Some of the most recent news to dominate coverage of the Syrian War has been exceptional in that it highlights the victims of coalition airstrikes, and not just those of the Syrian Arab Republic (SAR), or its Russian allies. As the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) retake most of Manbij, we are exposed to the sad images of civilians from the city lying in rubble – the latest victims of a brutal war in which every actor has been blood-soaked.
The shocking images that accompany each of the many condemnatory articles reacting to these strikes could just as easily have come from the fallout of a Russian airstrike in Idlib, a Syrian airstrike in Darayaa, or a rebel mortar attack in Aleppo. And yet matching the accompanying text to the perpetrator of the attack could hardly be easier: thought to be among the deadliest air-strikes in the Syrian war, the US-led coalition’s highly publicised strikes in Manbij are still rightly described as ‘accidental’, while Syrian airstrikes resulting in a fraction of these civilian casualties are often described as intentional.
Why, and how, have we reached such differing assessments of the intentionality guiding these aerial bombardment campaigns? How can we compare the actions of military forces that are so differentially involved in this war?
The battle for Manbij itself may act as a good starting point for such a line of inquiry.
The Kurdish-led SDF have had much success fighting ISIS in Northern Syria, and turned their attention to Manbij in early June having recently crossed the Euphrates after taking control of the Tishreen dam. Barring a few exceptional cases of Russian air-support, the US-led coalition has been the primary source of air-support for the SDF, and their combined efforts have liberated dozens of villages and towns from ISIS in the past year; accounting for most of ISIS’ territorial losses in Syria.
Two features of the battle to liberate Manbij make it relevant for a comparison of the methods of the US-led coalition against those of the SAR and its allies:
- The early stages of the battle for Manbij proceeded with the unambiguous aim of imposing a siege upon the town, a siege which has been upheld for over 60 days now.
- A campaign of aerial bombardment has been critical both for the advance of the SDF towards the ISIS held town and during the assault on it – we can be sure that over 60 days of airstrikes have seen more civilian casualties than those which have received media attention.
There are therefore already two ways in which this battle resembles many of the SAR-led assaults on a Jihadist-held town, which brings us to a third parallel: the enemy being fought is one and the same.
The ISIS units of Manbij are well equipped and utilise the same range of tactics as they do in any other Syrian, Iraqi, or Libyan urban battle-ground: normal infantry units fight alongside tanks and artillery, but they add to this entire units of suicide bombers, using either personally carried explosives or Vehicle Based IEDs (VBIEDs), whilst also making extensive use of mines and other roadside bombs (all methods that are not exclusive to ISIS, but shared amongst most of the jihadist groups which utilise suicide bombers*). All of which take a heavy toll on the attacking ground forces, even in the presence of air support.
Why then do we hear of the civilian casualties of coalition air-strikes only rarely, and only ever in connection with the overall battle that is being fought, whilst the same tactics employed by the SAR are depicted as having intentionally targeted civilians, and presented as if they were random? A certain level of demonisation must set-in before we are willing to believe that so many air-strikes are being targeted primarily at civilians. Moreover, pundits must struggle to explain how it is that such a strategy would lead to the various victories and the recapture of towns and cities that the SAR’s campaign has overseen.
Similarly, why do we only ever hear of ‘regime’ sieges? Does the siege on Manbij not count, despite lasting for over two months? Though some news outlets did cover the SDF siege, all were quick to point out the presence of a sanctioned and monitored route allowing the entry of food and medical supplies into the beleaguered town. Nevertheless, evidence of a similar strategy employed by the SAR leads only to the condemnation of the use of starvation as a weapon of war, and again, the presence of armed jihadists in the town is only ever secondary, if at all present, in this narrative.
A suite of accusations by Western powers, Gulf states and their media outlets seem to suggest that the SAR is uniquely brutal in its aerial campaign; the situation being further muddied by a reliance upon biased sources that list rebel combatant casualties as civilian (such as the SOHR). But if it is beyond the US-led coalition’s abilities to prevent civilian casualties, despite their superior technology and their limited involvement in the war, are we not to expect something similar from a less well-equipped air-force fighting a five-year war against jihadists that use the civilian population as cover? Are these problems not inherent to fighting an enemy that utilises guerrilla tactics in densely populated urban centres? Is this not a more likely explanation than the vague accusations with regards to ‘barrel-bombs’, though nothing resembling these exists in the SAA’s arsenal?
This is not to say that the aerial campaign of the SAR has been wholly justifiable – there is much to criticise here, and there is much for which the government and military must be held to account. In particular, the campaign of airstrikes over Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham (formerly the Jabhat Al-Nusra branch of Al-Qaeda) controlled Idlib seems to have done untold damage to civilian life there with few tangible military gains. But we cannot begin to address the very real problems of the Syrian Army’s campaign when our view is based on broad demonisations with little basis in fact, and lacking any specificity or particular evidence.
The problems inherent to the use of air-strikes and sieges as revealed by the coalition’s campaign highlights the double standard in the media treatment of various military tactics and their outcomes.
Given the devastation that is caused by air-strikes and sieges, some are led to make an even broader challenge: that these tactics should be wholly avoided. Indeed, a number of anti-war activist groups in Europe and the United States campaign against the use of air-strikes altogether – a stance that is superficially noble, but in reality condemns entire cities and populations to Islamist rule. What alternatives do they propose? None have been offered, and so this position seems to be little more than a disavowal of responsibility and an abandonment of the Syrian people and the secular future of their country, as there exists no ‘clean’ method of war.
The various jihadist groups controlling Syrian towns and cities can not be defeated without a concerted military effort making use of the aerial advantage that the various state actors have at their disposal. Nor could any military campaign, with or without aerial support, completely avoid inflicting civilian casualties – such is the cost of a war that has been thrust upon the Syrian people and their country.
This argument may of course come across as cruelly pragmatic, but if one still doubts the necessity of such methods then they are encouraged to produce an example of a war that has been fought by kinder means, and to produce strategic advice for the militaries of the US, Russia, Syria, or their favoured militant group, from the blueprint of such fiction.
* In fact, ISIS are far less effective at doing this than the more experienced and professional Al-Qaeda associated terrorist groups, such as Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham, which have typically achieved greater gains against the Syrian Army.