Iraqi and Syrian civilian casualties in U.S.-led airstrikes against ISIS are on track to double under President Donald Trump, according to a new investigation.
As of July 13, over 2,200 civilians have died since Trump took office in January, according to Airwars, an independent military tracking organization. If that pace continues, the number will easily surpass the total number killed during the entirety of former President Barack Obama’s tenure, under whom 2,300 civilians died between 2014 and 2016. While approximately 80 civilians died per month under Obama, that number is closer to 360 under Trump — a dramatic rise which comes as U.S. military involvement in both Iraq and Syria increases.
That number is lower than the one reported by the Coalition, composed of the United States and allies, which has been carrying out the airstrikes against ISIS. Still, the Coalition’s official numbers reflect an upward trend in civilian deaths under Trump. (France, Belgium, Australia, and Britain are all part of the Coalition, but they all deny a role in civilian casualties.) Regardless of which data is being assessed, the conclusion is the same: more civilians are dying, and in staggering numbers.
The death toll is a byproduct of an aggressive bombing strategy, one that Trump has long supported. On the campaign trail, Trump pledged to “bomb the shit” out of ISIS, honing in on the militant organization as a leading source of concern for the United States.
“I would just bomb those suckers,” he underscored during one campaign stop.
Since Trump took office, the United States has done just that. Military action targeting ISIS has escalated significantly, and efforts in strongholds like Raqqa, Syria and Mosul, Iraq — the latter of which was liberated last week — have involved heightened bombing campaigns. Secretary of Defense James Mattis announced in May that the United States was moving from a policy of “attrition” to one of “annihilation.” He also indicated that, while regrettable, civilian casualties were to be expected.
“Civilian casualties are a fact of life in this sort of situation,” said Mattis, who has been nicknamed “Mad Dog” for his aggressive approach to war. “We do everything humanly possible consistent with military necessity, taking many chances to avoid civilian casualties at all costs.”
The last few months have seen horrific civilian deaths by airstrikes, but little accountability. In March, a U.S. airstrike buried residents of a west Mosul suburb, killing more than 100 people. The United States admitted its airstrike was involved, but a Pentagon investigation placed blame on ISIS for having stored explosives in the building that the airstrike inadvertently set off. In April, a report (compiled by Forensic Architecture, Human Rights Watch, and Bellingcat) confirmed that a U.S. drone strike hit a mosque in northern Syria the month prior, contradicting government claims that a building utilized by Al Qaeda was targeted.
“The US seems to have gotten several things fundamentally wrong in this attack, and dozens of civilians paid the price,” Ole Solvang, deputy emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, said at the time. “The US authorities need to figure out what went wrong, start doing their homework before they launch attacks, and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Getting things wrong is taking a toll on civilians. Residents of Mosul told BuzzFeed News in June that U.S. bombs have killed family members and destroyed neighborhoods, leaving behind devastation and mistrust.
“My mother was lying down here by this tree,” said Mohamed Ghassan Salem, a Mosul resident. “My brother was just over here next to the door. My wife and son were in the basement, dead. There was fire — fire everywhere.”
Salem lost numerous family members in a U.S. strike, including his pregnant wife, mother, brother, and 5-year-old son. Neither the Coalition nor the Iraqi government have proved helpful in his quest for accountability, he told BuzzFeed, something that hasn’t helped his grief.
“I understand that ISIS is putting bases in civilian houses. But it’s the coalition that made the mistake and killed my family,” Salem said. “It doesn’t matter what we get — moral or financial compensation. It’s not going to be equal to one finger from my son. But at least someone needs to take responsibility.”
Other residents said much the same thing. “Nobody knocked on our door. Nobody asked us about what happened. Nobody investigated. We haven’t seen a single person,” Nawal Fathi Khala told the publication. “We are peaceful people. We never hurt anyone. Why should this happen to us?”
But outcry from besieged residents is unlikely to have much of an impact on U.S. military strategy. Towards the end of Obama’s presidency, the United States relaxed rules surrounding civilian casualties, moving away from the “near certainty standard” which allowed for lethal force only if civilians were highly unlikely to be harmed. That relaxation has continued under Trump, with no sign of letting up.
The relaxation goes beyond just Syria and Iraq. U.S. officials have said also that Trump has relaxed the rules of engagement in U.S. counter-terrorism activities in Somalia and Yemen. According to officials who spoke with the New York Times, Trump has declared parts of the two countries areas “of active hostilities” — meaning that different war-zone rules apply and that interagency vetting of proposed airstrikes isn’t necessary.
In general, the rhetoric from the Trump administration is also likely having an effect.
“A change in the rules of engagement does not have to be a change in doctrine,” Micah Zenko, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, recently told the Guardian. “It can just be a change in tone and command climate. Mattis has again and again talked about an annihilation campaign, and that can an influence lower down.”