Clean Warfare?: The Murky Nature of Air Strike Casualty Counts


By Emily Feng.

Last Monday, a series of airstrikes on the Syrian town of Idlib reportedly killed at least seven civilians and hit no militants. Another strike on a grain silo also reportedly killed civilians. The Human Rights Watch is investigating the Idlib attack as a possible violation of the laws of war.

The airstrikes were part of an escalation by a US-led coalition of more than 40 countries against ISIS. In attempting to understand and track the airstrikes against ISIL in Syria and Iraq, I have been struck by the lack of information on strikes and casualties. The coverage is patchy at best: 70 casualties here, a dozen there. While activists have already criticized the escalation of airstrikes, saying that they are responsible for the death of civilians, there are no accurate numbers to rely on. Even the US military, which oversees airstrike operations, admitted that it does not have perfect information about casualties. In a statement to Reuters, Colonel Patrick Ryder, a spokesman at Central Command, said in regards to Monday’s strike on the grain silos, “We are aware of media reports alleging civilian casualties, but have no evidence to corroborate these claims.”

That is incredibly alarming and, frankly, really confusing. Airstrikes are very technical operations, which is about all I can say about them because I know so little. They involve data collection and analysis, knowledge of firing systems, the limitations and advantages of different missile heads, and so on. As citizens, we recognize this, and so we necessarily defer to the experts to advise us on the more technical matters which have life and death consequences.

This is where I get even more confused, however, because the narratives about “precision” airstrikes sharply diverge depending on who you’re talking to. Those that support airstrikes, unsurprisingly, offer arguments and statistics which support their position; those who argue against airstrikes paint a starkly different picture with the same so-called “facts.”

In his announcement authorizing airstrikes against ISIL in Iraq, President Obama was careful to use the phrase “targeted airstrikes.” Four videos of air strikes in Syria – of about twenty videos that the US Central Command has released so far – all show successful, precise strikes. In one, a missile hits a tank directly, turning it into a fireball. In another, airstrikes destroy a weapons storage facility. Rather than laying waste to large swaths of land, the missiles appear to be guided towards specific targets. These videos, together with dispassionate rhetoric from US officials, paint a picture in which airstrikes are precise, reliable, and effective.

On the other hand, detractors of air strikes claim air strikes are “extremely imprecise,” do not carry the monitoring advantages of drone strikes, and target large areas at one time. This combination of factors leads to disproportionate civilian casualties. Moreover, because neither the US nor its coalition partners has troops on the ground, they must rely on secondhand information and tracking technology when planning aistrike operations. Again, however, we don’t have the day-to-day statistics at this point to prove either argument.

And of course, no matter how precise strikes of any kind are, there are also potential negative social externalities, such as the further radicalization of targeted populations. Without reliable information from our political leaders and informed, comprehensive journalism that can translate technical missile jargon into language citizens can understand, we will be left in the dark, yet again.


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