With its latest official declaration estimating the number of innocent people killed by airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, the U.S. military has admitted killing 484 civilians since beginning a bombing campaign and ground operations to unseat the Islamic State (ISIS) from strongholds in the two countries.
Though that number is far lower than estimates put forth by independent monitoring groups, the death toll reveals rising casualty levels as the U.S.-led coalition has reportedly loosened restrictions and engagement protocols under President Donald Trump.
"With the vast majority of strikes hitting territory under [ISIS] control," the Independent notes, "the true number of casualties and the victims' identities are difficult to verify." But according to Airwars, a UK-based watchdog group which monitors the conflict for civilian deaths, at least 3,800 civilians have been killed by coalition attacks since 2014, with the rate of deaths rising since January of this year.
In a statement, US Central Command (CentCom) on Friday claimed the killing of innocent people is "unavoidable" in some circumstances even though it claimed to make "extraordinary efforts to strike military targets in a manner that minimizes the risk of civilian casualties."
Days earlier, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein publicly urged the Iraqi military and the U.S.-led forces fighting ISIS to be much more vigilant in distinguishing between legitimate military targets and civilians.
"The rising toll of civilian deaths and injuries already caused by airstrikes in Deir-ez-Zor and Al-Raqqa suggests that insufficient precautions may have been taken in the attacks," Zeid said, referencing a recent pair of airstrikes, each of which claimed scores of innocent lives.
"Just because ISIS holds an area does not mean less care can be taken," he added. "Civilians should always be protected, whether they are in areas controlled by ISIS or by any other party."
Over the weekend it was reported that U.S.-backed militia forces in Syria had defeated ISIS militants in key areas near Raqqa and last week an unnamed Pentagon official told the Washington Examiner that "shit is about to go down in Raqqa," indicating a full-scale assault on the city could begin within days.
According to recent reporting by The Intercept's Murtaza Hussain, the U.S. has recently ramped up its bombing campaign near Raqqa with "civilians paying the price." Hussain chronicled the recent killing of the al-Aish family—which included "three women between the ages of 23 and 40, and five children, the youngest one just 6 months old." The family, along with several others, was attempting to flee Raqqa when their car was bombed by a coalition airstrike.
Additionally troubling, Hussain noted, was that for those caught between ISIS and U.S.-coalition forces, life is likely to become even more treacherous in the weeks and months ahead. He reported:
worse days for civilians in northern Syria could still be ahead, as the United States and its allies prepare for a terminal offensive against Raqqa — the last urban stronghold of ISIS and the capital of its deteriorating proto-state.
"Rarely a day goes by now when we don’t see three or four civilian casualty incidents attributed to coalition airstrikes around Raqqa," Airwars director Chris Woods told The Intercept. "All of the local monitoring groups are now reporting that the coalition is killing more civilians than Russia on a regular basis."
And when Woods refers to the coalition in Syria, he is largely referring to the United States. Based on announcements from U.S. Central Command, Airwars estimates that the overwhelming majority of coalition strikes have come from U.S. warplanes.
But in contrast to Iraq, where the coalition is providing air support for local forces fighting to retake the city of Mosul, there has been little public attention paid to the air campaign in Syria. "We have been killing a lot of civilians in and around Raqqa for quite some time now, yet these incidents are rarely admitted by the coalition and there is almost no interest from international media," Woods says. "We have to question where the empathy is for the local population."