The U.S. Air Campaign in Syria Is Suspiciously Impressive at Not Killing Civilians

The Pentagon says it has killed 20,000 suspected Islamic State fighters, with only two cases of collateral damage. Something doesn’t add up.

An injured Syrian man makes his way through debris following a reported air strike by government forces in the rebel-held area of Douma, east of the capital Damascus, on November 7, 2015. AFP PHOTO / SAMEER AL-DOUMY        (Photo credit should read SAMEER AL-DOUMY/AFP/Getty Images)
An injured Syrian man makes his way through debris following a reported air strike by government forces in the rebel-held area of Douma, east of the capital Damascus, on November 7, 2015. AFP PHOTO / SAMEER AL-DOUMY (Photo credit should read SAMEER AL-DOUMY/AFP/Getty Images)

To intensify the U.S.-led coalition’s war against the Islamic State, also known as ISIL, the Pentagon is considering further loosening the rules of engagement (ROEs) that are intended to minimize civilian casualties and expanding the target sets that can be bombed. On Nov. 19, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter told MSNBC that the U.S. military was “prepared” to change the ROEs, and indeed the following day it was reported that the coalition was seeking to increase airstrikes by “changing a policy to protect against civilian casualties in Islamic State-held territory.” The prospect of more bombs being dropped on more Islamic State-connected targets was also endorsed this past week by presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, and Chris Christie.

Although largely missed by the presidential candidates, the ROEs against the Islamic State have already been significantly relaxed. The week ending on Nov. 17 was the most intensive seven-day period of airstrikes — with 980 bombs dropped — since Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) began in August 2014, according to U.S. Central Command (Centcom). Moreover, Operation Tidal Wave II — an escalating series of strikes against Islamic State-controlled oil infrastructure — now includes the bombing of hundreds of oil tankers, which had not been targeted previously because, according to OIR spokesman Col. Steve Warren, “the truck drivers, themselves, probably not members of ISIL; they’re probably just civilians.” Now, those trucks are being shredded by A-10 Thunderbolt II and AC-130 Spectre gunships 45 minutes after leaflets are dropped on them reading, “Get out of your trucks now, and run away from them.”

The assumption of those endorsing relaxed ROEs is that a higher number of bombs falling on a larger array of targets will accelerate the destruction of the Islamic State. But that’s fantasy. The coalition’s 8,300 airstrikes may have destroyed more than 16,000 Islamic State targets and killed more than 20,000 suspected Islamic State fighters — including “one mid- to upper-level ISIL leader every two days” — but this is wholly insufficient. Does Carter really believe that with just a little more air power, this enormous militant army will soon be degraded and destroyed?

The first problem with this theory is that large militant armies are not defeated, either exclusively or primarily, with air power. Military and civilian policymakers repeat the mantra that “you can’t kill your way out” of the problem posed by such adversaries, but then continue to call upon air power to do just that. This is despite the fact that all of the militant armies and terrorist groups that have been bombed and droned for the past 14 years have survived. None have been completely destroyed, which is allegedly the strategic objective against the Islamic State. Moreover, the size of the al Qaeda-affiliated groups that the United States claims to be at war with have either stayed flat or grown, while the total number of State Department-designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations has grown from 34 in 2002 to 59 in 2015.

However, the larger concern with this mindset is the assured growth of collateral damage and civilian casualties that will accompany significantly loosened ROEs. Last month, Lt. Gen. Bob Otto, the U.S. Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, observed that the coalition was “challenged in finding enough targets that the airplanes can hit that meet the rules of engagement.” However, he added an important caveat: “If you inadvertently — legally — kill innocent men, women, and children, then there’s a backlash from that. And so we might kill three and create 10 terrorists.”

There was a revealing indicator made public last week of just how challenging it is for pilots to prevent civilian harm while conducting “dynamic targeting” strikes — meaning against unplanned and unanticipated targets in a compressed timeline — despite all the checks and balances in place. Late on Friday, Centcom issued a press release that summarized the findings and recommendations of an investigation into an attack of an Islamic State checkpoint on March 13, near Hatra, Iraq, which “likely resulted in the deaths of four non-combatants” even though “all reasonable measures were taken to avoid unintended deaths of or injuries to non-combatants by reviewing the targets thoroughly prior to engagement.” This was only the second time, in 16 months of bombing, that the command has acknowledged civilian harm; the other being in May when Centcom published an investigation of a November 2014 strike against the so-called Khorasan Group that “likely led to the deaths of two non-combatant children.” In other words, everybody within the command structure, including the pilot of the A-10, did what they were trained to do, and four civilians were still unintentionally killed at an Iraqi checkpoint.

To truly appreciate how this could have occurred, it is useful to dig into the 56-page redacted report of the investigation that Centcom released on Friday. Most importantly, the U.S. military was only made aware of the allegations of civilian casualties by an April 2 email from an unidentified woman who claimed that her black Kia Sorrento 2011 sedan — “that consisted of the Driver, two women and three children” — was destroyed when “a Missile of International Air Forces stroke [sic] the Checkpoint.” The woman requested compensation for her car as “I have lost all my money and this car was all I have…. Thank you for concern.”

Prompted only by this email — as one command element put it, “the 609th AOC has not received a corroborating open source report of civilian casualties matching this strike location/time” — an initial civilian casualties (CIVCAS) credibility assessment concluded that the woman’s claim was credible. From there, an investigating officer was directed to “conduct a thorough review of the JTM [Joint Target Message] targeting and tasking cycle to determine if any errors occurred or process changes are required.” This investigation was conducted between April 22 and June 1, and consisted of extensive audio and video reviews, and interviews with all of the participants.

The investigation demonstrates how routine the events at the Islamic State checkpoint near Hatra were on that fateful day. The black Kia Sorrento and a GMC Suburban drove up to the checkpoint, pulled off to the side of the road, and the occupants of both vehicles began to “interact and act like they are associated with the [Islamic State] checkpoint personnel” for 40 minutes while seven other vehicles passed through the checkpoint. The person responsible for the final sign-off of the strike was the director of the Combined Air and Space Operations Center at Al Udeid Air Base, referred to as the Target Engagement Authority (TEA). The TEA makes clear that he authorized a strafing of the checkpoint personnel and that a single GBU-38 bomb be dropped on a guard shack. However, when he reviewed the target “at no point was there any discussion of vehicles in association with this strike,” and he did not “grant the authority to strike any vehicles.”

At this point, the report becomes heavily redacted, making it impossible to determine the specific chain of responsibility. However, it is clear that the A-10 pilot, after conducting multiple passes over the checkpoint, requests that the JTM be updated to include the two vehicles and all of the enemy passengers, or EPAX, since “these two vehicles appeared to be a part of the checkpoint.” The “Dynamic Targeting Chief” then checks with an unnamed “Battle Director” and verbally updates the JTM to authorize the A-10 to strike the vehicles. (This whole updating process takes only 80 seconds.) The A-10 pilot then repeatedly strafes “the EPAX and vehicles” and drops one bomb on the guard shack. The pilot later estimated “that time of flight of the [redacted] rounds is 3-4 seconds, from trigger squeeze to impact.” The investigating officer determined that “there is no evidence that the aircraft had any opportunity to detect civilians prior to their strike.” The presence of a child was only determined later by an imagery analyst and that “the small signature is only visible for approximately one second before rounds impact” and only by “pausing this tape on a large debriefing screen and measuring shadow height.” Needless to say, this degree of review and inspection is impossible when bombing a dynamic target.

The report ultimately reaches the critical conclusion, “The NCV [Non-Combat Victims] = 0 objective was not met,” (bold included in original), but then fully redacts the details of the “three execution errors leading to this objective not being met.” The reader can only wonder what those errors were or what corrective steps were implemented to ensure that they were not made again. Interestingly, the identity of the sender of the April 2 email was never determined, and there was no further communication from her. Thus, no financial compensation was ever offered for her destroyed Kia Sorrento nor was any given to the families of the four civilians killed. Who knows if any of the Iraqis impacted by the civilian casualties became more sympathetic to the Islamic State or felt alienated by coalition airstrikes?

On Sunday, President Barack Obama was specifically asked about “expanding the rules of engagement versus [the Islamic State].” To which Obama replied: “If we’re not careful about it … then you can alienate the very populations that you need to win over, because ultimately those are the folks who are going to have to drive ISIL out, stomp it out all the way.” The president seems to understand the dangers of dynamic targeting and collateral damage — and yet the paucity of publicly released investigations or claims of such events belies that there’s a real, ongoing problem here. Let’s restate the facts: 8,300 airstrikes, 16,000 Islamic State targets destroyed, more than 20,000 Islamic State fighters killed — and only two claims of collateral damage. Either the U.S.-led coalition is really, really, really good at bombing these days, or they are shooting first and not asking questions later.

Photo credit: SAMEER AL-DOUMY/AFP/Getty Images

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.