Civilian Casualties in Iraq and Syria

The Daily Beast provides an interesting article on civilian casualty rates in Syria under President Trump as compared to President Obama. While there are disagreements on the reported number, there is a consensus, the Daily Beast writes, that civilian casualties are increasing. They point out that  a large part of this increase is due to the fact that the fighting has moved into more heavily populated areas, and that civilian casualties were on the rise in the latter part of the Obama administration. As a candidate, Donald Trump was vocal about wanting to provides more latitude to ground commanders, which has been interpreted to imply a loosening of rules of engagement, and at one point even discussed deliberate targeting of families of terrorists.

Secretary of Defense Mattis has stated in congressional testimony that there have been no official policy changes with respect to collateral damage assessment requirements or rules of engagement. Nevertheless one can easily infer that increasing casualties under President Trump are at least partially the result of a climate that pushes “annihilation” of the enemy and de-emphasizes concern for civilians, though the extent to which this climate actually impacts civilian deaths is difficult to measure.

In order to help frame the discussion, it is important to understand the rules under which the US military operates. As a signatory to the Geneva Conventions, the US has agreed to adhere to Common Article 3, so called due to its appearance in each of the conventions:

ART. 3. — In the case of armed conflict not of an international character occurring in the territory of one of the High Contracting Parties, each Party to the conflict shall be bound to apply, as a minimum, the following provisions:

1) Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria.

To this end, the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons:

a) violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture;

b) taking of hostages;

c) outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment;

d) the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court, affording all the judicial
guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.

2) The wounded and sick shall be collected and cared for.

An impartial humanitarian body, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, may offer its services to the Parties to the conflict.

The Parties to the conflict should further endeavour to bring into force, by means of special agreements, all or part of the other provisions of the present Convention.

The application of the preceding provisions shall not affect the legal status of the Parties to the conflict.

This is an overarching provision requiring the protection of those not involved in a conflict from harm. This provision is reinforced in US federal criminal statute. Violations of common article 3 are crimes under 18 U.S. Code § 2441 – War crimes. Additionally, the Department of Defense provides additional guidance to the services in Department of Defense Directive 2311.01E, DoD Law of War Program, dated 9 May 2006. Services each have their own reinforcing regulatory guidance on the Law of War based on the Geneva Conventions and subsequent US law and DoD policy.

Further guidance for mitigating specific collateral damage risks is promulgated to the services through CJCSI 3160.01B, No-Strike and the Collateral Damage Estimation Methodology, dated 11 Dec 15 (FOUO) and  CJCSI 5810.01D, Implementation of the DOD Law of War Program, dated 30 Apr 10, in addition to various joint targeting doctrinal references and programs of instruction on collateral damage assessments in targeting. Those responsible for determining and prioritizing targets must have a keen understand of munitions and delivery platforms in order to determine the likelihood of collateral damage due to a strike. Military leaders are charged with determining the following before engaging a target:

  1. Has the target been positively identified?
  2. Are there protected/collateral objects, personnel, or significant environmental concerns within the effects range of the weapon to be used?
  3. Can collateral concerns  be mitigated by using a different weapon or mode of engagement and still accomplish the desired effect?
  4. If not, how many civilians/noncombatants might be injured or killed?
  5. Are the potential collateral effects excessive in relation to the expected effect?
  6. Must the decision be escalated to the next level of command based on the rules of engagement?

It is important to note that today’s military is acutely aware of the need to mitigate civilian casualties, especially when dealing with insurgent or terrorist networks. Civilian casualties are ready fodder for enemy propaganda and recruitment efforts. Military commanders make every effort to comply with existing guidance, and minimize civilian casualties when conducting operations against enemy forces. The subjective nature of some components – such as whether collateral damage is excessive – allows leaders to make calls that may result in more casualties, even without a specific change to rules of engagement.

The shift to more heavily populated areas and the minimal ground forces available make civilian casualties more likely. It is therefore important for senior leaders, to include the Commander-in-Chief, to be consistent in their messaging about how targeting will be conducted and how we will mitigate risks to civilians. This is especially important in Norther Iraq and Syria, where the protracted conflict has already taken an extraordinary toll on the civilian populations, and where the propaganda effect of civilian casualties can have a significant impact well outside the region.