An airstrike in Syria on Thursday, believed to have been carried out by the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS, killed 23 civilians, including eight children, Reuters reports, citing the Syrian Observatory on Human Rights. The strike, in the countryside around the city of Raqqa, was part of the escalating campaign by the U.S. and allied local forces to recapture the city, ISIS’s de facto capital. An Air Force spokesman acknowledged that a strike had taken place in the area and said the event would be investigated.
Also on Thursday, the Intercept published a dispatch by reporter Iona Craig from the Yemeni village of al Ghayil, the site of the now infamous Jan. 29 raid that left a number of civilians and a Navy SEAL dead in the first major counterterrorism operation of the Trump administration. Craig’s reporting disputes the administration’s description of the raid as a success and suggests that the event shows that “the Trump White House is breaking with Obama administration policies that were intended to limit civilian casualties.”
Trump suggested during his campaign that he would take far more aggressive action against terrorist groups than his predecessor—“bomb the shit out of them,” to be precise. On Jan. 28, he issued a presidential memo recommending changes to rules of engagement for counterterrorism operations "that exceed the requirements of international law regarding the use of force against ISIS." This was generally interpreted to mean that measures preventing civilian casualties would be deprioritized. The White House reportedly also wants to speed up the process for approving raids by delegating more responsibility to the Pentagon, even after the January raid. So, has there been any sign of the Trump administration’s less risk-averse approach leading to civilian casualties?
It’s too soon to tell if Trump is the cause, but the U.S. appears to have been both accelerating the pace of counterterrorism operations this year and killing more civilians in the process. This has been most evident in Yemen, where the main target is al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, and Iraq/Syria, where the main target is ISIS. (America's oddly neglected war in Afghanistan already saw a dramatic increase in both strikes and casualties last year.)
The U.S. has dramatically ramped up the campaign against AQAP in Yemen in 2017, with deadly results. New America estimates that approximately 16 civilians have been killed in U.S. strikes in Yemen so far this year. All but one of these strikes was launched after Trump took office. The last time a yearly figure was that high was in 2013.
The vast majority of these casualties came in the al Ghayil raid: between four and 23, according to the New America estimates. The U.S. military has acknowledged between four and 12. (This kind of tracking is an imprecise business: definitions of what constitutes a “strike” can vary, as can the reliability of casualty reports. Other organizations have different casualty counts, and these groups’ numbers nearly always exceed the U.S. government’s official numbers.) As has been well reported at this point, the raid was originally planned under the Obama administration, and despite having given the final order to proceed with it, Trump has failed to take responsibility, passing the blame for the SEAL’s death on to military commanders.
It’s almost impossible to know whether Obama would have also ordered the raid, the U.S. military’s first known use of on-the-ground operators in the country since 2014. But it would be harder for the administration to pass up responsibility for the flurry of drone strikes it has launched against AQAP targets since then, about 30 in just two days in early March according to some media reports, at least one of which also killed civilians. The Washington Post reported that the administration had granted the military authority to conduct intensified air operations against AQAP in parts of the country without the normal, more lengthy approval process overseen by the White House.
“The quick succession of strikes on March 2, 3, 4, and 6 is a stark departure from what became the norm for U.S.-conducted drone strikes in 2015 and 2016,” New America program associate Albert Ford told me in an email. “The number of strikes so far in March is nearly double the amount of any month in 2015 or 2016. I, obviously, cannot say for certain why this administration is using drones at such a rate, but it's clear that it breaks a years-long trend of rather low monthly totals.”
If the U.S. campaign in Yemen appears to have dramatically transformed in 2017, what we’re seeing in Iraq and Syria is more of an intensification of what was already taking place in the closing days of the Obama administration. Trump repeatedly claimed during his campaign, while not providing any details, to have his own plan for defeating ISIS, but what we’ve learned so far about the new administration’s intended strategy suggests it will be more of the same: more special operations troops, more air support, and more aid to the local groups in Iraq and Syria doing the bulk of the fighting on the ground.
This year has seen a significant increase in the number of both airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition and civilian casualties, according to the tracking site Airwars, but this trend began before Trump took office as fighting to retake the ISIS-held cities of Raqqa, Syria, and Mosul, Iraq, intensified. In January, the site recorded 264 confirmed or fairly credible civilian casualties compared to 139 in December. In January, likely civilian deaths from coalition airstrikes outnumbered those from Russian airstrikes for the first time. In February there, were 110 deaths, and March has already seen 89.
Airwars’ director, Chris Woods, a former BBC reporter and author of the book Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars, told me via email that, “It's still perhaps too early to detect Trump trends” and that there were signs in the final days of the Obama administration that the rules of engagement were being loosened. But he noted that with battles in the urban centers of Mosul and Raqqa underway, “the war is reaching a point of maximum threat to non-combatants” and that “the first seven weeks of Trump's administration have seen further steep rises” in civilian casualties.
Again, it’s not yet clear if this is due to a change in approach from the Trump administration or the fact that the long-running battles in these cities are reaching an acute and dangerous phase, but whatever the reason, the United States appears to be killing more civilians in the name of fighting terrorism.