“Collateral Damage” in the Trump Era

On March 17, American airstrikes razed an entire city block in the west Mosul neighborhood of Mosul Jadideh, in what may be one of the deadliest American airstrikes to hit civilians since the US went to war in Iraq in 2003. Survivors are still trying to dig bodies out of the debris more than ten days after the strike, and Iraqi officials say that the final death toll will likely exceed 200 civilians. Some survivors claim that the airstrike was intended to kill just one Islamic State sniper who was positioned on a rooftop on the block.

US Central Command has admitted that coalition planes struck the area on March 17 at the request of Iraqi Security Forces, though CENTCOM maintains that the airstrikes struck ISIS fighters and equipment. The statement also announced a formal investigation into the reports of civilian casualties at the site. On March 28, Lieutenant General Steve Townsend acknowledged that the United States “probably had a role in these casualties,” though he suggested that ISIS had likely forced the civilians into that location to serve as human shields. Iraqi officials offered a clearer version of the events that led to the massacre, stating that Iraqi special forces had called in a coalition airstrike to take out snipers on the roofs of several houses on the street, unaware that the houses were filled with civilians.

The tragedy in Mosul was far from unique. On March 16, the day before the Mosul strike, American warplanes struck a mosque complex in the village of al Jinah in Aleppo Province, Syria, killing at least 49 people. The Pentagon denies striking the mosque, and says that the strike hit an al-Qaeda meeting, but eyewitness reports suggest that the planes hit a weekly religious meeting where hundreds of civilians had gathered. Several days later, on March 21, an American airstrike hit a school near the city of Raqqa, killing at least 33 Syrian civilians according to eyewitnesses, activists, and Syrian state media. The Pentagon acknowledged that strikes were carried out in the area, but did not say if the strike had killed civilians. Coalition planes were also accused of striking Al-Batool Hospital in Mosul on March 26, killing more than 85 civilians and injuring hundreds. Sadly, reports of these humanitarian tragedies went largely unnoticed by the West, partly due to blanket coverage of the terrorist attack in London.

AirWars, a London-based non-profit that attempts to track and archive the “international air war” against ISIS, says that there have been more than 1,000 reported civilian fatalities in Syria and Iraq in March as the result of coalition airstrikes, compared to 465 in December, the last month of the Obama administration. It is clear that something has changed since the new administration has taken power, and Iraqi special forces officers told the New York Times that they had seen a substantial loosening of the American rules of engagement since Trump took office, making it much easier and quicker to call in airstrikes on targets. The Pentagon has denied any change in rules of engagement, but a senior regional military source told the Guardian that “there has been a definite change in mood. Often that is all it takes.”

On the campaign trail, Trump often pledged to “bomb the sh-t out of ISIS.” By lessening civilian oversight and giving CENTCOM the ability to approve airstrikes, the new administration seems to be trying to increase the aggressiveness of the coalition air campaign against ISIS and al-Qaeda. However, Iraqi forces (along with an increasing number of American special forces in support) are engaged in street-to-street urban warfare in West Mosul and will soon be embroiled in an even more complex urban environment in Raqqa. Due to the crowded and complex nature of the battles, increasingly aggressive and reckless airstrikes will continue to result in mass civilian casualties. The mayor of Mosul, Abdulsattar Alhabu, said that these “repeated mistakes will make the mission to liberate Mosul from Daesh [ISIS] harder, and will push civilians still living under Daesh to be uncooperative with the security forces.” Trading careful administrative pre-strike civilian casualty assessments and strict rules of engagement for the temptation of quicker airstrikes ordered by commanders in the field will ultimately backfire. Civilian deaths from American airstrikes are abhorrent in their own right, but will also continue to radicalize populations in the region, making them more likely to align with the extremist groups the US is trying to fight. If the United States has any desire to try to eliminate ISIS and other Islamist groups in Syria and Iraq over the long-term, speed and utility must be sacrificed for the sake of deliberate and cautious action that may eventually yield stability in the region.