July 19, 2016; The Intercept
Following a Western coalition bombing in Syria on Tuesday, nonprofits are reporting what is potentially the highest civilian death toll since the international campaign to fight ISIS began two years ago. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), at least 56 civilians, including 11 children, were killed on Tuesday when officials believe their vehicles were hit as they were escaping out of the city of Manbij in Northern Syria and the surrounding area, where an ISIS headquarters is located. Since May, 104 civilians have been killed in conflict with ISIS.
“These civilians are in a desperate situation,” said Chris Woods, the leader of Airwars, a nonprofit that monitors international airstrikes against ISIS. “We’ve never seen anything like this.” According to Airwars, reports indicate the final death toll in the airstrike may total more than 100. (Residents of the city are alleging the death toll is closer to 200.) If it does hit that mark, this airstrike will have produced the highest civilian death toll in the fight against ISIS. In a statement by SOHR, the airstrike was described as a “massacre” that wounded “tens of others.” SOHR also said the individuals had been running from Manbij escaping ISIS when they were killed.
For its part, the U.S. military has confirmed it is “reviewing” the circumstances of the airstrike, but its statement regarding the airstrikes did not include any mention of the civilians that were killed. The statement instead says, “Near Manbij, three strikes struck three separate ISIL tactical units and destroyed nine ISIL fighting positions, an ISIL command and control node, and 12 ISIL vehicles.”
“We are aware of reports alleging civilian casualties in the area,” said Pentagon spokesman U.S. Marine Maj. Adrian J.T. Rankine-Galloway in an emailed statement. “As with any allegation we receive, we will review any information we have about the incident, including information provided by third parties, such as the proximity of the location to CJTF [Combined Joint Task Force] airstrikes, and any other relevant information presented.”
He went on to say, “If the information supporting the allegation is determined to be credible, we will then determine the next appropriate step. We take all measures during the targeting process to avoid or minimize civilian casualties or collateral damage and to comply with the principles of the Law of Armed Conflict.”
Sign up for our free newsletter
Subscribe to the NPQ newsletter to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.
However, the U.S. military has only confirmed 36 civilian deaths since last summer, a number that many who are monitoring the airstrikes say is far too low given the numerous airstrikes that take place daily. Instead, Airwars estimates the total is at least 1,422 civilians in both Iraq and Syria.
Despite the potential of loss of civilian life, the U.S. has been attempting to overtake Manbij as a major ISIS stronghold since May, and has been pushing aggressively with over 450 coalition strikes, according to the Intercept.
According to Woods, this attack may presage more civilian casualties as forces continue to overtake ISIS territories, such as Mosul, Iraq’s largest city currently occupied by ISIS.
“This is the first big assault with a U.S.-backed proxy,” said Woods from Airwars. “This bodes very badly for Mosul. Major alarm bells are ringing for us right now. There’s something very, very bad happening out there at the moment.”
While Western coalitions continue their offensive against the city, residents of Manbij are caught and trapped by ISIS forces. “Manbij is full of residents, a quarter of a million residents, used by ISIL as human shields. Yesterday, the coalition struck the al-Zahuna neighborhood, where more than 23 people were killed. Then it struck the western gate of the city, killing people,” said Hasan al-Nifi, a community leader in Manbij.
Tuesday’s airstrikes and their devastating consequences illustrate how civilians are often getting caught in the attacks. NPQ has been following the aftermath of several attacks on hospital clinics not only by Western forces, including the bombing of an Afghanistan Doctors Without Borders clinic in October, but also suspected intentional bombings on hospitals by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.—Shafaq Hasan