Body counting and precision bombing in failed states

The words ‘precision-guided missiles’ are used to make us think that British warplanes can go there and help the good guys, the so-called moderate rebels, without much, if any, collateral damage. 

Lily Hamourtziadou Bülent Gökay
5 December 2015
Anti-war campaigners call for an end to bombing Iraq, 2014.

Anti-war campaigners call for an end to bombing Iraq, 2014. Demotix/Mark Kerrison. All rights reserved. Watching the debate to launch bombing raids over Syria in British Parliament on December 2, we were struck by the frequency with which many MPs, who supported the government’s motion to initiate air strikes, used the word ‘precision’ to describe the potential bombing of IS targets in Syria. 

The words ‘precision bombing’ or ‘precision-guided missiles’ are used to make us think that British warplanes can go there and help the good guys, the so-called moderate rebels, without much, if any, collateral damage. To emphasise this point is considered important not just because many people think it is morally wrong to cause civilian casualties, but also because the killing of civilians can be used as a recruitment tool for the terrorist groups. 

How precise are the precision bombs? 

Much has been made of the accuracy of the so-called ‘precision bombing’.  The word precision bombing (or smart bombing) refers to the aerial bombing of a target with some degree of accuracy, with the aim of limiting unintended, collateral damage.   

Such weaponry implies pinpoint precision from very large distance, such as allowing fast high-flying aircraft to engage targets in urban environments with very little collateral damage. Such weapons have been used by all major powers for the last 20 years, in Operation Desert Storm, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Libya and Iraq and Syria currently.  Modern ‘smart weapons’, laser-guided munitions can be and are more effective in hitting the clearly identified targets.

But they are not magic, and not really precise in the real meaning of the term.  Even though such highly developed and high-tech systems increase accuracy, the level of precision is still not more than 60 percent, in general. During Operation Desert Storm, less than 60 percent of bombs hit their targets. In the US/ NATO war on Kosovo, only 58 strikes were successful out of a total of 750. During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, several US ‘precision-guided’ bombs managed to miss Iraq entirely, falling into Turkey and Iran. 

‘In Iraq for a year and three months there have been no reports of civilian casualties related to the strikes that Britain has taken. Our starting point is to avoid civilian casualties altogether,’ said Prime Minister David Cameron in the debate in the British Parliament.

In fact, since August 2014, when the coalition started its air strikes in Iraq, 950 civilians have been killed as a result of those air strikes. (iraqbodycount.org).

What else has happened in Iraq during that time? Have the coalition air strikes at least reduced if not eliminated the overall killings of civilians?

Since August 2014, according to Iraq Body Count, more than 22,000 civilians have been killed in Iraq, in mass executions, bombings, shootings, mortar attacks. The result of our intervention has not been the creation of a peaceful state, it has not defeated ISIS, it has not stopped the violent deaths of innocents, it has not abated sectarian conflicts, and it has not alleviated suffering. All violence has continued unabated, violence to which we added 950 deaths. Extremism has continued to flourish, as it has done since our invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Our involvement in Syria will be not only military, but also political and ethical, as it has been in Iraq for the past 13 years. It is an involvement as misplaced, as lethal and as unethical as that which has led to the complete collapse of the Iraqi state. Endemic anarchy will follow, leading to mass exodus of civilians, death, poverty and generations living with the trauma of war.

The west is dealing with yet another crisis it itself has created, risking the disintegration of yet another state and contributing to the rise of theocracy and jihadism. Non-state actors now dominate, millions are radicalised, disillusioned and despairing.

Since the coalition started its air strikes in Iraq, the country witnessed its largest bombing in years, when 120 civilians were blown to pieces by a suicide bomber on July 17, 2015, in Khan Bani Saad.

Peace has never been further away than it is now. The promise of democracy has never seemed emptier. The violent regime change we saw in Iraq has brought anarchy, death and devastation, from which it has been unable to recover. To think it will be any different in Syria is an illusion.

Overthrowing dictators in the name of freedom, and bombing in the name of peace has been our country’s foreign policy for over a decade. The consequences of this policy have been plaguing not only the Middle East, but Europe as well: terrorist attacks, migrant crisis, anarchy, rising global insecurity.

When states can no longer provide any security or peace for their citizens, who will provide that? Other states? Are we trying to secure the Syrians, as we tried to secure the Iraqis? Are our ‘precision bombs’ meant to free and secure? If so, they are failing.

Airwars have been monitoring international airstrikes against the so-called Islamic State and others in Iraq and Syria. As a result of a total of 8,657 precision air strikes an estimated 23,000 ISIS members have been killed, and up to 2,104 civilians (airwars.org). Civilians like Mohannad Rezzo, a university professor, and his 17-year-old son, Najeeb; his sister-in-law Miyada and her 21-year-old daughter, Tuka. The four family members were killed when a coalition air strike flattened their home as they slept, on 21 September 2015 (‘When War Comes Close to Home’, The New York Times, 4 October 2014).

What if Najeeb was your son? Tuka your daughter? Miyada your wife? What if you were Mohannad Rezzo? Would you sacrifice your own life, or your family's lives to help defeat ISIS? It is easy for us here, far from where the killings happen, to justify the bombings, to dismiss fears of civilian casualties, to downplay our role in the deaths of thousands. But what if the lives of those we love were at stake? What if it was our own state that was collapsing, together with our livelihoods? What might our perspective be then? Which would we consider the greater evil? 

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