Recently the Pentagon admitted to killing two Syrian children in a drone attack last fall when they bombed a group of al Qaeda fighters in the suburbs of the Syrian city of Aleppo. Someone from the press asked me if I thought this was a sign of increasing transparency. A few of my remarks were quoted in the ensuing article, which I have linked at the end of this one. What follows is my full response.
Recently the Pentagon admitted to killing two Syrian children in a drone attack last fall when they bombed a group of al Qaeda fighters in the suburbs of the Syrian city of Aleppo. At the time they claimed this group was a critical target because they were high level operatives associated with Al Qaeda who were planning attacks on the United States mainland.. No one that I know had ever heard of this group, but their name, Khorasan, is the name of a province in Iran, which is an odd choice for an Al Qaeda affiliate. So they bombed this small group of 50 or less foreigners, holed up in a suburb of Aleppo, Syria, in a civilian neighborhood in the middle of a war zone, plotting to kill Americans in America. It is a stretch to to wrap the mind around this rather incredible story.,
But, it isn’t a surprise that some children were killed in Syria in a drone strike. In fact, children are regularly killed in U.S. drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and wherever. In 2013, due to a lot of negative attention brought by International Human Rights NGOs an the United Nations on drone killings in Pakistan and Yemen, President Obama produced a document that set standards limiting drone strikes where civilians might be present. Last year, after declaring war on ISIS in Syria and Iraq, he waived those limits. Soon thereafter, these children were killed by a U.S. drone strike in Syria. The picture is actually of some other children killed by drone strikes in Syria, Now, there is once again discussion of placing limits on drone strikes.
This is all very amusing, but not very helpful. In fact, any kind of military strike likely to harm uncounted (but certain to be present) civilians is a violation of internationa humanitarian law. The U.S. government wants to bend the definitions to allow us to have these unconventional non-state wars, but it doesn’t want to accept the limits that, in old fashioned wars, were enforced by the existence of a battlefield where civilians would not be likely to be present. But we no longer fight under the formal procedures if interstate war which both require and demand boundaries.
War is the name we now use for global policing, which has not boundaries as far as the United States is concerned, but which is governed by international human rights law, which is even more stringent in it’s protection of civilians than humanitarian law, or the laws governing war.. So, why are we, the people, the dissatisfied populace, the defenders of peace and justice,, asking for transparency rather than justice under the law? Why should we respect fluctuating assertions of compliance or noncompliance by serial violators as new law? The result is an endless buzz of discussion around a line that is already deep in civilian territory and wholly outside the law. No one is safe in a war zone that is not and cannot be defined. Endless dribbles of transparency in a constantly redefined context have no substance.
In revealing the latest transgression, focusing our attention on the deaths of these children and whatever remedies President Obama might choose to put in place, the Pentagon is covering for something larger and creating a cover story that it can use to have an appearance of transparency. The tragic deaths of these 2 children are just a drop in the bucket of casualties from US airstrikes in countries our leaders wish to control.. When they choose to target groups that are ‘bunkered’ in civilian areas, even when they are legitimate targets – and that isn’t always the case – the strikes are bound to to hit civilian targets. This war is not being fought on a battlefield but in the cities and villages of Syria. The fact that these deaths occurred in this brazenly illegitimate context has been forgotten. There are only these children.
At the time these children died, there were other stories in the alternative press about civilian casualties of U.S. strikes in the vicinity of Raqqa. Notably, there were strikes on a grain silo which stored precious food for the civilians living in this desert city, and another instance where a US strike on a compound targeted a Da’ish prison, killing a large number of ‘prisoners-of-war’ being held by a handful of Da’ish guards. Strikes on Da’ish targets in the city Raqqa were fruitless because Da’ish had abandoned their urban headquarters for civilians neighborhoods in the suburbs of the city. So, armed U.S. drones followed with the expectable consequence of civilian deaths.
Words like ‘building’ and ‘compound’ cover up the reality that the buildings and compounds are homes, schools, places of business and the structures of ordinary social living. Just because the children aren’ t playing in the street during a war doesn’t mean they aren’t present. Not every gathering of men is a militia. As I learned in Pakistan, the women we don’t see are generally in kitchens attached to the public areas where the men meet, and which are primary drone targets. This war is taking place in the cities and towns of Syrian, not on a battlefield. It is impossible that U.S. military and government decision makers don’t know this.
In modern wars, which are largely fought in the cities and villages of someone’s country, there is no way to entirely avoid a vast number of civilian casualties, usually more in number than the combatant casualties. Combatants are paying attention, and often protected by their weapons and armored vehicles and so on. Civilians have no protection. This is one reason why starting and fueling these wars is such a heinous crime.
The Syrian Arab Army and their allies consistently attempt to evacuate the sites of battles before engaging the enemy. They have the information to do this because they are part of the local society. Yet western news sources generally paint them as psychopathic murderers. The US strikes are based on abstract intelligence; video feedback from drones a couple of miles in the air, satellite imagery that can only pick out certain types of physical material and temperature gradients and radio signals, and inforrmation provided by spies on the ground who often have agendas separate from US interests. The information is evaluated by people with little understanding of the local context. So that information is not complete and may be very misleading. The guys with the joysticks know this. Their bosses know this. Yet they fire anyway. Who are the real psychopathic killers?
To lessen the risk of civilian casualties the US would have to coordinate with the Syrian government and the Syrian Arab Army and their allies who have reliable information about civilians on the ground. They would also have to rethink some of their surveillance and weapons deliveries. Some percentage of weapons are delivered directly to Da’ish and Jabhat al Nusra forces on the ground, and many more are delivered to areas and organizations they can easily control and co-opt. Then our barbarism could be reduced to the level of the Syrian Arab Army loyal to Bashar Assad, who are doing their best to preserve their county and protect their countrymen.
And yes, other instances have occurred where the United States has admitted deadly errors. This is part of a shell game that engages people to look at small disturbing details while the broad pattern of abuse remains invisible. People receive apologies and expend their outrage. Such revelations do cause outrage among activists and others, but since it is no mystery to those who are informed, and explained to those who aren’t, they do not incite further analysis and discussion. The truth is that The U.S. violates International laws of war and peace on a regular basis, day in and week out, month in and year out, while the world vacillates around a fruitless discussion of transparency, as if the truth is irrelevant until after a liar confesses.
Meanwhile, even as U.S. forces are focused on surveilling these civilian neighborhoods where ‘enemy’ forces might be set up under civilian cover, they apparently don’t take the trouble to surveil areas where these forces are in the process of vanquishing or have recently vanquished local forces. After pretty much every victory, Da’ish has a celebratory parade, often transporting weapons not only through the city, but across the desert for long distances as they redistribute their resources. Surely these events are visible on satellite surveillance, but none of these caravans have ever been struck by U.S. forces. Also, there appears to be no US surveillance on the Turkish border with Syria or the Israeli border, both of which are the locus of known supply lines for Da’ish and Al Nusra. These facts have been known, literally for years.
Additionally, U.S. proxies are feeding al Qaeda, ISIS and the foreign Jihadis in Syria and Iraq, while the U.S, makes a show of fighting them. What isn’t obvious, what the broader citizenry turns away from, is that there would be no necessity of anyone bombing anywhere if the US would focus it’s substantial economic and political power on blocking it’s allies from supporting these groups it then bombs in the towns and cities of Syria and Iraq.
Turkey is the middle man, profiting from the sale of Da’ish oil, and also a transit hub for foreign fighters. It allows border crossings to be openly controlled by Da’ish and Al Nusra fighters, who use these crossings as supply routes and for troop movement. Turkey hosts training camps for the incoming jihadis,and there is some indication that the US Base at Incirlik is involved in this project. Foreign fighters fly into Istanbul and can be seen on public transportation in the city as they make their way to the training camps and the Syrian border.
Israel is providing logistical support to al Nusra fighters in the Golan, including supply routes and medical support. Israel also bombs Syrian government sites periodically. They not only bomb government military sites, but recently have attacked Iranian and Hezbollah fighters in the region. Binyamin Netanyahu has been photographed visiting wounded Al Nusra fighters in an Israeli hospital.
Jordan also hosts training camps.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar and other oil rich Emirates have been funding both al Nusra and Da’ish fighters. Qatar has been providing salaries to Syrian Muslim Brotherhood members to induce them to take up arms against their government since 2011. Both countries are home to wealthy donors who fund transportation and payroll for fighters in Syria, and provide weapons and training to them. Powerful satellite news organizations, Al Jazeera and Al Arabia, owned by members of the royal families of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, provide political cover for the ongoing wars and popularize or normalize vicious sectarian points of view.
The US does nothing to contain any of these activities. Instead it supports them with weapons and diplomatic cover.
The tragic deaths of 2 children provide us with a glimpse of a much larger tragedy, The United States and its allies have the Syrian government and the Syrian people enmeshed in a war that they did not initiate, and which they cannot end because it is fueled by an endless supply of men and resources coming from outside the country. Many more men women and children have died in this senseless war to undermine the sovereignty of Syria, and we can expect that they will continue to die as long as those forces continue to prevail in the region.
The U.S. also continues to use weaponized drones for so called targeted killings in civilian areas of countries whose governments we are not at war with, and that includes Afghanistan. Targeted killing target so called ‘militants’ – if they were ‘combatants’ they would have some rights under International law – in their homes, mosques and marketplaces where it is unsurprising to find them surrounded by women, children and other civilians who have nothing to do with the so called wars in the context of which they are being targeted.
Sputnik article based on the original interview: US Lacks Transparency on Drone Policty Despite Children’s Deaths