Many are searching for an explanation for the recent spike in civilian casualties resulting from coalition operations in Iraq and Syria, including specific incidents which have reportedly involved particularly high numbers. On Thursday, the Department of Defense described to reporters a particularly gruesome tactic on the part of ISIS that may explain some of these tragic outcomes. “What you see now is not the use of civilians as human shields,” Army Col. Joseph Scrocca said. “Now, it’s something much more sinister. ISIS is smuggling civilians into buildings so we won’t see them, trying to bait the coalition to attack, to take advantage of the public outcry and deter action in the future.”
But that ISIS tactic of baiting the coalition to kill large numbers of civilians is not necessarily as “new” as the New York Times and others breathlessly report. Nor is it new to see commentators’ grappling for an explanation of whether changes to rules of engagement may also explain the overall increase in civilians killed. Indeed, this is déjà vu all over again—and examining past episodes can, among other things, encourage taking a deep breath before coming to conclusions.
In summer of 2016, the Obama administration in concert with coalition forces conducted an important and successful operation in Manbij pocket, an area of northern Syria that served as a “strategically important” artery for ISIS fighters and supplies entering the country from Turkey. The intense fighting came with an increase in civilian casualties—but that time of course it was under the Obama administration. One important incident reportedly involved at least 73 civilians killed by U.S. airstrikes, described in the media at the time as “the deadliest coalition attack on non-combatants since the start of the bombing campaign against the Islamic State.” Reflecting on the overall number of civilian casualties since the Manbij operation had begun, it was reasonable for close observers to wonder whether the rules of engagement had changed. “We are concerned that the US-led alliance appears to have relaxed some of their rules concerning civilian casualties,” said Airwars’ Chris Woods at the time. The Department of Defense stated at the time that ISIS “used civilians as human shields and as bait by sending them into range of SAC [Syrian Arab Coalition] weapons, trying to draw the fire of the SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces] towards the civilians.”
What lessons can be drawn from these incidents? I had already thought to raise the issue of the Manbij experience to emphasize this ISIS tactic even before the Department of Defense’s Thursday briefing. It should give some pause before reaching any conclusions about whether—or to what degree—overall incidents of civilian casualties may be the result of any change in US practices or the turnover at the White House. At the same time, I imagine that some groups may jump on this information to suggest the US already knew about such tactics and therefore should have incorporated them into targeting decisions. Well, I presume the Pentagon did, but this is a complex environment in which variations of such tactics are very hard to counter.
Finally, it is important that the US government acknowledge, if not emphasize, it has a moral and legal responsibility to minimize loss of civilian life even in the face of ISIS’s grotesquely violating its own responsibilities by using human shields, baiting tactics, and committing other atrocities. Regrettably, Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend ended a press briefing on Tuesday by criticizing the media’s focus on civilian casualties in coalition airstrikes and emphasized in closing:
“And in my mind, all the responsibility for any civilian deaths, the moral responsibility for civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria belongs to ISIS.
I will close with that.”
The following day, General Joseph Votel thankfully took a different approach in testifying before Congress. “I wanted to emphasize to everybody here, all the members that — these are absolutely tragic and heartbreaking situations. And our hearts go out to the people of Mosul and of Iraq and other places where we are operating. We acknowledge our responsibility to operate at a higher standard,” Gen. Votel said. “And while we consider and establish accountability over our actions in this incident, I think [it] is also important to clearly recognize that the enemy does use human shields, has little regard for human life and does attempt to use civilian casualty allegations as a tool to hinder our operations. And so they bear responsibility for this as well.” At Thursday’s press briefing, the Pentagon accepted that the March 17 strike which resulted in a very large number of casualties “left the coalition with some culpability.” That is a strong and principled way to approach these excruciatingly difficult questions of life and death of civilians on the battlefield.
Image: Defense Secretary Jim Mattis hosts a joint press conference with Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, at Baghdad International Airport, Feb. 20, 2017. DoD photo by Air Force Tech. Sgt. Brigitte N. Brantley