There are few cities in Syria that better encapsulate the course of President Donald Trump's anti-ISIS crusade than Tabqa. Home to the country's largest dam and a strategically important hub for the American-led coalition fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria—known as Operation Inherent Resolve—Tabqa and its southern suburb of Mansourah lie just east of Raqqa, the de facto stronghold of the terrorist group. After the United States-backed Syrian Democratic Forces finally expelled the militants from the city in May and the Iraqi security forces liberated the Grand al-Nuri Mosque—the heart of the so-called ISIS "caliphate"—in June, the coalition and its regional allies stood poised to use Tabqa to deal a final blow to ISIS.
But at what cost? In March, aircraft from the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS in Iraq and Syria destroyed a bustling market and school while targeting ISIS fighters in Tabqa and Mansourah. According to a report released on Sunday from Human Rights Watch, which investigated the incident, the airstrike killed 84 innocent civilians; local activists told the organization that, between March and May, which is when U.S.-backed SDF fighters finally retook the city and the coalition airstrikes abated, 145 civilians were killed as a result of the carpet bombing of ISIS forces occupying the surrounding countryside.
Given the American public's growing frustration with the seemingly endless Global War on Terror, the new HRW report raises a troubling question: How many civilian casualties is the U.S. willing to face in order to accomplish its goal of defeating ISIS?
The U.S.-led coalition has dramatically increased its tempo of bombing operations since Trump came into office. According to airpower statistics released by Central Command's Combined Air Operations Center and collected by Airwars, OIR conducted 1,755 strikes against ISIS targets in August, compared to 819 in February. In the process, aircraft deployed some 5,075 munitions on ISIS targets as part of OIR in Iraq and Syria, up from 3,439 in February—and the most deployed in a single month since the beginning of OIR in August of 2014.
But the higher pace of both ground and air operations have made the coalition more prone to potentially deadly tactical miscalculations, like the Tabqa and Mansourah bombings. The uptick in bombing sorties that coalesced in earnest led to a massive surge in claimed civilian fatalities, which jumped from 497 in February to 1,881 in March before hovering in the low 1,000s since, according to data collected by Airwars. And while OIR-confirmed civilian casualties jumped from 69 in February of 2017 to 220 in March, those confirmed cases quickly evaporated around the same time the Trump administration moved to loosen restrictions on collateral damage; in their absence, contested casualties jumped from 223 in February to 884 in March, hovering above 500 per month after that.
The Trump administration likely knows there's a connection between more bombings and higher civilian casualties. Nevertheless, Trump has upped the level of violence unleashed by U.S. forces. While the mandate of "total authorization" bestowed upon Secretary of Defense James Mattis may help some lawmakers sleep at night, Department of Defense (DOD) planners are historically prone to mission creep without the political check of public opinion, and the DOD won't even publicly attribute airstrikes to coalition allies, according to a report published in Foreign Policy in May.
The lack of transparency appears prevalent at the command level. When asked in June about a "staggering" United Nations report of hundreds of civilian deaths wrought by coalition airstrikes, Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, the overall commander of the coalition against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, vehemently denied any wrongdoing. "I would challenge anyone to find a more precise and careful campaign in the history of warfare on this planet," he said. "I think we are being as careful as we need to be and as we can be, and I would challenge the individual from the U.N. who made this hyperbolic statement that civilian casualties are staggering. Show me some evidence of that." (Airwars data puts confirmed civilian fatalities at 315 out of 6,057 claims between March and June.)
To be clear, the DOD planners know that mounting civilian casualties are a long-term strategic problem. The Army's formal guidelines for the protection of civilians identifies civilian deaths as a major barricade on the sociocultural infrastructure necessary for the U.S. to effectively carry out its operations. "The population is often the center of gravity for military operations, and the population's support is partly related to providing protection from perpetrators or, in some cases, from rival identity groups," the Army guidelines note. "It may be unlikely that a peaceful political settlement can be achieved unless the protection of civilians is adequately addressed." To wit: Russia, the main geopolitical rival of the U.S. in Syria, regularly surpassed the DOD in terms of civilian casualties until Trump took office; since the tables have turned—and Russia's influence there is now growing.
Speaking before the Institute of War on September 25th, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster joked that Trump is "not a policy wonk, at all." For civilians' sake—and for his own country's success—the president had better get a crash course.