In the run-up to November’s US election, a sub-plot of the Trump campaign will be his claimed success at “bringing our boys back”. And indeed there will have been substantial troop withdrawals from Afghanistan as well as a more modest drawdown in Iraq, although that will still involve a reduction from 5,200 to 3,500.
Some of the Iraqi changes are redeployments to neighbouring states but there has certainly been an overall decrease in Afghanistan, even if few figures are available about the thousands of private security personnel operating under various government contracts. Continue reading →
An M-ATV used by U.S. forces near [[Manbij]], [[Syria]], July 2018. Photo: Public domain
Pentagon officials asserted Thursday U.S. military authority over Syrian oil fields because U.S. forces are acting under the goal of “protecting Americans from terrorist activity” and would be within their rights to shoot a representative of the Syrian government who attempted to retake control over that country’s national resource.
The comments came from Pentagon spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman and Navy Rear Admiral William D. Byrne Jr. during a press briefing in which the two men were asked repeatedly about the legal basis the U.S. is claiming to control Syrian oil fields. Continue reading →
From the moment Trump ordered U.S. troops to withdraw from Syria, Turkey wasted no time in launching an invasion of northern Syria. To understand the geopolitical stakes, I asked four people close to the situation for their assessments:
Salih Muslim, is spokesperson for the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in northern Syria. Fehim Taştekin, is an analyst and journalist, based in Vienna. Agit Polat, is spokesperson for the Kurdish Democratic Council in France (CDK-F) and based in Paris. Raphaël Lebrujah, is a journalist in Qamishlo.
A protest in support of the Kurds in front of the Turkish Embassy in Seattle. Photo: Amy Moreno/Twitter
Kurdish forces in northern Syria announced Sunday that the Syrian government has agreed to deploy troops to battle an ongoing Turkish offensive against the Kurds after U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper confirmed that President Donald Trump has ordered the withdrawal of the remaining 1,000 American troops in the region.
Following a call with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last weekend, Trump withdrew about 50 U.S. troops from the Turkey-Syria border. Critics accused Trump of betraying Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who allied with the United States in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). Turkey on Wednesday launched airstrikes and ground incursions targeting Kurdish-held areas. Continue reading →
Turkey’s offensive into Syria bears all the hallmarks of a potential crime. It is also has the added uncertain elements of a potential regrouping of the remnants of the Islamic State’s caliphate, as thousands of prisoners could end up being freed once key positions are abandoned by Kurdish forces, or overrun by Turkey.
Yet no one seems to be asking if in fact this is one of the covert aims of the offensive, given Turkey has been heavily documented as a key backer of ISIS forces in Syria for years. Sounds absurd, but we are talking about a regime who was caught providing ISIS fighters with medical treatment. Continue reading →
raqi President Barham Salih speaking in an interview that aired Tuesday with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. (Screengrab/CNN)
Iraqi President Barham Salih said Tuesday that the United States has no right to use his country as a launchpad for a strike against Iran.
Salih, in his interview with CNN‘s Christiane Amanpour, also talked about the adverse impacts his own country has felt as a result of U.S. imposed sanctions, stressed the need to prevent another war, and warned that tearing up the nuclear deal entirely “could be disastrous for the entire neighborhood as a whole.” Continue reading →
Dr. Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad were awarded the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize on Friday in recognition of their work to end sexual violence as a weapon of war. (Photo: European Parliament/Bundesministerium für Europa/Flickr/cc)
Two influential figures in the fight against sexual violence as a weapon of war were chosen as 2018’s recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday.
Dr. Denis Mukwege was recognized for treating victims of rape, while Nadia Murad, a Yazidi woman who has spoken out about being held as a sex slave by ISIS, was awarded the prize for her work as a human rights campaigner following her experience. Continue reading →
On Saturday, the Defense Postreported that the U.S.-led coalition in Syria was building a 30,000-member “border force,” made up predominantly of Kurdish and Arab Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), as well as some unspecified new recruits.
“The Coalition is working jointly with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to establish and train the new Syrian Border Security Force (BSF). Currently, there are approximately 230 individuals training in the BSF’s inaugural class, with the goal of a final force size of approximately 30,000,” CJTF-OIR Public Affairs Officer Colonel Thomas F. Veale told Defense Post. Continue reading →
When President Donald Trump took office in January, it was unclear whether the bombast from his campaign would translate into an aggressive new strategy against terrorism. At campaign rallies he pledged to “bomb the hell” out of the Islamic State. He openly mused about killing the families of terrorists, a blatant violation of the Geneva Conventions, which prohibits violence against noncombatants.
Ten months into his presidency, a clearer picture is emerging. The data indicate several alarming trends.
According to research from the nonprofit monitoring group Airwars, the first seven months of the Trump administration have already resulted in more civilian deaths than under the entirety of the Obama administration. Airwars reports that under Obama’s leadership, the fight against IS led to approximately 2,300 to 3,400 civilian deaths. Through the first seven months of the Trump administration, they estimate that coalition air strikes have killed between 2,800 and 4,500 civilians.
Researchers also point to another stunning trend – the “frequent killing of entire families in likely coalition airstrikes.” In May, for example, such actions led to the deaths of at least 57 women and 52 children in Iraq and Syria.
The vast increase in civilian deaths is not limited to the anti-IS campaign. In Afghanistan, the U.N. reports a 67 percent increase in civilian deaths from U.S. airstrikes in the first six months of 2017 compared to the first half of 2016.
The key question is: Why? Are these increases due to a change in leadership?
Delegating war to the military
Experts offer several explanations.
One holds that Trump’s “total authorization” for the military to run wars in Afghanistan and against IS has loosened Obama-era restrictions and increased military commanders’ risk tolerance. Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations notes: “Those closer to the fight are more likely to call in lethal force and are less likely to follow a value-based approach.”
In other words, an intense focus on destroying IS elements may be overriding the competing priority of protecting civilians. Because Trump has scaled back civilian oversight and delegated authority to colonels rather than one-star generals, the likely result is higher casualties.
A second explanation points to the changing nature of the counter-IS campaign. The Pentagon contends that the rise in casualties is “attributable to the change in location” of battlefield operations towards more densely populated urban environments like Mosul and Raqqa.
This is a partial truth. While urban warfare has increased, Trump’s team has substantially escalated air strikes and bombings. According to CENTCOM data, the military has already used 20 percent more missiles and bombs in combined air operations in 2017 than in all of 2016. One notable airstrike in March, for example, killed 105 Iraqi civilians when U.S. forces dropped a 500-pound bomb in order to take out two snipers in Mosul. In fact, a Human Rights Watch analysis of bomb craters in West Mosul estimates that U.S. coalition forces are routinely using larger and less precise bombs – weighing between 500 and 1,000 pounds – than in prior operations. Finally, the urban battlefield explanation also does not account for increased civilian deaths in Afghanistan from airstrikes, where the environment has remained static for several years.
Pressure from the president
A third explanation of higher civilian casualties is that aggressive rhetoric from the president is inadvertently pressuring the military to take more risks and to deprioritize protecting civilians.
As former Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski observes: “If your leaders are emphasizing the high value of Raqqa and Mosul, while saying less about the strategic and moral risks of hurting civilians, it’s going to affect your judgment.” Words matter, especially coming from the commander-in-chief. In the face of such aggressive rhetoric, it should not come as a surprise that military officers feel encouraged – if not indirectly pressured – to take greater risks.
Unfortunately, the increased trend of civilian casualties is unlikely to diminish. In fact, signs abound that the White House is developing a new set of policies and procedures that will authorize more sweeping discretion to the military. In September, The New York Times reported that White House officials were proposing two major rules changes. First, they would expand the scope of “kill missions” and allow for the targeting of lower-level terrorists in addition to high value targets. Second – and more notably – they would suspend high-level vetting of potential drone attacks and raids.
Then, in 2016, Obama issued an executive order on civilian harm that established heightened standards to minimize civilian casualties from military actions, and required the public release of information pertaining to strikes against terrorist targets.
While the latest actions from the Trump administration stop short of reversing Obama-era restraints, they are unsettling steps in the opposite direction. For example, it appears for now that the White House will preserve the “near certainty” standard, which requires commanders to have near certainty that a potential strike will not impact civilians. But this could change over time.
One senior official quoted in The New York Times article bluntly asserts that the latest changes are intended to make much of the “bureaucracy” created by the Obama administration rules “disappear.” As the White House dissolves the existing bureaucracy and relinquishes civilian oversight, Trump is embarking on a slippery slope that will potentially lead to major diminutions of civilian protection.
The current battle to take the Syrian city of Raqqa is emblematic of the stakes at hand. The U.S. is leading a punishing air war to soften IS defenses. In August, U.S. forces dropped 5,775 bombs and missiles onto the city. For context, this represented 10 times more munitions than the U.S. used for the whole of Afghanistan in the same month and year. The resulting civilian toll has been gruesome. At least 433 civilians likely died in Raqqa due to the August bombings, more than double the previous month’s total. Since the assault on Raqqa commenced on June 6, more than 1,000 civilians have been reported killed.
U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein cautions that the intense bombardment has left civilians caught between IS’s monstrosities and the fierce battle to defeat it. Zeid insists that “civilians must not be sacrificed for the sake of rapid military victories.”
Trump would be wise to heed this warning. Even as U.S. forces continue to turn the tide on IS, the trail of destruction left in the campaign’s wake is unsettling. The specter of massive civilian casualties will remain a rallying point for new terrorist organizations long after anti-IS operations conclude.
Reports indicate that in the past week, at least 170 civilians—including dozens of women and children—have been killed by the U.S.-led airwar in Raqqa, a Syrian city controlled by the Islamic State (ISIS). (Photo: @Raqqa_SL/Twitter)
As President Donald Trump expands the war in Afghanistan, which Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Tuesday is partly inspired by “successful” tactics used in the war against the Islamic State (ISIS), Reutersreports that in the past week alone, more than 170 civilians were killed by U.S.-led airstrikes in Raqqa, a Syrian city ISIS considers its capitol.
“The monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 42 people, including 19 children and 12 women, were killed on Monday in strikes that destroyed buildings where families were sheltering,” Reuters reports. The observatory claims this marks the single largest daily death toll since the U.S.-backed Syria Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of Kurdish and Arab militias, began their mission to capture Raqqa in June. Continue reading →