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The media needs to be honest about civilian deaths in Syria and Iraq

Syrians try to rescue those who are trapped under collapsed buildings after the Assad regime carried out air strikes in Damascus, Syria [Tarık Almasry/Anadolu Agency]

Walk along any High Street in Britain and ask passers-by who causes more civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria, the West or Russia, and you will almost certainly hear Vladimir Putin declared emphatically to be the “winner”. This is a reasonable response. He is responsible for a great deal of death and destruction in Syria. The British media have always been keen to emphasise this. What they have failed to do is also point out how many civilian casualties the West has caused. The media needs to be more honest about this.

When it comes to Daesh, it is remarkable that the West and its Middle Eastern allies have actually caused more civilian casualties than Russian warplanes have for nine out of the past twelve months. It is a statistic that is deeply troubling yet completely absent from the British narrative about the war.

Monitoring project Airwars has tracked more than 4,000 reported incidents in which Russian or Western coalition aircraft have allegedly killed civilians. The group emphasises that “raw claims should be treated with caution.”

From January to September 2017, every single month showed more civilian casualties caused by the coalition than by Russia, even though it is the Russians who are frequently slammed by the British media for killing and wounding non-combatants.

Read: 1.3 million children displaced by Iraq’s war with Daesh

We are not entirely to blame. The reality is that, driven largely by President Donald Trump’s campaign pledge to “bomb the s*** out of ISIS”, the rules of engagement have been loosened to the point that women and children are becoming de facto legitimate targets. It is arguably the only campaign pledge that Mr Trump has come good on.

The British government’s role in this is turning, though, from worrying to appalling. Ministry of Defence figures show that since the start of the campaign 1,626 air strikes were ordered against Daesh in Iraq and Syria (as of 12 December 2017) resulting in 3,000 Daesh fighters being killed. That makes us the second most active and deadly coalition ally in theatre.

Yet the Ministry of Defence also claims that there have been zero — yes zero — civilian casualties, throughout the period under review. This is simply implausible.

It is well known that Britain’s Royal Air Force has traditionally had the tightest targeting rules in NATO, usually dictating a zero per cent chance of civilian casualties before a strike can be ordered. This has often, in Afghanistan and Yemen, for example, strained relations with our allies who are more gung-ho. The insistence of RAF commanders is generally to be praised. Our reticence to endorse fully the US Central Intelligence Agency as a paramilitary rather than intelligence agency, particularly when it comes to prosecuting the so-called “drone wars”, is also to be commended.

Yet the position of the Ministry of Defence when it comes to the air war in Syria is clearly farcical. Even with zero per cent rules, there is no way that this always translates into zero casualties, especially when Daesh are using human shields and its fighters are concentrated in cities.

Read: 30 children killed in Syria’s East Ghouta this year

As one senior Labour MP and former Army Reserve officer puts it, the Ministry of Defence now needs to “stop treating the British public as mugs.” He is not the only one to feel this way.

A former deputy commander of the Royal Air Force – who previously oversaw air strikes in Iraq, Syria and Libya – has now announced that it is not credible to claim that no civilians have been harmed.

In an interview with Airwars he said, “Although we do our utmost to both prevent civilian casualties and conduct post-strike analysis to confirm, I don’t think it is credible to the average listener that we have not caused any civilian casualties just because you have got no evidence to the contrary.” Air Marshall Greg Bagwell also called into question the accuracy of battle damage assessments, which are used to determine possible civilian harm, noting that “you can’t see through rubble.”

There is no doubt at all that Daesh needs to be removed, and that it has all but disappeared from Iraq. Nobody is mourning the death of its fighters. Those I have spoken to in Mosul and Fallujah know that civilian casualties were the price to be paid for liberation from the terrorists.

However, pointing out that the US-led and UK-backed coalition is causing more civilian casualties than the bloodthirsty Vladimir Putin needs to be much further up the agenda of the British news media. He is not the kind of man we should be outstripping on the battlefield when it comes to unnecessary deaths and injuries.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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