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Civilian deaths tied to U.S. airstrikes in Syria in the ‘hundreds’: Human rights groups

August 7, 2018

The civilian death toll tied to the American-led air war against the Islamic State in Syria could reach into the “high hundreds,” despite recent public admissions of civilian casualties by the U.S.-led coalition tied to the campaign.

Claims of high civilian body counts in the run-up to the liberation of Raqqa, the northern Syrian city that served as Islamic State’s de facto capital in the country, were part of a new report issued Tuesday by human rights group Amnesty International.

As part of their new assessment, the group’s analysts delved into a four separate instances of airstrikes during the fight for Raqqa, taking place during some of the fiercest bombing during the monthslong campaign. They compared publicly announced civilian casualty figures during those days against the number of munitions dropped on those days, spanning between June and October 2017.

Coalition officials claim a total of only 77 civilians were killed on those days, according to the group’s analysis. On those same four days, U.S. and coalition fighters executed 143 airstrikes in Raqqa.

“In the absence of an independent investigation and concrete and verifiable details, such short-hand explanations are woefully inadequate and cannot be expected to be taken at face value,” according to the report. Officials from Amnesty International concluded the relatively small number of civilian casualties claimed, versus the vast number of strikes executed, that the true number of civilian deaths had to be much higher.

“This is only the tip of the iceberg,” said Donatella Rovera, senior crisis response adviser at Amnesty International. “Our detailed field investigations covered just four cases but the many survivors and witnesses we spoke to on the ground pointed to a civilian death toll in the high hundreds,” she said in a statement accompanying the new report.

Last month, House and Senate defense lawmakers implemented stricter operating and reporting rules for the use of U.S. airpower, and the methods used by the Pentagon to report civilian casualties.

The new rules, adopted in the House and Senate compromise version of the Pentagon’s budget blueprint for next fiscal year, will include be the appointment of a senior, civilian official inside the Pentagon to “develop, coordinate, and oversee compliance with the policy of the Department [of Defense] relating to civilian casualties resulting from United States military operations,” according to the joint legislation.

New rules aside, U.S. and coalition commanders have defended the heavy use of airpower to oust the terror group known as ISIS from its redoubts in Iraq and Syria.

“The coalition makes every effort to avoid civilian deaths on the battlefield,” British Army Maj. Gen. Felix Gedney, deputy commander of strategy and support for the U.S.-led coalition, said in June. But the reality of the fight against ISIS ... has made it impossible to avoid a risk to the civilian population” during such operations, the two-star general told reporters at the Pentagon.

But U.S. and allied commanders remain adamant that the demonstration of devastating airpower against ISIS was necessary to push back and ultimately defeat the terror group.

“The air campaign was carefully meted and assessed. It was absolutely militarily necessary in order to defeat a very difficult and brutal enemy,” Gen. Gedney said during a briefing from coalition headquarters in Baghdad.

Each and every coalition airstrike during the anti-ISIS campaign was subjected to “a detailed assessment and validation to ensure that it was militarily necessary and to assess the risk to the civilian populations,” he said.

When asked, in retrospect, whether coalition commanders had been overly aggressive in prosecuting the air war against the Islamic State, Gen. Gedney replied emphatically: “Absolutely not.”

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