The politics of civilian casualties in Syria and Iraq
The British government makes a great deal out of its claim that there have been no, I repeat no, civilian fatalities in Iraq in the current war on ISIS after a year’s bombing. This it claimed, can be replicated in Syria with no to low casualties. David Cameron told Parliament that British weapons were more accurate and were needed to keep civilian casualties to a minimum
“We have the Brimstone precision missile system, which enables us to strike accurately with minimal collateral damage – something that even the Americans do not have.
The RAPTOR pod on our Tornado aircraft has no rival…”
As I argued in the Independent on Sunday (29 November 2015), “British arms experts would have been purring at the way the Prime Minister lauded these miracle bombs. He made it sound as if we can fly a missile down a drainpipe and toast a cockroach at 5,000 miles.”
Missiles and bombs are totally dependent on the intelligence that selects the target. The absence of ground forces in eastern Syria where ISIS is largely based is a concern. Moreover, since the start of the Syria crisis, the lack of strong accurate intelligence on Syria in the US and Europe has been startling. After all, Western leaders were predicting Assad’s departure almost ritually until recently.
The claim that UK attacks in Iraq have not led to civilian fatalities is highly questionable. Verifying this is nigh impossible as it will also be in many areas of Syria. There are no ground forces to do this for a start. ISIS is hardly a credible source.
Low civilian casualties also runs against historical trends. A hundred years ago the civilian casualty rate was about 10%. In recent wars this has risen to anywhere between 60-90% typically. In every conflict the civilian fatality count has been hotly debated. Israel disputes the high civilian count in Gaza after its four wars in the last decade. In Iraq the number of fatalities from 2003 varies anywhere from 150,000 to over a million.
But there are other questions over civilians. The age-old question of who is a combatant and who is a civilian? ISIS do not wear uniforms. Other people do carry guns. Children have also been used in this war – but should child soldiers be targeted? How can pilots be sure? How can those operating the drones?
What if ISIS fighters are caught? As this is a war will those captured be treated as POWs under the Third Geneva Convention or as unlawful combatants?
Who determines what is an acceptable target? Civilian infrastructure is used by ISIS and civilians. The oil infrastructure has been bombed but civilians are also dependent on that fuel not least with winter approaching. Already diseases are spreading and any further damage to the health infrastructure such as it is will only exacerbate that.
What happens also when ISIS uses civilian human shields at sensitive sites? They are bound to do so.
ISIS will also use any civilian fatalities for its own propaganda via its sophisticated social media networks. Those on the ground will not be able to differentiate which bombs are Russian, French, American or British. The risk is all will get blamed and as many have pointed out, Russian weaponry is nowhere near as precise.
Then what responsibilities does Britain have to those civilians who die and get injured? Channel 4 News produced an exclusive report that highlighted how Britain has treated casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. On average the UK offered a miserly £2000 compensation in cases where the authorities accepted some responsibility. The family of an 8-year-old girl in Afghanistan who was killed in an airstrike received just £666.67.
Ultimately how Britain and its allies treat civilians in Iraq and Syria matters hugely in how we are seen in the world. It will also play hugely in the ideological struggle against extremist Jihadi groups like ISIS and Al Qaida. The UK and its allies must be and must be seen to be on the side of civilians. If not, it risks being a victory for extremists.