By Danielle Ryan, published in the ‘Op Edge’ feature of RT.com, Nov 21, 2017 (with additional, related analysis further below)
The U.S.-led coalition against ISIS has vastly played down the number of civilians that have been killed in Iraq as a result of their own airstrikes. In fact, the war against ISIS may be the ‘least transparent war in recent American history.’
The conclusion comes from a report published by the New York Times Magazine on November 16. Reporters Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal spent 18 months investigating coalition bombing in Iraq, traveling to more than 150 sites of airstrikes across the northern part of the country. Their goal was to determine which air force launched which strikes — and whom they killed.
The U.S.-led coalition has admitted to killing civilians in a tiny minority of airstrikes. According to official figures, one civilian has been killed for every 157 airstrikes. In reality, Khan and Gopal found the actual rate is one civilian died for every five airstrikes. That means the rate of civilian deaths is 31 times higher than the U.S. military has admitted.
The report said the most common justification given by the coalition when denying civilian casualty allegations is that it has “no record” of carrying out a strike at the time or area in question. This response, which amounts to brushing off the allegation, places the blame at someone else’s feet. The military washes their hands of the incident, and there is very little probing by politicians or the media after that.
Another excuse given by the U.S. military is that civilians may have driven a vehicle into a target area after a bomb has been dropped and as such their deaths or injuries are unavoidable accidents – just more collateral damage.
But Khan and Gopal’s reporting calls into question some of these excuses. They found multiple discrepancies between dates and locations of strikes and what was recorded in official logs.
They also found that in about half of the strikes that killed civilians, there was “no discernible ISIS target nearby,” meaning the excuse that civilians happened to be unfortunately in the way does not always hold up. Many of those strikes, the report says, were based on “poor or outdated intelligence.”
Worse still, when civilians are indeed near legitimate ISIS targets, they are “considered guilty until proven innocent,” and those who survive the strikes “remain marked as possible ISIS sympathizers, with no discernable path to clear their names.”
Basim Razzo is one of those with a target on his head. Razzo, the Times story explains, was sleeping when a U.S. coalition strike reduced his home in Mosul to rubble in 2015. The attack killed his wife and daughter, as well as his brother and nephew in the neighboring house. The same day, the U.S. military uploaded a video of the strike to YouTube claiming it had destroyed an ISIS car-bomb facility, but in actual fact, it had demolished two family homes and the death’s of Razzo’s family members were never acknowledged until the Times reporters raised their case with coalition officials.
Coverage too late
When strikes like this occur, most in the media take U.S. military officials at their word. There is very little inquiry as to the veracity of the claims regarding the numbers of civilians killed, the time and location of strikes and so on. When the media does report on civilian deaths or suggest that numbers may be higher than the U.S. military leads us to believe, it is done in a clinical manner, and there is rarely any investigative follow-up reporting done. When caused by U.S. coalition forces, civilian deaths are generally regarded as inevitable collateral damage.
The opposite appears to be true in the case of civilians deaths caused by either the Syrian or Russian air forces in Syria, for example. Those cases are regarded as reckless, barbaric attacks on civilians, and the more emotion-laden headlines the media can pump out about them, the better.
Khan and Gopal found “a consistent failure by the coalition to investigate claims properly or to keep records that make it possible to investigate the claims at all.”
Perhaps that would not be the case if those in the mainstream media were putting the pressure on the U.S. military to properly investigate reports of civilians deaths and casualties. But just as there is no will within the military to investigate these incidents, there is no will within the media to properly investigate or hold military officials accountable. Nor is there, unsurprisingly, much political will in Washington DC to investigate civilian deaths caused by American military operations.
One incident which did receive considerable coverage internationally was a U.S. strike in Mosul in March of this year, which reportedly killed up to 200 civilians (although locals estimated up to 600 deaths). But even in such a severe case, there was very little media follow-up as to how many civilians were actually killed by those coalition strikes and the initial anger quickly dissipated.
How quickly we all forget is indicative of the attitude which says that certain numbers of civilian deaths are acceptable and even permissible during a war. Those deaths are merely a “fact of life”according to U.S. Defense Secretary General James Mattis.
This new report is a serious feat of investigative journalism. It should shine a much-needed spotlight on the reality of what the U.S. military falsely claims is “one of the most precise air campaigns in military history.”
Unfortunately, few major outlets have followed up on the Times report. It has not been radio silence. There has been some follow-up. Both MSNBC and CBS ran short segments about the report. It was also covered by Vox, Business Insider, Esquire, The Week — and some lesser known websites. Indeed, there has not been a huge amount of coverage.
It is hard to imagine the coverage would have been so contained if Khan and Gopal had been reporting on casualties caused, for example, by the Russian or Syrian militaries.
It is also hard to imagine how this “fact of life” attitude toward civilian deaths in places like Iraq and Syria would stand up if the bombs were hitting American homes and wiping out American families as they slept. How many deaths would be acceptable then?
Of course, the media can’t control how the U.S.-led coalition operates in places like Iraq or Syria, but it is undeniable that the lack of sustained interrogation from journalists makes it a lot easier for the U.S. military and its allies to continue killing civilians, not bothered by any kind of serious public criticism.
Danielle Ryan is an Irish freelance writer, journalist and media analyst. She has lived and traveled extensively in the U.S., Germany, Russia and Hungary.
How the Pentagon repurposes civilian casualties as anti-terror propaganda, by Jared Keller, Pacific Standard, Nov 20, 2017 The American military has released hundreds of videos showing U.S.-led coalition airstrikes. The victims are not always the intended targets.
Putin, Erdogan and Rouhani agree at meeting in Sochi on Nov 22 to holding Syrian national dialogue congress, news compilation on New Cold War.org
Syria, Russia & Iran shift to diplomacy, while U.S. and allies push for war
In a big week for Syrian peace talks, President Assad was hosted by Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, where the leaders of Iran and Turkey are also to convene. Fittingly, perhaps, the U.S. had no input into the renewed effort for peace in Syria.
Putin said that with the defeat of ISIS (Daesh, Islamic State) and other terror groups in Syria now virtually achieved, the parties to the conflict must underpin the political means to win the peace. Significantly, the talks in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi reinforce the earlier Geneva accord which assents to President Bashar Assad and his government in Damascus as the sovereign authority of Syria.
The demand by Washington and its European allies for Assad to “stand down” has long ago expired. That void is a tacit acknowledgment the nearly seven-year covert war in Syria for regime change has been defeated or at least the covert war in its guise of Western-backed proxy militant groups.
The absence of U.S. and European officials at the peace talks in Sochi this week speaks volumes about their pernicious role in the Syrian war.
While Syria, Russia, Iran, and Turkey endeavor to revamp the peace negotiations, it is significant that Pentagon chief James Mattis was last week saying that U.S. military forces would be digging in further on Syrian territory.
The reluctance of U.S. forces to pack up in Syria despite the demise of the terror groups is perhaps best viewed as part of a regional resurgence of an American military presence. Under President Trump – despite his election campaign promises – the level of U.S. forces has increased substantially in Afghanistan and Iraq. Deployment in Syria fits into this pattern of a regional buildup.
The increasing level of U.S. military strength in the region also underlines the ominous signs of Saudi Arabia and Israel ramping up hostility toward Iran and Lebanon.
Last week, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said American forces would be staying in Syria despite the contradiction of terror groups being routed. Mattis’ claims that U.S. forces have a legal United Nations’ mandate for their presence in Syria were dismissed by Russia and Syria as a flawed understanding of international law.
But even on Mattis’ own faulty reasoning, his claims are dubious. If U.S. forces have a mandate to be in Syria to defeat terrorists, as claimed, then why are they there given the terrorists have been largely defeated?
Mattis said the new purpose of U.S. forces were to “prevent ISIS 2.0” arising. Despite the fact that the Americans hardly ever engaged in fighting against ISIS, and indeed, as the BBC even reported, gave the militants safe passage, including helicopter airlifting commanders out of harm’s way.
It was the Syrian Arab Army, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah who did all the heavy lifting to roll back the terror groups, which had been covertly armed and financed by the U.S. and its NATO and regional client regimes. ISIS, Nusra, and all the other alphabet-soup terror groups were only ever a pretext for the U.S. to deploy its warplanes and Special Forces in Syria – a presence which actually constitutes foreign aggression, as the Syrian government and Russia have repeatedly pointed out.
And yet here we have Mattis claiming that it was the U.S. which defeated ISIS in Syria, and warning that the specter of this American asset reemerging as ISIS 2.0 is grounds for continuing to occupy Syrian territory. The Americans’ handy phantom-enemy is serving twice over. That is to “legitimize” the U.S. intervening in Syria; and now to justify U.S. forces staying there – just when the real victors against the terrorists, Syria, Russia, and Iran are trying to demilitarize the country.
Far from the public view, U.S. forces are scaling up their presence in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Politico has called it an “official charade.” The Trump administration and the Pentagon are going behind the American people’s backs to deploy thousands more troops across the Middle East.
Much to the displeasure of Washington, Turkey disclosed last week that the U.S. has 13 military bases in Syria. Russia, apparently, has only five bases, even though that country had a much greater military impact on defeating ISIS and other terrorist networks over the past two years.
One of the biggest U.S. bases is near Kobani, about 140 kilometers from the northern city of Raqqa. This is the location no doubt where Mattis was referring to when he said last week that U.S. forces would be digging in.
The U.S. airbase at Kobani has been dramatically upgraded over the past year from what was a rough airfield accommodating only a select few types of aircraft to one now where “every type of air frame” in the Pentagon’s fleet can be landed, including the largest troop-carrying and cargo planes.
The U.S. base at Kobani is also part of a chain of new airfields that connect from Qayarrah West in northern Iraq, to the Taqba Dam, also north of Raqqa.
Officially, there are supposed to be only 500 troops in Syria under the Pentagon’s Force Management Level policy. But as with Afghanistan and Iraq, the real numbers are believed to be much higher than what is officially acknowledged.
A large part of the false accounting arises because the Pentagon doesn’t count units which spend less than 120 days in the country. These units include engineers and troops who are charged with building bridges, roads, and landing strips.
There is a direct analogy here with how U.S. and NATO forces underestimate force levels in the Baltic and Black Sea regions by arbitrarily not counting troops, warplanes and ships described as “rotating presence.” But if you rotate frequently enough, the force levels in effect become permanent and are much larger in practice than is officially admitted.
In addition to ensuring its proxies don’t come back as “ISIS 2.0” (how’s that for chutzpah!), Mattis also said that the expanded U.S. forces were there to ensure the future peace talks in Geneva, resuming on November 28, would gain “traction.”
“We’re not just going to walk away right now before the Geneva process has traction,” said Mattis last week while in London meeting his British counterparts.
What this suggests is that Washington is using its illegitimate military occupation of Syrian territory as a way to leverage the political process. By forcibly holding on to Syrian territory, Washington is perhaps calculating that the Assad government might cede to its demands on standing down or allowing a defeated opposition more say in drawing up a new constitution.
If the U.S. were genuinely committed to a political process in Syria, then why aren’t its diplomats giving momentum to the Russian-brokered talks in Sochi this week in preparation for the subsequent Geneva summit?
But even more sinister is the region-wide context of U.S. force buildup – largely in secret unknown to the American public. With Washington’s client regimes, Saudi Arabia and Israel, pushing for a confrontation with Iran, directly or via Lebanon and Yemen, the expanding military presence in Syria indicates war in that country is far from over. Instead, it could be but a prelude to a more devastating regional conflagration.
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