The New York Times this morning has an extraordinary article claiming that the U.S. is being hampered in its war against ISIS because of its extreme — even excessive — concern for civilians. “American officials say they are not striking significant — and obvious — Islamic State targets out of fear that the attacks will accidentally kill civilians,” reporter Eric Schmitt says.
The newspaper gives voice to numerous, mostly anonymous officials to complain that the U.S. cares too deeply about protecting civilians to do what it should do against ISIS. We learn that “many Iraqi commanders, and even some American officers, argue that exercising such prudence is harming the coalition’s larger effort to destroy” ISIS. And “a persistent complaint of Iraqi officials and security officers is that the United States has been too cautious in its air campaign, frequently allowing columns of Islamic State fighters essentially free movement on the battlefield.”
The article claims that “the campaign has killed an estimated 12,500 fighters” and “has achieved several successes in conducting about 4,200 strikes that have dropped about 14,000 bombs and other weapons.” But an anonymous American pilot nonetheless complains that “we have not taken the fight to these guys,” and says he “cannot get authority” to drone-bomb targets without excessive proof that no civilians will be endangered. Despite the criticisms, Schmitt writes, “administration officials stand by their overriding objective to prevent civilian casualties.”
But there’s one rather glaring omission in this article: the many hundreds of civilian deaths likely caused by the U.S.-led bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria. Yet the only reference to civilian deaths are two, ones which the U.S. government last week admitted: “the military’s Central Command on Thursday announced the results of an inquiry into the deaths of two children in Syria in November, saying they were most likely killed by an American airstrike,” adding that “a handful of other attacks are under investigation.”
Completely absent is the abundant evidence from independent monitoring groups documenting hundreds of civilian deaths. Writing in Global Post last month, Richard Hall noted that while “in areas of Syria and Iraq held by the Islamic State, verifying civilian casualties is difficult,” there is “strong evidence [that] suggests civilians are dying in the coalition’s airstrikes.”
To May 13th 2015, between 587 and 734 civilian non-combatant fatalities had been reported from 95 separate incidents, in both Iraq and Syria.
Of these it is our provisional view — based on available reports — that between 370-465 civilian non-combatants have been killed in incidents likely to have been conducted by the coalition.
A further 130-145 claimed deaths attributed to coalition airstrikes are poorly reported or are single-sourced, while an additional 85-125 reported fatalities resulted from contested events (for example, claims that the Iraq military might instead have been responsible.)
In addition, 140 or more ‘friendly fire’ deaths of allied ground forces have been attributed to the coalition, with varying levels of certainty.
In his article, Hall quotes one of the Airwars journalists, Chris Woods (formerly with the drone-tracking Bureau of Investigative Journalism) as saying “he has ‘no doubt’ that civilians have been killed by coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, and that the number is probably somewhere in the hundreds.” Local media reports in Iraq have frequently reported civilian deaths at the hands of the U.S.-led bombing campaign.
One can obviously dismiss these civilian deaths, as many Americans routinely do, by casually invoking the “collateral damage” mantra and relying on cartoon versions of The Threat Posed by ISIS. But it’s outright bizarre for a paper purporting to report on excessive U.S. restraint to completely omit this data, just as U.S. media outlets have done for years with civilian deaths from drones. Beyond the humanitarian matter, killing civilians yet again in Iraq and Syria is highly likely to exacerbate the very problem the bombing campaign is supposedly designed to solve, as the NYT article itself recognizes: “Killing such innocents could hand the militants a major propaganda coup and alienate both the local Sunni tribesmen, whose support is critical to ousting the militants, and Sunni Arab countries that are part of the American-led coalition.”
When President Obama began bombing Syria, it became the seventh predominantly Muslim country to be bombed during his Nobel Peace Prize presidency. That militarism has killed countless innocent people, and poses all sorts of serious moral and strategic questions. It is simply inexcusable to whitewash all of that, and ignore significant, specific evidence of civilian deaths in the anti-ISIS campaign, when claiming to report on — and clearly complain about — great U.S. restraint.
UPDATE: As Maher Arar notes, it is literally impossible even to imagine The New York Times — or any other major U.S. news outlet — essentially calling for less restraint in civilian deaths if the civilians being killed were Americans, Israeli or any other Westerners, rather than Syrians and Iraqis.
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