Amnesty International has released an unusually idiotic attack on the U.S.-led campaign against ISIS. Focused on the dislodging of ISIS from its former capital in Syria’s Raqqa, Amnesty asserts that the coalition used disproportionate force and unlawfully killed far more civilians than it admits.
But Amnesty is wrong. Its report shows poor methodology, near-zero understanding of combat realities, and no contemplation of viable alternatives.
On the first count, methodology, Amnesty relies on witness statements, imagery analysis of coalition strike sites, and analysis of social media posts. But Amnesty offers no indication that it judged witness reports with scrutiny, and utterly fails to identify whether ISIS personnel were at strike sites it identifies as civilian. While it offers a cursory observation that ISIS used human shields, it’s only cursory. That’s a slight problem because ISIS didn’t simply use human shields in Raqqa, it mastered the art of doing so. High-value ISIS leaders would regularly be surrounded by civilians.
What about the use of social media? Well, anyone who has used Twitter should know that what you see on that platform might not be the whole truth. Assuming the opposite, Amnesty’s assessment methodology bears similarity to an absurdly flawed 2006 Lancet study which used cluster sampling (not a great idea in a war zone) to suggest that more than 2% of Iraq’s population had been killed since the March 2003 U.S. invasion began.
But it is Amnesty’s consideration of combat reality where this report really goes through the looking glass. Amnesty official Donatella Rovera admits to the BBC that ISIS “snipers and mines had turned the city into a death trap,” but adds, “many of the [coalition] air bombardments were inaccurate and tens of thousands of artillery strikes were indiscriminate, so it is no surprise they killed and injured many hundreds of civilians.”
This is untrue.
The vast majority of air strikes on Raqqa were JDAM, or “smart bomb” enabled. In addition, those strikes would only have been authorized after specific identification of ISIS personnel at a target site, or after sustained signature analysis of ISIS operations at the site. Even then, the process to authorize these strikes is highly intensive. U.S. military lawyers and commanders end up rejecting a vast majority of strike requests. Amnesty claims that, “[h]ad coalition forces carried out adequate surveillance before launching their strikes, many civilian lives could have been spared.” But this is ridiculous, and Amnesty certainly doesn’t have the information to make that claim. It’s far more likely that, had the coalition acted as Amnesty desires, ISIS might still be in control of the city.
Amnesty’s assertion that coalition artillery strikes were “indiscriminate” is even more absurd. As The Drive reports, Marine artillery operations against Raqqa often employed guided munitions on their M777 howitzer system during the battle. Amnesty ignores this. Amnesty also ignores how artillery is employed by the U.S. military. Because it is not employed “indiscriminately” as Bashar Assad uses it against Syrian civilians. Instead, artillery is directed onto a target by military forward observers and then adjusted as necessary. Is this sometimes inaccurate? Yes, that’s war. Is it indiscriminate? By definition, no, it isn’t.
That leads us to the final concern here: viable alternatives. The vast majority of air or artillery strikes against ISIS in Raqqa fell under two criteria: supporting fire for ground forces, and destructive fire on fixed targets with a consideration of mitigated civilian loss. Conversely, were the coalition to have accepted Amnesty’s battle doctrine, coalition special operations forces and their Syrian Democratic Forces allies would have fought without fire support. Amid brutal urban combat, many more would have died. Moreover, the efficient dislocation of ISIS from Raqqa would also have been greatly delayed. Is this a more moral choice than that which the coalition made? I would suggest it manifestly is not.
Put simply, Amnesty has not come close to proving its central contention that “the coalition launched strikes likely to cause excessive harm to civilians and failed to distinguish between military targets and civilians.” This is just another hit job from a left-wing group that has no respect for the U.S. military nor for the moral missions it carries out. Indeed, it is a gift to ISIS propagandists.