Reports of civilian deaths raise questions about Trump's airstrike policy

Reports of civilian deaths raise questions about Trump's airstrike policy
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Evidence of a spike in civilian deaths from U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria is raising questions about whether the Trump administration is softening the rules of engagement.

Both the administration and military officials say there has been no formal change, although there was talk during the campaign about lifting constraints on the military and calls for more flexibility from some generals. 

Human rights groups and independent monitors say it’s unclear whether U.S. policy has shifted under President Trump. But they say there has been an increase in casualties and argue that even the perception of a more cavalier attitude toward civilian deaths risks undermining the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). 

“It’s unclear at this point whether there has in fact been a loosening of the rules of engagement or it’s simply the result of an increase of the pace in strikes. Either way, increased harm to civilians is bound to have a detrimental strategic impact,” said Rita Siemion, international legal counsel at Human Rights First. “When our operations harm civilians, we weaken those partnerships, lose intelligence opportunities, provide propaganda and recruitment to terrorist groups and increase harm.”

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A number of high-profile reports of civilian casualties in recent weeks have elicited new scrutiny of U.S. airstrikes.

Earlier this month, Syrian activists reported that a U.S. airstrike in the Aleppo province in Syria hit a mosque, killing more than 40 people, mostly civilians. The Pentagon said that the strike was aimed at an al Qaeda meeting. The Pentagon also previously insisted the building was not a mosque but said Monday the investigation is looking into whether it was part of a larger "mosque complex."

Last week, residents and activists reported at least 30 civilians killed in an airstrike that hit a school in a rural area north of Raqqa province in Syria.

And at the end of last week, reports surfaced that a U.S. airstrike earlier in March in west Mosul in Iraq may have caused a building to collapse, killing as many as 200 civilians. Iraqi officials have said it’s unclear if the airstrike caused the building collapse or if it was ISIS taking advantage of the chaos to set off a booby trap.

The Pentagon has said it is investigating all three strikes.

If accurate, the casualties reported in the last couple of weeks would more than double the total acknowledged by the U.S.-led coalition since the bombing campaign started in August 2014. The coalition’s latest casualty report released at the beginning of March said at least 220 civilians had been killed to date, though activists say the Pentagon lowballs that number significantly.

Monitors and activists have longed warned that as forces push deeper into the dense city of Mosul and closer to Raqqa, civilians are increasingly at risk.

And President Trump’s rhetoric on the campaign trail has left observers suspecting that the administration may be loosening the strict standards put in place by the Obama administration.

Former President Obama’s rules went beyond what the law of war requires when it came to weighing risk to civilians. Defense hawks and some in the military criticized his policies for being too restrictive and causing the coalition to miss opportunities to strike terrorist targets.

During the campaign, Trump promised to “bomb the shit” out of ISIS. 

“I would bomb the shit out of them,” he said at a campaign rally in November 2015 during a riff on ISIS’s profits from oil. “I would just bomb those suckers, and that's right, I'd blow up the pipes. I'd blow up the refineries. I'd blow up every single inch. There would be nothing left.”

The executive action Trump signed in January calling for a review of the anti-ISIS strategy included a request for “recommended changes to any United States rules of engagement and other United States policy restrictions that exceed the requirements of international law regarding the use of force against ISIS.” 

The Trump administration would not need to publicly disclose if it had changed the rules of engagement.

Defense Secretary James Mattis said last week the results of the review are still not finalized and that they should be finished “in the next couple of months, if that long.”

On Monday, Mattis said the military does everything in its power to avoid civilian casualties.

"There is no military force in the world that has proven more sensitive to civilian casualties,” he said. “We are keenly aware that every battlefield where an enemy hides behind women and children is also a humanitarian field, and we go out of our way to always do everything humanly possible to reduce the loss of life or injury among innocent people. The same cannot be said for our adversaries, and that is up to you to sort out." 

A spokesman for U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), which oversees the ISIS war, also said Monday it’s not changing its rules of engagement.

Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of CENTCOM, “is not looking into changing the way we operate, other than to say our processes are good, and we want to make sure we live by those processes,” Col. John Thomas told reporters. “We assess those things going forward, and we are cautious and appropriately thoughtful in employing our processes to discriminate appropriately civilian targets from military targets.”

But monitors say they’ve seen a wave of civilian casualties since Trump took office.

“Without a doubt there's been an escalation of civilian casualties since Trump,” said Chris Woods of Airwars, an independent group monitoring counter-ISIS airstrikes. 

Airwars recently reported tracking the 1,000th civilian casualty caused by the coalition since December. The uptick started when Obama was still president but accelerated after Trump took office, according to the group.

Woods acknowledged it’s unclear whether the increase is caused by a policy change, the cycle of war, or a combination of the two.

Elizabeth Beavers, senior campaigner at Amnesty International, said Trump’s statements during the campaign could have had an effect even if the policy hasn’t officially changed. 

“We certainly heard during the campaign trail, Trump talk in grandiose terms about bombing,” she said. “Certainly I think those attitudes, even if there’s not an official policy, have a cultural effect on what we’re willing to accept.”

Paul Salem, vice president for policy and research at the Middle East Institute, was in the region in early March and said there’s a perception among locals that the rules of engagement have shifted.

“What was clear from meetings there and back here is that this administration appears to have loosened up the tighter restrictions on bombing runs the Obama administration had in place that they had to be cleared all the way up to the White House,” Salem said. 

But Salem said there’s also an understanding among residents that ISIS uses human shields and plants booby traps, and most locals remain grateful for the coalition’s work in rooting out ISIS. 

“There’s gratitude in what they’re doing, and they’re excited because the battle is being won,” Salem said. “There’s no completely clean way to do this. There are going to be civilian casualties.”

Ellen Mitchell and Sara Sirota contributed.