In response to the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons in the city of Douma on April 7 2018, the US, the UK and France recently launched missile strikes against targets in the cities of Damascus and Homs. The coalition fired around 100 missiles in total, reportedly destroying key chemical weapons research and production facilities.
The ensuing domestic and international debates about whether this should have been done have largely neglected an arguably much more important fact: in one way or another, the US, the UK and France – and many countries besides – have been involved in a concerted bombing campaign in Syria since 2014.
In 2012, President Barack 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 Ghouta, killing more than 1,500 people. Obama promised a response, but not without Congressional authorisation, which was not forthcoming. When the British House of Commons voted down then Prime Minister David Cameron’s motion to intervene in Syria, it seemed to take the wind out of Obama’s sails.
Instead of military action, the West opted instead to endorse a Russian-brokered plan to remove and destroy the Syrian government’s chemical weapons stocks. According to the US Department of Defence, the arsenal was fully destroyed within a year. There would be no military intervention, for now.
But things changed in June 2014, when the so-called Islamic State (IS) seized control of Mosul and other cities in Iraq and proclaimed itself the centre of a worldwide caliphate. This time the US moved swiftly, and by August 2014 was conducting airstrikes on IS targets. Most of the initial strikes were focused on Iraq, but the bombs followed the terrorist group as it captured territories in Syria. What began as a series of ad hoc US airstrikes in Iraq and Syria soon turned into something much more.
In October 2014, the US established the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve, a coalition with a mission to “degrade and ultimately destroy” IS. In December 2015, just a year after voting against military action against the Assad regime, the UK’s House of Commons approved military strikes against IS in Syria.
Now well into its fourth year, Operation Inherent Resolve consists of more than 60 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, as are the air forces of Russia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, and the Assad government. 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.
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 reports are an important reminder that there is an extensive and concerning recent history to the bombing of Syria.
As of August 9 2017, Operation Inherent Resolve had conducted 13,331 strikes in Iraq and 11,235 strikes in Syria. According to the US Air Force, the coalition has fired well over 100,000 weapons as part of the operation. That’s a lot of bombs by any measure – but especially concerning is the fact that they have caused a high number of civilian casualties.
Airwars found that between August 8 2014 and March 31 2018, 6,259 to 9,604 civilians are “likely to have died in coalition actions”. The organisation urges caution with these numbers because of the significant challenges of casualty verification, but their rigorous methodology classifies these as a combination of “confirmed” and “likely”. The coalition itself confirmed that as of March 2018, at least 855 civilians have been killed as a result of its operations, but it is currently investigating over 500 more reports of civilian casualties.
The US and UK pride themselves on their commitment to minimise civilian casualties, but warfare inevitably carries the risk that civilians will be killed. Neta C. Crawford, a political scientist at Boston University and director of the Costs of War Project, put it this way: “How Many Iraqi and Syrian civilians is it acceptable for the US to put at risk of injury or death in air strikes against IS militants?”
This is not an easy question to answer, but it points to an inevitable cost of the ongoing bombing campaigns in Syria and beyond. This cost is seldom discussed outside of a small group of concerned organisations, but it should surely factor into any future decisions about bombing Syria – or indeed, anywhere else.
The people of Syria have now endured eight years of devastating war. It’s true that the Syrian regime is responsible for the overwhelming majority of the death and destruction, with Russia and Iran complicit thanks to their support for Assad. In terms of civilians killed, Russia’s track record of bombing in Syria is no better than the US-led coalition’s; indeed, it’s probably worse.
But that doesn’t imply that the US-led bombing campaign in Syria was born out of some humanitarian concern for the people of Syria, or a desire to stop the Syrian regime from using its chemical weapons and barrel bombs. It was born of an imperative to halt IS’s steady advance and ultimately destroy it. The UK government justified its latest strikes as an attempt to alleviate the “extreme humanitarian suffering of the Syrian people”, but this is certainly not what convinced the West to start bombing Syria in the first place.
If gross humanitarian suffering is what’s at issue here, the coalition’s nearly four years of aerial strikes deserve serious scrutiny too.