It appears that the rules of engagement in Syria and Iraq have been loosened in the last couple of months.
That is, air and artillery strikes can be conducted with less consideration of the possibility of harm to civilians and allied forces. Military spokesmen have been less than forthcoming as to whether the increasing number of civilian casualties and friendly fire incidents are related to a change in policy but the results indicate there has been a loosening of the rules.
According to Airwars.org, a group that monitors civilian deaths caused by airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, over 1,000 civilian deaths were alleged to have resulted from coalition airstrikes during the month of March, a dramatic increase over previous months. This included over 200 deaths in the City of Mosul during the latter part of the month. Airwars said, “These reported casualty levels are comparable with some of the worst periods of Russian activity in Syria,” where the Russians have deliberately bombed civilian targets. Additionally, 18 Syrian fighters allied with the U.S. were killed by our airstrikes in Syria on April 11, a “friendly fire” incident.
Almost 50 years ago (1968-69), I had experience with both loose and tight engagement rules. For seven months, I led a four-person team whose job was to clear all U.S. air and artillery strikes in Tay Ninh Province, Vietnam. We lived among the South Vietnamese soldiers (ARVNs) and worked with them around the clock in province headquarters. When U.S. forces wanted to shoot artillery or drop bombs, they called us for permission. The northern part of the province, which bordered Cambodia on the north and west, was largely triple-canopy jungle. It was a “free fire” zone and the rules only required that U.S. firepower not endanger U.S. or ARVN troops. The southern part of the province was largely open farm ground with scattered civilian population. To fire in that area, tighter rules required that we also obtain approval from our ARVN counterparts to protect civilians from harm. The tighter rules in the populated area were appropriate, even though we were not able on occasion to give permission to fire.
A complicating factor in the use of U.S. firepower in Iraq and Syria is that often airstrikes are called in, not by U.S. personnel, but by local forces. According to press reports, that was the case with both the Mosul airstrikes and the Syrian friendly fire incident. Recent experience in the region shows that U.S. firepower can be misdirected by locals against rival religious or tribal targets. The danger is inherent in the battle for Mosul where most of the civilians at risk are Sunnis. Whether true or not, they may believe that a lack of care for civilians is because of ill will, either by the U.S. or by unfriendly Iraqi forces. This is detrimental to the long-term goals of the U.S. in the region.
We must win the hearts and minds of the local people in order to succeed and won’t be able to do it if civilians believe that we are indiscriminately killing their fellow citizens, much like the Russian and Assad forces do. Further, these conflicts are not being fought in isolation. With present-day communications, the world is watching and many young people on the fence in the region and elsewhere are deciding whether to side with us or our adversaries. If we show them we don’t care about the lives of civilians in those countries, they won’t likely be siding with us.
In order to protect innocent civilians and serve our national interests, we should not loosen the rules of engagement. And, U.S. personnel should act as a check on decisions by local forces to call in U.S. firepower. If our bombs are being dropped, our personnel should be a part of the approval process.
Jim Jones is a former Idaho Supreme Court chief justice and former Idaho attorney general.