The latest news from the US-led war in Syria against the Islamic State, known as ISIS, ought to give Americans some pause about our intervention there. When the Obama administration stipulated that its modus operandi for the covert war of targeted killing—that there needed to be a “near certainty” no civilians would be killed (however poorly the policy is implemented)—didn’t apply to Syria, it raised eyebrows. A report by McClatchy on Wednesday indicates that not only are the civilian casualties mounting, but points to the US-led coalition, perhaps unwittingly, helping a Kurdish militia carry out ethnic cleansing and a possible war crime.
The first batch of civilian casualties came early on in the Syria campaign launched last September: while targeting a terrorist bomb maker, air strikes killed at least seven civilians, Human Rights Watch said at the time. As the sporadic bombings continued, civilian deaths slowly mounted; an opposition human rights group said in March that coalition forces had caused more than 100 civilian deaths in Syria. (Others have placed the number of confirmed deaths at around 60.)
Then, over one half-hour period last Thursday night, coalition-caused civilian deaths spiked: an initial report from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said missile strikes in the village Bir Hamalli killed least 50 civilians from among the village’s 1000 inhabitants; the following day, it raised the toll to 64 confirmed deaths, including 31 children and 19 women. Yesterday, another rights group, the Syrian Network for Human Rights, corroborated the numbers, adding incredibly troubling details of how the attack was carried off.
Mousab Alhamadee of the indispensable McClatchy news agency tied together the Network’s release with his own reporting:
An activist, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity for his safety, told McClatchy last week that he suspected that members of the local Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG in the Kurdish language, which had worked closely with the United States during the fight for Kobani, had intentionally called in the strike to drive away Arab residents.
Alhamadee went on to note that the US military had confirmed a Kurdish role in intelligence gathering for the strike: the militia had—apparently incorrectly—“reported there were no civilians present in that location and that there had not been any civilians present for two weeks prior to the coalition airstrikes,” a US spokesman had said. (The Syrian Network reported that the village was under ISIS’s control, but that the jihadi group doesn’t have any bases there.)
The account proffered to Alhamadee by the Syrian Network was even more troubling: “When two fuel trucks entered the town, the network said residents had reported, the YPG opened fire with tracer rounds. When villagers gathered to aid those wounded by the YPG fire, coalition aircraft fired missiles.”
Whoa, Nelly! If this report is accurate—it’s admittedly thinly sourced, as is so much reporting about what’s happening on the ground in Syria—Kurdish militias are calling in US bombings to deliberately murder civilians, with the aim of ethnically cleansing Arab villages. And the US is obliging them. (The US denied any civilian casualties, leading one of the rights groups to express shock at the denial.) The tactic seems to have worked: most of Bir Mahalli’s residents reportedly fled.
Wars are always confusing affairs—that cliché about fog springs to mind. Mistakes are made; civilians inevitably die. Journalists and historians often find themselves unable to unearth whole truths even after the dust clears. But some previously obscured lessons, at least for the conduct of war itself, seem to always emerge as conflicts settle down, as the heat of the moments where life and death decisions are pass into reflection and studies of patterns.
One such pattern apparent in America’s new modes of warfare—a “light-footprint” of limiting “boots on the ground,” or air campaigns that seek to further minimize risk to US personnel, whether covert drone attacks or overt airstrikes—consist of poor targeting practices exacerbated by alliances with dubious, self-interested local actors. The pitfalls were evident in the Iraq war from the get-go, thanks to an over-reliance on the huckster Ahmed Chalabi for the justification to war.
In his critically acclaimed book No Good Men Among the Living, journalist Anand Gopal elucidated a theme of how unsavory local allies in Afghanistan may have cost the US its best chance of actually winning the war. His account weaves in and out of stories of US-allied strongmen falsely accusing local rivals of belonging to the Taliban, prompting the Americans to take many Afghans prisoner or, worse, attack and kill them on faulty premises. As resentment grew, disaffected Taliban fighters who’d laid down arms after the US invasion picked them back up—and were joined by a host of new supporters fed up by US-sponsored warlordism.
What’s so extraordinarily troubling about the new McClatchy report on Syria, then, is that the US seems to not have been chastened at all by its experiences. “Whether allegations hold, it demonstrates dangers of relying heavily on local actors. YPG get good press but local politics don’t go away,” Daniel Trombly noted astutely on Twitter. But, as Gopal demonstrated, we should have already learned that lesson in the past decade (and so many times before).
The lack of reliable allies has vexed thoughtful proponents of US intervention in Syria from the start, and given ammunition to its opponents, myself included. Despite proclamations by war hawks, their has never been an obvious military ally for the US in Syria’s civil war. The Free Syrian Army has from the beginning of the war been an ill-defined, loose organization, at best, with some factions demonstrating criminal intent all along. The Kurds in Syria, the closest thing to natural American allies, are today demonstrating the same thing.
Now we’re involved, at least narrowly in the fight against ISIS, and the results have been predictable. Rebel activists told the Financial Times last week, “US-led strikes are turning people against the western-backed rebels and the coalition. They say it drives many closer to the group the coalition is fighting, the Islamic State.” No wonder American foreign wars these days last forever: our conduct perpetuates them.