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June 06, 2017

Minimizing Civilian Casualties

The question is which civilians when and where.

“US military reports 484 civilian deaths by US-led coalition attacks, but outside monitors put the number much higher,” says an Aljazeera story about the battle for Mosul since mid-2014 when ISIS took control there. Life and death are surely hell for the people caught between ISIS and very slowly advancing Iraqi forces who have “coalition” (mainly US) air support. But life and death were hell for many of them since ISIS took over the city. We don’t know how many people were killed for the sin of being Shiite or not properly following ISIS orders in Mosul alone. We know how many victims of ISIS-inspired terrorism there have been in the West. We have no idea how many people have been murdered, tortured, or sold into slavery by ISIS-affiliates in the Middle East and Africa – but we know the numbers are huge.

Aljazeera goes on to quote its reporter Osama bin Javaid:

“Saving people is proving to be easier said than done. Aid workers and rights groups have been repeating their concerns that in the process to push ISIL out, Iraqi forces must make sure that civilians are not caught in the crossfire.”

Javaid doesn’t explain how the Iraqi forces are supposed to “make sure” that civilians whom ISIS is hiding among and behind are “not caught in the crossfire”. The New York Times explains the problem:

“Some of the soldiers here, as well as one resident who had managed to flee, spoke of the Islamic State fighters’ trying to round up anyone still living in the area and forcing them to retreat with them toward the Old City.

“It’s a chilling thought, horrifyingly consistent with how the Islamic State has fought this battle for months. The militants’ last stand may well take place behind a wall of civilians.”

The only way to prevent these civilian deaths would be to stop fighting ISIS – which would lead to many more civilian deaths. Perhaps some civilians in Mosul would be spared if the ISIS fighters were allowed to escape Mosul and continue killing somewhere else. But this is not an acceptable solution.

Meanwhile the battle for Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of the ISIS caliphate, has just begun. Crushing the head of the ISIS snake in Raqqa won’t end terrorism, of course. However, decapitating the command structure will help prevent ISIS from organizing the kind of huge attack on the West it is longing to commit (and no doubt planning). The US finally decided to ignore Turkish objections and armed Kurdish forces, who are willing to fight for Raqqa. We are also supplying air support and advisors. A swift victory in Raqqa is important in order to capture and kill as much of the ISIS leadership as possible. There will be more civilian casualties. That is terrible. But not as terrible as allowing ISIS to regroup and continue its murderous ways.

Al Jazeera quotes UN human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein:

“[the] rising toll of civilian deaths and injuries already caused by air strikes in Deir Az Zor and Raqqa suggests that insufficient precautions may have been taken in the attacks…just because ISIL holds an area does not mean less care can be taken. Civilians should always be protected, whether they are in areas controlled by ISIL or by any other party.”

The story does not contain any suggestion from al-Hussein on how citizens who are being used as shields should be protected. The NY Times story describes ISIS snipers shooting fleeing civilians. These lives could be saved if ISIS would let people get out of the way of the battle instead of shooting them.

We don’t have to – and can’t – wait for another 9/11. As painful as it is, we must recognize that civilian casualties in Mosul and Raqqa are the terrible price the world pays – because of ISIS – in order to prevent even more civilian casualties in more places later. This is a terrible choice to make. We must face it.

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