Recent news reports describe a massive increase in civilian casualties at the hands of the US military or US allies. In Mosul, Iraq, hundreds of residents have been killed as US forces join Iraqi troops in the last stage of their assault on the ISIS-held city. In Yemen, the United States is increasing its direct involvement in the Saudi-led air war being waged against the poorest country in the Arab world, as the UN and other aid workers struggle against mass famine and a looming cholera epidemic on top of the thousands already killed and millions displaced. And in Raqqa, Syria, US air strikes and white-phosphorus munitions have led to what the UN calls “a staggering loss of life,” as Washington provides backup to Kurdish and Arab forces now besieging the ISIS stronghold.
These attacks, and the skyrocketing civilian casualties that result from them, have two things in common: direct US involvement, a result of the recent escalation in Washington’s direct role in the 16-year-old Global War on Terror; and an absolute disdain for the civilian lives being destroyed in these wars.
Defense Secretary James “Mad Dog” Mattis claimed in sworn congressional testimony that
there has been no change to our rules of engagement and there has been no change to our continued extraordinary efforts to avoid innocent civilian casualties, despite needing to go into populated areas to break ISIS hold on their self-described caliphate, despite ISIS purposely endangering innocent lives by refusing to allow civilians to evacuate. And we continue all possible efforts to protect the innocent.
And yet, the already high casualty figures continue to mount. When the top UN official on the Syria war described the “staggering loss of life,” he was specifically condemning the impact of US and allied air strikes against Raqqa, not simply bemoaning the war in general. He also discussed the 160,000 people driven out of their homes by US air strikes. An estimated 200,000 more civilians—families, children, old people—are still trapped in Raqqa, and according to the AirWars monitoring group in London, “Rarely a day goes by now when we don’t see three or four civilian casualty incidents attributed to coalition air strikes around Raqqa…. All of the local monitoring groups are now reporting that the coalition is killing more civilians than Russia on a regular basis.”
There is no question that ISIS, which proclaimed Raqqa as the “capital” of its so-called caliphate in 2014, is responsible for horrific atrocities against the civilian population; recent reports indicate that civilians have been killed trying to escape the besieged city. But Trump’s recent policy shift—described as an approach aimed at the “annihilation” of ISIS—guarantees that civilian casualties at the hands of US troops, gunners, and drone and warplane pilots will continue to mount as they attack ISIS fighters holed up with civilians in the crowded, desperate city.