The second of the three recent US air strikes I’ve been looking at took place near Harim [Harem on the map above] in Syria on the night of 5-6 November 2014. The report of the military investigation into allegations of civilian casualties is here.
The aircraft launched multiple strikes against two compounds which had been identified as sites used as meeting places for named (though redacted) terrorists and sites for the manufacture and storage of explosives by the al-Qaeda linked ‘Khorasan Group’ (if the scare-quotes puzzle you, compare here and here).
The compounds each contained several buildings and had previously been on a No Strike List under a category that includes civilian housing; they lost their protected status when ‘they were assessed as being converted to military use’ but ‘other residential and commercial structures were situated around both targets’. An annotated image of the attack on the first compound is shown below:
Although the report argues that ‘the targets were engaged in the early morning hours when the risk to civilians was minimized’ – a strange statement, since most civilians would have been asleep inside those ‘residential structures’ – US Central Command subsequently received open-source reports of from three to six civilian casualties, together with still and video imagery. By the end of December 2014 the Combined Joint Task Force conducting ‘Operation Inherent Resolve’ had completed a preliminary ‘credibility assessment’ of the claims and found sufficient evidence to establish a formal investigation into the allegations of civilian casualties. The investigating officer delivered his final report on 13 February 2015.
He also had access to a report from the Syrian Network for Human Rights that provided a ground-level perspective (including video) unavailable to the US military. Its narrative is different from US Central Command, identifying the targets as being associated with An-Nussra:
The warplanes launched, at first, four missiles that hit three military points, which are located next to each other, in the northeast of the town:
1 – The Agricultural Bank, which is used by An-Nussra front as a center.
2 – The central prison checkpoint, where An-Nussra fighters were stationed.
3 – An ammunition depot in the same area.
The shelling destroyed and burned the Agricultural Bank’s building completely in addition to damaging a number of building nearby. Furthermore, a number of cars were burned while a series of explosions occurred after an explosion in the ammunition depot..
Afterwards, the warplanes targeted a fourth center with two missiles. [This target] was a building by an old deserted gas station located near the industrial school in the south of the town. The shelling destroyed the center completely as well as the gas station in addition to severely damaging the surrounding buildings. Harem residents were aided by the civil-defense teams to save people from underneath the rubble.
SNHR documented the killing of two young girls; one could not be unidentified but the other was Daniya, aged 5, who was killed along with her father who was said to be one of the An-Nussra fighters living in a house near the Agricultural Bank. Daniya’s mother and her brother Saeed, aged 7, were seriously wounded.
The report also included post-strike imagery from YouTube videos and Twitter feeds:
In contrast to the report on the air strike in Iraq I discussed in my previous post, this one includes no details of the attack, nor the procedures through which it was authorised and conducted – though we do know that there is a considerable military bureaucracy behind all these strikes, especially in the administration of what in this case was clearly a pre-planned rather than emergent target. For more on the bureaucratisation of targeting, incidentally, see Astrid Nordin and Dan Öberg, ‘Targeting the ontology of war: From Clausewitz to Baudrillard’, Millennium 43 (2) (2015) 392-410; analytically it’s right on the mark, I think, and I’ll be advancing similar arguments in my Tanner Lectures – though stripped of any reference to Baudrillard…
But there is one revealing sentence in the report. Although the investigating officer had no doubt that the Harim strikes were perfectly legal, everything worked like clockwork and nothing need be changed –
– there is nevertheless a recommendation for ‘sustained ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] whenever practicable based on operational requirements, to ensure that no civilians are entering or exiting a facility.’ The clear implication is that these strikes – pre-planned, remember: these were not fleeting targets of opportunity – were not supported by real-time ISR. When you add to that the reliance placed by the investigation on ground imagery from YouTube and Twitter, you begin to realise how little the US military and its allies must know about many of the targets they strike in Iraq and Syria. (I might add that the US has not been averse to using Twitter feeds for targeting too: see Robert Gregory‘s compelling discussion in Clean bombs and dirty wars: air power in Kosovo and Libya, where he describes the central role played by Twitter feeds from Libyan rebels in identifying targets for the US Air Force and its NATO allies: by the closing months of the campaign France was deriving 80 per cent of its intelligence from social media contacts on the ground).
All this gives the lie to the cheery ‘let ’em have it’ guff from Robert Caruso, commenting on US air strikes in Syria last September:
By relying so heavily on drones in our recent counter-terror campaigns we’ve been fighting with one hand tied behind our back. But a key to the success of Monday’s strikes was the use of manned aircraft with pilots who can seek out enemy targets and make on-the-spot decisions…
it’s time to drop the drone fetish, and the limitations it imposed, and go back to using manned airpower, which is more powerful and better suited to hunting down elusive targets like ISIS.
Regular readers will know that I’m not saying that drones are the answer, or that their ability to provide persistent, real-time, full-motion video feeds in high definition makes the battlespace transparent; on the contrary (see my ‘Angry Eyes’ posts here and especially here: more to come soon).
But the absence of their ISR capability can only make a bad situation worse. In February, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center conceded that that US had not ‘closed the gap on where we need to be in terms of our understanding, with granularity, about what is going on on the ground in Syria.’ Indeed, during the first four months of this year ‘nearly 75 percent of U.S. bombing runs targeting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria [a total of more than 7,000 sorties] returned to base without firing any weapons’, and reports claimed that aircrews held their fire ‘mainly because of a lack of ground intelligence.’
Full-motion video cannot compensate for that absence, of course, and in any case there are serious limitations on the number of ISR orbits that are possible over Iraq and Syria given the demands for drones over Afghanistan and elsewhere: each orbit requires three to four aircraft to provide 24/7 coverage, and the global maximum the US Air Force can provide using its Predators and Reapers varies between 55 and 65 orbits (or ‘combat air patrols’).
In late August 2014 Obama authorised both manned and unmanned ISR flights over Syria, and since then the United States has been joined by the UK and France in deploying MQ-9 Reapers over Iraq and Syria, where their video feeds have helped to orchestrate missions carried out by conventional strike aircraft (see, for example, here). In August 2015 France claimed that all its air strikes in Iraq had to be validated by ISR provided by a drone:
But that was in August, before Hollande threw caution to the winds and ramped up French air strikes in response to the Paris attacks in November – an escalation that relied on targeting packages supplied by the United States.
In any case, Predators and Reapers are also armed and in their ‘hunter-killer’ role they had executed around one quarter of all airstrikes conducted by the United States in Iraq and Syria by June 2015 and more than half the air strikes conducted by the UK in Iraq. Although the UK only extended its bombing campaign against Islamic State to Syria this month, its Reapers had been entering Syrian airspace in steadily increasing numbers since November 2014 to provide ISR (in part, presumably, to enable the United States to orchestrate its air strikes) and in September 2015 it used one of them to carry out the UK’s first acknowledged targeted killing near Raqqa (see also here and here); the United States has also routinely used the aircraft in the extension of its multi-sited targeted killing program to Syria (see also here).
All this bombing, all this blood: and yet strategically remarkably little to show for it. And all for a lack of intelligence…