The number of civilians killed by U.S. air strikes in Syria and Iraq has skyrocketed over the last several months, the latest sign of a possible military-strategy shift under President Trump.
The Daily Beast, partnering with the watchdog organization Airwars, found that the total number of dead since Trump took office is roughly equivalent to all civilian casualties during President Obama’s entire tenure.
Airwars researchers estimate that at least 2,300 civilians likely died from Coalition strikes overseen by the Obama White House—roughly 80 each month in Iraq and Syria. As of July 13, more than 2,200 additional civilians appear to have been killed by Coalition raids since Trump was inaugurated—upwards of 360 per month, or 12 or more civilians killed for every single day of his administration.”
Airwars estimates that civilian deaths have roughly doubled in the months since Trump took office.
There are sharply differing accounts of just how many civilians have died, with independent monitors like Airwars tending to show much higher figures than the U.S.-led coalition itself. But the official numbers also reveal a sharp uptick in civilian deaths: Of the 603 victims killed since the operation began in 2014, 40 percent have come during the first four months of Trump’s presidency.
There is also debate over why the numbers have risen so sharply. One major factor is that U.S. forces have been involved in multiple major operations in the last several months, most notably the end stages of the battle for Mosul, which involved some of the most intense street fighting since World War II. In March, the Pentagon admitted killing over 100 civilians in a massive air strike there, the highest-profile bombing raid in recent months. On July 9, Iraqi forces officially liberated the city from ISIS control.
There’s also the battle for Raqqa, ISIS’s caliphate headquarters, where U.S.-led forces have surrounded the city and killed hundreds of civilians as they prepare for a final campaign to wrest it from militant control. (Though the Daily Beast reports that “likely civilian fatalities monitored by Airwars researchers increased five-fold even before the assault on Raqqa began.”)
Another possible culprit for the increase in deaths: structural differences in the way air strikes are carried out. President Trump has delegated an enormous amount of power to his military commanders, and American and Iraqi commanders are now able call in air strikes without getting approval from any kind of central command — a further loosening of the approval process, which the Obama administration already relaxed last year.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis maintains that “we have not changed the rules of engagement. There is no relaxation of our intention to protect the innocent.” But as senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations Micah Zenko put it to The Guardian: “A change in the rules of engagement does not have to be a change in doctrine. It can just be a change in tone and command climate. Mattis has again and again talked about an annihilation campaign, and that can have an influence lower down.”
Whatever the reasons for the proliferation of civilian carnage, it has become clear that President Trump’s promise to “bomb the shit” out of ISIS is one of the few he has kept since taking office.