As the United States passes week seven of its expanded war on Iraq, and week two of air strikes across Syria, a critical question remains unanswered: Who exactly is dying in the air bombardments?
Many fear this question will remain unanswered. "I'm concerned that the U.S. is not held to the same standard as other countries when it comes to violating international law and killing civilians," Raed Jarrar, Policy Impact Coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee, told Common Dreams.
The U.S. military and government have provided virtually no information about civilian and combatant casualties and have denied on-the-ground reports that innocent people are being killed and wounded in the escalating attacks.
But this official version of events is contradicted by mounting reports from Syria. As recently as Monday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights announced that overnight U.S. coalition bombings of alleged ISIS positions in northern and eastern Syria took civilian lives, the exact number unspecified. Observatory director Rami Abdurrahman told the Associated Press that a strike on a grain silo in the town of Manbij in Aleppo province "killed only civilians there, workers at the site. There was no ISIS inside." He added that the bombings "destroyed the food that was stored there."
The U.S. military on Monday denied the civilian deaths to Reuters but presented no evidence backing its claims. A U.S. Central Command statement released Monday offered no further information about civilian or combatant deaths, stating that air strikes were conducted against a "ISIL vehicles within a staging area adjacent to an ISIL-held grain storage facility near Manbij," in addition to other targets.
The Observatory is not the only organization to sound the alarm on civilian deaths. Human Rights Watch released a report on Sunday that apparent U.S. missile strikes on Idlib in Syria on September 23 killed at least seven civilians. "Three local residents told Human Rights Watch that missiles killed at least two men, two women, and five children," reads the report. Video footage from local residents and the Shaam News Network, available on the HRW website, appear to verify that civilians were wounded and killed in the strikes. According to some estimates, as many as 24 civilians were killed in coalition air strikes on this day.
Pentagon Spokesperson Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby denied those civilian deaths as well, again offering no evidence. "This is a pretty remote area of the country, mostly just desert. It's not — it's not urban," he told the Associated Press. "We don't believe that there's much reason to be too concerned about any collateral damage, you know, to civilian property, that kind of thing."
But numerous journalists say their contacts corroborate reports of civilian deaths, including Foreign Policy's Shane Harris, who tweeted:
DOD says "unaware" of civilian casualties in Syria, but source w/ contacts there tells me at lat 10 killed in a strike NOT against ISIS.— Shane Harris (@shaneharris) September 23, 2014
The Pentagon has also claimed that civilians are spared in its ongoing bombings of Iraq, which now number over 240 strikes since August eighth. But the U.S. has offered no evidence backing this claim, and the National Iraqi News Agency has reported that civilians have died in U.S. strikes on the country. Numerous voices from Iraq and across the world warn that the renewed U.S. war in the country is bringing further militarization and death to ordinary Iraqi people, who are squeezed between siege from ISIS and strikes from above.
According to Jarrar, the failure of the U.S. to account for the Iraqis killed in the 2003 war raises serious concerns about U.S. accountability and honesty over who it kills. "There is strong evidence that the U.S.-led attacks have killed dozens of civilians in Syria in the last few weeks and killed tens and thousands of civilians in Iraq over the last decade, and we haven't seen any investigations into these crimes," said Jarrar. "There is no reason to believe the U.S. will investigate itself."
Robert Naiman, policy director for Just Foreign Policy, told Common Dreams, "There is a big danger here that U.S. air strikes in Syria are going to resemble the drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen in the sense that there is no accountability for who is killed. We have reports of civilian casualties from people in the area and the U.S. government says, 'No, they are bad guys.' There has to be some public accountability for what happens when there are allegations of civilian casualties."
According to Jarrar, the U.S. hand in civilian deaths extends beyond direct bombings. "The indirect U.S. intervention is left unchecked as well: U.S. training and funding and equipping proxy groups in Iraq and Syria. There is very strong evidence that many of the U.S. allies that have been receiving us military assistance and training and equipments have been committing gross human rights violations and the U.S. has not been held accountable."