Refocusing our attention on Western airstrikes in the Middle East

Refocusing our attention on Western airstrikes in the Middle East
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
11 November 2016

The claim by Jeremy Corbyn’s spokesman that the government’s focus on Russian airstrikes in Syria “diverts attention” away from other “atrocities”, including those committed by the West, created a backlash in liberal circles.

“Jeremy is unwilling to face up to the role that Putin’s Russia is playing in Syria”, said Labour MP Angela Smith. Alice Ross from the independent monitoring group Airwars took a different tack, jumping to the conclusion Corbyn was making a direct comparison between Russian and Western airstrikes, even though his spokesman had explicitly said he was not drawing a “moral equivalence” between the two. “Russia and the [Western] coalition are fighting different wars when it comes to civilians”, Airwars Director Chris Woods responded. The US-led coalition tries to limit civilian deaths, he noted, “while everything we understand about the way Russia is behaving shows they are deliberately targeting civilians, civilian infrastructure”.

Building on this straw man, the Guardian’s Emma Graham-Harrison penned an article ‘Reality check: are US-led airstrikes on Syrians as bad as Russia’s?’ Corbyn’s “remarks implied the casualties were comparable”, noted Graham-Harrison mistakenly, “and that coalition attacks had been ignored by politicians, rights groups and the media in the west.”

One wonders why Graham-Harrison felt the need to ask about the media’s coverage of Western airstrikes when her own Guardian report about the July 2016 US airstrike that killed 73 civilians in northern Syria appeared as a tiny story tucked away at the bottom of page 22. Appearing on BBC Any Questions in August 2016, the broadcaster and publisher Iain Dale noted UK airstrikes in Syria “haven’t killed people… because they are precision airstrikes” – an assertion that fellow panellist Labour MP Chuka Umunna agreed with. Similarly, backing the Tory Government in December 2015, Labour MP Dan Jarvis made the extraordinary claim that there had been no civilian casualties in over 300 UK airstrikes in Iraq since summer 2014.

So what are the facts about the ongoing Western air campaign in the Middle East?

Two key bits of information are often missing from any discussions of the topic. First, in April 2016 USA Today reported that new rule changes meant “The Pentagon has approved airstrikes that risk more civilian casualties in order to destroy Islamic State targets”. Worryingly, this modification itself followed a 2014 report from Yahoo News that noted “strict standards President Obama imposed last year to prevent civilian deaths from US drone strikes will not apply to US military operations in Syria and Iraq.”

Second, the US and UK use highly questionable methods to monitor the number of civilian casualties. In 2012 the New York Times reported that Obama has “embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties” of US drone strikes that “in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants.” US counterterrorism officials insisted this approach is based on simple logic, the New York Times explains: that “people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good.” Not to be outdone by their American allies, in January 2016 the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) told the Sunday Herald that it only investigates reports of deaths on the ground in Syria and Iraq coming from “UK military personnel, and ‘local forces’ deemed friendly.”

This, then, is presumably why the MoD recently claimed they had killed 1,700 Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria since 2014 but no civilians. These figures were “an estimate based on ‘post-strike analysis’ and has not been confirmed by visits to the targeted areas”, the BBC noted. Responding to these fantastical figures Woods argued that if the MoD’s claims were true, it was “unprecedented in the history of modern warfare”. Woods also provided a pertinent comparison: “Britain is in the uncomfortable position of being in the same position as Russia in claiming that large numbers of air strikes have killed no civilians.” In contrast, Airwars’s own analysis shows the US-led coalition has conducted 16,008 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria since 2014, killing an estimated minimum of 1,749 to 2,608 civilians.

Western governments – rarely questioned by a pliant media and intellectual class – have a long and shameful record of aerial bombardment and indifference to the hundreds of thousands of men, women and children they have killed.

“The aim of the Combined Bomber Offensive… should be unambiguously stated [as] the destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers, and the disruption of civilised life throughout Germany”, noted Arthur Harris, Commander of RAF Bomber Command, in 1943 (his statue was erected in London in 1992). Discussing the US bombing of Japanese cities in the same war, US Secretary of War Henry Stimson confided to President Truman that the US could “get the reputation of outdoing Hitler in atrocities”.

Between 1965 and 1973 the US dropped 2.7 million tons of explosives on Cambodia – “more than the Allies dropped in the entirety of World War II”, according to Henry Graber writing in Atlantic magazine in 2013. “Estimates of the number of people killed begin in the low hundreds of thousands and range up from there, but the truth is that no one has any idea.” Neighbouring Laos also bore the brunt of US military aggression during this period, with the US dropping more than two million tons of ordnance in an astonishing 580,000 bombing missions, apparently making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history.

Visiting Iraq following the 1991 Gulf War, Dr Eric Hoskins, the coordinator of a Harvard study team, noted the US-led bombardment had “effectively terminated everything vital to human survival in Iraq – electricity, water, sewage systems, agriculture, industry and health care”. Ten years later during the US-UK bombing of Afghanistan, the Chief of the UK Defence Staff exhibited a touching level of trust in the efficiency of the country’s political system, declaring “The squeeze will carry on until the people of the country themselves recognise that this is going to go on until they get their leadership changed.” In Pakistan, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism found the US Central Intelligence Agency has carried out “double-tap” drone strikes – the tactic of deliberately targeting rescuers at the scene of a previous drone strike.

The US bombed a hospital and clinic in Fallujah in 2004, and the US-supported Iraqi government reportedly used US helicopters to drop barrel bombs on the city in 2014. The 600 airstrikes carried out by the US between July and December 2015 in Ramadi played a key role in destroying nearly 80 percent of the city. One third of Saudi Arabian-led air raids in Yemen have hit civilian sites such as school buildings, hospitals, markets and mosques. The UK supports “the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat”, then UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said in April 2015.

Like Woods, I agree that the evidence suggests Russian bombing in Syria is deliberately targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure. However, as a British citizen, I also believe my primary concern should be the actions of the UK and its allies. And it is clear Western airstrikes in the Middle East since 2014 have killed thousands of civilians, including hundreds of children: a deeply upsetting reality largely ignored or downplayed by the mainstream media, government and Labour MPs like Dan Jarvis and Chuka Umunna.

Comparing the West with Russia is simplistic and unhelpful (since when did Russia become the moral baseline to judge the West’s actions by?) Instead we need a more intelligent, nuanced and honest analysis of the morality of Western airstrikes. Because while the US and UK are not, it seems, deliberately targeting civilians in Iraq and Syria, neither is it satisfactory to simply state the US and UK are doing everything they can to minimise civilian casualties, and that any so-called “collateral damage” is accidental.

In reality the West carries out air campaigns comprised of thousands of airstrikes in the full knowledge it will kill non-combatants, and then goes to significant lengths to ignore – that is, cover-up – the existence of those dead civilians.

So, how should concerned citizens define this kind of behaviour? Violence, a callous disregard for the safety of others, a lack of empathy, deceitfulness, the failure to conform to social norms and respect the law – arguably the US and UK’s governments continued bombing in the Middle East exhibits many of the commonly understood symptoms of psychopathy.

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