U.S.-led Airstrikes Have Allegedly Killed Over 850 Syrian Civilians. So Where Is the Outrage?

The U.S. apologizes for bombing unintended targets when it’s politically expedient—otherwise, it prefers to remain silent.

Charles Davis September 27, 2016

A man rides his motorcycle through the rubble-strewn streets of Manbij, a city in northern Syria that has been devastated by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes. (DELIL SOULEIMAN / AFP / Getty Images)

A local activist described it as a mas­sacre.” Men, women and chil­dren, Ahmad Moham­mad told The Dai­ly Beast, either burned to death or were buried alive inside their own homes as bomb­ings shook the com­mu­ni­ties in and around the vil­lage of Tokhar, near the town of Man­bij. The alleged death toll, as report­ed by var­i­ous human rights orga­ni­za­tions and on-the-ground activists, ranged from a few dozen to well over a hun­dred inno­cent civil­ians poten­tial­ly killed by U.S.-led airstrikes, rain­ing down on the area as part of an offen­sive by the Syr­i­an Demo­c­ra­t­ic Forces, a U.S.-backed alliance of Kur­dish and oth­er fight­ers, to take back Man­bij from the Islam­ic State. That was July 19, and the Unit­ed States has yet to pub­licly acknowl­edge the alleged deaths of these civil­ians, although the U.S. has con­firmed airstrikes in the region and has said it would inves­ti­gate the claims of casualties.

The U.S. is prioritizing its war on terror over non-government Syrian lives.

The U.S. was not done alleged­ly killing unin­tend­ed tar­gets in Syr­ia, how­ev­er. In Sep­tem­ber, the U.S. and its coali­tion part­ners car­ried out a series of airstrikes out­side of Deir Ezzor, a city near the Iraqi bor­der held in part by ISIS and in part by the Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment. Accord­ing to the Russ­ian mil­i­tary, the Bashar al-Assad régime’s pri­ma­ry ally, these strikes killed over 60 people.

But this lat­ter airstrike was dif­fer­ent: The dead were gov­ern­ment sol­diers, not civil­ians, and Russia’s reports of their deaths were imme­di­ate­ly met with apolo­gies at the high­est lev­el. While the Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment alleges the attack was inten­tion­al and sig­nals lack of Amer­i­can com­mit­ment to the war on ISIS, U.S. offi­cials main­tain they thought they were hit­ting ISIS tar­gets, and halt­ed the strikes as soon as Rus­sia informed them they were hit­ting gov­ern­ment forces.

We did it,” U.S. Sec­re­tary of State John Ker­ry said at a U.N. Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil meet­ing. A ter­ri­ble acci­dent. And with­in moments of it hap­pen­ing, we acknowl­edged it,” he not­ed. We apol­o­gized and we tried to find out how that happened.”

U.S. Air Force Col. John Thomas like­wise told reporters that, this inci­dent aside, We nev­er have struck régime tar­gets dur­ing this con­flict.” He added, We wouldn’t, we didn’t intend to at the time and we won’t in the future.” Accord­ing to a CNN cor­re­spon­dent, one U.S. offi­cial even said the U.S. would con­sid­er con­do­lence pay­ments to the fam­i­lies of killed Syr­i­an sol­diers, some­thing it has pre­vi­ous­ly offered rel­a­tives of those killed by its airstrikes in Afghanistan. (The U.S. Defense Depart­ment did not reply to request for comment.)

It’s a dif­fer­ent sto­ry for oth­er Syr­i­ans — includ­ing the unarmed men, women and chil­dren killed in their own homes.

Mas­sacres, plural

The July 19 strike was not an anom­aly, accord­ing the mon­i­tor­ing group Air­wars, which tracks for­eign gov­ern­ments’ airstrikes in Syr­ia. The U.S.-led coali­tion has car­ried out more than 5,300 airstrikes in Syr­ia since Sep­tem­ber 2014, like­ly killing at least 850 civil­ians, accord­ing to Air­wars, and poten­tial­ly over 1,200. But the Unit­ed States has admit­ted to killing just 33 civil­ians, Air­wars reports.

When asked about the Man­bij inci­dent, Neil Sam­monds, a researcher at Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al, replies, Which one?” There was a string of high-casu­al­ty events through­out sev­er­al weeks of U.S. air sup­port for the Syr­i­an Demo­c­ra­t­ic Forces’ cam­paign to lib­er­ate the city from ISIS. In the July 19 Tokhar inci­dent alone, Sam­monds says, it is like­ly 73-plus civil­ians were killed, based on all the evi­dence we have looked at, includ­ing a video clip of a grave.” Over­all, he says, over 200 civil­ians were like­ly killed in the Man­bij area.

ISIS fled the city in August 2016.

Accord­ing to Chris Woods, direc­tor of Air­wars, While the Coali­tion was able to admit its error with­in 24 hours after Assad’s troops were killed … (and offer com­pen­sa­tion as well), very dif­fer­ent rules appear to apply when civil­ians are affect­ed” — a dis­crep­an­cy Sam­monds calls curi­ous.”

The aver­age delay between a civil­ian being killed by the U.S.-led alliance and any pub­lic admis­sion is present­ly six months,” Woods tells In These Times. And to the best of our knowl­edge, no com­pen­sa­tion has been paid out to any affect­ed non-combatant.”

Sam­monds adds that in the vast major­i­ty of inci­dents [pub­lic admis­sion] does not come at all,” and that Amnesty will short­ly be rais­ing [con­cerns over civil­ian casu­al­ties] with U.S. officials.”

Not all Syr­i­ans are equal in the eyes of all the states that are now bomb­ing Syr­ia. As Col. Thomas’ com­ments sug­gest, gov­ern­ment sol­diers are strict­ly off lim­its when it comes to U.S.- and Rus­sia-led death from above, but Syr­i­an civil­ians are a dif­fer­ent mat­ter: Under the Oba­ma administration’s rules of engage­ment in the war against ISIS, there are sev­er­al tar­get­ing areas in which the prob­a­bil­i­ty” — not just the chance —“of 10 civil­ian casu­al­ties are per­mit­ted,” as USA Today revealed in April 2016.

No fam­i­lies of slain civil­ians have been com­pen­sat­ed. Under appro­pri­ate cir­cum­stances, com­mands may con­sid­er pro­vid­ing sola­tia pay­ment as expres­sions of sym­pa­thy to those injured or the fam­i­lies of the deceased,” U.S. Air Force Capt. Michele Rollins, a press offi­cer with U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand (CENT­COM), tells In These Times. These pay­ments are not intend­ed to serve as com­pen­sa­tion for the loss or injury. At this time, there have been no requests for sola­tia pay­ments in Syria.”

But has the U.S. actu­al­ly reached out to any rel­a­tives of those it has alleged­ly killed? The cur­rent envi­ron­ment in Syr­ia makes inves­ti­gat­ing these alle­ga­tions extreme­ly chal­leng­ing,” Rollins says. Tra­di­tion­al inves­tiga­tive meth­ods, such as inter­view­ing wit­ness­es and exam­in­ing the site, are not typ­i­cal­ly avail­able in Syr­ia. There­fore, we are unable to iden­ti­fy and locate fam­i­ly mem­bers in Syr­ia.” This is despite the fact that U.S. Spe­cial Oper­a­tions forces have been on the ground in Man­bij and oth­er parts of north­ern Syria.

Still, CENT­COM main­tains it is either inves­ti­gat­ing what hap­pened at Man­bij or has already done so. In accor­dance with our com­mit­ment to trans­paren­cy,” Rollins says, find­ings from that inves­ti­ga­tion will be released as soon as pos­si­ble.” Rollins also says the Sep­tem­ber 17 inci­dent out­side Deir Ezzor involv­ing Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment forces will be inves­ti­gat­ed,” though — unlike with Man­bij — the U.S. has already apologized.

Even Afghan civil­ians have it a lit­tle bet­ter: When the U.S. kills them or destroys their homes, it some­times offers com­pen­sa­tion — up to $2,500 for most cas­es, and up to $10,000 for oth­ers, accord­ing to ProP­ub­li­ca, meant to bring a com­pas­sion­ate face to the U.S. mil­i­tary.” Not much, but some­thing. Syr­i­an lives, appar­ent­ly, are not only worth less than Afghan lives, but less than dam­aged prop­er­ty. Win­ning hearts and minds” is not part of the U.S. strat­e­gy in the war against ISIS, premised on the notion that extrem­ism can sim­ply be bombed away. And while Air­wars reports that civil­ian deaths from U.S. airstrikes are sig­nif­i­cant­ly down since the cap­ture of Man­bij, with­out a fun­da­men­tal change in strat­e­gy the deaths of inno­cents will like­ly jump back up with the start of the next U.S.-backed offensive.

Civil­ians cast aside

Unlike Syr­i­ans in uni­form, Syr­i­an civil­ians do not have a pow­er­ful state advo­cate on their side. No gov­ern­ment, not even their own, cares to make an issue of Syr­i­ans killed by airstrikes in ter­ri­to­ry con­trolled by rebels or ISIS. The state-owned Syr­i­an Arab News Agency did not even note the reports of mass civil­ian casu­al­ties in Man­bij, the largest alleged inci­dent of U.S.-wrought col­lat­er­al dam­age” in Syr­ia to date.

Sad­ly, [Assad’s] Syr­i­an Army is backed up by Rus­sia and we are not backed up by any­one,” says a com­man­der with the anti-Assad Free Syr­i­an Army (FSA). Orig­i­nal­ly from Man­bij, the com­man­der request­ed anonymi­ty because he works with the U.S. in North­ern Syr­ia as part of the fight against ISIS and does not want to jeop­ar­dize that relationship.

He claims to have seen mass graves out­side Jarablus, a Syr­i­an town lib­er­at­ed from ISIS as part of a Turk­ish-backed offen­sive in August, con­tain­ing the vic­tims of U.S. airstrikes in the area. But he’s not seen any evi­dence the U.S. is seri­ous about get­ting to the bot­tom of what hap­pened in the July Man­bij bomb­ing. Despite a promised inves­ti­ga­tion, noth­ing has hap­pened,” he says, at least as far as he can see.

It seems like we are backed by the Amer­i­cans,” the com­man­der con­tin­ues, but we are not.”

The con­trast in reac­tion to civil­ian and sol­dier deaths is a sign of Oba­ma’s craven appease­ment of Rus­sia and Iran, and there­fore of Assad, and of his total lack of con­sid­er­a­tion for the inter­ests of the Syr­i­an peo­ple,” says Robin Yassin-Kassab, the British-Syr­i­an coau­thor of Burn­ing Coun­try, a book on Syria’s rev­o­lu­tion and the non-vio­lent rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies still seek­ing to keep its demo­c­ra­t­ic, non-sec­tar­i­an spir­it alive. It is remark­ably short-sight­ed in many ways,” he tells In These Times, not least because it boosts the anti-West­ern nar­ra­tive of the jihadists.”

That nar­ra­tive amounts to, essen­tial­ly, Who else you got?” To many Syr­i­ans, the Assad régime is unac­cept­able, and there is a grow­ing per­cep­tion that the U.S. is resigned to Assad remain­ing in pow­er. When the U.S. focus­es its ener­gies on extrem­ists per­ceived as a direct threat to the West, and only apol­o­gizes when gov­ern­ment sol­diers are killed, the jihadists’ nar­ra­tive becomes more com­pelling. Your lives, extrem­ists can say, are worth less to the U.S. than its war on terror.

The War on Ter­ror” makes for unlike­ly allies

The [Man­bij] inci­dent shows … the increas­ing align­ment of the U.S. and the Assad régime as they step up coop­er­a­tion for the War on Ter­ror,’ ” says Leila Al-Sha­mi, a British-Syr­i­an left­ist who coau­thored Burn­ing Coun­try. Any hopes Syr­i­ans once may have had for the U.S. being an ally in their strug­gle for free­dom, or [their] pro­tec­tor, have cer­tain­ly vanished.”

Loub­na Mrie, a Syr­i­an activist who was in Man­bij back in 2014, before ISIS kicked out the FSA, has come to the same con­clu­sion: that the U.S. is pri­or­i­tiz­ing its war on ter­ror over non-gov­ern­ment Syr­i­an lives. Rus­sians have been tar­get­ing U.S. allies for the last year and the Amer­i­cans aren’t doing any­thing about it,” she says. In June, for instance, Russ­ian clus­ter bombs were dropped on the New Syr­i­an Army, a small U.S.-backed group that exclu­sive­ly fights ISIS in Syria’s east­ern desert. Rus­sia has killed rough­ly twice as many civil­ians as the U.S. in half the time, accord­ing to Air­wars.

The U.S. response to all this has been to pur­sue a joint bomb­ing agree­ment with Rus­sia: Ear­li­er in Sep­tem­ber, the two states pro­posed a (now unrav­el­ing) plan that would have lim­it­ed Assad’s air force in cer­tain oppo­si­tion areas but then pur­sued joint airstrikes against ISIS and for­mer al-Qae­da affil­i­ate Jab­hat Fateh al-Sham.

They care about their rela­tion­ships with the Rus­sians and the Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment,” Mrie argues. The pub­lic rhetoric of top U.S. offi­cials may be bleed­ing-heart lib­er­al inter­ven­tion­ist, ever-so-con­cerned with the plight of bombed and besieged Syr­i­ans — and thus, to many on the Left, it reeks of the régime change” strat­e­gy put to such ill effect in Iraq and else­where. But the actu­al pol­i­cy appears to be shaped by cold-heart­ed real­ists who have long pre­ferred régime preser­va­tion to régime change — strong­men and spheres of influ­ence to the desta­bi­liza­tion wrought by rev­o­lu­tions and democ­ra­cy. Hence apolo­gies for bomb­ing sol­diers but silence for the rest of the country.

One can debate the Unit­ed States’ goals and tac­tics in Syr­ia, but many Syr­i­ans them­selves are con­vinced of at least one thing: Amer­i­cans,” Mrie says, don’t care about civilians.”

Charles Davis is a jour­nal­ist pub­lished by out­lets such as Al Jazeera, The Inter­cept, The Nation and The New Repub­lic. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @charliearchy.
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