding period. But even this figure looks conservative. Latest estimates by Airwars, a UK-based independent watchdog, put the civilian death toll at 3,962 in both countries since the campaign began in 2014. The tempo of attacks around Raqqa also seems to be quickening, with about 35 coalition airstrikes launched on 15-16 June. A concomitant, sharp rise in civilian casualties is reported by Airwars, the UN and aid agencies, which complain of severe difficulties in reaching affected areas.

US Central Command says the higher three-month total is largely due to a now notorious, single airstrike on an apartment building in western Mosul on 17 March. Its objective was to kill two Isis snipers. To do so, a 500lb bomb was directed at the building. Unsurprisingly, it collapsed, killing more than 100 civilians. The Guardian’s Martin Chulov described the scene five days later. “Witnesses said close to 150 people had been in the home when it was bombed. Most locals interviewed said that people had willingly taken shelter. However, several also claimed that Isis had urged fighters to use the home as a refuge,” he reported.

Troublingly, the US military at first declined to acknowledge responsibility for the 17 March tragedy. That has now changed, while alarm about the incident and rising civilian casualties in general is driving a more transparent, accountable approach. The US has announced a doubling of the size of the team investigating reports of unintended casualties. This sounds reassuring, until it is realised that, until now, the team comprised only two full-time and two part-time personnel covering the entire Syria-Iraq theatre, where hundreds of airstrikes are mounted each month.

It is plain US and British forces, and their allies, face challenging conditions in Syria and Iraq, operating in combat zones where margins of error are extremely thin. They are certainly performing a service to the world in extirpating the Isis menace, even though their intervention remains controversial in other respects. And there is little reason to doubt reports that Isis fighters have repeatedly used civilians as human shields, part of their vicious brutalisation of local populations.

But it is problematic when the western powers criticise the wanton killing, human rights abuses and possible war crimes attributed to Russia and the Syrian regimeof Bashar al-Assad while failing to hold themselves to a rigorously higher standard. It is worrying, too, that this sudden spike in civilian deaths coincides with the arrival in office of Donald Trump and his laissez-faire attitude to the US military. There is no equivalence between what is happening now in Raqqa and Mosul and what Vladimir Putin’s air force and Assad’s bombers did, for example, during the siege of Aleppo last autumn. But the dreadful results on the ground, for civilians with the misfortune to be trapped under Isis rule, look very similar. Put simply, they are dying to be liberated.

Source: The Observer view on the civilian casualties in the fight against Isis | Observer editorial | Opinion | The Guardian