Despite his initial support for the Iraq war, Donald Trump ascended to office with a vow to untangle America from Middle Eastern conflicts. But he also ran as a nationalist, promising to steal Iraq’s oil, torture alleged terrorists, “bomb the shit” out of ISIS, and loosen the rules of military engagement. It’s too early to know exactly how the Trump administration’s policies in the region will play out, but the U.S. has continued heavily bombing Iraq and Syria with catastrophic consequences.
According to the nonprofit group Airwars, which tracks civilian casualties, “Almost 1,000 civilian non-combatant deaths have already been alleged from coalition actions across Iraq and Syria in March—a record claim.” Three particularly deadly air attacks, one in Syria and two in Iraq, including an especially deadly assault on Mosul, are responsible for much of the toll.
To discuss why civilian casualties are increasing, I spoke with Samuel Oakford, a New York–based investigative reporter at Airwars and a former U.N. correspondent at Vice News. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed how his group reports on civilian casualties, Russian intervention in Syria, and why military planning must take the lives of innocent people into account.
Isaac Chotiner: When did your organization first notice an increase in civilian casualties?
Samuel Oakford: There were some marked increases in the last months of the Obama administration, so basically the fall of 2016. You really started seeing the number rise, both in Iraq and Syria. Those figures have continued to rise even higher during the first few months of the Trump administration. Obviously most of these casualties are tied to ongoing campaigns in Mosul and elsewhere.
Is the increase coming from the number of airstrikes or the deadliness of them?
Definitely the strikes appear to be more deadly. We’re seeing larger numbers of civilians killed in individual strikes. That could be a product of bombing in heavily urbanized areas, so in Mosul that’s obviously true. Some have pointed out that higher numbers of civilian casualties were inevitable in western Mosul, but I’m not sure how much comfort that gives to the civilians there. I do think that the qualitative changes to the strikes are probably a product both of where they’re taking place, but also maybe some changes to the way that they’re being authorized. That’s the big question here—whether there have been changes to the rules of engagement. The Pentagon denies that, but they also say that there have been changes to who can authorize strikes, so it becomes a bit of a semantic conversation.
How does your organization tally civilian casualties?
It’s a good question. In a lot of Iraq and Syria, especially in ISIS-controlled areas, you can’t go in and do a post-strike assessment after bombs are dropped. Even in places like Yemen, where the Saudis bombed, the U.N. is sometimes able to go and look at what happened, and try and see who died, and so forth. If you’re bombing in Raqqa, though, it’s very difficult, or it’s impossible to go. We have to rely in those places—and this is the model overall—of being an all source monitor. We take all sources and create a constellation of evidence, then do our best to see which strikes are the most likely to have taken place. You can often reasonably attribute them to one side or another.
For instance, in this recent strike in Mosul we have over 50 sources. Some are social media accounts. By and large the sources are local, so most people in the West are not looking at them. Social media is huge, so the way this war is being recorded is in a lot of cases online, and you have to know where to look. We have researchers that speak Arabic and researchers who focus on Iraq and Syria, and then we compare that to what we know about strikes in the area and we try to arrive at a reasonable conclusion.
Despite the heavy Iraqi casualties, some of the news reporting suggests that it’s the Iraqi military pushing hard for more strikes. Have you found that too?
Some of what’s coming out is that Iraqi forces are suggesting that the U.S. is being too loose with rules of engagement. But previously, in east Mosul, my understanding was that in some cases, the Iraqis wanted the U.S. coalition to move faster. I think it’s a little bit all over the place, but they definitely want to take Mosul as quickly as possible. I don’t think they want to kill everyone there, so there’s a tension that exists.
I read that your group has started focusing more on coalition airstrikes and less on Russian airstrikes because of how many civilians the American-led mission has killed.
Basically, the Russian intervention started in September of 2015, and it got really, really awful within a few months, with thousands of alleged casualties. Only now is the coalition approaching the number of alleged casualties that can be attributed to the Russians.
We still have researchers who are just really, really amazing and still recording all of these reports on casualties from Russian strikes and putting them in our database. The next step is to vet them and that is the process I described for you. But we have had to pause on some stuff regarding Russia in order to do that sufficiently for the current coalition activities.
And the Russians are still very active, correct?
Russian strikes are still quite active. They’re not as active as they were, but they’re still bombing regularly. And they have room to ramp up again, I think, is what I might say.
Do the civilians you hear from have a sense that they are under a different degree of siege than several months ago?
If you’re under a hail of artillery fire, and coalition airstrikes, and also Iraqi airstrikes, I don’t know one has time to parse the distinctions between various rules of engagement. Obviously there’s a substantive change in your reality when you’re running for your life, when you’re sheltering, and when perhaps the place you’re sheltering, which maybe ISIS directed you to, speaking hypothetically, has been obliterated in an airstrike. It’s a reality that people are experiencing rather than empirically observing.
Has this job made you think differently about war?
We have countless pages of these firsthand accounts. People post things on Facebook, they post pictures of the people that are killed. Sometimes we’re able to reach out through our researchers in Iraq and Syria, or I’m able to reach out to family members. I know for me, I’m just speaking personally, having these images and talking to family members hasn’t changed the way I look at war, but it’s made it a lot more difficult to look at war. In my experience doing this work, I know even more clearly how important it is that reporting happens in Iraq, where you meet with family members and talk with people that were witnesses and victims, and not just listen to the Pentagon and get an update on the rules of engagement.
There is clearly an intensifying campaign of late. There does seem to be a qualitative difference in the strikes as well. At a certain point, the coalition, the Iraqis, the government has to ask how many civilians will die in this operation. I just think that’s the real question here, because by a lot of accounts the worst fighting in Mosul is only starting, which is kind of hard to believe. You really have to plan out military activities with an eye to civilians, and what that means for the future of countries and communities.