At least 100 civilians have died during the United States-led bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria, according to a recent report. This news is bitterly ironic given that the mission was initially launched to protect civilians. Yet the White House insists it cannot confirm a single civilian death – despite admitting at the beginning of the conflict that the high level of protection it normally uses in lethal strikes would not be applied in this fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. This shameful development confirms what has become increasingly clear: when it comes to the Obama administration’s protection of civilians, the rhetoric doesn’t match the reality. 

First, it is not accurate to say that the strikes in Iraq and Syria are exempt from what would otherwise be a high standard of civilian protection. The president described in a landmark speech last year that his administration’s use of drone strikes would go above the minimums required by international law, and that strikes would not take place unless there was “near certainty” that civilians would not be killed. But none of the available evidence indicates that the “near certainty” policy is actually followed anywhere. 


Because the U.S. government largely refuses to even publicly acknowledge its drone strikes, it is difficult to obtain a full and accurate understanding of who the victims are. However, third-party observations detail massive civilian deaths, and one recent report estimates that 28 unintended people are killed for every one U.S. target of a drone strike. It is difficult to imagine, for example, that the “near certainty” standard was applied when a wedding party was struck in Yemen, or when a grandmother was killed in Pakistan. 

Second, the administration’s confident description of its civilian protection efforts is misleading, because it has become impossible to define “civilian.” In a non-traditional, undeclared, undefined war, it is unclear who is considered a combatant and who is a civilian. The administration has declined to clarify how it identifies and targets combatants, and news articles that report a certain number of militants killed in a particular strike fail to define “militants.” One explanation indicated that all males old enough to fight were counted as combatants after being killed by drones. This methodology is shockingly far from certain. When it is impossible to even identify who the civilians are, it is incomprehensible that the administration can have “near certainty” that it is not killing any of them. 

Third, more specific to the airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, the means don’t match the stated ends. This conflict began under the guise of civilian protection – to save Yazidis trapped on Mt. Sinjar. But now U.S. airstrikes pose new risks to civilians, under a standard that is admittedly even lower than what the administration insists is its “near certainty” policy. The airstrike on September 23 which killed a dozen people in Syria’s Idlib province is just one example. This sets a dangerous precedent for both the U.S. government and the countries with which it seeks to partner, particularly given the increasingly partner-focused counterterrorism paradigm. 

In Iraq, government and allied militias coordinating with the U.S. are also responsible for violence against civilians. And, in Syria, the government – not the Islamic State that the U.S. is so focused on “defeating” – continues to be responsible for the vast majority of the violence. U.S. airstrikes risk directly or indirectly enabling these harms against civilians. For this very reason, U.S. military operations have sparked condemnation from both armed actors on the ground and civil society groups in Syria. 

Fourth, even under the administration’s definition of its goal, these strikes are ineffective.  President Obama argues that airstrikes are necessary to “degrade” and “destroy” the Islamic State, which will increase security. However, the Islamic State has continued to make advancements despite ongoing airstrikes. In fact, the airstrikes appear to be strengthening them, as recruitment for the Islamic State has since skyrocketed. This should not come as a surprise, as years of global drone strikes have yielded the exact same results. A report by the Stimson Center earlier this year confirmed that after 14 years of U.S. strikes, violent extremism has only increased. In turn, with increased violent extremism, there are an increased number of potential targets for U.S. strikes, which drives endless cycles of violence and war. 

Despite the administration’s rhetoric, the current airstrikes will not bring the security that Iraq and Syria so desperately need. A U.S. foreign policy that claims civilian protection as a top priority is not supported by the realities on the ground.  The bombing campaign harms the chances of real and lasting peace and civilian security. After nearly 25 years of military-first intervention in the region, this time the U.S. should know better. 

Beavers is the legislative associate on militarism & civil liberties at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, and Neville-Morgan is the legislative associate for the prevention of violent conflict at the Committee.