Bombing from aircraft in Syria and Iraq has caused thousands of deaths and woundings since 2014. The US, UK, Russia, Turkey and others have been involved in bombing Islamic State (IS) and other targets. But there is major disagreement between governments and humanitarian organisations over how many civilians have been killed.
The US-led Coalition conducted 33,921 strikes and acknowledges at least 1,257 civilians were killed between August 2014 and January 2019. The Royal Air Force claims to have killed or injured 4,617 enemy combatants, and killed one civilian over a similar period.
However, reports from Airwars – which tracks international military actions in conflict zones, including civilian deaths – and Action on Armed Violence, claim between 7,500 and 12,085 civilian deaths. So how is this huge difference in numbers of civilian deaths explained?
Counting civilian dead in war has long been a problem. In World War II the Allies and Germans strongly disputed the results of the bombing of Dresden. The main difficulties were getting access to the sites and locating the dead in the rubble. Concerning the recent figures from the MoD, it says: “Information concerning enemy killed and wounded in action is based on the best available post-strike analysis. This information, however, is only given as an estimate as the UK is not in a position to visit airstrike sites inside Syria and verify the facts.”
This is the case in cities like Aleppo and Raqqa in Syria, which is also why Airwars provides a wide range of possible civilian death figures. Then there is wanting to present your opponent in as bad a light as possible.
Three key factors determine how ultimate numbers are calculated. First, how you distinguish between combatants and civilians (sometimes called non-combatants). Second, the rules of engagement (ROE) of the different air forces involved. That is, who they will kill and why. And third, how you count the civilians.
Video screen grab of a coalition airstrike destroying an IS cash and finance distribution centre near Mosul, Iraq, January 11 2016. The strikes were part of Inherent Resolve, the operation to eliminate IS from Iraq and Syria.
For many centuries, wars have been fought by soldiers wearing identifying uniforms. Which made it easy to distinguish between enemy combatants and civilians. IS and many other armed groups in Syria and Iraq are not official national armies. They do not have formal uniforms and some fighters are just part-time.
The law does not help much. The Geneva Conventions define combatants as “members of the armed forces of a party to a conflict”. But, the conventions only apply to recognised states and not to groups like IS. So IS and other jihadists in Syria are not legally recognised as combatants in this definition. Yet they are clearly at war and have committed atrocities against civilians since 2014.
In the UK Law of Armed Conflict, combatants can be anyone engaged in “hostile acts”. While for the US an Unlawful Enemy Combatant can include members or supporters of al-Qaeda or IS.
So an IS fighter can be a legal target combatant, while Airwars could call them a civilian. Put crudely, competing and vague definitions allow governments and others to define combatants to their own advantage.
Rules of engagement
The next major consideration is the rules of engagement that governments set out for their armed forces. They provide guidance on who can be lawfully killed, and in what circumstances, in a particular conflict. They also limit when the crews of Reaper drones and conventional aircraft can fire their missiles. Less helpfully, governments keep their ROE secret and no two are the same.
Civilians, however they are defined, cannot be targeted according to international law. But they can still be lawfully killed as long as the deaths “are not excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated”. This despite the “rigorous targeting processes” that Gavin Williamson, the UK defence secretary, referred to.
I have witnessed real-time lethal strikes against IS fighters during extensive book research alongside RAF Reaper crews. The caution is extraordinary and concern for civilians dominates their thinking and actions. But they know better than anyone that there are no guarantees in war.
Counting the civilian dead
The US sets out details of actual and alleged civilian casualties. In contrast, Russia appears to have had a policy of deliberately bombing hospitals in Syria.
Civilians do die and the military crews involved must live with that. As long as national rules of engagement are followed they have not broken the law of war. Even when there is a tragic outcome for civilians.
Airwars and Action on Armed Violence work hard to highlight civilian deaths and suffering. But their figures are also flawed and misleading, just in a different way to official military statistics. They keep no running total of combatant deaths alongside their estimates of civilians deaths, for example. It suggests that dead IS and other fighters are likely to be included in their civilian body counts.
So the discrepancy in civilian casualties comes down to these factors. Governments and other groups can each find contradictory means of legally classifying civilians in different ways. And they inevitably use the definition that most suits their own aims. Bodies are also difficult to find and harder to identify, especially from the air.
Most of the discrepancies could be solved if one agreed definition of civilian deaths was adopted by all, sites could be accessed, and if everyone was more transparent about how they classified combatants. But this will not happen any time soon.