Washington (Sept. 25, 2014)—As the United States undertakes a more robust role in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) is concerned about the potential for considerable civilian harm. It is imperative that planning for military operations and the training and equipping of Syrian rebel groups include practical measures to minimize civilian harm.
“In attacks against ISIS, it’s vital that the U.S. apply the lessons already learned in Iraq and Afghanistan about avoiding harm to civilians, and responding effectively when harm does occur,” said Marla Keenan, managing director of CIVIC. “Avoiding harm to civilians, and having policies for meaningful responses to causalities, are absolutely critical to any military success,” Keenan said. “Making civilian protection a priority is as important a part of a strategy as the choice of military targets. If civilians are not protected, and if harm to them is not promptly recognized, any military success can be quickly undone.”
Some air and naval operations are directing fire at populated areas. While US officials have spoken about the need to avoid civilian casualties, it is mission critical to ensure policies and practices are in place to assess the impact of all operations on civilians.
Practical tools, tactical guidance, and assessments on civilian casualties undertaken by the US and international forces in Afghanistan are instructive on how military operations in Syria and Iraq should be conducted to ensure civilian harm is minimized. Specifically, the US should:
- Ensure intelligence feeding into targeting decisions is sufficiently vetted and includes information on civilians in proximity to improve accuracy;
- Perform rigorous collateral damage estimates (CDEs) before strikes and battle damage assessments (BDAs) afterwards;
- Create a ‘Civilian Casualty Tracking Cell’—a database and staff focused on aggregating and analyzing the information from CDEs and BDAs to provide information on if and how civilians are being harmed so commanders can adjust tactics and techniques to better avoid civilian harm; and,
- Create the capacity to appropriately respond to any alleged civilian harm including investigations and the making of appropriate amends to victims.
Training & Equipping
US plans to train and equip vetted Syrian armed groups should include not only international humanitarian and human rights law training but also practical scenario based trainings on ways to mitigate civilian harm during operations. Failing to do this while injecting more weapons and ammunition into the conflict could mean armed groups trained by the US create more harm than good for civilians.
The US identified vital lessons in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya about civilian harm, and developed new tools, policies, and trainings to reduce and address civilian harm. These lessons identified must now be adjusted for the context and incorporated in all phases of US bombing and training in order to minimize civilian harm and maintain the legitimacy of the efforts of US and coalition partners.