The Cable

U.N. Notes ‘Staggering’ Loss of Civilian Life Caused by U.S.-led Strikes in Syria

Relatedly, reports emerge of use of white phosphorous around civilians.


Air strikes by the U.S.-led coalition on Raqqa in northern Syria have killed at least 300 since March, United Nations investigators said.

“As the operation is gaining pace very rapidly, civilians are caught up in the city under the oppressive rule of ISIL, while facing extreme danger associated with movement due to excessive air strikes,” said Paulo Pinheiro, who leads the U.N. Commission of Inquiry, according to Reuters. Pinheiro called the loss of civilian life “staggering.”

Civilians haven’t just been killed — some 160,000 civilians have also had to leave their homes due to air strikes.

Separately but relatedly, it appears that U.S. forces are using white phosphorous in areas in Iraq and Syria — including Raqqa, a stronghold of Islamist extremists, but one still populated with civilians. White phosphorous is not technically banned as a chemical weapon, but can cause burns and start fires.

“No matter how white phosphorus is used, it poses a high risk of horrific and long-lasting harm in crowded cities like Raqqa and Mosul and any other areas with concentrations of civilians,” Human Rights Watch arms director Steve Goose said. “U.S.-led forces should take all feasible precautions to minimize civilian harm when using white phosphorus in Iraq and Syria.”

The apparent uptick in civilian casualties in U.S. counterterror operations in Iraq and Syria this year is fruit of a more aggressive approach to tackling the Islamic State and rooting it out of its last urban strongholds. In May, the Pentagon admitted a strike in March in Mosul killed 105 civilians.

Other outside forces engaging in Syria have also wrought hell on civilians. Russian airstrikes and support for Syrian regime forces, especially in the retaking of Aleppo, came with an appalling loss of life, including one attack on a U.N. aid convoy.

In Geneva at a forum, U.S. diplomat Jason Mack referenced neither Raqqa nor airstrikes, and said Syria is the “primary perpetrator” of human rights violations in the country.

Meanwhile, Syria’s diplomat at the U.N. at the Geneva forum, Hussam Edin Aaala, criticized acts “committed by the unlawful U.S.-led coalition which targets infrastructure, killing hundreds of civilians, including the deaths of 30 civilians in Deir al-Zor.”

The U.N. didn’t only have criticism for the U.S. coalition’s impact on civilians. Washington has also knocked heads together to get Kurdish fighters and Arab forces to work together to storm Raqqa; the Pentagon views the Kurds as the best fighters they have on the ground, even though Turkey is loath to let Kurdish forces take any more territory, even temporarily.

Pinheiro noted that the coalition’s support for Kurdish and Arab allied forces could well free civilians trapped behind Islamic State lines in Raqqa, including religious minority women and girls “whom the group has kept sexually enslaved for almost three years as part of an ongoing and unaddressed genocide.”

Photo credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin

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