US pushes back on reports of civilian casualties following strike at ISIS in Syria
By CHAD GARLAND | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 9, 2019
Military officials are refuting reports that civilians were harmed in a coalition airstrike on an Islamic State-held village in eastern Syria last week, while observers have warned of diminished transparency in the anti-ISIS campaign.
Syria’s state news agency and the activist group DeirEzzor 24 both said the strike on the village of Kishkiyeh had killed at least 10 people, including four children, The Associated Press reported late last week. Both blamed the U.S.-led coalition.
A U.S. military spokesman indicated there had been a coalition strike in the area but rejected the allegation of noncombatant deaths.
“We are aware of reports of civilian [casualty] allegations, but we have no evidence at this time indicating any civilians were harmed in this strike,” Army Col. Scott Rawlinson, a spokesman for the coalition, said via email. “We take every reasonable precaution to minimize harm to civilians in our pursuit of an enduring defeat of ISIS.”
The strikes took place in the last pocket of territory held by the jihadi group in eastern Syria’s Deir el-Zour province near the Iraq border, where Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have been carrying out an offensive backed by coalition airstrikes and artillery.
Hundreds have been killed in the fighting over the past three weeks, AP reported.
Coalition air and artillery strikes in Iraq and Syria over the more than four years since the anti-ISIS alliance was formed have been extensive, as U.S.-backed security forces have battled to reclaim the roughly 39,000 square miles of territory once held by ISIS.
In just the last two weeks of December, the coalition reported it had conducted nearly 480 strikes in Syria and Iraq.
Among the targets in Syria were more than 650 ISIS tactical units, nearly 300 fighting positions, dozens of vehicles, tunnels, bombmaking facilities and other assets.
Throughout its campaign, the coalition has reported details of its airstrikes and assessments of civilian casualty claims. Reporters and activists have questioned the assessments, which often involve reviews of strike footage but rarely on-the-ground investigations.
In the latest official strike report, released last week, a note indicated reports would be put out twice a month, down from weekly.
It also appeared to strip out details on where and when strikes took place, which London-based nonprofit Airwars said on Twitter was a “shortsighted decision.”
The group, which tracks strikes and civilian casualty claims, has recorded what it considers credible reports of dozens of civilians killed by suspected coalition strikes since Jan. 1, but it could become difficult to link those incidents to specific strikes if the report covering that period does not list dates and locations.
Military officials say they thoroughly vet each target and review each strike afterward. Often, officials use intelligence assets to observe a target for days and time a strike to avoid hurting noncombatants.
“The Coalition takes allegations of civilian casualties seriously, and we investigate each claim to assess its validity,” Rawlinson said.
As of last month, at least 1,139 noncombatants had been unintentionally killed in the more than 31,400 coalition strikes between August 2014 and November, military officials said.
Airwars estimates the civilian death toll is more than six times that and warned recently that the campaign near the Syria-Iraq border has led to an uptick in civilian casualties.