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Obama's getting more aggressive on ISIS — but it's putting more civilians at risk

Syrian women collect their possessions after US-led coalition airstrikes on ISIS positions near Idlib, Syria.
Syrian women collect their possessions after US-led coalition airstrikes on ISIS positions near Idlib, Syria.
(Ahmed Hasan Ubeyd/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Yesterday, Yahoo News reported a pretty ominous new development in the American air war against ISIS. In the Afghanistan and Pakistan drone campaign, the US puts relatively strict restrictions on targeting to avoid civilians. In Syria, Yahoo reported, these standards won't be used — putting Syrian civilians, like the roughly 12 already killed by one US strike, in greater danger.

Last week also saw the first reported civilian casualties from American strikes in Iraq, according to Iraq watcher Joel Wing.

Expect to see more stories like this. While the American war against ISIS has so far been unusually, impressively clean, the nature of that war virtually guarantees that more civilians will be killed. Here's why.

The nature of the fight will cause more civilian casualties

us general syria isis targets

Lt. General William Mayville Jr. briefs reporters about airstrikes in Syria. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Since August, the US has bombed over 154 targets in Iraq. That there've only been four civilian deaths from the strikes, by Wing's count, is pretty remarkable. But that won't last, for three very clear reasons.

The first is the mere fact that the US is now bombing in Syria at all. American intelligence in Syria, where it has far fewer assets and sources, is simply worse than it is in Iraq — as proven by American strikes blowing up a grain silo that the US appears to have mistaken for an ISIS base.

The US approached the Iraq strikes very deliberately, ramping up reconnaissance and sending US troops to Iraq to collate incoming intelligence and coordinate with their Iraqi counterparts. In Syria, by contrast, the US is working with scattered and divided rebel groups rather than a central government and its army. What's more, it's not even clear how much we're coordinating target selection with Syrian rebels. So our intelligence in Syria is likely to be worse, leading to more accidental civilian death.

The second is target selection. As Hayes Brown points out in a very detailed ThinkProgress post, the US air campaign in Iraq has focused on hitting ISIS positions in the open. That means large vehicles that ISIS has seized from the Iraqi army, artillery batteries, and supply convoys. The US has managed to target hit these targets while they've been out in the open (i.e., on roads), away from civilians. That has lowered the risk to civilians considerably, but these targets will gradually become scarcer as the US air war expands.

The third reason casualties will get worse is ISIS adaptation. ISIS knows the US doesn't want to kill civilians and will almost certainly exploit that. They'll move assets in and around cities they control — such as Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq — and dare the US to risk missing them and hitting civilians.

According to Bassam al-Ahmad of the Center for Documentation of Violence in Syria, that's already happening. "ISIS has also taken over several bases in Raqqa, Aleppo, and Deir Ezzor where civilians are living, and there is huge potential for civilian casualties," Ahmad told Syria Deeply. "ISIS also has a number of command centers that have been converted to detention centers, where ISIS is keeping thousands of inmates, including journalists, activists, and people who have been kidnapped."

The deeper problem is strategic, not technical

House destroyed american strikes Syria

A Syrian man walks on the rubble of destroyed house following the US-led coalition's airstrikes against ISIS on a residential area in Idlib, Syria on September 23, 2014. (Ahmed Hasan Ubeyd/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The rising risk to civilians is not an inevitable feature of any sort American involvement in Iraq and Syria. Rather, it's a direct product of the maximalist goals the Obama administration has set for its war on ISIS.

Before committing to "degrading and destroying" ISIS, the United States's air campaign had more limited goals. Officially, the strikes were designed to push ISIS out of Iraqi Kurdistan and protect Iraqi minorities from an impending genocide. Informally, the objectives expanded to helping the Iraqi army against especially vulnerable ISIS positions, like the Mosul Dam.

By choosing only to provide limited help to Iraq in critical situations, the United States had enormous control over targeting. It could focus only on ISIS targets where airpower was likely to be effective, such as disrupting supply convoys between Iraq, that also were unlikely to kill a lot of civilians.

But now, the United States has committed itself to helping both Iraqi and Syrian rebel soldiers take back all of ISIS-held territory. That's a more ambitious strategy that takes on a lot more risk, including toward civilians. If and when Iraqi military and Syrian rebel forces move on ISIS positions in heavily populated areas, they will expect and may very well depend on American close air support. The US will be forced to rely on sketchy Syrian intelligence and strike dangerously close to civilian population centers.

It's this simple: the more aggressive the American objectives are in the war against ISIS, the more likely American forces are to kill civilians.

The Pakistan precedent is not encouraging

pakistan drone protest

Pakistanis protest against US drone attacks on February 9th, 2012. (S.S. Mirza/AFP/Getty Images)

The US targeted killing campaign in Pakistan and several other countries does not provide a promising precedent for the risk to civilians. Somewhere between 191 and 1,090 civilians have been killed by American strikes against al-Qaeda targets, depending on whose count you believe.

And the bombing campaigns in Iraq and Syria will likely be bigger. The targeted killing campaign is, by design, limited. The goal is to hurt al-Qaeda by what the military calls decapitation; that is, taking out its leadership. By contrast, the strikes in Syria and Iraq have a much broader aim: defeat ISIS on the battlefield. That implies a steady drumbeat of strikes against ISIS positions rather than the occasional firing of missiles designed to kill a top leader.

That's why the US is actually relaxing its targeting guidelines for Syria: what works for a targeted killing campaign doesn't necessary translate well to a full-on war. Which means more civilians are likely to be at risk of getting killed in each individual strike.

To be clear: this doesn't mean the US campaign against ISIS is unjustifiable. Both international law and widely-accepted just war theory do allow for some civilian casualties when they're unavoidable to accomplish necessary military objectives. The big question is whether the strikes will accomplish enough to clear that bar. And that's far from clear.

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