A truly horrible mistake transpired on Tuesday. US-led coalition jet fighters on a routine mission to bomb Islamic State (ISIS) militants around Manbij, in support of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) offensive, reportedly mistook a group of civilians for militants and bombed them. Entire families, including children, were killed. Estimates of the number of civilians deaths range from 56 to 212.
If true this would be the most significant recorded blunder of the US air campaign against ISIS. It has led to outcry in Syria and many of the recognized opposition parties in Syria to demand a complete halt to the US-led air war in that country.
That would be a mistake, too.
Coalition warplanes have been striking ISIS targets in Syria since September 2014. The fact this incident stands out is a testament to the careful efforts taken to avoid civilian casualties. Fittingly ISIS inadvertently acknowledged how scrupulous the US strives to be when it comes to avoiding civilian casualties when it began covering streets in Raqqa with sheets so they could not be seen from the air. Doing this shows that they know the coalition wouldn’t indiscriminately bomb those concealed streets and risk large numbers of civilian casualties in order to hurt ISIS.
Despite their best efforts civilian casualties have been and were inevitable in this war, especially against an enemy which has no scruple of using populations as shields to protect them in urban areas. Tuesday’s incident needs to be investigated and if negligence is found those responsible should be reprimanded, but the air war should not be halted as a result of this incident. Not at such a crucial juncture.
As of writing the SDF have ISIS-occupied Manbij encircled and it’s only a matter of time before they take it over completely. Doing so would put further pressure on Raqqa. Air support by a technological advanced coalition would give the SDF an edge over their Islamist enemies, especially since they have a very limited number of heavy weapons. Pulling out air support would enable ISIS to survive longer and increase the number of casualties the SDF will have to endure to uproot that group.
The US has made tragic mistakes like this before. During the 1991 Gulf War they bombed the Amiriyah shelter in Baghdad, believing Iraqi regime intelligence elements to be present in the bunker, only to find that they had killed over 400 civilians. Admitting that they would have never bombed that bunker had they known there to be civilians they consequently limited the numbers of targets in the Iraqi capital for the rest of the war.
Back then the Americans were not supporting ground elements. Today in Syria they are. While airstrikes alone will not win a war, a combination of air power and ground forces can win one. And likely, in the long-term, decrease the potential suffering of the civilians in areas under ISIS’s rigorous rule.
Evaluating the almost two-year-old coalition air campaign against ISIS one could argue that one of its greatest failures was not supporting the Syrian Kurds earlier. The opening salvo of the US war against ISIS was fired outside of the Kurdistan Region’s capital city, Erbil, in August 2014 to prevent ISIS from nearing the city. That action alone likely saved many Peshmerga lives and left the city untouched by the militants.
In Kobani that was not the case. Only when the Syrian Kurds proved their worth in enduring the ISIS siege did US air power come to their support– most of the airstrikes the coalition carried out in Syria in the end of 2014 were in support of the Kurds in Kobani, since so many ISIS militants came out in the open in their manic attempt to crush that symbol of Kurdish defiance and resistance.
By coming in so late the city was devastated by ISIS bombings, street fighting and airstrikes. Had the coalition come in earlier, as in Erbil, less destruction might have been caused and more lives, many civilians, saved.
Given this precedent, blunders like Tuesday’s airstrike should be recognized as the tragedy it is but nevertheless contextualized. It is an unfortunate inevitability and cost of winning a war against an enemy whose defeat has to be absolutely complete. Any step that may even briefly slow down the demise of such a brutal group would be an immensely immoral one.
Paul Iddon is a Rudaw reporter based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.