War Crime: US-backed Rebels Ask US to Stop Bombing as Entire Families Are Killed in Syria Attack
July 23, 2016
AntiWar.com & Reuters & The Washington Post
The US-backed opposition umbrella group the Syrian National Coalition has called for the US to immediately suspend all airstrikes against Syria following an attack on the villages of Tokhar and Hoshariyeh. left 56 civilians dead. The Syrian Observatory has warned the final death toll is being revised upward and could be around 200. Rebels warned that "entire families had been wiped out," serving as a recruitment tool for ISIS and other Islamist factions.
US-Backed Rebels: US Must Suspend Airstrikes in Syria
Jason Ditz / AntiWar.com
(July 21, 2016) -- The US-backed opposition umbrella group the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) has issued a statement today calling for the US to immediately suspend all airstrikes against Syria for the duration of investigations into this week's airstrikes around the city of Manbij.
The strikes, on Tuesday morning, targeted the villages of Tokhar and Hoshariyeh. 56 civilians were reported killed at the time by the Syrian Observatory, though the final toll kept being revised upward, and could now be around 200.
The SNC insisted that the strikes absolutely have to stop because the huge death toll is serving as a recruitment tool for ISIS and other Islamist factions.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter promised to "look into" the killing but neither he nor anyone else in the Pentagon suggested any changes would be made. There were conflicting reports about what nations involved in the US-led coalition were involved in the attacks, though France was also repeatedly mentioned. French officials insist they have no idea if they were involved or not, but that they're always "very careful."
That pledge of "care" reflects claims from Pentagon officials, who insisted the current war is the most accurate ever. That's been the official narrative of several US wars in recent years, and is in keeping with Centcom's policy of blanket denials of most of their deadliest salvos in Syria and Iraq.
Officially, the US has admitted to only a handful of civilians killed in the entire ISIS war, though rights groups have put the toll at several hundred, a figure that is only rising as the US does away with restrictions on targeting.
Syrian Opposition Calls for Suspension of US-led Air Strikes
Dominic Evans / Reuters
(July 21, 2016) -- The head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition called for a suspension of the US-led air campaign against Islamic State in Syria while reports of dozens of civilian deaths from air strikes around the northern city of Manbij are investigated.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 56 civilians were killed in air strikes north of Manbij on Tuesday, a day after it said 21 civilians were killed in a northern district of the besieged, Islamic State-held city.
SNC president Anas al-Abdah said the strikes should be halted while the incidents were investigated, and warned that the killing of civilians by US-led aircraft would "prove to be a recruitment tool for terrorist organisations".
"It is essential that such investigation not only result in revised rules of procedure for future operations, but also inform accountability for those responsible for such major violations," Abdah wrote in a letter to foreign ministers of countries in the anti-Islamic State alliance.
US Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on Wednesday the US-led force would look into the reports of civilian casualties around Manbij.
The Observatory said the dead from Tuesday's air strike included 11 children. The United Nations children's agency UNICEF said it had been told that families were preparing to flee when the villages they were in came under air attack.
"UNICEF estimates that 35,000 children are trapped in and around Manbij with nowhere safe to go," the agency's representative in Syria, Hanaa Singer, said.
The Syrian foreign ministry said Tuesday's air strike on the village of Toukhar north of Manbij was carried out by French forces, while Monday's strike was by US jets.
"(Syria) condemns, with the strongest terms, the two bloody massacres perpetrated by the French and US warplanes and those affiliated to the so-called international coalition which send their missiles and bombs to the civilians instead of directing them to the terrorist gangs," it said in a letter sent to the United Nations this week, according to state news agency SANA.
French President Francois Hollande said he had no precise information on whether French planes were responsible for the Toukhar air strike. "We are striking in the framework of the coalition and are very careful in our strikes," he said.
A spokesman for the US-led alliance said there were "multiple national aircraft providing strikes in Manbij. So how the Syrian government knows who conducted what strike, I question."
The air strikes in the area are aimed at supporting a ground operation by the Syria Democratic Forces, a Kurdish and Arab alliance which is trying to drive Islamic State out of Manbij.
A local military council allied to the SDF, which has captured part of Manbij after weeks of fighting, gave Islamic State fighters a 48-hour deadline on Thursday to leave the city.
Manbij is in the northern province of Aleppo, which forms a theatre for several separate battles between multiple warring sides in Syria's five-year-old conflict.
Kurds who already control an uninterrupted 400 km (250 miles) stretch of Syria's northern border with Turkey form a dominant force in the SDF, which is battling Islamic State for control of the city.
Kurdish gains have alarmed rebel forces battling President Bashar al-Assad, who say they will respond with force to any attempt to break up Syria.
The rebels are also battling the army and its militia allies around the city of Aleppo, where around 300,000 people living in rebel-held neighbourhoods have been cut off since pro-government forces seized the last road out of the city.
US Airstrikes in North Syria Villages
Killed Entire Families, Locals Confirm
Jason Ditz / AntiWar.com
(July 21, 2016) -- The US-backed offensive in and around Manbij has been going on for two months, with only a part of the city and surrounding area ever captured. The failing offensive on the ground is being overshadowed however, by the US air campaign.
That's because US airstrikes in and around Manbij have been killing a lot of civilians, and a Tuesday morning salvo against some nearby villages was the worst of all, killing entire families that the US said they "mistook for ISIS fighters." 56 were reported killed at the time, but ensuing reports suggest that as many as 212 may have died.
With ISIS turning back the Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) in Manbij once, the US tried to back the second push into the city with even more airstrikes. The ongoing US assumption has been that more airstrikes and less restrictions would mean success.
Instead, it meant killing scores, maybe hundreds of civilians, and cast the SDF in the role of the villain among many locals, positioned as America's allies, and many are now wondering if they can even theoretically hold Manbij if they do capture it, given how many locals despise them.
Despite giving ISIS ultimatums to cede Manbij in the next 48 hours, the SDF is in rough shape because of the US airstrikes, with reports that morale is dropping and a lot of fighters are talking about leaving the group because they don't want to be seen supporting the US strikes.
An Airstrike in Syria Killed
Entire Families Instead of ISIS Fighters
Max Bearak / The Washington Post
(July 21, 2016) -- The airstrikes at dawn on Tuesday pulverized entire families, including young children -- families that were fleeing Islamic State militants but were instead mistaken for being those very fighters. Depending on whom you ask, the number of bodies found in the rubble is 56, 85, 160 or 212. Pictures of the mangled bodies, covered in dust, are a testament to the carnage.
People who live near where the bombs fell -- about 10 miles north of Manbij in northern Syria -- said the only planes they'd seen since June were from a US-led coalition battling the Islamic State. The area is just a few miles north of the front line between the Islamic State and the coalition-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
If Tuesday's airstrikes were indeed by coalition jets, and not Russian or Syrian government warplanes, this would easily be the highest civilian toll from any action by the coalition since it formed in 2014.
Faced with the likelihood of a grave error by the coalition, US officials responded cautiously, emphasizing the need to verify what had happened.
"If the information supporting the allegation is determined to be credible, we will then determine the next appropriate step," a statement from US Central Command said. The military also said that it had carried out 18 airstrikes on Tuesday around Manbij. That is a small chunk of the 450 strikes near the town since May and the 10,500 total since the campaign began.
"This has been the most precise air campaign in history, and we're going to make sure that it stays that way, but I don't have any further information on this," said Brett McGurk, special presidential envoy to the anti-Islamic State coalition. The US military has since announced that it is launching an investigation.
But the probability that it was a coalition airstrike makes this a huge deal, beyond the fact that dozens, if not hundreds, of civilians died. The dead and their kin are the same people whose hearts and minds the coalition hopes to win over. The deaths, and the perception that they were caused by the coalition, mean that that hope is probably lost. Liz Sly, one of The Washington Post's Middle East correspondents, reported that many fighters in the SDF were questioning whether they could remain in the force.
"People are now full of hatred for the SDF. We thought they were coming to finish ISIS, but it seems they are finishing us first," said Jassem al-Sayed, a politician from Manbij, speaking with Sly over the phone. ISIS is an alternative acronym for the Islamic State.
From the perspective of a Western onlooker, Tuesday's strikes are easy enough to write off as another grisly chapter in a grinding war. And for the US military, it is probably another internal investigation that will wear on until the public has largely forgotten which airstrikes and which civilians it is talking about. The average time between a strike and the release of a redacted Centcom investigative report is seven months, said Micah Zenko, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
But in November, Centcom announced that it would stop publicly releasing the results of each and every investigation. But standards for how much is released had anyway been unclear. Centcom news releases, often published in bulk on Friday afternoons, usually list only a date, a location and an estimate of civilian damage, while the nitty-gritty of the investigation is redacted or simply unreleased.
In other words, it is possible but improbable that we will hear the final word from the US military on what happened Tuesday and whether the coalition bears any culpability.
The US military has no strategic imperative to kill Syrian civilians, so the probability of faulty intelligence being the cause is high. Being so close to the front line, it is entirely possible that civilians there were being used as human shields for the Islamic State, as they have been elsewhere.
But a prolonged investigation resulting in a redacted document would be tantamount to obfuscation. If the coalition isn't to blame, why isn't it rushing to absolve itself?
Is it possible that if the media paid more attention to such atrocities, there might be a greater sense of outrage and urgency? That something like this wouldn't seem so routine? Because it isn't, even if hundreds are being killed in Syria's civil war every day.
The Post has had one staff-written article on the airstrikes, which failed to make it to the top of the home page online. The New York Times and most others "ran a wire." Television stations ran an item in their tickers. But writing more than what has been written is tough. The strikes took place in a war zone. How do you get there to verify people's stories -- and make it out alive? And from below, fighter jets are hard to recognize.
The following video shows coalition forces bombing a location north of Manbij two weeks ago, right next to where Tuesday's bombing occurred. It gives a sense of what an airstrike looks like from the perspective of a pilot, or a drone.
Without an official answer from the coalition, it is almost impossible to verify who dropped the bombs, leaving reporters in a gray zone of speculation. And even if it turns out that the airstrikes were by Russian or Syrian forces, it's not like they would ever own up.
Their airstrikes have killed many, many more civilians than those by the coalition. The haziness of the truth only contributes to a larger narrative bubble we see around the war in Syria -- one in which civilians are mostly death tolls or collateral damage.
That haze is probably one reason that, despite the unusually high death toll in this week's airstrikes and the high possibility of US culpability, neither candidate for the American presidency has issued a statement of condolence or concern.
The US military is usually very strict about avoiding civilian casualties. It turns down countless target requests from its partners in Syria and Iraq because it can't verify the situation on the ground. The White House's numbers on civilian deaths from drone strikes in counterterrorism operations are low. But, then again, few agree with those figures.
Last year, a London-based group of journalists published a study saying that in the coalition's first 12 months of airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, it killed 459 civilians in 57 incidents. The Pentagon admits only to 26 deaths. And egregious mistakes have led to US drones blowing up wedding processions in both Afghanistan and Yemen.
Each of these is a tragedy, and a setback for American objectives. Syrians and Americans alike deserve to know what happened.
US-led air war in Syria has killed hundreds of civilians, study says>
The Washington Post, April 8, 2015
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