After Civilian Deaths, Human Rights Watch Says US Strikes on Syria May Violate Laws of War

As US Bombs Iraq and Syria, Who Exactly Is Being Killed?

 

Pentagon provides scant information about people dying at its hands, while reports of civilian casualties emerge from the ground

 

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PENTAGON: THIS IS ONLY THE BEGINNING

 As the United States passes week seven of its expanded war on Iraq, and week two of air strikes across Syria, a critical question remains unanswered: Who exactly is dying in the air bombardments?

Many fear this question will remain unanswered. “I’m concerned that the U.S. is not held to the same standard as other countries when it comes to violating international law and killing civilians,” Raed Jarrar, Policy Impact Coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee, told Common Dreams.

The U.S. military and government have provided virtually no information about civilian and combatant casualties and have denied on-the-ground reports that innocent people are being killed and wounded in the escalating attacks.

But this official version of events is contradicted by mounting reports from Syria. As recently as Monday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights announced that overnight U.S. coalition bombings of alleged ISIS positions in northern and eastern Syria took civilian lives, the exact number unspecified. Observatory director Rami Abdurrahman told the Associated Press that a strike on a grain silo in the town of Manbij in Aleppo province “killed only civilians there, workers at the site. There was no ISIS inside.” He added that the bombings “destroyed the food that was stored there.”

The U.S. military on Monday denied the civilian deaths to Reuters but presented no evidence backing its claims. A U.S. Central Command statement released Monday offered no further information about civilian or combatant deaths, stating that air strikes were conducted against a “ISIL vehicles within a staging area adjacent to an ISIL-held grain storage facility near Manbij,” in addition to other targets.

The Observatory is not the only organization to sound the alarm on civilian deaths. Human Rights Watch released a report on Sunday that apparent U.S. missile strikes on Idlib in Syria on September 23 killed at least seven civilians. “Three local residents told Human Rights Watch that missiles killed at least two men, two women, and five children,” reads the report. Video footage from local residents and the Shaam News Network, available on the HRW website, appear to verify that civilians were wounded and killed in the strikes. According to some estimates, as many as 24 civilians were killed in coalition air strikes on this day.

Pentagon Spokesperson Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby denied those civilian deaths as well, again offering no evidence. “This is a pretty remote area of the country, mostly just desert. It’s not — it’s not urban,” he told the Associated Press. “We don’t believe that there’s much reason to be too concerned about any collateral damage, you know, to civilian property, that kind of thing.”

But numerous journalists say their contacts corroborate reports of civilian deaths, including Foreign Policy’s Shane Harris, who tweeted: “DOD says “unaware” of civilian casualties in Syria, but source w/ contacts there tells me at lat 10 killed in a strike NOT against ISIS.”

The Pentagon has also claimed that civilians are spared in its ongoing bombings of Iraq, which now number over 240 strikes since August eighth. But the U.S. has offered no evidence backing this claim, and numerous voices from Iraq and across the world warn that the renewed U.S. war in the country is bringing further militarization and death to ordinary Iraqis, who are squeezed between siege from ISIS and strikes from above.

According to Jarrar, the failure of the U.S. to account for the Iraqis killed in the 2003 war raises serious concerns about U.S. accountability and honesty over who it kills. “There is strong evidence that the U.S.-led attacks have killed dozens of civilians in Syria in the last few weeks and killed tens and thousands of civilians in Iraq over the last decade, and we haven’t seen any investigations into these crimes,” said Jarrar. “There is no reason to believe the U.S. will investigate itself.”

Robert Naiman, policy director for Just Foreign Policy, told Common Dreams, “There is a big danger here that U.S. air strikes in Syria are going to resemble the drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen in the sense that there is no accountability for who is killed. We have reports of civilian casualties from people in the area and the U.S. government says, ‘No, they are bad guys.’ There has to be some public accountability for what happens when there are allegations of civilian casualties.”

According to Jarrar, the U.S. hand in civilian deaths extends beyond direct bombings. “The indirect U.S. intervention is left unchecked as well: U.S. training and funding and equipping proxy groups in Iraq and Syria. There is very strong evidence that many of the U.S. allies that have been receiving us military assistance and training and equipments have been committing gross human rights violations and the U.S. has not been held accountable.”

As U.S. strikes on Syria expand, Human Rights Watch says a bombing last week on the town of Idlib should be investigated for possible violations of the laws of war. The strikes killed at least seven civilians, including five children, in the early morning hours of September 23 in the village of Kafr Deryan in northern Idlib province. Local activists at the scene of the attack collected and videotaped the remnants from the weapons used in the strikes. Human Rights Watch reviewed the footage and identified the remnants as debris of a turbofan engine from a Tomahawk cruise missile, a weapon that only the U.S. and British governments possess. “Witness accounts suggest that the attack on the village harmed civilians but did not strike a military target, violating the laws of war by failing to discriminate between combatants and civilians, or that it unlawfully caused civilian loss disproportionate to the expected military advantage,” HRW details. The group has called on the U.S. government to investigate the allegations and publish its findings. We are joined by Nadim Houry, Human Rights Watch senior researcher for Lebanon and Syria.

The coalition show, from Afghanistan to ‘Syraq’ – By Pepe Escobar

An Islamic State militant (L) stands next to residents as they hold pieces of wreckage from a Syrian war plane after it crashed in Raqqa, in northeast Syria September 16, 2014. (Reuters/Stringer)

An Islamic State militant (L) stands next to residents as they hold pieces of wreckage from a Syrian war plane after it crashed in Raqqa, in northeast Syria September 16, 2014. (Reuters/Stringer)

Published: September 23, 2014 15:26

By Pepe Escobar

Pepe Escobar is the roving correspondent for Asia Times/Hong Kong, an analyst for RT and TomDispatch, and a frequent contributor to websites and radio shows ranging from the US to East Asia.

US Secretary of State Kerry brokered a deal in Afghanistan, installing a ‘coalition’ government, but couldn’t come up with a credible coalition to bomb IS in Syria. So the Pentagon will do it alone to the applause of its Gulf ‘petrodollar allies.’

This is a short tale of two coalitions.

Let’s start with Afghanistan. The charade in Kabul goes by the name of “power-sharing agreement.”

You got an election problem? Call John Kerry. That’s right; this “agreement” was brokered by none other than the US Secretary of State, who shoved the embarrassing issue of a tainted democratic election under an Afghan carpet.

It came to the point that a UN representative, Jan Kubish, virtually ordered the Afghan electoral commission not to release vote numbers.

And this is while the UN itself had been monitoring an audit and a recount of approximately 8 million votes.

The predictable “senior US officials” spun that the vote result was “transparent.” But still, no numbers.

So now we have – essentially appointed by Washington – former Finance Minister and World Bank official Ashraf Ghani as President, and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah as “Chief Executive”, a new post.

And this after Abdullah insistently claimed the vote results were no less than a monster fraud. US “Think Tank-land,” unfazed, has called it a “temporary fix.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (Reuters/Gary Cameron)

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (Reuters/Gary Cameron)

Now for the all-important breakdown: NATO top honcho Gen. Philip Breedlove said Saturday in Lithuania that both “power-sharers” swore on their lives they will “quickly” sign a security agreement with Washington.

This agreement was brokered, once again, by Kerry and outgoing President Hamid Karzai in late 2013 – and approved by Afghanistan’s Loya Jirga. Karzai though had refused to sign.

Short translation: at least 10,000 American troops – mostly Special Forces – will remain deployed in Afghanistan in Enduring Freedom Forever mode. This is a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) by any other name.

So the occupation continues. Not only with US troops, but also with NATO starting a “training mission” in January 2015 called Resolute Support.

Watch out for major, certified blowback. It’s a no-brainer the Taliban will keep showing Resolute Support to kick NATO and the US’s collective behind.

But that’s great. That’s exactly what the never-ending GWOT (Global War on Terror) is all about.

When in doubt, bomb everybody

Now for the coalition to fight Caliph Ibrahim, the self-appointed beheading prophet of ISIS/ISIL/IS in “Syraq”.

US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power has been on a roll ahead of the UN summit this week in New York.

She frantically spun there are over 40 countries in the coalition of the reluctantly willing assembled to fight the Caliph.

But she won’t name them – or detail what they will be doing.

What she does know is that this new GWOT chapter will last “several years.”

Power also ruled out any collaboration with “rogue” Iran. But she was forced to admit that Russia has a role in fighting the Caliph.

Now that’s groundbreaking. Until virtually yesterday, for the Obama administration Russia was the “evil empire” remixed.

Moscow did warn that, “bombing Syria without the cooperation of Damascus can have destructive practical consequences on the humanitarian situation in Syria.”

Once again, the clearest Power got was to specify that, “we will not do the airstrikes alone if the President decides to do the airstrikes.”

People view the debris of their homes after a Syrian war plane crashed in Raqqa, in northeast Syria September 16, 2014. (Reuters/Stringer)

People view the debris of their homes after a Syrian war plane crashed in Raqqa, in northeast Syria September 16, 2014. (Reuters/Stringer)

And once again, John Kerry stole the show. For him, it’s not 40, but “some 50” countries who are barely containing themselves to go Caliph-hunting.

Kerry, to his credit, and unlike Power, at least is now saying that Iran may “have a role” after all.

For his part, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi made it clear that any strategy that undermines the Syrian government “will be a recipe for defeat.”

And Russia’s ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin demolished US President Barack Obama’s strategy to train and weaponize Washington’s mythical “moderate” Syrian rebels.

Even China’s ambassador to the UN Liu Jieyi carefully weighed in: “The international community should respect the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of the countries in question.”

Kabul was a piece of cake. Kerry just had to offer a decent bribe. But that won’t fly with the Caliph business.

Washington refuses to cooperate with Damascus and coordinate with Tehran – especially after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei vetoed it, and President Rouhani blasted Obama’s strategy as “ridiculous.”

Meanwhile Turkey, a NATO ally, is screaming, “The Syrian regime is the patron of extremism,” in the words of Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.

Kerry at least does not need to bribe Haider al-Abadi, the new Iraqi Prime Minister. After all Washington already bagged its Mesopotamian regime change, getting rid of Nouri al-Maliki.

Al-Abadi decided not to bomb Sunni regions in Iraq. Yet most of the Caliph’s resources and goons are actually in Syria.

Call the French fry guy

The Pentagon, not to be unfazed, carefully prepared a “mini-Shock and Awe” in Syria and started in style this Monday, launching a barrage of Tomahawk missiles on Raqqa.

“General” Hollande in France has been eager to join. With his popularity numbers glamorously flirting with zero, deploying Rafales against the bad guys is the only game in town for him.

Now compare it with Germany, as Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier insisted that air support or ground troops are “out of the question for us.”

It’s hard to see Kerry bribing Steinmeier. So what’s left is a coalition of two: Washington and Paris.

And it’s only in Iraq, because “General” Hollande already said bombing Syria is out.

The breakdown: bombing Syria will be via a coalition of the Pentagon with the Pentagon.

And this while Arab “diplomats” – as in the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) petrodollar gang – keep insisting the Pentagon should in fact bomb not only the Caliph’s goons but also Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

Which is what the Pentagon will “secretly” have in mind anyway.

Everyone remembers Obama’s red line last year when he threatened to bomb Damascus for “gassing its own people” just for Moscow to have him back off at the eleventh hour.

Now Obama could fulfill his dream via a “leading from behind” bombing.

Will the petrodollar gang also attack? Of course not. They will be applauding from the sidelines.

And for the doubters, there will always be Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, spinning “this will be a unified coalition…It will be cohesive. And it will be under one single command authority.”

The Pentagon commanding the Pentagon. What could possibly go wrong?

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

Birds of same feathers flock together: “We are satisfied”

Capts. Andrew Glowa, left, and William Piepenbring launch flares from two A-10C Thunderbolt IIs Aug. 18, 2014, over southern Georgia. Both pilots are with the 74th Fighter Squadron, Moody Air Force Base, Ga. Pilots, maintainers and support Airmen ensure Moody AFB’s A-10s stay mission ready for daily training sorties and deployments downrange. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jamal D. Sutter/Released)

Capts. Andrew Glowa, left, and William Piepenbring launch flares from two A-10C Thunderbolt IIs Aug. 18, 2014, over southern Georgia. Both pilots are with the 74th Fighter Squadron, Moody Air Force Base, Ga. Pilots, maintainers and support Airmen ensure Moody AFB’s A-10s stay mission ready for daily training sorties and deployments downrange. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jamal D. Sutter/Released)

Syrian government officials say US not coordinating with Damascus on strikes, ‘but it’s OK

“Although we continue to assess the outcome of these attacks, initial indications are that they were successful,” read a statement from U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), which is coordinating the air campaign.

CENTCOM added that the grain silo it struck was in the hands of ISIL, the violent Al-Qaeda splinter group that swept through Iraq and Syria this summer.

“The storage facility was being used by ISIL as a logistics hub and vehicle staging facility,” CENTCOM said.

However, the bombing in Manbij appeared to have killed only civilians, not fighters, said Rami Abdulrahman, who runs the Observatory, which gathers information from sources in Syria.

The United States has targeted ISIL and other fighters in Syria since last week with the help of Arab allies, and has hit ISIL in Iraq since last month. Washington says it aims to damage and destroy the bases, forces and supply lines of the violent armed group that has captured large areas of both countries.

The CENTCOM statement also listed other strikes in the region, including what it said were ISIL assets in Deir al-Zour, Aleppo and Raqqa, the heart of ISIL-held territory.

Bombs also hit ISIL vehicles near Kirkuk, a contested city near the Kurdish region of Iraq, and Sinjar, just west of Kirkuk, where thousands of Yazidis, a religious minority, sought refuge from the ISIL onslaught in August.

Participating with the U.S. in the attacks were the United Arab Emirates and Jordan.

‘We are satisfied’

Syrian Foreign Minister Waleed Moallem on Monday said Damascus was satisfied with the U.S.-led bombing campaign against ISIL, adding that the airstrikes should be expanded to include all other rebel groups in Syria.

Rebel groups unaffiliated with ISIL, meanwhile, have criticized the U.S. for not targeting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorial regime, which they seek to overthrow. The White House maintains, as it has since the beginning of Syria’s civil war in 2011, that it hopes Assad will leave power, but has not effectively backed any anti-government group.

American diplomats have denied that they are working in concert with the regime — sometimes informing Syrian officials that the raids would take place, but not asking for permission to strike.

Al-Moallem said the U.S. does not inform Syria of every strike before it happens, “but it’s OK.”

“We are fighting ISIS, they are fighting ISIS,” he said, referring to the group by one of its acronyms.

“Until today, we are satisfied. As long as they are aiming at ISIS locations in Syria and in Iraq, we are satisfied,” he said.

How about the civilians (and children) being killed by the air strikes?  Not one word.

Despite questions over legality of US strikes in Syria, world keeps silence

Germany and the EU mafia accused Russia of violating international law and sovereignty by “invading” and “occupying” Crimea, and then “anexing” Crimea to the Russian Federation.  The nations that felt “threatened” by Russia asked their patron, the United States, to protect their countries against a Russian invasion. It was a chorus singing the same  song day after day. Then they decided to “punish”  Russia with sanctions.

Why are these nations silent about the US air stikes in Syria and Iraq? The United States, once again, is violating international law and the sovereignty of two countries.  Why the hypocrisy lecturing and threatening Russia with more sanctions and backing NATO?

President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have put together this motley crew coalition that includes Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates — American warplanes are doing most of the airstrikes in Syria — even though in countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, powerful elements are financing some of the same terrorists that their governments have been enlisted to fight.

In a fancy-old New York hotel that evoked Marlon Brando making the peace with the heads of the five families in “The Godfather,” President Obama offered a tableau of respect to the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

“This represents partners and friends in which we have worked for very many years to make sure that security and prosperity exists in the region,” he said.

As Maureen Dowd wrote in her article “From Pen and Phone to Bombs and Drones”,  because we need the regressive rulers in the Persian Gulf to sell us oil and buy our fighter jets and house our fleets and drones and give us cover in our war coalitions, we don’t really speak out about their human rights violations and degradation of women as much as we should. The Obama administration was sparked to action by the videos of ISIS beheading two American journalists. Yet Saudi Arabia — wooed to be in the coalition by Kerry with a personal visit this month — has been chopping off heads regularly, sometimes for nonlethal crimes such as drugs or sorcery.

The president should just drop the flowery talk and cut to the chase. Americans get it. Let’s not pretend we’re fighting for any democratic principles here.

The muted reaction may or may not mean the world is buying the Obama administration’s legal rationale for striking ISIL in Syria, an argument that is premised on the White House’s refusal to partner with the Assad regime and that takes advantage of gray areas in international law.

Given the indiscriminate brutality of ISIL in Syria and Iraq, and the sectarian threat it poses to regional stability, it may simply be the case that the international community is willing to turn a blind eye.

Others say Washington’s partnership with regional powers lends credibility to the operation.

Still, many legal scholars say the U.S. justification for striking ISIL may be valid.

The U.S. has already invoked Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, which allows for collective self-defense of a sovereign state without Security Council approval, to justify the ongoing offensive against ISIL strongholds in Iraq. Baghdad has formally requested military assistance to combat the armed group in the country’s Sunni strongholds, so the legality of foreign intervention on the Iraqi side of ISIL’s vast territory is clear-cut. Is it?

But any campaign against ISIL that is limited to one side of the Iraqi border would amount to a stopgap measure, since ISIL fighters can easily retreat into Syria, where the group is based, to replenish and refuel. In other words, the U.S. argues, defending Iraq from ISIL requires expanding the offensive into Syria.

The U.S. claim of self-defense is parasitic upon Iraq’s claim,” said Jens Ohlin, a professor at the Cornell University School of Law and an expert on the legality of international military action. “Iraq has suffered attacks from ISIS [an acronym for another name for ISIL] units that have a safe haven in Syria, which is unable to stop ISIS from operating on its territory. This argument is controversial but supportable in my view.”

In fact, there wouldn’t even be a debate over the legality of U.S. strikes on ISIL if the White House secured the permission of the Assad regime. But after recently announcing it would boost aid to Syria’s moderate rebels and already under fire for taking too soft a line against the Assad regime over three years of bloody civil war, the White House is afraid it would paint itself as hypocritical by collaborating with Assad against a common enemy — even for a brief time.

So the U.S. has made the controversial argument that the Syrian government is “unwilling or unable to prevent the use of its territory” by ISIL as a staging ground for attacks in Iraq, according to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power. After all, Assad has lost control of over one-third of his country to ISIL — hence “unable” — and there is evidence he has allowed ISIL to metastasize while focusing fire on other rebel factions because the group has spurred so much rebel infighting — therefore “unwilling.”

But Syria’s regime recaptured (Sept. 25, 2014) a town near Damascus from Islamist rebels and attacked other rebel-held areas, fanning fears among some in the opposition that President Bashar al-Assad is gaining advantage from the U.S.-led air campaign against Islamic State militants.

Syrian military officers, speaking on state television, said their forces and an allied militia drove the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and other rebels from Adra al-Umaliya after nearly a year of fighting over the town. State television touted it as a major victory.

The U.S.-led airstrikes that began this week have targeted extremist group Islamic State and another al Qaeda-linked rebel group Khorasan, which is closely intertwined with Nusra Front. So any gains by Syrian government forces at the expense of Nusra Front and other Islamist rebels risk fueling the perception among many in the opposition that the international airstrikes are unintentionally aiding Mr. Assad’s struggle to cling to power.

Nusra Front and Islamic State are two of the most potent rebel groups fighting the Assad regime, which has welcomed the U.S.-led airstrikes against its enemies. Nusra Front and other Islamist groups as well as Western-backed rebels have been fighting both the regime and Islamic State, also known as ISIS, in the multi-sided civil war.

syriansoldier

Syrian soldier rests in Adra al-Umaliya on Thursday after the Assad regime drove out Islamist rebels. Reuters

“When we are fighting against ISIS in northeast Aleppo and at the same time being hit by regime aircraft, how can we win this fight against the terrorism on the ground and the terrorism in the sky?” Husam Almarie, spokesman for the Western-backed Free Syrian Army in northern Syria, said on Wednesday. “If the U.S. wants to defeat terrorism, it must hit both Assad and ISIS.”

Sunni insurgents took over Adra al-Umaliya, on the outskirts of the capital, in late 2013. They were accused at the time of massacring Alawites, the Shiite-linked Muslim sect whose members dominate the top echelons of the Assad regime.

A military officer speaking to local reporters bused from Damascus to Adra al-Umaliya on Thursday said his forces surrounded rebels in the area from all directions, forcing many of them to flee.

“We put pressure on the armed terrorist groups and they took huge losses and we killed many members of these gangs,” he said in remarks broadcast on state television.

To date U.S. fighter aircraft, bombers and drones have launched about 190 airstrikes within Iraq.

Urged on by the White House and U.S. defense and military officials, Congress passed legislation late last week authorizing the military to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels. Obama signed the bill into law on Friday, providing $500 million for the U.S. to train about 5,000 rebels over the next year.

ISIL, meanwhile, has threatened retribution. Its spokesman, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, said in a 42-minute audio statement released on Sunday that the fighters were ready to battle the U.S.-led military coalition and called for attacks at home and abroad.