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Syria-Iraq: civilian deaths, British denials

The British government's response to scrutiny of its current military actions is evasive. But mounting evidence of civilian casualties makes this untenable.

RAF Tornado. Flickr/Defence Images. Some rights reserved. RAF Tornado. Flickr/Defence Images. Some rights reserved.When the United Kingdom prime minister David Cameron argued in the House of Commons for approval to bomb Syria, he and his team made much of the accuracy of British bombing and the contribution it would make to the United States-led coalition’s war against ISIS. In the end, the vote on 2 December 2015 went in his favour, although the majority of Labour members of parliament and all those of the Scottish National Party were opposed.

To counter this opposition, the Conservative government has consistently claimed that its strike-aircraft and armed-drones are meticulous in avoiding civilian casualties. It is an important part of the case, and the government’s whole strategy would be undermined if it was clear that many innocent people were being killed. That evidence is beginning to emerge. But it is resolutely denied by the ministry of defence, echoing a strategy that long predates the decision to extend Britain’s role to Syria. 

In September 2014, the sole Green Party MP in the House of Commons, Caroline Lucas, put the following question to the ministry of defence (MoD):

“To ask the Secretary of State for Defence, with reference to his letter to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion dated 24 July 2015, what estimate he has made of the number of ISIL fighters killed as a result of UK strike activity; and what estimate the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL has made of civilian casualties arising from its activities” (see written parliamentary question 9798, 9 September 2015).

The eventual reply from the secretary of state, Michael Fallon, is fascinating. He would not answer for the coalition, saying that it was a matter for them – even though Britain is an integral partner. As to the impact of the British strikes:

“The estimated number of ISIL fighters killed as a result of UK strikes from September 2014 to 31 August 2015 is around 330. This figure is highly approximate, not least given the absence of UK ground troops in a position to observe the effects of strike activity. We do not believe there have been any civilian casualties as a result of UK strike activity.”

At first sight, it is a clear answer. But a moment’s thought points to the contradiction. The UK government can only give an approximate figure for the number of people killed yet is convinced that none of those killed were civilians.

This attitude, of denial of what is euphemistically termed "collateral damage", has now become much more entrenched as independent evidence has emerged of numerous civilian casualties (see "The airstrike harvest", 9 October 2015). 

The struggle for openness

Very good overall work continues to be done on Iraqi casualties by Iraq Body Count. This shows a current total for Iraq, since the war started in 2003, of between 151,000 and 171,000 civilians killed from all causes, and a total figure for all civilians and rebels killed of 242,000.

Airwars, an organisation looking specifically at the coalition’s recent air operations, has been trying to collate sources specifically on air- and drone-strikes in both Iraq and Syria and the resultant civilian casualties since August 2014. In its recent reporting on the issue, Airwars pays a lot of attention to the difficulty of getting reliable information. But two things also become apparent – that there have been many civilian casualties and that the British government is in denial about them.   

From information collated by Syrian human-rights groups and other sources, Airwars reports between 72 and 81 civilian deaths in Iraq, close to a quarter of the total deaths the MoD claims. The MoD simply rejects this: from its perspective, all were paramilitary supporters of ISIS. It will simply not consider such reports and will only use what it terms its own internal surveillance through reconnaissance and figures obtained from “local sources”, but will not say what those sources are. It is, in short, in denial, even in the face of the obvious anomaly in its earlier reply to Caroline Lucas.

But Airwars has used US Central Command's own database to examine civilian casualties inflicted by US airstrikes and drone-attacks, and found huge anomalies in the information. The organisation's director, Chris Woods, says:

“One of the things that troubled us was that we were aware of three times more alleged civilian casualty incidents than Centcom was. Their own internal mechanisms were simply missing two out of three alleged cases on the ground and we ended up sharing our data set with them, simply so they could begin triggering investigative processes for those events they were unaware of”.

At least Centcom accepts that civilians are being killed, even if its figures are far too low. In contrast to the Americans, the British government chooses an easier option: denying that there is any kind of problem and hoping no one will notice.

The political reason is clear. There is much more concern in Britain over its involvement in Syria, and this is reflected in the views of the majority of the main opposition Labour Party and its leader Jeremy Corbyn. In this rather fevered environment, to acknowledge any problem is simply too dangerous as it might indicate that Corbyn and his allies have good reason for their stance.

As Airwars, Iraq Body Count and other groups develop their work, though, the government's stance is certain to come under further pressure. At the point when confirmation of their findings emerges, the position of the Cameron government and those supporting it among the opposition parties will become acutely difficult.

About the author

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy's international security adviser, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His latest book is Irregular War: ISIS and the New Threat from the Margins (IB Tauris, 2016), which follows Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on Twitter at: @ProfPRogers

A lecture by Paul Rogers, delivered to the Food Systems Academy in late 2014, provides an overview of the analysis that underpins his openDemocracy column. The lecture - "The crucial century, 1945-2045: transforming food systems in a global context" - focuses on the central place of food systems in human security worldwide. Paul argues that food is the pivot of humanity's next great transition. It can be accessed here


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