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How Many Civilians Has The U.S. Coalition Killed Bombing ISIS?

The Pentagon says six. An independent monitoring group says at least 680—and possibly more
Nov 24, 2015 at 5:03 PM ET
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Weapons unleashed by American warplanes and its allies in the quest to crush the Islamic State have taken hundreds of innocent lives, but the U.S. claims the coalition is responsible for just a handful of them, a group monitoring the conflict alleges.

After 15 months and more than 8,400 airstrikes across Syria and Iraq the Pentagon now acknowledges that a total of six civilians, including three children, may have died from these attacks. That tiny figure has elicited a great deal of skepticism among Airwars, which tracks U.S.-led airstrikes against ISIS.

“Please, let’s not delude ourselves,” said Chris Woods, the director of the organization. “We’ve killed hundreds of civilians already. And we’ll likely kill hundreds more.”

According to its own data analysis, the British-based monitoring group estimates that U.S.-led warplanes have killed at least 680 civilians, and as many as 975, since its campaign against ISIS began in August 2014. American allies in the fight have included France, Canada and 11 other countries.

Airwars compiles its civilian deaths figures by analyzing and cross-referencing a range of sources, including local media reports, military and government officials and social media, Woods said. The group also reviews accounts by activists and organizations on the ground who confirm the identities of the dead through relatives and local officials. These other organizations include: Syrian Observatory for Human Rights; Syrian Network for Human Rights; Syria Violations Documentation Center; Raqaa is Being Slaughtered Silently; Iraq Body Count, and; Antiwar.com. 

On its website, Airwars includes a complete database of all alleged civilian deaths in Syria and Iraq. The group has established a grading system to rate the accuracy of the casualty reports it reviews with five levels of reliability: confirmed, fair, poor, contested events and disproven. Based on reports deemed “confirmed” or “fair,” coalition warplanes have killed civilians in 111 separate airstrikes, according to Airwars tallies.

To date, the Pentagon has admitted to killing civilians in only two U.S.-led airstrikes. A pair of young girls were “likely” killed by American warplanes in the Syrian village of Harem in November 2014, a declassified report by U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) concluded. On Nov. 20, CENTCOM published a newly declassified investigation that found four civilians, including one child, likely died during an American strike on an ISIS checkpoint in Hatra, Iraq last March.

“We receive and review all allegations of civilian casualties seriously and perform due diligence to obtain credible information and evidence as it is available and possible.” Lt. Cmdr Ben Tisdale, a CENTCOM spokesman, told Vocativ in an email.  “We cannot verify other agencies data, but do our utmost to conduct military operations that minimize civilian casualties.”

Military officials estimate that coalition airstrikes in Syria and have killed more than 15,000 ISIS fighters since the bombing campaign began, according to reports.

For months, the U.S. has been outspoken about its coalition’s success in minimizing civilian deaths during its war against the Islamic State. It has also repeatedly accused Russia’s own air campaign in Syria, which has targeted ISIS strongholds as well as rebel groups battling forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, for being too careless when it comes to sparing innocent lives.

“We would again ask our Russian partners to exercise the care the coalition is taking, in terms of trying to minimize civilian casualties,” CENTCOM spokesman Col. Pat Ryder told reporters earlier this month. “The reason the coalition is fighting [ISIS] is to protect and defend the civilian population that has been so brutalized by [ISIS].”

A recent Vocativ report showed how Moscow’s first month of airstrikes in Syria killed more civilians than Islamic State militants.

Woods acknowledged that the U.S. airstrikes have become far more precise in recent years, but called the six civilians deaths acknowledged by the Pentagon “pure fantasy.” Woods added that underreported figures ultimately limits the credibility of the U.S. military and its allies, which, in turn, could become a powerful propaganda tool for the Islamic State.

“The coalition is probably taking unprecedented steps to limit civilian casualties,” Woods said. “But, unfortunately, innocent people are still dying. It’s time we become much more honest about that.”