In what had become an increasingly “silly” situation, and with agencies such as Amnesty International snapping at their heels, the UK MOD in early May of this year admitted that civilians might have been either killed or injured as a result of RAF attacks on IS locations in Syria. The denials of such casualties had continued even after the HQ of the Combined Joint Task Force for Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) admitted in December 2017 that over 800 civilians had been killed by the US-led coalition since 2014. It also conceded that a further 700 “reports” remained open, suggesting that the actual number of deaths was likely to be much higher.
At that time, Major Huff, a spokesman for the US Central Command, made a somewhat meaningless assertion that the 27,500 strikes recorded by December 2107 amounted to “one of the most precise air campaigns in military history.” However, the range of munitions dropped has been quite wide; it includes modern drones and PGMs but, reportedly, also many hundreds of “dumb-bombs”.
The very nature of the warfare being conducted makes it almost impossible to get a true picture of what is going on at ground-level. In the past there have been reports of mosques having been hit with large numbers of people being killed. However, the US have denied any such large-scale casualties and suggest that local militias (including IS) have deliberately blown-up buildings adjacent to Coalition-bombed structures to inflame local opinion against the US and its partners.
The admission by the UK MOD followed a drone –attack in March on three IS militants which caught a fourth, apparently innocent, person who entered the target-area on a motorbike after the strike had been initiated. It has also led to renewed calls by Amnesty International, amongst others, for the UK MOD to “come clean” over the true extent of civilian casualties caused by the UK’s effort in Syria.
In recent comments, the outgoing CDS, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach, has defended the UK’s actions, saying that IS are a “really wicked and evil enemy” and that the RAF operations was “the most carefully planned air campaign in history”. More specifically, Sir Stuart strongly refuted Amnesty claims about “considerable casualties” in Raqqa caused by Coalition strikes. He did not, however, specifically deny that civilian casualties might have occurred.
The fact is that no-one has the ability to 100% guarantee that casualties will be limited to “military” targets. Conditions in asymmetrical warfare such as those in Syria will always make it impossible to be absolutely certain about “who is doing what” on the ground in the area of a strike, and at what point an apparently innocent civilian becomes a legitimate target – or t’other way round (a problem that has confounded conventional military forces for centuries).
A number of years ago in Afghanistan a drone-strike was launched against a group that had been observed collecting and mounting a heavy mortar in a civilian truck. They were tracked as they drove to a small market square where they were joined by another armed group with the mortar rounds. The militants were engaged as they were loading the weapon which had clearly been aimed at a coalition base. Within a matter of hours, the local police chief lodged an official complaint that a drone strike had inflicted heavy casualties on his force who had been on a routine patrol. The coalition had to eat “humble-pie” (and more) to keep the regional police “onside” and a half-a-dozen more civilian casualties were added to the list of “regretted incidents”.
On the other hand, even with the accuracy of modern munitions, as well as the extraordinary resolution of observation systems, it is almost impossible to be certain that only terrorists are within the lethal range of a weapon once launched. Moreover, there are always going to be situations where a judgement has to be made about whether or not to accept risks of collateral damage and injuries if the target is sufficiently high-value.
This was one of the issues addressed by the Defence Sectary, Mr Williamson, in a statement issued at the time of the press release about the death of the lone motorcyclist:
“These strikes are undertaken in the collective self-defence of Iraq as part of the global coalition to defeat Daesh, and at the request of the government of Iraq. As a result of the coalition’s action, Daesh has lost more than 98 per cent of the territory it once occupied in Iraq and Syria, and 7.7 million people have been liberated from its rule.
He added that civilian deaths:
“Remind us of the consequences of conflict and of the heavy price that the people of Syria have paid. It reminds us that when we undertake military action, we must do so knowing that it can never be completely without risk. Such incidents will not weaken our resolve to defeat Daesh and rid the world of its poisonous ideology of hate and intolerance.”
Without a doubt, the question of civilian casualties will continue to provide fuel to the fire of those who want their comfort-cake and eat it; people who wish to be kept safe on the streets of this country and in their beds – but also want the right to slam those who are making it possible for them to do so. The political initiative to start investigating historic incidents in Northern Ireland is all part of the desire to not merely to be able to sleep safely – but with a “clear conscience”, knowing that plausible moral-deniability is always at hand.