The United States and several Arab countries began launching strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) early Tuesday morning in Syria, hitting several targets within the country. But unlike the campaign seen so far against ISIS in Iraq, the odds of civilian casualties in Syria are much higher, adding to the risk of the mission going fatally awry.
According to the administration, the strikes launched from a combination of fighter jets, bombers, and U.S. naval vessels were a complete success, hitting all of the targets. “We are unaware of any civilian casualties,” Lieutenant General William Mayfield told reporters during a Pentagon briefing on Tuesday. “Limiting civilian casualties is a top priority of the U.S.”
Administration officials also told reporters during a background briefing call that the munitions used in Syria were almost all precision-guided to reduce the chance of casualties. “We haven’t seen any claims of collateral damage or civilian casualties thus far,” one senior administration official said.
But there are several journalists who aren’t so sure that the operation came off as clean as the Pentagon would hope. One rebel commander from Idlib province in Syria told BuzzFeed’s Mike Giglio that strikes had already killed civilians there. “They’re going to turn every Syrian into ISIS and Nusra,” the commander told Giglio according to the reporter’s tweet. Likewise, Foreign Policy’s Shane Harris tweet that a source with contacts in Syria said at least “10 killed in a strike NOT against ISIS.”
Likewise, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based NGO with many sources on the ground in Syria, did claim that at least eight civilians were killed in the strikes. And Bellingcat, a new website devoted to using social media to to report on conflict zones, says that videos and pictures from the aftermath of the strikes near the city of Kafar Deryan, in Idlib, show civilians killed. In this case as well, it’s eight civilians who were reportedly killed during the strikes, and another eight wounded. Another six — including three women and three children — were reportedly killed.
In contrast, across the border in Iraq, airstrikes against ISIS have been carried out for months. Even with the recent increase in tempo, there have been no major reports of civilians dying as a result of American airstrikes. So why, then, did one day’s worth of bombs in Syria kill more than nearly two hundred missions flown in Iraq?
The answer, as the saying goes, is location, location, location. In Iraq, ISIS is operating mostly in open spaces, easy targets for the U.S. sorties overhead. While the hasty retreat of Iraqi soldiers during ISIS’ surge this summer left a lot of heavy weaponry in their hands, that same weaponry has also made them an easy target. Just based on the Pentagon’s list of targets it has hit so far, it’s clear that the Humvees, armored personnel carries, Mine Resistant-Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, and mortars have come to make up the bulk of just what the U.S. is lashing out at. Until recently, the mission was also focused on ISIS positions around the Mosul and Haitha dams, providing the military with knowledge of exactly where there militants are operating.
That isn’t the case in Syria. There ISIS has been camped out in the country’s cities, making them a much more difficult target. That includes Raqqa where its headquarters are located and the target of several of the missiles launched during the recent bombardment. They also aren’t conducting operations quite as in the open as seen in Iraq, and with even less of an intelligence operation on the ground, sussing ISIS out from among the civilian population will be difficult at best. That explains why the opening salvo against ISIS in Syria wasn’t focused on targeting individuals, but instead on so-called “hard targets” like buildings.
So while the U.S. isn’t deliberately targeting civilians as both ISIS and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad have, a rise in civilian casualties will likely be unavoidable as the war continues. That’s because over time, the number of hard targets that the U.S. can focus on will surely dwindle — there won’t be many opportunities for ISIS to restock its supply of MRAPs once the ones in the field are destroyed. As ISIS begins to retrench in positions in Iraq’s cities, which will likely be the case so long as they control Mosul and other major urban areas, the odds of civilian casualties will likely approach parity between the countries. That in itself will likely be a propaganda boon for ISIS and the al-Qaeda aligned Jabhat al-Nusra as the rebel leader hinted, leaving the U.S. in a position it has found itself in all too often over the years: attempting to convince the people who have lost family and friends in strikes that the military is there for their benefit.