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. 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 regime’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 regime 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.
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 regime 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 regime 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 “regime 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 regime preservation to regime 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.”