News & views | 16 February 2018 | by Wilbert van der Zeijden1
Al Bahra, Syria: alleged Coalition strikes show worrying disregard for civilians
By Wilbert van der Zeijden and Koen Kluessien
Last week, Airwars reported on a multi-day airstrike campaign on the rural town of Al Bahra. The all-source monitoring organisation assessed local sources claiming dozens of civilians killed and injured, including many women and children. Sources state the Coalition hit a school, a makeshift hospital and several other structures in the village over the course of a week. Indeed, in its weekly report the Coalition confirmed it has deployed weapons “near Abu Kamal”, a city not too far from Al Bahra. Attacks on schools and hospitals during conflict are among the six grave violations identified and condemned by the UN Security Council.
ISIS has released videos detailing its own reporting of the incidents, leading some sources to believe the casualties, or at least some of them, are relatives of jihadist combatants. All sources agree that that many of those who perished were women and children.
Syrian local sources Euphrates Post and the Damascus Center for Human Rights separately published detailed lists of 40 casualties, including 13 women and 20 children – babies and toddlers among them. According to the sources, the listed casualties were “displaced from the town of Safira in the countryside of Aleppo”. Many of the people commenting on the list provided by Euphrates mention that the casualties were ISIS families.
There are several worrying aspects to this story. First of all, what happened in Al Bahra is not an unfortunate, one-off incident, nor the result of an error of judgement or a technical error. The village was bombarded several times over the course of a week. All this is difficult to reconcile with recent Coalition statements:
“The Coalition strikes only valid military targets, after considering principles of military necessity, humanity, proportionality and distinction. We apply rigorous standards to our targeting process – and pilots can and do decide not to strike if they have any reasons to believe there is a risk of causing civilian casualties.”
If these rigorous standards were applied, it must have been clear at some point during the operation that civilians were dying as a result of the Coalition’s own actions. It is even harder to imagine that these standards were not applied, because if that is the case, the week-long operation would appear to have involved a deliberate targeting of structures likely involving civilians protected under international law. A war crime.
A second worry is that in the last stages of retaking cities and towns previously held by ISIS, support for a strong emphasis on the protection of all non-combatants during operations is eroding among Western political and military establishments.
The beliefs – or even actions – of a family member can never count as an excuse for the killing of children or relatives not actively participating in combat. Children are not accountable for their own actions, let alone those of their parents.
The Coalition must carefully reconsider the methods of warfare used in this phase of the mission. Now that the main military campaign is over and 98% of the land ISIS once claimed has been retaken, the choices of method we now witness, including the bombing of populated areas, seem excessive.
Many of the members of the Coalition have recent experience with the longer term, negative strategic effects of the failure to protect civilians in conflict, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere. It is important that these mistakes are not repeated in Syria, because if the Coalition fails to maintain the highest standards of civilian harm prevention and mitigation, for all civilians in conflict, massacres like Al Bahra will provide ammunition to the disenfranchised population groups in Syria and Iraq who not only feel unprotected, but can now convincingly show they are.