November 2017: Increasing Civilian Deaths In The Middle East


According to a New York Times article April, 2017, there has been a spike in the number of civilians killed in conflict in Iraq and Syria. This spike is attributed to escalating combat against the Islamic State in the region. Much of the blame is falling on the United States, whose military leads the Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR). While civilian casualties are expected in an operation of this scale, a drastic spike in the last year is cause for concern. The recent change of military procedure to a more streamlined approach should be reevaluated. Additional civilian deaths will make it more difficult to trust the United States when it comes time to rebuild.

CJTF-OIR was formally established by the United States Department of Defence in October 2014. Its goal was to formalize existing military campaigns against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The coalition grew as more areas were taken back from the Islamic State. The website for Operation Inherent Resolve has reported that thousands of square kilometers have been reclaimed since its formation. However, it has come at a great cost to civilians in the region. Military leadership has made an effort to be transparent when addressing civilian casualties. A CJTF-OIR press release in April 2017 reported that 352 civilian casualties had been recorded since the formation of the coalition. While the transparency is appreciated, statistics are conflicting at best. Airwars, a nonprofit group tracking airstrikes and civilian casualties in the region, reported that the number was closer to 3,000. Since April, that number has continued to grow.

With civilian casualties steadily increasing, several human rights groups have demanded answers and accountability. According to Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, a streamlined process of military combat has provided civilians with fewer protections. The United States made changes to military procedure to reduce the amount of approval needed to call in airstrikes against the enemy. During the Obama administration, coalition forces on the front lines were granted the ability to call in airstrikes without the additional approval of an operations center. President Trump has further streamlined the process by putting more strategic control in the hands of the Pentagon. While quicker decision making could help end the conflict, it also reduces oversight. Split second decisions may be putting more people in danger.

Procedure is not the only cause of civilian casualties. As one might imagine, the Islamic State is not exactly making anything easy. According to the Middle East Eye, Islamic State militants have repeatedly taken civilians hostage. Using these civilians as human shields has required coalition forces to make hard choices. One such example is an airstrike on a building in Mosul earlier this year. An investigation conducted by the CJTF-OIR revealed that at least 105 civilians were killed in an airstrike on a building holding two Islamic State snipers. The precision strike was not the direct cause of this tragedy; rather, explosives set by Islamic State militants were triggered by the airstrike, causing the building to collapse. According to the New York Times, the investigation prompted military officials to change procedure to prevent this type of destruction from occurring again. The officials neglected to mention what those changes were.

Vague military procedure is a very worrisome aspect of this conflict. One of the more basic principles of the law of armed conflict is proportionality. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, proportionality refers to the relationship between military gains and potential civilian loss. “Incidental damage must not be excessive in relation to the direct and concrete military advantage you anticipate from your operations. Excessive use of force quite clearly violates the law of armed conflict.” In other words, loss of civilian life or property must be kept within acceptable limits as it relates to the specific strategic advantage gained. This means that there should be very clear goals. However, the goal of Operation Inherent Resolve is regional stability. There is no unit of measure provided for regional stability. Even after the Islamic State is expelled, there is much more to be done to rebuild the region. If we can’t properly measure stability, how are we to hold anyone accountable for loss of life?

The military is getting closer to achieving the goal of expelling the Islamic State from Iraq and Syria, but that will not mark the end of the struggle in the region. Combat has ravaged several parts of Iraq and Syria. Buildings need to be rebuilt, displaced citizens need to be returned to their homes, and governments must reestablish their control. U.S. officials want to help achieve these goals, but the civilians may not trust them when the fighting ends. In March, several former members of America’s national security establishment wrote a letter to Secretary of Defence James Mattis. The letter expressed concerns of mounting civilian casualties in the Middle East. They wrote, “even small numbers of unintentional civilian deaths or injuries—whether or not legally permitted—can cause significant strategic setbacks.” These setbacks are already occurring as Iran looks to take advantage of harsh views of the United States for their own gains.

Iran supported the formation of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). The PMF has been helpful in the fight against the Islamic State, but it is funded and organized by Iranian leaders. Many believe Iran’s goal to be the creation of a trade route through Iraq to extend their influence to Lebanon and Syria. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson requested that the PMF disband in October, but they are rather popular in Iraq. Several Iraqi volunteers have joined the PMF and they are viewed as patriots. With this strong foothold, Iran has used its power to gain even more support. The New York Times reported, “new television channels set up with Iranian money and linked to Shiite militias broadcast news coverage portraying Iran as Iraq’s protector and the United States as a devious interloper.” The increasing amount of civilian deaths has lowered U.S. credibility in the region and Iran is using this to their advantage.

Civilian casualties are perhaps the most disturbing part of any armed conflict. It is the responsibility of any military force to keep civilian deaths to the absolute minimum. Adhering to rules of proportionality is one way to do this. However, the forces of CJTF-OIR are fighting as if expelling the Islamic State is the only goal. The end of the combat merely marks the beginning of a long road of rebuilding. If the United States does not recognize this, then they may not be allowed to help. Civilians will look to others that they believe they can trust. That gives Iran more opportunity to increase its influence in the Middle East.

Robert Wilber

Robert has a bachelor's degree in history and political science from the University of Michigan.