How many civilian lives are acceptable as collateral damage in Iraq and Syria?

'No mercy': The painful calculus of saving civilian lives in war against ISIS.

A Syrian family who fled the battle between U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Islamic State militants from Raqqa city, arrive at a refugee camp, in Ain Issa town, northeast Syria, Monday, July 24, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Hussein Malla
A Syrian family who fled the battle between U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Islamic State militants from Raqqa city, arrive at a refugee camp, in Ain Issa town, northeast Syria, Monday, July 24, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Hussein Malla

The climbing civilian death tolls in Iraq and Syria are set to climb to horrific levels with battles underway to free the Syrian cities of Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor from the clutches of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS).

The Iraqi town of Tal Afar and was reportedly reclaimed from ISIS on Sunday.

While an aggressive campaign of airstrikes and shelling might free these towns from ISIS rule, a key question remains: how to mitigate the inevitable human toll civilian residents and deal a lasting blow to ISIS.

Last week, Amnesty International (AI) released a report highlighting civilian deaths resulting from both U.S.- led coalition strikes as well as Russia-backed Syrian government forces. In June and July of 2017, AI found that 146 civilians had been killed by coalition forces (with coordinates often provided by Syrian Democratic Forces) and an additional were 30 killed by Russia-backed Syrian government forces. Of this this tally of 176 civilians, 76 were children.


The U.N., meanwhile, called for a “humanitarian pause” in Raqqa to allow the approximately 20,000 civilians in neighborhoods held by ISIS to escape. It has also advised caution in the operation in Deir ez-Zor, which has an estimated population of 90,000.

President Trump has promised time and time again to bring ISIS to a swift end, but has never articulated a clear strategy on how to do so, other than saying that he would ask his generals for a plan. As it turns out, the plan is essentially former President Barack Obama’s plan, with minor tweaks (such as less oversight). And as the months drag on, it’s clear that such a defeat is far easier promised than delivered.

Experts ThinkProgress spoke to had differing opinions on what the right course of action should be in minimizing those losses.

“One of the lessons learned out of the tragedy of civilian deaths in Mosul is an old one for military professionals: The first report is usually wrong. In the Mosul bombing case where scores of civilians died, the investigation showed most were killed because ISIS clandestinely placed explosives in the building targeted, and then drew coalition forces to strike it by putting a sniper’s next on the roof,” said Charles Dunlap, law professor and executive director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University’s School of Law.

Responding to questions via e-mail, Dunlap, who is also a retired Air Force major general, Dunlap said that the realities of fighting an adversary such as ISIS means, “you are going to have civilian losses, particularly when the battlespace is a densely populated urban area. There is simply no way around it.”


Civilian losses are acceptable under the law of war, so long as they are not “excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.”

But the notion of what is an acceptable loss in a military operation differs to those losing loved ones in the brutal fight against ISIS. Trying to minimize casualties in Syria is all the more difficult because the situation in Syria is quite complicated, said Daniel Mahanty, senior advisor for Center for Civilians in Conflict.

“You’re dealing with an urban area, as you were in Mosul. You have quite an unreliable if not malicious partner in the Syrian government. You’re relying heavily on a newly-constituted Syrian Defense Force – an irregular force that you’re relying on for intelligence as the tip of your spear on the ground in a place like Raqqa. You’re using a lot of air power, which lends itself to high civilian casualties, and you’re dealing with an adversary in ISIS that has demonstrated consistently that it not only has wanton disregard for human life, but actually won’t refrain from using tactics that intentionally get civilians killed, like using human shields,” said Mahanty, pausing for breath.

“So, what do you do about it?”

He said U.S. forces should go beyond acknowledging that harm has taken place and learn lessons from operations such as the one that left a still unknown number of dead in Mosul.

Mahanty also said the United States should engage in “proactive empathy in acknowledging that civilians are being killed on the ground and being harmed and not just assuming that they don’t have direct proof that it’s not happening that it’s not happening.”


Then there’s the question as to what kind of intelligence the United States is getting from its partners, especially in Syria. “When you’re using explosives that could have calamitous effects on civilian infrastructure and civilians, you’re basing those actions from intelligence you’re getting on the ground, how to do you change your operating procedures based on those assumptions?” asked Mahanty.

While airstrikes seems excessively deadly, Dunlap feels that they are necessary. “It’s a mistake to think that refraining from an airstrike necessarily means no civilians will be killed.  When a strike is forgone that can allow ISIS fighters to live on to commit all kinds of atrocities against the helpless,” said Dunlap. “I call this the ‘moral hazard of inaction,’ meaning decision makers need to consider the cost to civilians of inaction.”

Fabrice Balanche, visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that trying to “take the city house by house” will “not be enough.”

“Unfortunately, in an urban area, one guy on top of a building with just a Molotov cocktail can prevent any tank to enter the city. Or just a sniper can stop a brigade from entering a city,” said Balanche. “But Daesh [the Arabic name for ISIS], they don’t let people leave buildings, so if you want to target the sniper, you have to target the building, which is filled with civilians. There is no miracle.”

The only solution in Balanche’s mind is to negotiate with ISIS to leave, as was done in Manbij in 2016.

“But today, that’s not the case, because the strategy is to annihilate Daesh… It’s more and more difficult to retake a city, because the fighters know they have to fight until the death,” said Balanche. “There is no mercy.”

That Tal Afar, Deir ez-Zor, and Raqqa would be the focus of fierce fighting has been known for months. Presumably, ISIS has had time to consider a Plan B, to move key people or elements of its operations elsewhere. And analysts and experts have been warning about the potential “win” any operation with a high civilian casualty count would be for ISIS.

In late April, Charles Lister, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute submitted written testimony to the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs on U.S. policy options in Syria. After outlining failures and missed opportunities, he cautioned against the potential for future misstep:

The United States does not need to rush our push to Raqqa. Doing so risks achieving the short-term objective — the city’s capture — but securing groups like ISIS with an invaluable narrative victory.
Dunlap, though, said that “slowing an offensive does not necessarily mean that there will be fewer civilian casualties.”
“To the contrary it may give an enemy like ISIS time not only commit more barbarism against those under their control, but also to come up with even more ways to use them as human shields.  Delay can mean death for those under ISIS’ thumb.”
He also skeptical of the claim that civilian deaths create recruitment opportunities for terrorist groups, saying there’s no empirical evidence to support that concern or claim. “The reasons terrorists become terrorists is far more complex,” said Dunlap.