Even More Iraqi and Syrian Civilians May Have Died in U.S. Air Strikes
U.S. Central Command says more investigations underway
The United States has carried out thousands of air strikes in Iraq and Syria, and doesn’t know how many civilians have died in them. But now we’ve learned that the U.S. military’s top headquarters for the region is still investigating nearly two dozen incidents.
Earlier in August, War Is Boring obtained an official spreadsheet called the Iraq/Syria CIVCAS Allegation Tracker, which tracks air strikes that may have caused civilian casualties, through the Freedom of Information Act.
As one can see, the version we received had 45 total entries.
In response to our queries, U.S. Central Command now says that the database holds information on 70 separate strikes. American commanders are investigating seven of those strikes and putting another 13 through a so-called “credibility assessment,” U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Kyle Raines, a spokesman for the command, explained to War Is Boring in an email.
The credibility review is the second stage of the process. If CENTCOM decides the reports are accurate, the Pentagon will launch a full investigation under the rules prescribed by Army Regulation 15-6, a standard manual used for formal inquiries.
As is becoming increasingly clear, CENTCOM continues to investigate more and more suspected civilian casualties, but rarely highlights this in its regular post-strike press releases. With limited access to the areas it attacks and nearly 14,000 strikes already, the Pentagon could be setting itself to play a perpetual catch-up game trying to stay on top of the allegations.
“First, no other military works as hard as we do to be precise in the application of our airstrikes,” Raines told us. “We take great care … to minimize the risk of collateral damage, particularly any potential harm to non-combatants.”
These comments echo the Pentagon’s most common line on civilian casualties from its air campaign against Islamic State, dubbed Operation Inherent Resolve. Unfortunately, the version of the tracking database we received shows that — in many cases — no one can really say for sure whether innocents have gotten caught in the crossfire.
The data set is replete with examples where CENTCOM admitted that there wasn’t enough information to prove the allegations on way or another. In many cases, American officials relied almost entirely on video footage shot by drones, spy planes or even from the bombs and missiles themselves to try and figure out who was on the receiving end of the strikes.
For example, on Oct. 16, 2014, the Pentagon looked into an allegation from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The independent monitoring group claimed civilians were killed in a coalition strike on an oil facility in Khasham, Syria.
“Crews reported they did not observe any personnel on their targeting pod prior to weapon release,” the database noted. “Intermittent visual contact with the ground showed no personnel present in the target area.”
The reviewers looked at the “WSV” — weapon system video, or the feed from the missile or bomb as it sped toward the target — as part of their analysis. CENTCOM eventually decided there was “insufficient evidence” to support the claims.
Despite what Hollywood might have people believe, the images from these feeds are often difficult to make out. This was the case during a Royal Australian Air Force attack in Fallujah in December 2014.
“Approximately 10 minutes after the last weapon impact, a probable female and and probable child were observed [on live video] … to walk through the target area,” the entry explained. “A probable male arrived and carried the child to a motorcycle and transported him to the Fallujah hospital.”
The “probable” woman apparently wandered over to the median to lie down, at which point the feed lost sight of her. This series of events prompted the Pentagon’s Combined Air Operations Center in Baghdad to look closer at the incident.
“The lack of urgency and fact that the child walked apparently normally suggested his injuries were not life threatening,” the spreadsheet continued. “There was no Iraqi allegations.”
CENTCOM decided there wasn’t enough information to proceed. The Pentagon passed the information along to Australian commanders who arrived at a “similar conclusion.”
“We receive and review all allegations of civilian casualties no matter the source of the information,” Raines said. “A determination is then made based on the best information available.”
One major reason for the lack of information is that U.S. military can’t just walk into Islamic State territory and look at the damage from the ground. As a result, there are few options left other than poring over grainy video clips and satellite imagery.
In turn, this leads to some ill-timed statements. On June 3, the Washington-led coalition attacked a suspected Islamic State bomb factory in Al Hawijah, Iraq. Up to 70 innocent civilians may have died in the strike.
“I am familiar with the strike and I’ve seen the video,” Air Force Lt. Gen. John Hesterman, in charge of all the coalitions air operations, told reporters at the Pentagon on June 5. “We haven’t seen any evidence of civilian casualties so far.”
“If there’re unintended injuries, that responsibility rests squarely on Daesh,” Hesterman added. But by the end of the month, CENTCOM decided there were “credible” concerns that civilians had died in the strike and launched a formal review of the events, according to a report released in August by the independent monitoring group Airwars.
“All allegations of civilian casualties involving U.S. forces are reviewed to determine whether they are credible, and we act on that information as appropriate,” Raines added. ” Should new information become available, it will be reviewed.”
With social media and other outlets playing a big role in recording the allegations, the tracking database will likely keep growing as long as the Pentagon keeps up the air campaign.