As part of our expanded online presence and making our work more accessible, Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) will be posting occasional updates to our various programs. Our US program is helmed by Senior Advisor, Daniel R. Mahanty. We hope you find it useful as a snapshot of our work around the world to protect civilians trapped in conflict.
OPERATION INHERENT RESOLVE
Syria: The final assault was expected to begin on Sunday night to recapture Raqqa from an estimated 300 Islamic State fighters who have been restricted to a small, encircled area in the center of Raqqa. IS fighters are using sniper fire, booby traps, and an extensive tunnel network to slow the SDF advance. Approximately 8,000 civilians, along with militants’ family members, are trapped among them. Living conditions in the city are very difficult – there are critical shortages of food; only one bakery remains in the city; there are no functioning markets; health services are no longer available; medicine has run out, and wounds are now being sanitized with salt water; there are shortages of water; and there are only two hours of electricity per day. The infrastructure in Raqqa is completely destroyed; there is not a single service functioning – water, electricity networks; bodies of civilians and militants still lay under the rubble.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that eighteen civilians, including women and children, were killed on October 4 when Coalition airstrikes targeted water wells on the outskirts of northern Raqqa as a group of civilians gathered to fill water; since the beginning of September, there have been extreme shortages of potable water in the city due to the bombing and destruction of infrastructure.
September was deadliest month of 2017 for civilians in Syria, as more than 995 civilians were killed across the country. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that seventy percent of the civilian deaths were caused by Coalition, Russian, or Syrian government airstrikes. The Syrian Network for Human Rights documented 104 civilian deaths resulting from Coalition airstrikes.
October 10: CSIS – Illusions of Victory: The Anbar Awakening of the Rise of the Islamic State
October 10: Brookings – The Path Forward for Dealing with North Korea
October 18: USIP – How to Deal with Pakistan?
October 25: CFR – Documentary Screening and Discussion of ‘Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and Rise of ISIS’
Bureau of Investigative Journalism (Total Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen)
Civilians Killed: 753 – 1,488
Children Killed: 262 – 331
Total Killed: 6,826 – 9,930
Minimum Confirmed Strikes: 4,413
Airwars (Total Iraq and Syria)
Minimum Civilians Killed: 5.486
Coalition Strikes: 27, 796
Bombs & Missiles Dropped: 102,082
Iraq: On October 5, Prime Minister al-Abadi announced the liberation of Hawija after more than 1,000 IS fighters surrendered, though pockets of fighting remain. Before the end of operations, the UN estimated that 12,500 people fled Hawija in recent weeks, while as many as 78,000 civilians remained. Those who fled Hawija have said that humanitarian conditions are very difficult – there is no access to healthcare and medicines are exorbitantly prices; there is a lack of potable water; malnutrition is reportedly widespread as food supplies are scarce; schools are not functioning; and livelihood opportunities are minimal.
With the loss of Hawija, the Islamic State now controls only a string of small towns and the city of Qaim in western Anbar, where Iraqi forces, supported by U.S. airstrikes, launched a ground offensive on September 19; Iraqi forces have thus far recaptured Ana, Rayhanah, and Akashat. The UN estimates that as many as 75,000 people remain in Islamic State-controlled areas of Anbar and that more than 54,000 people have fled western Anbar since January, particularly from Ana, al-Qaim, and Rawa. The IOM said that 8,500 have been displaced in western Anbar in the past two weeks; the UNHCR expects an additional 50,000 people to be displaced in the coming months due to military operations. Escaping western Anbar remains perilous. Families pay smugglers between U.S. $300-450, and most of the journey is through Islamic State territory. Those who cannot pay smugglers are forced to walk long distances, often for several days, in intense heat to reach mustering points; they are arriving dehydrated and malnourished, requiring psychological support and medical care.
MOST RECENT OIR CIVCAS REPORT (September 29): In the month of August, CJTF-OIR carried over 455 open reports of possible civilian casualties from previous months and received 80 new reports resulting from Coalition strikes (artillery or air) in support of partner force operations to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria. During this period, the Coalition completed the assessment of 185 reports: 168 were assessed to be non-credible, three were assessed to be duplicates of previous reports, and 14 were assessed to be credible, resulting in 50 unintentional civilian deaths. To date, based on information available, CJTF-OIR assesses at least 735 civilians have been unintentionally killed by Coalition strikes since the start of Operation Inherent Resolve. A total of 350 reports are still open and being assessed at the end of the month.
The UNHCR also warned that when military operations begin in Hawija, an estimated 60,000 civilians will be affected – between half and two-thirds are expected to flee to displacement camps. The Islamic State is reportedly attempting to force civilians to remain in the city, to be used as human shields. The Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights called for the establishment of safety corridors to facilitate the escape of civilians.
Congress Deliberates Afghanistan Policy: U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis appeared before Congress last Tuesday alongside Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford to testify on American military posture in Afghanistan. In two hearings held before the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, Mattis revealed new rules of engagement (ROEs) that do away with the requirement that air strikes must be conducted against targets proximate to U.S. or advised Afghan forces.
In his testimony, Mattis stated: “[S]pecifically, we are no longer bound by the need for proximity to our forces. … At the same time, we do not want this to be misinterpreted into a laissez-faire use of fire support when we’re fighting wars where the enemy intentionally hides among innocents. It is still very much aligned with our effort to do everything humanly possible to prevent the death or injury of innocent people, women and children, villages, this sort of thing.”
Geoffrey Corn, former senior law of war advisor for the U.S. army, suggests that this change may have been made in the interest of protecting civilians, though he emphasizes the need to double down on commitments to precautionary measures. Corn suspects that the “more restrictive ROE may in some cases produce the perverse effect of increasing civilian risk by allowing the enemy to operate beyond the ‘proximity’ range with impunity.” By using target identification as the new decisive criterion for ordering strikes, Mattis leaves the obligation to distinguish between combatants and civilians under the rules of armed conflict untouched.
Despite this testimony, members of the Senate are expressing frustration with the White House’s poor communication concerning strategy in Afghanistan, leading Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) to place a hold on any Pentagon nominees until the quality of briefings improves. These concerns are in response to President Trump’s unusually vague strategy announcement and the subsequent lack of clarity from the Department of Defense on the number of troops in and en-route to Afghanistan. Despite their concerns, many Republican Senators have expressed continuing support for the war in Afghanistan; Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker admitted in an NBC interview that he expects the United States to continue having troop presence in Afghanistan for at least the next decade. Senator Corker recently announced plans to retire from his position in the Senate in 2018.
On the Congressional Agenda:
- Wednesday, October 11 – House Foreign Affairs Committee – The State Department and USAID FY 2018 Africa Budget
- Wednesday, October 11 – House Foreign Affairs Committee – U.S. Policy Toward Lebanon
- Wednesday, October 11 – House Foreign Affairs Committee – Confronting the Full Range of Iranian Threats
DRONE WARFARE AND TARGETED KILLINGS
Afghanistan: On September 29, a U.S. drone strike in Nangarhar killed at least fifteen IS-K fighters.
In Afghanistan, the U.S. dropped more bombs and missiles in September than in any other month for nearly seven years; already in 2017, the U.S. has carried out more airstrikes than during 2015 and 2016 combined. U.S. forces launched 751 weapons last month – the highest of any month since November 2010.
Yemen: On October 5, a possible U.S. drone strike killed two AQAP militants in Bayda province, including a commander in the province. On October 8, a U.S. drone strike in Marib province killed five AQAP militants.
Revision of PPG: At Just Security, Daphne Eviatar addresses the Trump administration’s potential changes to the rules for drone operations outside of conventional battlefields. She writes that President Obama’s PPG was created to address when the U.S. could use lethal force outside of active conflicts, because the more permissive international humanitarian law does not apply to these situations. However, the PPG failed to clearly acknowledge that the more restrictive international human rights law does apply and permits killing only to protect against an imminent threat to life. The Trump administration’s policy guidance would eliminate the “imminence” requirement, allowing U.S. forces to expand targets to include “foot soldier jihadists.” She argues that this “would give license to target individuals that international law considers civilians.”
Ryan Goodman writes at Just Security that the laws of war apply to areas outside of active hostilities, thus there is no requirement that enemy forces present an imminent threat before they may be targeted. Goodman argues that the laws of war do apply to these situations because the United States position “is that it is in an armed conflict with organized armed groups in the territories of relevant countries.” “Areas outside of active hostilities” is not a term of international law, so even when President Obama decided to label zones as such, the legal framework does not completely transfer to international human rights law. Goodman also argues that international humanitarian law applies to spillover conflicts and thus can be extended to neighboring and adjacent states.
SECURITY ASSISTANCE AND ARMS SALES
Australia: The State Department cleared the potential $815 million sale to Australia of weapons to augment the future procurement of seventy-two F-35A joint strike fighters. The deal would include up to 3,900 GBU-53/B Small Diameter Bomb Increment II, up to 30 GBU-53/B Guided Test Vehicles, and up to 60 GBU-54 Captive Carry Reliability Trainers.
Saudi Arabia: The State Department approved the possible $15 billion sale to Saudi Arabia of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile defense system. Saudi Arabia had requested 44 THAAD launchers and 360 missiles. The sale may go ahead if Congress does not object within thirty days.
WHAT WE’RE READING:
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism: There is a lack of accountability in the war in Afghanistan, for which civilians bear the brunt. For many families, no party to the conflict has taken responsibility for the deaths of their loved ones, yet finding out who is responsible for civilian casualties is important – for attaining justice, but also for forces who want to learn lessons in order to avoid future civilian harm. Yet it is hard to investigate civilian casualty allegations from airstrikes with a small force in the country and limited or no access to the scene of strikes.