U.S. Military Investigating if Airstrikes Killed Civilians in Iraq and Syria

Allegations of civilian deaths raise questions about the need for deeper U.S. military involvement in the war against the Islamic State.

Smoke rises after an airstrike from US-led coalition in the city of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, as it seen from the southeastern border village of Mursitpinar, Sanliurfa province, on November 9, 2014. AFP PHOTO / ARIS MESSINIS (Photo credit should read ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images)

For the first time Tuesday, the Pentagon publicly acknowledged that it is investigating whether U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State killed civilians in Iraq and Syria.

Depending on the military’s findings, Barack Obama’s administration could face more pressure to move U.S. troops closer to the front lines to better coordinate targeting against the Islamic State, thereby potentially putting more U.S. soldiers in harm’s way. But experts warn that given the enemy and the nature of this war, civilian deaths will be difficult to avoid entirely in any event.

U.S. Central Command said it had examined the credibility of 18 separate allegations that coalition airstrikes had killed civilians in Iraq and Syria between August and the end of December. Of the 18 allegations, nine were from Iraq and nine were from Syria.

So far, 13 of the allegations have been determined not to be credible, but five allegations are still being examined, with two being elevated into the investigation phase, said Centcom spokesman Maj. Curtis Kellogg.

Those two incidents are the results of the military’s own review process and were not instigated by an outside allegation, Kellogg said in a statement. The other situations came to the military’s attention via media reports, nongovernmental organizations, or other U.S. government agencies.

Credible groups on the ground, including Iraqi news agencies and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, have made several claims that noncombatants have been killed by U.S. bombs, but even they acknowledge that it is difficult to confirm these deaths, especially in areas controlled by the Islamic State, which is often where the United States is striking.

Given the number of strikes launched in both Iraq and Syria — about 1,400 at this point — and without American troops forward-positioned to call in the strikes, civilians have clearly faced risks of accidental death. But for the last several months, the Pentagon has maintained that it has yet to see any believable reports of civilian deaths caused by U.S. bombs.

“I am tracking no civilian casualties,” Lt. Gen. James Terry, the top U.S. commander overseeing the anti-Islamic State operation, told reporters at the Pentagon on Dec. 18, before the military began investigating the two cases of civilian deaths. If the U.S. military even suspected a civilian casualty, it would immediately launch an investigation, he said. Once the cause of the accidental death was determined, the U.S. military would try to learn from its mistake and implement any necessary changes.

Civilian casualties matter: The Pentagon has been concerned about civilian deaths resulting from poor intelligence or targeting information while aiming at insurgents, especially after several such instances in Afghanistan produced a backlash. Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai often blamed American troops for killing innocent Afghans.

Before it can investigate an allegation, the U.S. military first has to determine whether there is sufficient verifiable information to proceed, Kellogg said Tuesday, Jan. 6.

“The current environment on the ground in Iraq and Syria makes investigating these allegations extremely challenging. Traditional investigatory methods, such as interviewing witnesses and examining the site, are not typically available,” Kellogg said.

The Iraq Body Count project, an independent group that has tracked civilian deaths since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, estimates that about 150,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed in conflict over that time period–including many killed by the Islamic State.

Depending on whether any civilian casualties are confirmed — and where they may have happened — these new investigations could move the debate around whether U.S. troops need to be moved closer to the battlefield, said Paul Scharre, a former Army Ranger. He worked in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2008 to 2013 on intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance policies, among other issues, before joining the Center for a New American Security.

Some critics of the Obama administration’s strategy against the Islamic State have called for more air power, describing the current airstrikes as “pinpricks.” But to unleash more bombs on Iraq or Syria without inadvertently killing civilians would most likely require U.S. troops to move closer to the fight.

In Afghanistan and in the previous war in Iraq, the U.S. military used specialized troops embedded with forward infantry units, known as joint terminal attack controllers (JTACs), to call in airstrikes.

If any civilian deaths are confirmed and they appear to be isolated events, it might not fundamentally alter the debate, Scharre said. But the logical next step in Iraq is to embed JTACs with small special forces teams already advising Iraqi and Kurdish security forces, Scharre said.

This doesn’t mean it’s a “slippery slope” to having 100,000 U.S. troops once again deployed in Iraq, but it’s important to be thoughtful before doing this, because it not only puts those troops at greater risk, but it also commits the United States more fully to the war, Scharre said.

In Syria, putting U.S. troops on the ground isn’t an option, especially now when there is no partner with whom they could work. The effort to vet and train Syrian rebels in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar is still in its initial stages.

But even if JTACs were to embed with forward-deployed advising teams in Iraq, it would be difficult to avoid civilian casualties, said Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Islamic State fighters do not wear uniforms, they use human shields to protect themselves, and they operate in heavily populated areas, like the Syrian city of Raqqa or the Iraqi city of Mosul. But while JTACs would not necessarily decrease the number of civilian casualties, they would make air power more effective, Cordesman said.

It’s possible you could use a lot more air power, but over a shorter period of time, and in turn fewer civilians could be killed, he said.

In the meantime, with U.S. troops confined to bases in Iraq, the U.S. military will have to continue to rely on its Iraqi and Kurdish partners and the intelligence being collected by unmanned aircraft flying overhead to identify enemy positions, nearby civilians, or friendly troops.

“We have some great capability in terms of precision,” Terry said. “What’s in the balance here if you’re not careful is you can be precisely wrong. You could strike, you know, tribes. You could strike Iraqi security forces. And you could create a very bad situation.”

Photo by ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images

Kate Brannen is deputy managing editor at Just Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy, where she previously worked as a senior reporter. Twitter: @K8brannen

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