- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 17, 2017

As the endgame nears for the fight to oust Islamic State from its last strongholds in Iraq and Syria, rights activists and the United Nations are expressing mounting concerns that civilian casualties are spiking, as both the U.S.-backed coalition and Russian-backed Syrian forces intensify their battle against the terrorist group.

Instances of civilian casualties have dogged American and coalition commanders since U.S. warplanes began bombarding Islamic State positions in Syria and northern Iraq in 2014, after the terrorist group cut a swath of territory across the Middle East, proclaiming it to be its new caliphate.

Since then, American and allied forces have carried out over 26,000 airstrikes against suspected Islamic State targets in the region, according to figures compiled by the Defense Department. Officially, U.S. military officials claim coalition airstrikes have resulted in just over 600 civilian deaths, but unofficial tallies by independent nongovernmental organizations say the number of innocent civilians killed in the air war is in the thousands.

Officials at Airwars.com, a nonprofit research group focused on tracking civilian casualties tied to the offensive, say a minimum of 5,300 civilians have been killed in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. That figure includes civilians killed by Russian airstrikes in Syria as part of Moscow’s support of the Bashar Assad regime.

In the siege to retake Mosul, Islamic State fighters put civilians in harm’s way to slow down the U.S.-backed Iraqi forces.

The U.N. human rights office said at least 140 Iraqi civilians were killed by a single U.S. airstrike on March 17 in western Mosul’s al-Jadida district. A Pentagon investigation found that U.S. warplanes adhered to the stated rules of engagement during the strike. The body count was high because Islamic State fighters confined civilians in the target area to use as human shields.

With Mosul retaken and Islamic State’s hold on its Syrian capital of Raqqa slipping, the potential for more civilian casualties is increasing. Coalition commanders are ramping up air operations in the campaign, and U.N. officials estimate that 20,000 civilians remain trapped in the Raqqa crossfire.

“I am deeply concerned that civilians — who should be protected at all times — are paying an unacceptable price and that forces involved in battling [Islamic State] are losing sight of the ultimate goal of this battle,” Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the U.N. high commissioner on human rights, said this month. He made the comments after reports that 23 Syrian civilians were killed in coalition strikes on the Islamic State-held city.

“I am extremely concerned that in its conduct of hostilities, the attacking forces may be failing to abide by the international humanitarian law principles of precautions, distinction and proportionality,” Mr. Hussein said.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is expected to raise the issue of civilian casualties during the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York this week.

In a review released this month, members of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria found all sides involved in the fight against the Islamic State “continue to perpetrate unthinkable crimes against civilians in and away from the battlefield in blatant violation of international law.” American and coalition warplanes have “failed to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians” as the battle against Islamic State shifts exclusively to Syria.

U.N. officials called for a temporary cease-fire last month to allow civilians trapped inside Raqqa to escape.

Coalition forces must “do whatever is possible to make it possible for people to escape Raqqa,” Jan Egeland, special adviser to the U.N. special envoy on the Syria conflict, told reporters shortly after U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces retook large portions of the old-city sector in Raqqa.

Taking precautions

Since the coalition air war against Islamic State began in earnest three years ago, U.S. and allied commanders say they have built into their strategy ways to minimize civilian casualties. As Iraqi and coalition forces look beyond Mosul toward offensives elsewhere in the country, that focus remains.

“In preparation for the upcoming battles, the Iraqi Security Forces have worked tirelessly with the humanitarian community to prioritize the evacuation of civilians trapped by ISIS,” Col. Ryan Dillon, the top U.S. spokesman in Iraq, said Thursday. In Syria, coalition forces released thousands of leaflets over Raqqa, which directed civilians trapped in the city how to evacuate safely, Col. Dillon told reporters at the Pentagon during a briefing from Baghdad.

In recent days, U.S. warplanes held off carrying out direct airstrikes against a convoy of fleeing Islamic State fighters traveling across Syria because of the presence of women and children. Instead, American fighters destroyed all major roads around the convoy, essentially trapping it inside Syria, and carried out strikes against Islamic State vehicles attempting to relieve the convoy.

The U.S. military over the weekend agreed in an apparent deal with Russia to allow the surviving convoy members to reach Islamic State-held territory.

“Recognizing the humanitarian challenges to both internally displaced people and civilians trapped in the city, the [Syrian Democratic Forces] continues to assist and safeguard civilians as they try to escape ISIS’s violence in the city,” he said.

But slight changes to the rules of engagement for U.S. fighters and bombers already have resulted in civilian casualties.

Defense Secretary James Mattis reportedly weighed the loosening of restrictions on U.S. airstrikes that the Obama administration kept in place in war against Islamic State as the Trump administration adjusted the military rules of engagement on the eve of the Mosul assault.

The proposal reportedly raised the “acceptable” number of estimated collateral civilian casualties to authorize a U.S. or allied airstrike, giving American commanders a freer hand in ordering strikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria, which the Trump White House has strongly advocated.

The modified rules essentially allowed lower-level commanders to authorize U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State targets instead of requiring top U.S. military brass or senior administration officials to sign off on such operations. As a result, U.S. airstrikes jumped from fewer than 5,700 bombs dropped in November and December, prior to the rules changes, to more than 7,000 in January and February. Pentagon officials, however, claimed the spike was tied to increasingly intense fighting as part of the battle to liberate Mosul.

Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the former top U.S. commander in the Islamic State campaign, said in May that the modified rules of engagement governing U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria played no role in the recent surge of civilian casualties during offensives in both countries.

That same month, U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Joseph Votel told Congress that the tally of civilian dead as a result of the U.S. air campaign will likely rise as Islamic State digs in for its last stand against advancing coalition forces in Iraq and Syria.

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