To understand how the US military killed so many civilians in Syria, we must look at its tactics
The reports about the US 2019 airstrike that killed up to 64 civilians in the ISIS-controlled town of Baghuz, Syria shocked millions of Americans. But this wanton murder is nothing new.
To understand how we got to Baghuz, all one has to do is study the Battle of Raqqa that preceded it.
The bombing conducted by the US Air Force in March 2019 in support of Syrian Kurdish forces mopping up the last vestiges of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) holing up in and around the village of Baghuz, along the Syrian-Iraqi border, has come under renewed scrutiny after allegations that the Department of Defense covered up claims that a war crime may have occurred. These allegations, first detailed in a New York Times article, claim that some 80 people, including 64 civilian women and children, may have been killed by a deliberate air strike conducted by US Air Force F-15E fighters dropping a mix of 500- and 2,000-pound bombs.
While the incident in question may not, on final scrutiny, fall within the legal definition of a war crime, it does appear to be part of a larger pattern of callous indifference by the US-led anti-ISIS coalition toward civilian casualties sustained in the fight against ISIS which dates to the battle for Raqqa, the one-time capital city of the short-lived ISIS Caliphate.
This battle, which raged between June and October 2017, established the very procedures used by US forces to carry out the March 2019 Baghuz strike and, as with Baghuz, has largely been ignored both in terms of the large numbers of civilians killed and the possibility that their deaths may constitute war crimes.
Raqqa fell under the control of ISIS in early 2014, the precursor to a larger offensive launched later that year which saw ISIS forces capture large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq, including the Iraqi city of Mosul. The US, which had withdrawn all combat forces from Iraq in late 2011, dispatched forces into Baghdad to stiffen the resistance of the Iraqi Army against ISIS advances, which had brought the Caliphate up to the gates of the Iraqi capital. Over the course of the next two years, US forces, operating with a rejuvenated Iraqi Army, fought side by side with pro-Iran militias and Iranian special forces to push ISIS back to the approaches of Mosul.
Meanwhile, in Syria, Kurdish defense forces, known as the YPG, which were affiliated with the PKK, or Kurdish Workers Party, a Turkish-based guerilla movement, began mounting a campaign to fight back against ISIS forces threatening Syrian Kurdistan. While the US government was prepared to provide material support and training to these Kurdish forces, the linkage between the YPG and PKK precluded any such effort out of fear of alienating Turkey, a NATO ally. When advised by General Raymond Thomas, the head of US Special Operations Command, to “change their brand” if they wanted US support, the YPG renamed itself the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF.
A few days later, on October 30, 2015, President Barack Obama announced that he was dispatching a few dozen US Special Forces soldiers into Syria to advise the newly found SDF in their anti-ISIS efforts. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest emphasized that “These forces do not have a combat mission.”
The US Special Forces became part of Combined Joint Task Force—Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR), a US military command established in October 2014 for the purpose of combating ISIS. In addition to their training and advisory missions, CJTF-OIR also facilitated the provision of air strikes carried out by the US military aircraft, as well as the conducting of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) operations against ISIS.
Key to this US effort were skilled special operations personnel known as Joint Terminal Attack Controllers, or JTACs, drawn primarily from the ranks of US Air Force special operations personnel, who help identify targets and provide terminal guidance to US and coalition aircraft tasked with dropping ordnance on those targets.
Under normal combat conditions, the JTACs would be deployed on the front lines, where they would personally observe and direct the air strikes. Because Obama had strictly forbidden a combat role for US forces, however, the JTACs were deployed far to the rear, in Joint Operations Centers, or JOCs, where they watched live videos taken by drones, other surveillance aircraft, and the attack aircraft themselves, identifying targets for attack. Initially, the JTACs operated out of a JOC located in Baghdad. Later, as ISIS was pushed north toward Mosul, a second JOC was established in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Erbil.
As the anti-ISIS forces closed in on Mosul, however, their offensive stalled in the face of strong resistance. It quickly became clear that the current arrangement of using remote JTACs to control the airstrikes was not working. In late December 2016, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the commander of CJTF-OIR, issued Tactical Directive 1, which allowed JTACs to deploy forward, just behind the front lines, where they could confer directly with the Iraqi Army commanders in an effort to have more responsive airstrikes against ISIS. By January 2017, US JTACs were operating inside the city of Mosul.
Mosul finally fell to Iraqi forces in July 2017. The fight for Mosul was extraordinarily difficult, with heavy casualties on both sides, and resulted in much of the city being destroyed and, by coalition count, some 326 civilians being killed. Key to this victory was the heavy use of US air power in destroying ISIS’ ability to fight. General Townsend praised the efforts of his JTACs and the air crews who delivered the bombs, calling the fight against ISIS in Mosul the “most precise campaign in the history of warfare.”
‘Possible war crimes’ during battle of Mosul
At the same time, Amnesty International published a report claiming that the tactics used by coalition and Iraqi forces in the battle for Mosul “may amount to war crimes.” As many as 5,805 Iraqi civilians may have been killed between January and mid-May 2017. Amnesty International noted that even this number may be too small, stating that “it has been difficult for monitors to record deaths and injuries due to the intensity of the fighting.”
The organization accused the coalition and Iraqi forces of having “failed to adapt their tactics” by using “imprecise, explosive weapons with wide area effects in densely populated urban environments” even when they knew Iraqi civilians had been unable to escape from the area. Importantly, Amnesty International stated that the “choice of weapons… was inappropriate for the circumstances,” and that the coalition failed to take necessary precautions to verify all targets were a military objective before launching their strikes.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, when discussing the Law of Armed Conflict, has identified two basic principles that military commanders must consider when engaged in combat operations where civilians may be present. The first, the Principle of Distinction, states that a commander must always clearly distinguish between combatants and civilians or the civilian population as such. Additionally, a commander must distinguish between military objectives and civilian objects, keeping in mind that only military objects may be attacked.
The second, the Principle of Proportionality, notes that when military objectives are attacked, civilians and civilian objects must be spared incidental or collateral damage to the maximum extent possible. Incidental damage must not be excessive in relation to the direct and concrete military advantage a commander anticipates from the operation. Importantly, military objectives do not stop being military objectives just because civilians are present; the latter share the danger of being there. Members of the armed forces are not liable for incidental damage if their operations were carried out in good faith and in full compliance with the law of war. However, the fact that an opponent uses human shields does not release a commander from the obligation as the attacker to take precautionary measures and constant care to spare the civilian population.
In responding to the Amnesty International allegations, General Townsend declared “I reject any notion that coalition fires were in any way imprecise, unlawful or excessively targeted civilians,” adding that the coalition took “extraordinary measures to safeguard civilian lives, measuring every single time how many civilians may or may not be in the target area and what munition to employ and how can we strike that building and take out only that room and not the entire floor or the entire building.”
When viewed in isolation, it is impossible to make a conclusion one way or another about the Amnesty International claims of violations of the Law of War on the part of the US-led coalition during the fight for Mosul. Greater insight, however, can be had by comparing the allegations regarding Mosul with the results of another US-led anti-ISIS fight – the battle for Raqqa, Syria.
Battle of Raqqa: Differences from Mosul
The battle for Raqqa began on June 6, 2017, when personnel under the command of the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, began their ground assault. There were three major distinctions between how the US-supported Iraqi forces fought in Mosul, and how the US-supported SDF fought in Raqqa.
First, there had been a significant change in the rules of engagement. Shortly after President Donald Trump assumed office, in January 2017, he met with his military commanders and issued instructions authorizing the rules of engagement which governed the actions of US forces in combat to be modified to give the American military greater flexibility when it came to defeating an enemy. In the war against ISIS, this meant that the so-called Target Engagement Authority – the level at which air strikes could be approved – was lowered from the commander of the CJTF-OIR (a three-star general) to the officer running the JOC overseeing the support (a one-star general). Perhaps even more important in terms of improving efficiency was the implementation of what was called the “collective-defense Rule of Engagement”, allowing forces on the ground to approve an airstrike if the unit being supported was in contact with ISIS.
The second distinction was the direct role played by the SDF in coordinating fire support for their operations. According to US JTACs, there were at least 10, if not more, members of the SDF trained in being able to call in airstrikes during the battle for Raqqa. The SDF personnel had been issued Samsung tablets that had been uploaded with an application called the Android Team Awareness Kit (ATAK). While ATAKs had been used in the battle for Mosul, the using party had been part of a state-controlled military formation. The SDF, however, were non-state combatants. Allowing forces which were still considered to be terrorists by the Turkish government to have the ability to coordinate air strikes was a major departure from normal operations.
Using ATAKs, SDF soldiers would plot GPS coordinates on satellite imagery that was preloaded onto the devices. Similar imagery had been loaded onto iPads provided to US air crews and the JTACS. The imagery had been annotated so that every building and major feature had been assigned a unique alpha-numeric designator. As such, if an SDF commander wanted building A32 destroyed, he would communicate this request to a JTAC, through a translator, using chat apps or encrypted phones. If the SDF commander was in contact with ISIS, then the JTAC was cleared to authorize the attack. The JTAC would then contact the aircraft designated to make the strike, and provide the alpha-numeric designator, which the pilot would locate and verify. Once this was completed, then the pilot would proceed to drop the ordnance.
The third distinction was the presence of Marine Corps artillery units which were able to provide extensive and sustained fires that supplemented, and in many cases supplanted, the coalition airstrikes. Marine artillery, in the form of a battery of six M777 howitzers, in March 2017, where they conducted more than 400 distinct fire missions using more than 4,000 rounds in two months’ time. This unit was replaced in June 2017 with another battery of six Marine M777 howitzers. Over the course of five months, the Marine M777’s fired over 35,000 rounds of 155mm artillery at ISIS targets in and around Raqqa. At one time, the intensity of their actions was such that they burned out two artillery barrels, something practically unheard of in modern combat. To provide context, in Operation Desert Storm the Marines and the Army used 760 artillery pieces to fire some 60,000 rounds; in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, US forces fired 34,000 rounds.
The mission of the Marine artillery “was to deny and disrupt ISIS from gaining ground or moving from their defensive positions,” noted Marine Artillery Lieutenant Colonel Jon O’Gorman, chief of fires for CJTF–OIR. O’Gorman added that the Marines “rained relentless and highly accurate firepower on the enemy.” According to CJTF-OIR, the “US Marine Corps artillery unit deployed to provide the Coalition greater agility to enable and expedite our Syrian partnered forces defeat of ISIS in Raqqah.” The Sergeant Major of the Army said: “We needed them [the Marines] to put pressure on ISIS and we needed them to kill ISIS.” And they did; according to Major General John Love, the commander of the 2nd Marine Division, the Marine artillerymen “killed more ISIS than anybody else out there right now, including special operations forces.”
They may have killed more civilians, too. The maximum range of an M777 is just under 30 kilometers. Imagery taken during the time of the Marine deployment around Raqqa showed the artillery emplacements around 15 kilometers from the center of the city. At 30 kilometers, the CEP is around 275 meters, meaning that half the rounds fired could land within a 275-meter circle surrounding the target. The closer you get to the target, the smaller the circle gets. At 15 kilometers range, the CEP of the M777 is 95 meters. The lethal radius of a 155mm round fired from an M777 is 70 meters. The reality is, even if the artillery fire is accurate, there’s a lot of death and destruction being dealt out over a significant span of territory.
Lack of precise intelligence & violation of principles
Unlike the battle for Mosul, where US artillery was employed in a much more restrictive fashion, in Raqqa the Marines operated in a virtual free-fire zone, 24-hours a day, seven days a week. Given the restrictions imposed on US aircraft due to the presence of Syrian and Russian aircraft nearby (a reality which resulted in one Syrian fighter jet being shot down by US aircraft), American pilots could not loiter over the target area, but rather had to fly in, drop their ordnance, and then fly out. This meant the need for tighter control.
But tighter control did not automatically mean greater accuracy.
“We were trying to strike these snipers that were in this dense urban city and we didn’t have the tactics for it,” one American pilot noted. “Danger of close engagements (i.e., dropping bombs within 100 meters of a friendly position), typically a rarity, were the daily norm.” The pilots would often receive mission briefs along the lines of “Hey, I need you to drop this four-story building in a city.” This, one pilot stated, “is fundamentally different than what I expected.”
The lack of precise intelligence was also a problem. “Our ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) doesn’t see civilians hiding inside buildings,” one American pilot observed. “Furthermore, canyoning effects between buildings makes civilian movement and pattern of life hard to see.” Civilian casualty risk is highest in urban operations, in structures, especially during dynamic targeting (i.e., dropping bombs or firing artillery while in contact with the enemy.)
Department of Defense investigations after the battle for Raqqa ended found only 159 civilians were killed during five months of fighting; a detailed report by Amnesty International states that at least 1,600 civilians died.
The fact is, the US doesn’t know, and doesn’t want to know, how many civilians were killed in Raqqa. It handed the means to deliver death to SDF fighters who were motivated by revenge to kill as many ISIS fighters and supporters as possible.
A New Yorker reporter followed one such fighter as he advanced down a main street in Raqqa, pausing frequently to call in airstrikes on buildings he had identified using his ATAKs system. The reporter noted there was no resistance; nor had the SDF fighters made any attempt to ascertain whether the buildings being bombed were empty. The SDF leadership was dismissive of civilian casualties. “There are only two kinds of people left in Raqqa,” one SDF official told the New Yorker reporter. “ISIS and thieves. Otherwise, why haven’t they left yet?”
At the time of the report, an estimated 20,000 civilians were still trapped inside Raqqa, and they couldn’t leave even if they wanted to. One way out of Raqqa was to cross the Euphrates River, which skirted the city’s boundaries on its eastern edge. In January 2017 the US took away that option, dropping leaflets telling the occupants of Raqqa that anyone attempting to cross the Euphrates River via a bridge or boat was a legitimate target. Indeed, on June 5, 2017, US bombs killed 21 women and children who were attempting to cross the Euphrates River.
When it came to the battle of Raqqa, the United States military violated both the Principle of Distinction, in that it failed to adequately distinguish between military and civilian targets, and the Principle of Proportionality, in that it allowed disproportional military force to be applied in situations without verifying that there was, indeed, a force and threat deserving of the level of force being used.
The Battle of Raqqa became a template for all future anti-ISIS operations involving the SDF and the US going forward. By the time the mopping up operations around Baghuz were conducted, in March 2019, there was in place a seamless killing machine which allowed the US to justify any action so long as it was conducted in support of an SDF unit claiming to be in contact with ISIS. If you want to know the truth about what happened in Baghuz, all you need to do is study the Battle of Raqqa.
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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.