As France Bombs ISIS, Civilians Are Caught in the Middle

Over the last year, the bombing campaign against ISIS in Syria has resulted in more than 300 civilian deaths.

DAMASCUS, SYRIA - OCTOBER 13: Smoke rises after war-crafts belonging to the Syrian army bombed residential areas in  Ein Tarma district in Damascus, Syria on October 13, 2015. (Photo by Mohammed Khair/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Smoke rises after war-crafts belonging to the Syrian army bombed residential areas in Ein Tarma district in Damascus, Syria on October 13, 2015. (Photo by Mohammed Khair/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images) Photo: Mohammed Khair/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

FRENCH PRESIDENT FRANCOIS HOLLANDE began his week at the Palace of Versailles with an appearance before parliament. “France is at war,” Hollande told the lawmakers gathered before him. Three days had passed since terrorists killed more than 120 people and wounded hundreds of others in a series of coordinated attacks in Paris. Hollande promised swift and decisive action.

In the Syrian city of Raqqa, the de-facto capital of the Islamic State, the dust from France’s first set of retaliatory airstrikes had hardly settled when Hollande began his address — the French response was in fact already underway.

Hollande vowed to triple his country’s capacity to launch airstrikes against ISIS. The French Navy’s flagship vessel, the Charles de Gaulle, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier hauling more than two dozen fighter jets, was set to arrive in the eastern Mediterranean by Thursday, Hollande said. “We will continue the strikes in the weeks to come,” he pledged. “There will be no respite and no truce.”

Echoing his president the following day, France’s defense minister formally called upon the European Union to aid in its fight “either by taking part in France’s operations in Syria or Iraq, or by easing the load or providing support for France in other operations.” According to the EU’s foreign policy chief, France’s invocation of the Lisbon Treaty on Tuesday — which requires member states to provide “aid and assistance by all means in their power” following acts of “armed aggression” — was unanimously agreed upon. As the New York Times noted, however, the agreement does not commit the member states to military action.

The French demands and declarations were the latest in a series of fast-moving events across multiple nations following last week’s attacks. The consequences of these developments are likely to add new layers of complexity to the ongoing air war over Syria, further heightening the danger for civilians caught in the conflict.

Since the fighting began more than four years ago, a dizzying array of armed forces has exchanged gunfire on the ground in Syria. In recent years, the skies over the country have become similarly complicated — and similarly lethal. For at least three years, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has made a habit of dropping crude barrel bombs on densely populated Syrian neighborhoods as a means to hold onto power. In a war that has cost the lives of more than 300,000 men, women, and children, Human Rights Watch claims Assad’s barrel bombs pose the greatest threat to Syrian civilians.

A coalition made up of the United States, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates began striking ISIS targets in Syria in September 2014, with the U.S. military taking the overwhelming lead in the bombings. As of this month, U.S. warplanes had delivered roughly 94 percent of the nearly 3,000 coalition airstrikes in Syria, according to coalition figures. While the coalition has maintained that it operates the most precise weapons systems on the planet, evidence that its strikes have caused civilian casualties has steadily mounted — with some estimates indicating as many as 354 civilians allegedly killed in the coalition’s first year of operations. Still, despite launching thousands of airstrikes in Syria since its campaign began, the U.S. Central Command, as of September, had admitted to just one “likely” incident of a civilian casualty caused by a coalition strike.

France announced it would join the coalition air campaign in Syria a year after the Americans did, in mid-September 2015. Prior to last weekend, however, France had carried out only a handful of airstrikes. Roughly two weeks after France joined the coalition, Russia began bombing Syria as well, along the way collecting steady allegations of displaying a blatant disregard for civilian life. In a report published this month, Physicians for Human Rights said it had “documented 10 attacks on medical facilities by Russian airstrikes in Syria” through the end of October.

Prior to this month, coalition airstrikes in Syria had seen a steep decline since peaking in July, a trend that has been attributed, in part, to Arab allies shifting their attention to another source of tremendous civilian suffering in the region: the devastating Saudi-led and U.S.-backed campaign in Yemen. For the remaining coalition forces, the introduction of Russian fighter jets into Syrian airspace further complicated matters. The attacks in Paris appear to have shifted the picture yet again.

Since Sunday night, French warplanes, taking flight from Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, have been dropping bombs on Raqqa daily. There have been questions as to the effectiveness of the strikes, with some reports suggesting little, if any, significant damage to the Islamic State’s infrastructure in Raqqa. The first indication that the strikes were actually killing ISIS members in any significant number did not emerge until Wednesday, when the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported the recent attacks had killed at least 33 fighters and that more fighters may have been killed, “but their bodies were so severely dismembered it wasn’t possible to give an estimated figure.”

Details on civilian casualties since the strikes began have been difficult to pin down.

Following the first round of strikes on Sunday, the observatory, citing “reliable sources,” initially reported that coalition warplanes firing on an ISIS machine gun in Raqqa “missed the target and killed three people at least by opening fire on a house.” In the days that followed, however, Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, a clandestine activist network that reports on conditions in the city, maintained that no civilians had been killed in the latest strikes. That too changed on Wednesday, when the group tweeted that seven civilians had been killed in an airstrike. The Intercept made several unsuccessful attempts to communicate with the Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently activists since the bombings began and was unable to independently verify their claims regarding the recent strikes. As of Thursday morning the group tweeted that warplanes had resumed bombing unspecified targets in Raqqa.

As the Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend, the French attacks on Raqqa “followed a U.S. decision to expand intelligence sharing with France in support of the retaliatory bombings of Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq.” In addition to providing France with ISIS targets, the paper reported, the U.S. also planned “to roll back restrictions that impede intelligence sharing to make it easier for France to intensify its air campaign.” Secretary of State John Kerry, in an unscheduled visit to Paris Tuesday, addressed the increased intelligence sharing among Western coalition forces targeting ISIS.

“The level of cooperation could not be higher,” Kerry said. “We agreed to exchange more information and I’m convinced that over the course of the next weeks, Daesh will feel greater pressure. They are feeling it today. They felt it yesterday. They felt it in the past weeks. We gained more territory. Daesh has less territory.”

The Russians have been bombing Raqqa as well, albeit for different reasons. Sources in the Russian Defense Ministry told Russian media outlets that cruise missiles were fired from a Russian submarine in the Mediterranean into the city Monday night. While Russia has bombed Raqqa in the past, with disastrous results, the recent strikes, which also included aerial bombings, began just hours after the head of Russia’s Federal Security Service announced that a Russian charter jet that exploded over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula two weeks ago was downed by an “improvised explosive device” soon after taking off. ISIS had quickly claimed responsibility for the attack, which took the lives of all 224 passengers on board.

Following Russian confirmation that the jet was bombed, Putin promised to intensify Russia’s military role in Syria. A Pentagon official, speaking to the New York Times, said the Russians provided advanced warning before launching “a significant number of strikes in Raqqa.” In October, the two nations agreed to a set of safety protocols meant to avoid accidents while conducting their respective bombing campaigns. According to the Wall Street Journal, however, Monday’s warning was the first of its kind. France’s Hollande is scheduled to independently meet with Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama next week, triggering speculation over the possible emergence of a unified Russian, French, and U.S. anti-ISIS front.

The U.S. military also claimed a new first in its war on ISIS this week, employing warplanes to attack hundreds of trucks smuggling crude oil on behalf of the terrorist organization on Monday. According to the New York Times, the campaign, dubbed Tidal Wave II, was planned before the attacks in Paris as part of an escalating effort to disrupt the flow of tens of millions of dollars ISIS generates monthly through the production and sale of oil. To avoid killing civilians, the Times reported, U.S. forces had previously held off on directly targeting tanker trucks involved in the Islamic State’s illicit oil trade.

“To reduce the risk of harming civilians, two F-15 warplanes dropped leaflets about an hour before the attack warning drivers to abandon their vehicles, and strafing runs were conducted to reinforce the message,” the paper noted in its description of Monday’s strikes, adding that a U.S. official said “there were no immediate reports of civilian casualties.”

Unraveling the strategic efficacy and tremendous loss of civilian life caused by airstrikes in Syria, which show no sign of slowing down, has bedeviled reporters and human rights organizations for years. As the coalition campaign kicked up in Syria, as well as Iraq, a group of English- and Arabic-speaking journalists and researchers based in Europe and the Middle East came together to build Airwars, a nonprofit that uses publicly available military data, open source reporting, and regional sources to archive the international air war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

In August, Airwars published its first report, which pointed to evidence of hundreds of civilian casualties resulting from the first year of coalition airstrikes against the Islamic State. Author and investigative journalist Chris Woods heads up the watchdog project. In an interview with The Intercept Tuesday, Woods described the coalition approach in Syria as the extension of broader trends rooted in the war on terror.

“Western citizens and governments are burnt out on ground wars and politicians have been reaching for air-only conflicts as a panacea for the last five or six years, pioneered by the CIA in Pakistan and Yemen,” he explained. “Politicians like it because they think it’s risk free. It’s not. It’s risk displaced.”

“The reason Europe is suffering a crisis at the moment around migration is that people are fleeing bombs,” Woods added. “They don’t care who’s dropping them.”

In the near-term, as the Western world continues to grapple with the realities of its bombing campaigns in Syria, Woods emphasized the importance of acknowledging the voices of those living among the explosions.

“We have to remember that however the media paints the Islamic State, they occupy civilian cities. Raqqa, Aleppo, a host of other cities, Mosul, Fallujah, these are all civilian cities under occupation and when we bomb those cities we are bombing civilian cities,” he said. “We have to keep that at the foreground of our discussions, not the background.”

Top photo: Smoke rises after war-crafts belonging to the Syrian army bombed residential areas in  Ein Tarma district in Damascus, Syria on October 13, 2015. 

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