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American-Led Airstrikes Are Becoming More Deadly for Civilians in Syria

Do recent attacks in the U.S.-led air campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria signal a troubling new pattern?

By Kristina Kutateli


An American flies over the Syrian city of Kobane. (Photo: Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images)

At least 73 civilians — mostly women and children — were killed in a set of United States-led airstrikes on the Syrian village of Tokkhar early Tuesday morning in what is reported to be the deadliest attack on non-combatants since the air campaign against the Islamic State began over two years ago. Data from AirWars, a non-profit monitoring group, shows that, although the total number of airstrikes are down by 15 percent, estimated civilian deaths are up by over a third in the past six months, suggesting a troubling new pattern—and a potential shift in priorities in the war against ISIS.

Tuesday’s airstrikes were part of a larger two-month offensive by the U.S.-led Western coalitionto capture Manbij and surrounding villages in hopes of pushing back Islamic State forces toward their capital in Raqqa. Tokkhar, on the outskirts of Manbij, served as a shelter for nearly 200 people, trapped in ISIS-controlled territory, in the midst of a bloody war and rapidly moving frontline.

“Really these civilians are in a desperate situation,” Chris Woods, head of AirWars, told theIntercept. “We’ve never seen anything like this.”

Tuesday’s strike comes at a time of mounting civilian casualties at the hands of American airstrikes in the coalition’s air campaign in Syria and Iraq. Outside monitoring groups reported at least 190 deaths since June in attacks on Manbij alone. The Pentagon reports that there have been at least 450 coalition strikes in Manbij — 98 percent of which are U.S.-led.

American airstrikes have faced much criticism—from activists to political analysts and former U.S. Air Force service members—who question the efficacy of the bombing campaign. In a 2013 paper for International Affairs,Michael J. Boyle, a political science professor at La Salle University, argues that airstrikes only serve to “deepen anti-American sentiment and create new recruits for Islamist networks.”

Airstrike proponents tend to stress the tactic’s efficacy— “low cost and low risk for U.S. personnel relative to the terrorists killed,” Boyle writes—but, according to him, the real cost of airstrikes lies in the overall threat increase to American national security. Airstrikes, he says, create sentiments of “growing anti-Americanism,” while providing good fodder for “fresh recruitment to militant networks” and “the corrosion of the perceived competence and legitimacy” of local governments and pro-U.S. groups.

Boyle argues that the U.S. takes into account “only the ‘loss’ side of the ledger for the ‘bad guys’” without asking what the opposition actually gains (and what the U.S. loses) by being subjected to a policy of constant surveillance and attack.

“The genie is already out of the bottle.”

Activists and monitoring groups have also raised the issue of transparency in the Obama administration’s airstrike policy — the U.S. military has confirmed only 116 maximum total civilian airstrike deaths, while many independent non-profits count a minimum of 1,422 civilian deaths.

Still, the tactic continues to expand under the Obama administration’s primarily airstrike-driven military campaign on an unprecedented scale.

In a statement to the press this Wednesday, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter stated that he “is aware of reports of civilian casualties that may be related to recent coalition airstrikes near Manbij city in Syria,” and that he plans “to investigate these reports and continue to do all we can to protect civilians from harm,” although no civilian casualties can be confirmed. “Being scrupulously careful to avoid civilian casualties,” Carter continued, “and being transparent about this issue is a reflection of the civilized nature of this coalition.”

Army Colonel Christopher Garver told the Guardian that increased civilian casualties could be a product of the Islamic State’s strategy of using civilians as human shields, particularly in the Manbij area, and denied that civilian casualties were a sign of the U.S. relaxing its rules of engagement.

International human rights groups have decried the attack and are demanding action from U.S. officials. “There must be a prompt, independent and transparent investigation to determine what happened, who was responsible, and how to avoid further needless loss of civilian life,” said Magdalena Mughrabi, interim deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Amnesty International. “Anyone responsible for violations of international humanitarian law must be brought to justice and victims and their families should receive full reparation.”

International humanitarian law, however, has largely remained silent on the coalition’s air campaign against ISIS—largely due to the fact that tactics used by the U.S., such as drone strikes, are virtually unregulated in the realm of international law. To mitigate the potential consequences of an Obama administration-like drone policy on a global scale—some fear that the president’s airstrike policy is encouraging a new multi-nation arms race—Boyle suggests that the U.S. should lead in developing internationally recognized standards and norms for airstrikes and drone sales. As it is likely that ISIS forces are watching and learning from U.S. military strategy, what remains to be done is to ensure that such tactics are “transparent, regulated and consistent with internationally recognized human rights standards.”

Last year, 2015, marked the year that the U.S. began allowing the sale of American armed drones to foreign countries (so far, the U.S. has only signed trade agreements with the United Kingdom and Italy to export its technology). While the airstrikes in Manbij were manned, this normalization of civilian casualties may set a troubling precedent, made only more dangerous by the presence of armed drone technology.

With less than six months left in office for President Barack Obama before either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton pick up the mantle, it is unlikely the administration will be able to do much — if any — damage control, particularly since they have made no previous indication of a desire to shift military tactics in the fight against ISIS.

“The genie,” Boyle writes, “is already out of the bottle.”