US: Our collateral damage policies don't apply to Syria, Iraq air strikes

When reports of civilian casualties began coming from US and coalition attacks in Syria and Iraq, the Obama administration first insisted that the reports were inaccurate. The US normally has very restrictive rules of engagement on air strikes, especially from drones, in which the military had to have a “near certainty” of no potential civilian casualties in order to carry out a strike. That policy, announced by Barack Obama himself in 2013, came in response to international criticism over civilian deaths caused by the American drone missions against war-on-terror targets, especially in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen.

The White House still insists that the reports of widespread civilian deaths from airstrikes in Syria are inaccurate, but as Michael Isikoff reported yesterday for Yahoo News, the Obama administration also considers them irrelevant:

The White House has acknowledged for the first time that strict standards President Obama imposed last year to prevent civilian deaths from U.S. drone strikes will not apply to U.S. military operations in Syria and Iraq.

A White House statement to Yahoo News confirming the looser policy came in response to questions about reports that as many as a dozen civilians, including women and young children, were killed when a Tomahawk missile struck the village of Kafr Daryan in Syria’s Idlib province on the morning of Sept. 23. …

Asked about the strike at Kafr Daryan, a U.S. Central Command spokesman said Tuesday thatU.S. military “did target a Khorasan group compound near this location. However, we have seen no evidence at this time to corroborate claims of civilian casualties.” But Caitlin Hayden, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, told Yahoo News that Pentagon officials “take all credible allegations seriously and will investigate” the reports.

At the same time, however, Hayden said that a much-publicized White House policy that President Obama announced last year barring U.S. drone strikes unless there is a “near certainty” there will be no civilian casualties — “the highest standard we can meet,” he said at the time — does not cover the current U.S. airstrikes in Syria and Iraq.

The “near certainty” standard was intended to apply “only when we take direct action ‘outside areas of active hostilities,’ as we noted at the time,” Hayden said in an email. “That description — outside areas of active hostilities — simply does not fit what we are seeing on the ground in Iraq and Syria right now.” 

That does make some sense, at least as it relates to putative allies like Pakistan and Yemen. We are not at war with either country, but are targeting identified terrorist targets hiding among civilians in order to dismantle their networks. How well that works is another debate, but one can see why a higher standard gets applied in those situations rather than the situation with ISIS, which holds significant ground and has established hardened targets within their territory. On the other hand, we’re not at war with Syria either, or even with ISIS, according to Obama, even though we’re conducting continuous sorties along with our coalition allies in both Syria and Iraq against ISIS.

There’s a strong whiff of hypocrisy about this new standard for collateral damage, Jeff Dunetz argues:

During Israel’s operation in Gaza Barack Obama continually blasted Israel for the civilian casualties despite the fact that Israel went out of its way to avoid hitting civilians and Hamas used its civilians as human shields. Today the White House acknowledged the strict standards President Obama imposed last year to prevent civilian deaths from U.S. drone strikes will not apply to U.S. military operations in Syria and Iraq. In other words he ripped Israel though it was doing everything it could, but Obama told the American military that civilians deaths were not that important. …

The laws of armed conflict prohibit the deliberate targeting of civilian areas and require armed forces to take precautions to prevent inadvertent civilian deaths as much as possible. It also prohibits the use of human shields.

While the White House has said little about the standards it is using for strikes in Syria and Iraq it said plenty about Israel’s actions despite all the precautions taken by the Jewish State.  Do what I say not what I do is a great policy for a President who says he is Israel’s friend.

Jennifer Rubin agrees:

I trust the Israelis will not lecture the administration that “there is always more to do” to avoid civilian casualties, nor will the Israeli government proclaim itself  “appalled” and civilian deaths “totally unacceptable and totally indefensible” when it comes to fighting the Islamic State. The United States spoke in such terms to Israel during the Gaza War, but now has encountered the realities of war. And it turns out there is not always more to do.

She also advances an argument I have made all along:

The Obama administration has been roundly criticized for pursuing an air campaign that cannot possibly destroy the Islamic State. If that is a strategy with limited efficacy, what is the moral argument for continuing to employ it when civilian casualties result? It is one thing when a strategy is well-designed to achieve a specific military objective (e.g. destroying Gaza terrorists’ tunnels and rockets), but quite another when it is not. Imagine if Israel had conducted bombing raid after bombing raid resulting in civilian casualties rather than send in ground troops at great risk to them in order to strike with precision. I’m sure the Obama administration would have been appalled.

Don’t forget that the Gaza war started (as it always does) with Hamas launching hundreds of rocket attacks on Israeli civilians, almost all of which originated among Palestinian civilian neighborhoods. The attacks on that artillery and the Hamas terrorists operating them had the same precision intent as the current US campaign against ISIS, an intent which the Obama administration ignored in order to climb on a high horse and lecture Israel about collateral damage. ISIS hasn’t launched any attacks on American targets (yet), but just the mere potential apparently allows Obama to jettison the same standard he applied to Israel while our ally was under direct and continuous attacks that qualify as war crimes in any sense of the word — from an Islamist terror network not dissimilar at all to ISIS.

Jennifer’s second point is worth exploring, too. The decision not to put a force of ground troops to push ISIS off its ground guarantees that we will create collateral damage like this for months and years to come. If the mission is to “degrade and destroy ISIS” while they remain embedded in these cities and towns, there is no other possible outcome than massive civilian casualties. ISIS will not withdraw under air attack to the desert where they can get bombed and strafed into oblivion, after all, and without ground forces, we won’t have the means to hold any ground we might liberate anyway. Nor will we have the specific intelligence needed to avoid mistakes that happen in any war.

In other words, the White House has no choice now but to dispense with its restrictive rules of engagement in Iraq and Syria. But maybe in the future, the Obama administration will remember that when it comes to our other allies in the region — especially the one that fights Islamist terror groups rather than funds them.