Civilian casualties from the U.S.-led war against the so-called Islamic State are on pace to double under President Donald Trump, according to an Airwars investigation for The Daily Beast.
Airwars researchers estimate that at least 2,300 civilians likely died from Coalition strikes overseen by the Obama White House—roughly 80 each month in Iraq and Syria. As of July 13, more than 2,200 additional civilians appear to have been killed by Coalition raids since Trump was inaugurated—upwards of 360 per month, or 12 or more civilians killed for every single day of his administration.
The Coalition’s own confirmed casualty numbers—while much lower than other estimates—also show the same trend. Forty percent of the 603 civilians so far admitted killed by the alliance died in just the first four months of Trump’s presidency, the Coalition’s own data show.
The high civilian toll in part reflects the brutal final stages of the war, with the densely populated cities of Mosul and Raqqa under heavy assault by air and land. But there are also indications that under President Trump, protections for civilians on the battlefield may have been lessened—with immediate and disastrous results. Coalition officials insist they have taken great care to avoid civilian deaths, blaming the rise instead on the shifting geography of battles in both Iraq and Syria and Islamic State tactics, and not on a change in strategy.
Whatever the explanation, more civilians are dying. Airwars estimates that the minimum approximate number of civilian deaths from Coalition attacks will have doubled under Trump’s leadership within his first six months in office. Britain, France, Australia, and Belgium all remain active within the campaign, though unlike the U.S. they each deny civilian casualties.
In one well-publicized incident in Mosul, the U.S. admits it was responsible for killing more than 100 civilians in a single strike during March. But hundreds more have died from Coalition attacks in the chaos of fighting there.
“Remarkably, when I interview families at camps who have just fled the fighting, the first thing they complain about is not the three horrific years they spent under ISIS, or the last months of no food or clean water, but the American airstrikes,” said Belkis Wille, Iraq researcher for Human Rights Watch. “Many told me that they survived such hardship, and almost made it out with the families, only to lose all their loved ones in a strike before they had time to flee.”
Across the border in Raqqa, where the U.S. carries out nearly all the Coalition's airstrikes and has deployed artillery, the civilian toll is less publicly known but even more startling. In the three months before American-backed forces breached the city’s limits in early June, Airwars tracked more than 700 likely civilian deaths in the vicinity of the self-declared ISIS capital. UN figures suggest a similar toll.
A number of factors appear responsible for the steep recent rise in civilian deaths—some policy-related, others reflecting a changing battlespace as the war enters its toughest phase. In one of his first moves as president, Trump ordered a new counter-ISIS plan be drawn up. Second on his list of requests were recommended “changes to any United States rules of engagement and other United States policy restrictions that exceed the requirements of international law regarding the use of force against ISIS.”
In short, Trump was demanding that the Pentagon take a fresh look at protections for civilians on the battlefield except those specifically required by international law. That represented a major shift from decades of U.S. military doctrine, which has generally made central the protection of civilians in war.
On Feb. 27, Secretary of Defense James Mattis delivered the new war plan to Trump.
“Two significant changes resulted from President Trump’s reviews of our findings,” Mattis later said at a May 19 meeting of the anti-ISIS Coalition. “First, he delegated authority to the right level to aggressively and in a timely manner move against enemy vulnerabilities. Second, he directed a tactical shift from shoving ISIS out of safe locations in an attrition fight to surrounding the enemy in their strongholds so we can annihilate ISIS.”
Though the U.S. military had shifted to such annihilation tactics—a change cited with glee by the Trump White House—Mattis claimed there have been no updates to U.S. rules of engagement. “There has been no change to our continued extraordinary efforts to avoid innocent civilian casualties,” he told reporters.
When Airwars asked the Department of Defense whether, once implemented, the new plan was expected to lead to more civilian casualties, officials did not answer the question and only pointed to Mattis’ remarks.
Yet beginning in March 2017—the month after Mattis handed over the new plan—Airwars began tracking a sharp rise in reported civilian fatalities from U.S.-led strikes against ISIS. In part this was due to the savagery of the battle for Mosul. But in Syria—where almost all strikes are American—likely civilian fatalities monitored by Airwars researchers increased five-fold even before the assault on Raqqa began.
Local monitors including the Syrian Network for Human Rights, Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights have also reported record Coalition civilian deaths in recent months.
Airwars itself tracks local Iraqi and Syrian media and social media sources for civilian casualty allegations, then makes a provisional assessment of how many were killed. The Coalition’s own casualty monitoring officials recently described Airwars as “kind of part of the team” when it comes to better understanding the civilian toll. However the U.S.-led alliance has also contested many of the allegations tracked by Airwars, and its researchers are currently engaging with the Coalition to assess these incidents.
Despite disagreements over estimates, all parties agree that casualty numbers are steeply up. There is less agreement on why. Ned Price, spokesman for the National Security Council under the Obama administration, says recent reports strongly suggest the kind of change in rules that Mattis is denying.
“There is a tremendous disconnect between what we’ve heard from senior military officials who are saying there has been no change in the rules of engagement and clearly what we are seeing on the ground,” he said in an interview.
Nevertheless, the Obama administration had reportedly already become more tolerant of civilian casualties toward the end of the president’s second term. Authorization procedures for anti-ISIS strikes were loosened prior to Trump taking office, amid high attrition among Iraqi ground forces as they battled to capture East Mosul.
“The rise in allegations is attributable to the change in location of Iraqi operations against ISIS, not strategy,” said Coalition spokesperson Col. Joe Scrocca. “East Mosul was much less populated than west Mosul and the infrastructure is more modern and more dispersed. The month of March saw the start of ISF operations in the much more densely packed west Mosul. West Mosul has many more people, is much more densely populated, and the infrastructure is much older and more tightly packed.
“In regard to Syria, where previous to March, the SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces] was predominantly operating in sparsely populated terrain, strikes increases is attributed to Coalition support to SDF operations to liberate Tabqah and isolate Raqqah,” he added.
In Syria, there are a number of other potential factors at play. The U.S. has deployed its own troops on the ground to advise and call in airstrikes for the SDF, and fire artillery into ISIS controlled areas. Protecting those forces will now be a priority for U.S. airstrikes—though may place any nearby civilians at greater risk of harm. Local monitors say the SDF’s own spotty track record of accuracy in their strike requests over the past several years has also been magnified by the stepped up pace of the campaign in and around Raqqa.
“I think it’s not helpful to get into an argument about whether the ROE [Rules of Engagement] have or have not been changed,” said Andrea Prasow, deputy Washington director at Human Rights Watch. “The bottom line is more civilians are dying. Whatever the reason, that should concern the U.S. greatly.”
At the State Department, Larry Lewis—in January still its top official dedicated to civilian casualties—felt the implications of Trump’s request to the military were clear. “If we are losing opportunities to hit ISIS because we are nervous about civilian casualties, if it is not required by law—then we are saying really look at it hard,” he told Airwars in an interview, explaining the new messaging. “To me that is a striking contrast with the past administration.”
For Lewis— who was the lead analyst for the Joint Civilian Casualty Study, which inspected ways that U.S. forces could reduce civilian casualties in Afghanistan—the new administration is making a wrongheaded assumption.
“There is this misnomer that mission success is inversely proportional to reducing civilian casualties,” said Lewis. “That’s not what the data said.”
When his position was not renewed by the Trump State Department, Lewis left in late April.
“We have spent a long time advancing the idea that preventing civilian casualties is not only a moral imperative, it’s also an operational one,” said another former State Department official who recently worked on civilian casualties. “These lessons come directly from our military’s counterinsurgency experiences in Afghanistan and are endorsed by members of our military at some of the highest levels. But so far we haven’t seen or heard anything that shows President Trump understands that.”
“I’m Going to Lose My Sh*t”
By most accounts, the Obama administration became increasingly focused on reducing civilian casualties from U.S. actions—both on and off the conventional battlefield. In July 2016, Obama issued a new executive order, one which Lewis helped draft, that codified procedures for limiting civilian casualties in war, and put in place interagency reviews and annual reporting. (A former State Department official confirmed that interagency consultations on civilian casualty trends are no longer taking place under the Trump administration.)
Early in the campaign against ISIS, tolerance for civilian casualties outside of dynamic attacks was minimal, said Col. Scott “Dutch” Murray, who served as the director of Intelligence for Air Forces Central Command. Murray led all deliberate targeting against ISIS in Iraq and Syria until 2015.
“The default answer was zero civilian casualties for all deliberate strikes,” he said.
Civilian casualties nevertheless grew as the campaign wore on under Obama. The U.S.-led Coalition continued to drop thousands of bombs targeting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, killing more than 2,300 civilians in airstrikes under Obama according to Airwars estimates. Still, there was a sense among some in the military that they had been shackled, and were being prevented from pursuing ISIS with heavier firepower.
“I was one of those people—some days it was like if I see another article about ISIS folks going around the Corniche in Raqqa and the U.S. does nothing, I’m going to lose my sh*t,” said a former senior counterterrorism official who served in the region under the second Bush administration and Obama. “I think Trump wanted to give the military what they wanted, and I think the military got it.”
Deaths Up 400%
As conflicts intensify, it can be difficult to assign culpability for all strikes—especially in Mosul, where deaths are blamed variously on the Coalition, Iraqi forces, or ISIS.
But in March alone, Airwars could still estimate that the number of civilian deaths likely tied to the Coalition in both Iraq and Syria rose by more than 400 percent. The month after Mattis delivered the new plan, U.S.-led forces likely killed more civilians than in the first 12 months of Coalition strikes—combined.
The deadliest incident so far admitted by the Coalition in either country took place on March 17 in the al Jadida neighborhood of Mosul. According to U.S. investigators, at least 105 civilians were killed when an American jet dropped a 500-pound bomb on a building where they sheltered. The U.S. said its forces aimed for two ISIS fighters on the roof, but the entire building gave way—a clear sign, claimed investigators, that the building had been rigged with explosives by ISIS. Survivors and Mosul civil defence officials denied the U.S. narrative, insisting they had seen no evidence of ISIS explosives.
The scenario itself—a small number of gunmen darting in and out of view before drawing heavy fire from Coalition forces—was one which Airwars had repeatedly highlighted as leading to civilian deaths. In one profiled case from December, 11 members of a family were killed when the Coalition bombed a house—reportedly after a single ISIS fighter had been seen on a roof two houses down. The toll in al Jadida represents a significant portion of the 603 casualties publicly conceded by the Coalition. That tally has grown considerably in recent months, but is still many times lower than Airwars’ own estimates of at least 4,500 civilians likely killed.
Better Than the Russians?
On April 13 of this year, U.S. forces in Afghanistan deployed a 21,000-pound GBU-43/B “Mother of All Bombs” against ISIS forces in the Nangarhar province of eastern Afghanistan. The bomb was the largest used by the U.S. in any conflict since World War II. Explaining the decision to use the weapon, which the White House evidently hadn't directly approved, Trump told reporters at the time he had given the military “total authorization, and that’s what they’re doing.” Later that day, a reporter from The Hill called CENTCOM’s press office, where a purported spokesperson answered.
“We mean business,” said the person who picked up. “President Trump said prior that once he gets in he’s going to kick the S-H-I-T out of the enemy. That was his promise and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
Though the response was later called unauthorized by CENTCOM leadership, a new tone had emerged—or reemerged. “If your leaders are emphasizing the high value of Raqqa and Mosul, while saying less about the strategic and moral risks of hurting civilians, it’s going to affect your judgment,” said Tom Malinowski, assistant U.S. secretary of state until this January.
“But I’m not sure how to disentangle that from other factors,” he added. “It was inevitable that civilian casualties would rise as the fight moved into densely populated areas, where ISIS would use civilians as a shield. By how much, I don’t know.”
Meanwhile, in Syria, the understaffed Coalition investigations team was struggling to keep pace with the number of civilian casualty reports. At Airwars, there were so many Coalition allegations that its own researchers temporarily had to pause their full vetting of Russia’s strikes in Syria to stay on top of the fast growing workload. Airwars tracking also shows that in every month of 2017, more alleged civilian casualty events have been attributed to the U.S.-led Coalition than to Russia—a remarkable reversal. “We know that the Russians target civilians and Assad drops barrel bombs,” said the former senior counterterrorism official. “DoD wants to be better than that, but it’s the fog of war—how do we know we are being better?”
With reported Coalition civilian casualties steeply rising, international agencies rang the alarm bells.
In May, the UN’s human rights chief called out the bombing campaign. Then in June a UN-appointed Commission of Inquiry for Syria, which previously wasn’t even investigating foreign airstrikes in the country, now said the U.S.-led campaign was causing a “staggering loss of life.” By the end of the month, at least 173 civilian deaths from air and ground strikes were reported by the UN, which suggested that both the SDF and Coalition could be skirting the edges of international law.
The Coalition dismissed the most serious of the Commission’s allegations—that many civilians sheltering in a school near Raqqa were killed by an airstrike on March 21—after an investigation that did not involve interviewing locals.
U.S. officials similarly dismissed well-documented allegations that a March raid in Aleppo on al Qaeda linked targets had left dozens of civilians dead without speaking to a single witness. Lack of interaction with sources on the ground—who readily speak with groups like Human Rights Watch—has been identified as a “critical flaw” in the U.S. government’s methodology.
Instead of addressing the issue of high reported civilian deaths, top Coalition commander Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend has gone on the offensive. He lashed out at the UN Commission, calling into question their description of civilian casualties as staggering.
“Show me some evidence of that,” he told the BBC.
On July 2, Townsend reported that Coalition forces were firing on anything moving on the River Euphrates, along which Raqqa lies. “We shoot every boat we find,” he told a reporter from the New York Times. Airwars has documented numerous civilians reported killed in recent weeks as they had attempted to flee Raqqa by way of the river. Shortly after Townsend’s remarks, Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered reported that at least 27 people in Raqqa had recently been killed attempting to fetch water around the Euphrates.
Then, on July 11, Townsend lashed out at Amnesty International, after it cited the Coalition in an investigation for potentially unlawful attacks that took place in Mosul.
“I would challenge the people from Amnesty International, or anyone else out there who makes these charges, to first research their facts and make sure they’re speaking from a position of authority,” Townsend told reporters.
Amnesty responded by pointing out the Pentagon never replied when the group’s investigators provided them with preliminary findings and asked for their input. With the battle in Mosul all but complete, organizations like Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) have instead called on the U.S. to be more cautious in their deployment of firepower inside Raqqa. The group wrote in a recent assessment that the Coalition should “avoid, to the extent feasible, airstrikes as a primary tactic, and consider tactical alternatives—for example, properly trained SDF conducting more door-to-door clearing operations to minimize civilian harm.”
But a massive casualty toll among Iraqi partner forces in Mosul—coupled with new demands from President Trump to speed up the war while reducing protections for civilians—could mean there is less appetite among U.S. officials on the ground to hold back approval for strikes. “I think the U.S. has to conduct a balancing test of a quick win and the accompanying high civilian casualty rate, versus a longer, more cautious victory, which might result in more civilians harmed at the hands of ISIS, or more coalition casualties,” said Jay Morse, CIVIC’s military liaison and a former Pentagon JAG. “It’s not an easy decision, and either route will prove harmful to civilians.”
Kori Schake, a former director at George W. Bush’s National Security Council and editor author of a recent book with Mattis, agreed that allowing local forces to call in U.S. airstrikes could increase the number of civilians killed. But the Obama White House was too careful, she said.
“The previous administration seemed to believe wars could be fought and won without casualties, and the professionals in this administration have the grim experience that’s not possible,” she added. “I am skeptical our military is any less careful without the White House second guessing them.”
Col. Murray says that while the current White House is clearly more permissive, it may not be fair to directly compare the conflict as it existed under successive administrations.
“Now when you bomb Raqqa there is actually potential to have success on the ground,” he said. “I think they’ve now erred more on the military advantage gained by a strike versus holding back for the sake of not killing civilians.”
But Fadel Abdul Ghany, director of the Syrian Network For Human Rights, said that what his organization and others have monitored speaks for itself. On June 23, the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that some 470 civilians had been killed in Syria by the U.S.-led Coalition in the preceding month alone.
“We believe that the U.S. administration is seeking a quick victory,” said Abdul Ghany. “But the speed comes at the expense of accuracy, and therefore at the expense of the loss of more lives.”