WASHINGTON (March 28, 2017) — Hundreds of alleged civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria from US and coalition airstrikes over the last month suggest a disturbing trend that requires immediate corrective action by coalition partners. The most recent allegation from Mosul, Iraq, if confirmed, could be the single largest loss of civilian life from US military operations since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and it demands accountability and decisive action to prevent similar incidents in the future.

Too many incidents, too often, in too many theaters of operation suggest a tragic and costly pattern. A January raid in Yemen allegedly left up to 25 civilians and a Navy SEAL dead. On March 21, a US airstrike hit a school in Raqqa, with claims of at least 30 civilian men, women, and children killed. An attack near a mosque in Aleppo is reported to have killed dozens. And now Mosul.

Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) believes there is a clear and urgent need to issue new tactical orders to supplement rules of engagement (ROEs) that state that protection of civilians is mission critical as it signifies commanders’ intent to guide forces on the use of force. ISAF commanders in Afghanistan repeatedly emphasized this and it worked. Civilian casualties from ISAF began to fall from 2010. CIVIC also calls on the Department of Defense to commission an independent study on US air operations in Iraq and Syria along the lines of the Joint Civilian Casualties Study which was instrumental in identifying ways to better protect civilians in Afghanistan.

It is deeply disappointing to outside observers and advocates like CIVIC that those applicable lessons learned on targeting and intelligence vetting that informed prior efforts to mitigate civilian harm appear to have been weakened in recent months. Iraqi, Syrian, and Yemeni civilians have paid the price for that.

According to data compiled by Airwars.org, which tracks coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, the number of strikes had been decreasing since June 2016. In January and February of 2017, there was a sharp uptick in the number of airstrikes. An accelerated pace of operations means less time and effort for avoiding civilian casualties. That can, in turn, diminish local and international support and undermine the campaign objective of protecting civilians from ISIS.

Credible media reports say Iraqi forces have admitted to calling in the Mosul airstrike, raising questions as to the quality of intelligence informing coalition allies on the ground. The Pentagon has opened an investigation into the incident. CIVIC calls for this investigation to proceed transparently and swiftly, and those who erred should be held accountable.

Most troublingly, the US has denied that ROEs and target determinations have changed, but the approval process for airstrikes has been moved further down the command chain resulting in more close air support (as in Mosul), and airstrikes of opportunity. This means the likelihood of civilian harm is increased.

The US has often publicly said it cares about civilians’ well-being, but actions must back up the rhetoric. The US should publicly commit to making the protection of civilians in conflict the priority—groups like Islamic State will never be defeated if it doesn’t.

As part of that commitment, CIVIC is calling on the US to:

  • Commission an independent study on US air operations in Iraq and Syria, along the lines of the Joint Civilian Casualties Study in Afghanistan.
  • Ensure every ground commander, whether US or allied, understands that protecting civilians is the priority mission.
  • Issue a public commitment from the White House to spare no effort to prevent civilian casualties and to make amends (acknowledgment and condolence payments) to civilians harmed.
  • Increase verification and vetting of targeting intelligence from ground allies, such as the Iraqi Security Forces or the Syrian Democratic Forces.
  • Hold accountable those found responsible/negligent in mass casualty incidents, whether US or allied.

Some have said the US must be ruthless in defeating an enemy like the Islamic State. If this means depriving the civilians caught in the midst of these conflict of the protection they are entitled to and deserve, CIVIC and international humanitarian law disagree. The brutality and cruelty of the Islamic State do not absolve the US and its allies of responsibility to care for civilians; indeed, the coalition’s duty to harm as few civilians as possible is even greater because of it.


Notes to editors:
Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC)’s mission is to improve protection for civilians caught in conflicts around the world. We call on and advise international organizations, governments, militaries, and armed non-state actors to adopt and implement policies to prevent civilian harm. When civilians are harmed we advocate for the provision of amends and post-harm assistance. We bring the voices of civilians themselves to those making decisions affecting their lives.

For more information, contact Christopher Allbritton at +1 (917) 310-4785 or chris@civiliansinconflict.org.