The following is a rush translation of the article „Fortgesetzte Vertuschung – zivile Opfer im Luftkrieg der US-Allianz in Syrien und Irak„, which was published, slightly abridged, in Ossietzky 25/2016 from December, 17, 2016
When it comes to the military support of the Syrian government in Russia, Western politicians, media, and non-governmental organizations are fairly generous with the numbers of civilian casualties. 2,704 civilians were killed by Russian air force in the first year of their mission, they reported for example in August, referring to data provided from Syrian anti-government organizations. More civilians were killed by „Putin’s bombs” than by the „Islamic state“ (ISIS or arabic Daesh) were the headlines. [see e.g. Moscow ‘killing more civilians than Isis’ in Syria, Times, August 19, 2016] Concerning the victims of the air war of the US-led alliance in Syria and Iraq on the other hand, it is astonishingly quiet, even though statistics also point to hundreds, if not thousands, of civilian deaths.
However, the attacks of their airplanes and drones are successfully sold as surgical and absolutely precise, while Russian and Syrian fighters, according to the impression given by the media, are primarily targeting civilians. „A comparison of the reports on Mosul and East Aleppo tells us a lot about the propaganda we are consuming, „recently noted Patrick Cockburn, the renowned Middle East correspondent of the British Independent, too. (Patrick Cockburn, Compare the coverage of Mosul and East Aleppo and it tells you a lot about the propaganda we consume, Independent, Oct. 21, 2016
While the Russian General Staff claims that no civilians have been killed in any of the Russian attacks, the US Army is trying to defend itself more credibly against the growing accusations of civilian casualties by choosing the flight forward.
In early November, the US Central Command presented a list of 24 air raids in Iraq and Syria between November 2015 and September 2016, killing 64 civilians and wounding eight. It emphasizes how carefully all cases had been examined. Obviously, however, above all they struggled to admit only those cases they cannot deny anyway. [Iraq and Syria civilian casualty assessments, U.S. Central Command, Nov. 9, 2016]
In fact, other investigations lead to much higher estimates. The British initiative “Airwars.org”, which try to register the victims of the air raids by over a dozen countries in Syria and Iraq, estimated the number killed by November 6, 2016, by the US alliance (in the English speaking media mostly labeled „coalition“) to at least 1,787 to 2,647, almost half of them in Iraq.
Again, this is obviously only a fraction of the actual victims. The renowned project „Iraq Body Count“ (IBC), which since 2003 attempts to document the civilian victims of the war in Iraq, had at the end of 2015 already registered 2,312 civilian deaths by air attacks of the „coalition“ in Iraq alone. In 2016 it was at least as many or even more.
[Upd. Jan. 12, 2017: In 2016 IBC registered 2.039 civilian victims of the „coalition“. (Another year of relentless violence in Iraq: IBC’s 2016 analysis of civilian deaths, Iraq Body Count, Jan. 12, 2017)]
Airwars distinguishes by the recording of victims between „confirmed“, „fair“ (if relative sure), „weak“ (when reported by only one source), and „controversial“ (when there are denials). The initiative appears to be quite selective in the selection of its sources. For example, Russian and Iranian media reported US air raids on October 24 on a school building in the village of Tall Kayf, 14 kilometers north of Mosul, killing and injuring several people. [US Warplane Attacked School Near Iraqi Mosul, Casualties Reported, Sputnik News, 28.10.2016] Overall, over 60 civilians were killed 200 wounded during three days of US-led coalition airstrikes on residential areas, Russian General Staff informed the press. [60 civilians killed, 200 injured as US-led coalition strikes Mosul residential areas – Russian MoD, Russia Today, 25.10.2016] Although they would at least have to be registered as „weak“, these events are missing on Airwars.org.
As a number of studies have shown, by merely registering reported deaths, only a fraction of the victims can be detected in war zones. As the IPPNW „Body Count” study shows, the IBC counted only ten to twenty per cent of the war deaths in Iraq between 2003 and 2007. [see the chapter ’Body Count’ in Iraq” of the study „“Body Count — Casualty Figures after 10 Years of the ‘War on Terror’”“, IPPNW, September 2015]. The number of victims of the „coalition“ would therefore already be far more than 20,000.
The large number of attacks alone suggests a much higher number of civilian casualties than those mentioned by Airwars and IBC. From August 2014 to October 2016, the Alliance has flown a total of around 16,000 air raids, including over 10,000 in Iraq, and has dropped nearly 55,000 bombs. More than three-quarters of these attacks, 12,354, were flown by the US Air Force itself. [Florian Rötzer, Syrien/Irak: Wie viele Zivilisten wurden durch Luftschläge der US-geführten Koalition getötet?, Telepolis, 10.11.2016]
According to a Pentagon success story, 550 tanks and armored vehicles and 2050 hostile camps, 8,000 buildings, 2,600 oil infrastructure facilities and 10,000 „other“ (not immediate military) targets, were damaged or destroyed by the end of September. [Pentagon Homepage: Operation Inherent Resolve – Target Operations against ISIL Terrorist as of Nov. 12, 2016]
A rough estimate of how deadly these bombardments were, can be obtained by comparison with those which were flown by the US between 2005 and 2006 against the predecessor of the Daesh and occupying opponents. [Nick Turse, America’s Secret Air War in Iraq, Tomdispatch.com], as well as the figures for CAS („Close air support“) in the statistics of the US Air Force 2005-2010 on WIRED, Sept. 2010] In a similarly large number of air raids an estimated 50,000 people – civilians and combatants – were killed according to a representative study, published in the medical journal The Lancet in 2006. (see „Body Count in Iraq“ in IPPNW “Body Count“– a.a.O )
According to their commander-in-chief, Lieutenant General Sean MacFarland, the attacks of the „coalition“ killed 45,000 combatants associated to Daesh by mid-August. [Nearly 45,000 ISIS-linked fighters killed in past 2 years, FoxNews, 10.8.2016]
If one bases on the initial strength of the Daesh, which the CIA estimated at 30,000 men, the NATO jets alone have extinguished the jihadist troops one and a half times .
MacFarland admitted that the estimates of enemy killed and wounded were „squishy,“ or “difficult to nail down precisely,” since “ISIS fighters could grab a bunch of people minding their own business off the street, throw them in the back of a pickup truck and drop them off at a checkpoint with some AKs and say, ‚defend this checkpoint.'“. However, it is possible as well that the majority of the 45,000 killed were uninvolved civilians. Studies on the share of civilian casualties in the Iraq war and in the drones war show that, even with the use of highly praised precision weapons, only a small proportion of the killed were enemy fighters. As the human rights organization Reprieve determined, in the case of drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, 28 randomly present persons were murdered for each executed target person, including many children. The selection of the targets is based on quite vague knowledge by means of airborne surveillance and reconnaissance systems. [US drone strikes kill 28 unknown people for every intended target, new Reprieve report reveals, Reprieve, 25.11.2014] In the current missions in Syria and Iraq, US military personnel themselves admit that their analysts, who have to make the target selection by far-reaching reconnaissance, are frequently overburdened. [J. Guilliard, Gute Islamisten, schlechte Islamisten, junge Welt, 14.11.2016]
With few U.S. boots on the ground, there is a near-complete dependence on aerial intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions. Yet many analysts and even U.S. officials say that U.S. forces are stretched too thin to provide sufficient intelligence. … With so few intelligence-gathering assets to call on, it’s little wonder that a Pentagon spokesman recently described current civilian casualty assessments in the air war against the Islamic State as “inconclusive“.
(Chris Woods, Pentagon in Denial About Civilian Casualties of U.S. Airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, Foreign Policy, 3.12.2014)
Unlike in past wars, when U.S. troops on the ground helped provide targeting information and intelligence, commanders in the battle against Islamic State rely chiefly on airborne surveillance, captured communications chatter, signals intelligence and other material that is processed by analysts here.
U.S. officers said the video-watching analysts working half a world away are no match for spotters and other troops feeding intelligence from the front lines.
‘We don’t have anywhere near the level of intelligence we used to,“ Lt. Col. Marc Spinuzzi, a senior intelligence officer, wrote in an email from Baghdad. The analysts are under „a lot of pressure … to clearly distinguish friend from foe, and to pick out the enemy from the civilian population“ on the battlefield.
„Unless ISIS is actually flying a flag that says ‚ISIS‘ across the top of it, then it’s sometimes … difficult to tell … whether they’re combatants or not,“ said Gen. Herbert Carlisle, the head of Air Combat Command, which oversees nearly all U.S. warplanes.
(Air Force analysts in heat of battle, half a world from the front, Los Angeles Times, 5.1.2015)]
The division into combatants or civilians is generally one of the most notable weaknesses in the documentation of civilian victims of a conflict, since this would usually require an independent investigation on the ground. The attackers themselves usually count all those killed by themselves as fighters, the other side as a civilian victims. In Aleppo Western media like to believe the government’s enemies without critical evaluation, in Mosul equally uncritically, the US and Iraqi Army.
Since Airwars sources also include several opposition groups such as the London „Observatory for Human Rights“ and the „White Helms“ as its sources, it is not surprising that the initiative stated that Russia has killed more civilians than the „coalition“. They make the Russian Air Force responsible for 1,500 to 8,000 civilian death victims between September 2015 and October 2016. 3,382 victims were named in „local media“ and „social networks“. However, many victims were unclear whether they were killed by Russian or Syrian attacks, and in about 80 cases it could have been the „coalition“. [Florian Rötzer, a.a.O and Alleged civilian casualties from Russian airstrikes in Syria, Airwars.org, Stand 12.11.2016]
According to the Russian general staff, Russian combat aircraft have already flown more than 9,500 operations in the first seven months, destroying over 29,000 „terrorist targets“. [Russian Jets Destroy Over 29,000 Terrorist Targets in Syria Over 7 Months, Sputnik, 27.04.2016] Even if the Russian attacks are often carried out close to the front line in direct support of the Syrian army, and therefore with much greater certainty that actual military targets are met, a such a large number of attacks has caused likely thousands of civilians deaths, too.
Anyone who wants to prevent further deaths must work for an end to the war. Because, unlike the US-led alliance, the Syrian and Russian forces have hardly any alternatives, an end of their attacks is not an option if they do not want to leave large parts of Syria to islamist terror gangs and to allow a development like in Libya. One can only demand the utmost consideration of the civilian population as well as to intensify their efforts to provide local truce and safe corridors for the evacuation of civilians out of the fighting zones.
The US and the EU, on the other hand, could curb the war quickly by putting an end to any direct and indirect support for the jihadist militia, both, the own backing and the support for Turkey and the Arab monarchs. Instead of devastating Mossul in the course of a military „liberation“ by large-scale bombardments and ground forces, which are regarded by the Sunni inhabitants as enemies – just as Ramadi and Fallujah before – the US and its allies could fight and decisively weaken Daesh by isolating it locally and cut off its supply. They would have to close effectively the borders for their fighters and prevent the inflow of money, weapons, material. Finally they should push the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad to an understanding with the Sunnis, which in their majority still see the Daesh as the minor evil.