The UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria released a report on September 11 drawing attention to “large-scale operations by the international coalition led by the United States of America, and the Syrian Democratic Forces, which led to near complete destruction of towns and villages in and around Hajin and Baghuz”—the last specks of land under the control of the Islamic State (ISIS). Tens of thousands of people—including ISIS fighters and their family members—had crowded into a handful of hamlets scattered across farmland near the Iraqi border. Many, often with great difficulty, fled the attacks. Others never made it out.
More than a week after the UN report was published, some of America’s top military commanders in the fight against ISIS in Syria were unfamiliar with the allegations or the existence of the report. During a conference call with international media, Brig. Gen. Christian Wortman, the lead US military representative for operations with the Turkish military in northeast Syria, and Brig. Gen. Scott Naumann, the director of operations for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve—in charge of working with Iraqi troops and the US-allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to defeat ISIS—fielded questions about the current state of affairs in the region.
Asked about the UN Commission’s allegations that the US-led campaign destroyed civilian population centers in eastern Syria and displaced thousands of people, the two one-star generals had little to say. “I’m unfortunately not familiar with the report that you’re referencing,” said Brigadier General Wortman. Brigadier General Naumann stayed silent.
Neither responded when asked by The Nation if, in fact, towns and villages were destroyed and people displaced.
An investigation by the UN Commission found that the final stages of operation Al-Jazeera Storm—an assault on the last pockets of territory held by ISIS in Syria that lasted from January to March—“were characterized by hundreds of coalition air strikes, heavy artillery bombardment by SDF, coalition forces and Iraqi forces through cross-border operations,” that led to widespread civilian suffering.
“I can tell you that we’re working very, very carefully to structure our operations and activities in a manner that limits any negative impacts to civilians,” Wortman told The Nation, “and that adheres to widely accepted international standards for the treatment of civilians.”
The UN Commission, officially known as the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, found, however, “that all feasible precautions have not been taken by SDF and the international coalition forces…in both the planning and implementation phases of operations—to avoid or minimize harm to civilians, in violation of international humanitarian law.” The commission also reported that there were “reasonable grounds to believe that international coalition forces may not have directed their attacks at a specific military objective, or failed to do so with the necessary precaution. Launching indiscriminate attacks that result in death or injury to civilians amounts to a war crime in cases in which such attacks are conducted recklessly.”
On the morning of January 3, for example, multiple air strikes hit in and around a single-floor residential building more than one kilometer east of the center of the village of Sha‘fah. The attack killed 16 civilians, including nine girls, three boys, and three women. The majority of children killed were under 5 years of age—the youngest a 2-month-old infant. After a full investigation, the commission “found no indication of any [ISIS] presence or military target in the wider area of the building struck at the time of the attack.”
On January 4, a night raid in Kashmah village by SDF forces backed by helicopter gunships killed up to eight civilians and left two others injured. On January 29, an airstrike in the village of Baghuz Tahtani struck near a crowd of civilians, killing at least four women, three boys, and one man, according to the UN report.
During February and March, the SDF and US-led international coalition forces continued to unleash heavy assaults on the last ISIS strongholds. Civilians, families of militants and those trapped by ISIS fighters, recounted subsisting on little food or water and “continuously moving in order to escape near-constant aerial and ground bombardment, which caused scores of civilian casualties,” according to the commission. The near-complete destruction of towns and villages, resulted in massive displacement “in which tens of thousands of fleeing civilians were taken to makeshift settlements…straining the already severely overstretched humanitarian resources.”
An Iraqi man who escaped Baghuz in January told Human Rights Watch in a corroborated account, “The planes were hitting people even as they escaped—we saw them one night, up on the mountain people trying to escape, women and children and then boom, boom—two rockets right on the mountain.”
Yet General Wortman said, “As always, it is essential to the United States that our activities adhere to widely accepted principles for the treatment of civilians.” This was echoed by a State Department official, who told The Nation on the condition of anonymity, “I can assure you that the US conducts targeting consistent with the law of armed conflict and applies rigorous standards to its targeting process. The Coalition’s goal is always for zero civilian casualties.”
A White House spokesperson failed to address questions about the allegations in the report. The State Department official did the same, preferring instead to talk about ISIS. “ISIS’s brutality is a key cause of civilian suffering in Iraq and Syria,” the official said. “ISIS has proven its disregard for human life as it tortures, beheads, and burns those that do not agree with them.”