Last week, the United States, United Kingdom, and France launched sea and air strikes against chemical weapons sites in Damascus and Homs, Syria. The strikes came in response to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons in the city of Douma on 7 April 2018.
The Coalition fired around one hundred missiles in total, reportedly destroying key chemical weapons research and production facilities. The reaction around the globe to these strikes has been mixed. Russia and Syria claim that there was no chemical weapons attack in Douma, and that the US-led strikes were a violation of Syria’s sovereignty. The bombing coalition claim that the chemical weapons attack in Douma crossed a ‘red line’ and that the strikes were necessary to prevent Assad using chemical weapons again (a spurious argument I return to below). Meanwhile, in the UK many have expressed concern with the legality of the strikes, and particularly with Prime Ministers Teresa May’s decision to not consult Parliament before dropping bombs on Syria.
But this is not the first time that coalition forces have bombed Syria. Amid the political and media maelstrom over chemical weapons and the recent strikes in Damascus and Homs, it seems to have been forgotten that a broad military coalition has been dropping bombs in Syria since 2014. Domestic and international debates about whether the US, UK, and France should have bombed Syria last week have largely neglected the arguably more important fact that all of these states – and many more – have long been involved in a concerted bombing campaign in Syria.
In 2012, President Obama told the world that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in Syria would be “a red line for us”. Almost exactly a year later, Syria launched a brutal chemical attack in the eastern Ghouta suburb of Damascus, killing more than 1,500 people. Obama promised a response but opted for Congressional authorization, which was not forthcoming. Meanwhile, the UK Prime Minister David Cameron proposed a government motion to intervene in Syria, but the House of Commons voted against it. The West opted instead to endorse a plan to remove chemical weapons stocks from Syria. According to the US Department of Defense, Syria’s chemical arsenal was fully destroyed within a year. There would be no military intervention, for now.
In June 2014 the so-called Islamic State burst onto the world scene, declaring itself a worldwide caliphate and seizing control of Mosul and other cities in Iraq. The US moved swiftly and by August 2014 began conducting airstrikes against the Islamic State. Most of the initial strikes were focused on the Islamic State in Iraq, but as the terrorist group advanced further and further into territories in Syria, so the bombs soon followed. The wars in Iraq and Syria increasingly became one. What began as a series of ad hoc US airstrikes in Iraq and Syria soon developed into an extensive and formalised coalition of bombing.
In October 2014 the United States established the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR), a coalition designed to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State. The Coalition mandate covered both Iraq and Syria. At first, the UK’s Royal Air Force was limited to striking targets in Iraq (though it was flying surveillance missions over Syria as early as October 2014). But in December 2015, the UK Parliament that had only one year earlier voted against military action against the Assad regime approved military strikes against the Islamic State in Syria. Operation Inherent Resolve, now well into its fourth year, consists of more than sixty coalition partners, including all NATO members and many local forces on the ground and in the region. Thirteen of these coalition members are bombing in Syria – along with the air forces of Russia, Iran, Iraq, Israel and the Assad regime. The UK plays a key role in the Coalition and is second only to the US in terms of the number of airstrikes it has conducted in Iraq and Syria.
Making sense of the coalition bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria is not easy. Although the US Department of Defense has periodically released data about US and coalition airstrikes, it is patchy at best and the methods of reporting have been inconsistent and incomplete. Compounding difficulties is the fact that several coalition members also disclose their individual military activities in Iraq and Syria – but each have their own method for doing so, and they disclose and withhold different information. The result is a complex bombing space that is characteristic of modern multinational military operations, but it has meant that extra efforts have had to be made to render even the basics of the battlespace somewhat transparent.
A series of organisations have rushed to fill the information vacuum in terms of counting airstrikes and their casualties. Airwars.org, a not-for-profit transparency project aimed “both at tracking and archiving international military actions in conflict zones such as Iraq, Syria and Libya”, has been tracking the coalition bombing campaign since it began in 2014. Its dataset and findings serve as an important reminder that there is an extensive and concerning recent history to the bombing of Syria, not to mention Iraq.
As of August 9, 2017, the coalition had conducted 13,331 strikes in Iraq, and 11,235 strikes in Syria, totalling 24,566 strikes in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. According to the US Air Force, the Coalition has fired over well over 100,000 weapons as part of the operation. This is a lot of bombs by any measure, but what is especially concerning about the ongoing bombing campaign against the Islamic State is that it has caused a high number of civilian casualties.
Between 8 August 2014 and 31 March 2018, Airwars has found that an overall total of between 17,383 and 25,839 civilian non-combatant fatalities have been locally alleged from 2,493 separate reported coalition incidents, in both Iraq and Syria. Of these, Airwars estimates that a minimum of 6,259 to 9,604 civilians are likely to have been killed in Coalition actions. The organisation urges some caution with these numbers because of the significant challenges posed by casualty verification, but their rigorous methodology classifies these civilian casualties as a combination of “confirmed” and “likely”. The Coalition itself has so far confirmed that 770 civilians have been killed as a result of its operations, but is currently investigating many more incidents.
The US and UK pride themselves on their commitment to minimise civilian casualties, but there is always a high risk to civilians in warfare. The US military uses something called the “Non-Combatant Casualty Cut-off Value”, a term that denotes “a threshold above which the U.S. will hesitate to strike because there is a likelihood that too many civilians will be killed or injured.” In the early days of the bombing of Baghdad in 2003 “the magic number was 30”, according to Marc Garlasco, the Department of Defence’s chief of high-value targeting at the start of the Iraq war. This meant, “if you hit 30 as the anticipated number of civilians killed, the airstrike had to go to Rumsfeld or Bush personally to sign off.” If the expected number of civilian deaths was less than 30, however, neither the president nor the secretary of defense needed to know: the civilians were killed without the need for higher approval. The "magic number" has gone up and down since the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, depending on the political and military circumstance of the day. In 2015, when tolerance for civilian casualties was unprecedentedly low the NCV was lowered to zero. By the US militaries’ own admission, this objective “was not met”. But in early 2016 worrying reports emerged that the US had relaxed its rules of engagement for targeting specific sites where the Islamic State was storing cash. CNN’s Barbara Starr reported, “U.S. commanders had been willing to consider up to 50 civilian casualties from the airstrike due to the importance of the target”, adding that “the U.S. has said it will assess all targets on a case-by-case basis and may be more willing to tolerate civilians casualties for more significant targets."
In light of the vexed issue of civilian casualties, Professor Neta C. Crawford, a Political Scientist at Boston University and Director of the Costs of War Project has asked: “How Many Iraqi and Syrian civilians is it acceptable for the U.S. to put at risk of injury or death in air strikes against ISIS militants?” This is not an easy question to answer, but it points to a painfully inevitable cost of the ongoing bombing campaigns in Syria and beyond – one that is seldom discussed outside of a small group of concerned organisations but which should surely factor into any future decisions about bombing Syria – or anywhere else.
As the latest salvo of bombs rain down on Syria three final points are worth making. First, bombing in Syria nothing new. The people of Syria have endured eight years of aerial assault, a punishing siege regime, and conditions of war unimaginable to ‘us’ in the West. Over 500,000 people have been killed and over half of the Syrian population has been displaced. The Syrian regime is responsible for the overwhelming amount of death and destruction, and so too are Russia and Iran for supporting Assad. Russia’s track record of bombing in Syria is no better – and is likely worse – than that of the US or any Coalition member in terms of civilian casualties (Airwars also tracks Russian airstrikes in Syria, as does the citizen-journalist site Bellingcat). There is a palpable sense in which Syria is now seen simply and narrowly as a space that must be bombed – this is a view shared not just by the Assad regime, but by the many international actors who have done their part to turn Syria into a bombspace. Syria as bombspace bears more than a passing resemblance to the charred rubble and destroyed cities of the second world war; cities like Aleppo, Homs, Hama and, more recently, the suburb of Ghouta are the twenty-first century equivilants of Dresden, Hamburg, and Coventry.
Second, the US-led bombing of Syria was not born out of some humanitarian conviction for the people of Syria, even less the desire to prevent the Syrian regime from using a toxic and cruel mix of chemical weapons, barrel and cluster bombs, and a suite of conventional - but no less deadly - weapons. Indeed, as Derek Gregory over at geographicalimaginations.com reminds me, the so-called 'red line' over chemical weapons and the military response to chemical warfare tacitly legitimises the many other forms of killing in the Assad repetoir. 'Red lines' on chemical weapons give a green light to all other weapons and methods of killing. The US and Coalition partners began bombing Syria because of their strategic geopolitical interests in the region, and to stamp-out the Islamic State. The latter serves the interests of both the Syrian regime and Russia, because while the Coaltion is busy bombing the Islamic State, they have been able to focus on their war with the Syrian opposition.
The strikes last week have conflated two vastly different strategies, if not entirely different wars – and this brings me to the final point. The International Crisis Group has rightly called the conflict in Syria a “constellation of overlapping crises”, but as far as the international Coalition is concerned there are two wars. The first war is between the Syrian regime and its people, and for the last eight years they have shown very little interest in it. The second war is the one against Islamic State and while the gaze of the Coalition - and global media - has been focused squarely on them, Assad and Russia have been left to their own devices, pursuing a brutal war not only on the opposion forces, but also the Syrian people and the infrastructures that once sustained them.
Defeating the Islamic State, and not alleviating the “extreme humanitarian suffering of the Syrian people” as the UK Government would have it, is the geopolitical endgame of our contemporary bombing in Syria. If, indeed, there is an endgame at all.