With the War on Terror over in its official capacity, the U.S. sought to maintain its influence in the Middle East, and it inserted itself into civil wars throughout the region in an effort to prevent the expansion of the Islamic State (ISIS). The most prominent example is the U.S. involvement in Syria’s civil war, which began with the Arab Spring in 2011.
With Syrian President Bashar al-Assad unable to choke out the resistance, terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda and ISIS, capitalized on the chaos and tried to build a caliphate. This threat was significant enough that the U.S. decided to get involved on the periphery.
The Syrian Civil War proved to be a bloody, multi-sided conflict, one that continues to this day. Every belligerent has been incriminated for violating human rights, from the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad to ISIS to the United States.
Civil war is messy, and trying to force change with external pressure almost never works; if it does, it is rarely sustainable, like in Iraq. Nonetheless, the U.S. got involved, committing more war crimes along the way.
Bashar al-Assad’s Syria
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was unable to regain control of his country after the Arab Spring threatened to oust him from decades of familial power. But being an autocratic ruler encouraged Mr. al-Assad to try to reassert dominance over the Syrian people through the use of force. As it became clear that Mr. al-Assad was failing to maintain relative Syrian stability, the country devolved into civil conflict that led to civil war.
At first, the U.S. government, led by former President Barack Obama, did not outwardly support the resignation of Mr. al-Assad, likely in an attempt to encourage a quicker return to normalcy in Syria, even if that meant the autocrat remained in power. This position changed a few months later, and the C.I.A. developed a covert action program known as Timber Resolve to arm Syrian rebels as they fought to overthrow Mr. al-Assad.
The United States under Mr. Obama’s successor, Donald J. Trump, ended Timber Resolve based on the fact that it had failed to remove Mr. al-Assad from power, though the program did have a positive effect on the fight for Syrian independence from Mr. al-Assad.
American involvement in the Syrian Civil War started as nonexistent, but morphed into financial and military support for rebels seeking the overthrow of the al-Assad regime. But just as in Iraq, a new player emerged, adding more complexity to an already intricate conflict: ISIS.
ISIS in Syria
ISIS first launched attacks in Iraq as it sought to establish a caliphate in the Middle East before focusing on overtaking Syrian cities. The United States then launched Operation Inherent Resolve to drive ISIS out of Iraq and Syria.
In the ensuing years, ISIS was pushed out of the Syria–Turkey border but managed to gain or hold onto key Syrian cities like Aleppo, Raqqa, and Baghuz. ISIS lost 95 percent of its territory by December 2017, which included the loss of Raqqa. But in the liberation of this city, and in ISIS’s final stronghold of Baghuz, the U.S. perpetrated war crimes that indiscriminately killed civilians living in ISIS-held territory.
Despite rhetoric that U.S.-led forces were protecting civilian lives as they ousted ISIS from control of large swaths of Iraq and Syria, they did the exact opposite. The most “precise air campaign in the history of warfare” killed thousands of civilians, most notably in Raqqa and Baghuz.
Raqqa was ISIS’s capital until it was destroyed by an American-led coalition in 2017. In ousting ISIS from the city, U.S. forces blanketed the city with airstrikes, leaving them unable to adequately protect non-combatants. By waging war from half a world away, the United States military failed to recognize that the missiles it launched would inevitably harm civilians.
The U.S. claims that because it lacked the intention to kill civilians — legally known as mens rea— it cannot be held responsible for the ensuing deaths of civilians. But America’s air war in Syria was meticulously calculated, its targets carefully observed before strikes.
Just like in Iraq, the United States used white phosphorus in the battle to retake Raqqa. The U.S. military says its use is mainly to create smoke screens that hide Syrian rebel force movements, a legal use of the chemical. But white phosphorus can also be used as an incendiary weapon, though there have not been reports of its use by coalition forces against ISIS personnel or civilians.
The normalization of using chemicals in war poses a threat to the safety of all involved, regardless of whether or not chemical weapons harmed civilians in this specific instance. But while Raqqa citizens were spared the atrocities of chemical warfare, they had to endure tens of thousands of artillery shells, which are known to have killed at least 744 civilians
A UN assessment mission reported that between 70 percent and 80 percent of all buildings in Raqqa were destroyed or damaged, underscoring the dangers of large-scale urban warfare conducted between the murderous Islamic State and the largely impune United States.
The U.S.-led coalition proved able to push ISIS out of Raqqa, though at the expense of lives and livelihoods of nearly the entire Raqqa civilian population. With ISIS’s caliphate now in sharp decline, it moved to Baghuz and fortified the city, making it the location of America’s final mass crime scene in the fight against ISIS in Syria.
With ISIS territory decreased from large proportions of Iraq and Syria to the singular Syrian city of Baghuz, coalition forces were on the verge of eradicating the last vestiges of ISIS’s physical caliphate. But this also presented U.S.-led forces with one final opportunity to blatantly ignore human rights concerns and push ahead with ambitious military action.
The Battle of Baghuz Fawqani wiped ISIS off the map of Syria, but in the process, dozens of non-combatants, including children, were killed. But the United States did not responsibly recognize the crimes it committed; instead, it sought to cover them up. Only after a New York Times investigation did the Pentagon reexamine the events of March 18, 2019 in Baghuz.
In Baghuz on that day, an American F-15E attack jet from the Combined Air Operations Center at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar flew to Baghuz after drone reconnaissance showed women and children, along with some ISIS fighters, huddling near a riverbank. The jet proceeded to drop a 500-pound bomb on the crowd, followed by a second 2,000-pound bomb, killing anyone who survived the first blast.
From the start, the Pentagon sought to avoid scrutiny by pretending the murders had never happened. There was no investigation at first, and a subsequent one determined that “the strike was conducted consistent with the Law of War.” Free from outside scrutiny, the United States military looked at its own blatant war crimes, then found itself not guilty because a legitimate trial could never occur.
In Baghuz, 80 people were killed. The official explanation said the bombs killed 16 fighters and four civilians; the remaining 60 people were not explained. Without a third-party authority able to probe American military activities and prosecute alleged war crimes, the U.S. will continue to “abhor the loss of innocent life” while doing nothing to prevent that loss effectively.
American war criminal activity did not begin in Syria, and it will not end there. Civilian casualties permeate the several years of American intervention in Iraq and Syria, culminating in the fall of ISIS in Baghuz. The United States fought in the War on Terror by terrorizing innocent civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, and this American terror continues to go unpunished.