UN: US Attack on Syrian Civilians Violated International Law

by Edward Hunt

Last week, war crimes investigators at the United Nations charged a U.S.-led coalition with violating international humanitarian law last year when it launched airstrikes on a school in Syria that killed at least 150 civilians.

The war crimes investigators reported that internally displaced families had been sheltering in the school since 2012. The investigators said that U.S.-led coalition forces failed to take proper precautions to avoid the loss of civilian life during the attack, which took place in al-Mansoura, near Raqqa.

The investigators disputed the claims of high-level U.S. military officials that 30 Islamic State (ISIS or IS) fighters had been targeted and killed in the attack.

The charges appear in the latest report by the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria, an organization that investigates violations of human rights in Syria. The commission also accused Russia of killing civilians in airstrikes and charged IS and other militant groups with committing war crimes. Reuters summarized the commission’s report in an article last week.

The commission’s charges against the U.S.-led coalition concern an attack that took place last year in Syria when U.S.-led coalition forces were intensifying airstrikes against IS. At the time of the attack, coalition forces had also killed numerous civilians in airstrikes on a mosque in Syria and airstrikes that leveled a city block in Mosul, Iraq.

The attacks received widespread attention, leading to charges that the Trump administration’s intensified military campaign was causing civilian casualties to increase.

During a press briefing at the Pentagon, Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, who was directing the war, acknowledged that coalition forces were probably involved in the attacks but denied that coalition forces had done anything wrong. “It’s not a war crime to accidentally kill civilians,” Townsend said.

Although Townsend conceded that coalition forces had “probably” played a role in some of the civilian casualties, he argued that initial reports that coalition forces had killed numerous civilians in the attack on the school in Syria were not credible. “I think that was a clean strike,” he said.

Townsend insisted that intelligence from numerous sources all indicated that numerous IS fighters were using the school. “And we observed it,” he said. “And we saw what we expected to see. We struck it.”

Reinforcing the notion that coalition forces had done nothing wrong in the attacks, the U.S. Department of Defense conducted internal investigations that absolved coalition forces of all blame.

In May 2017, Pentagon officials blamed IS for the large number of civilian deaths in the attack that leveled the city block in Mosul. Pentagon officials accused IS of rigging the targeted building with a large number of explosives so that it would explode when attacked.

In June 2017, Pentagon officials claimed that the attack on the mosque in Syria was legal and legitimate, saying that members of al-Qaeda were meeting there.

In July 2017, the U.S.-led coalition then quietly announced that “there is insufficient evidence” to conclude that civilians had died in the attack on the school in Syria.

Human rights officials and organizations greeted the secret internal investigations with widespread skepticism. In one major report, the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria disputed the Defense Department’s findings, charging the U.S. military with violating international humanitarian law for the way it conducted its attack on the mosque in Syria and announcing that it was conducting its own investigation into the attack on the school in Syria.

Last week, the commission released the findings of its investigation, reporting that all of the evidence indicated that at least 150 civilians had died in the attack on the school in Syria. The commission found no evidence to support Townsend’s claims that 30 IS fighters had been killed in the attack. According to the commission, more than 200 people had been living at the school. They were from internally displaced families, some of whom had been living there for years.

On the night of March 20, 2017, three airstrikes hit the school. “Survivors reported being blasted through windows during the explosions and landing outside of the school, which saved them from being crushed under the rubble,” the commission reported. Survivors told investigators that 21 children and 8 women, including one pregnant woman, died in the attack.

Based on its review of photographs, the commission found “evidence of a massive airstrike” that included Hellfire missiles and aerial bombs designed to bring down the building.

Evidence that civilians had been living in the school “should have been readily available to the coalition’s targeting team,” the commission reported, concluding that “the international coalition should have known the nature of the target and failed to take all feasible precautions to avoid or minimize incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects, in violation of international humanitarian law.”

Edward Hunt writes about war and empire. He has a PhD in American Studies from the College of William & Mary. Photo: UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria (US Mission Geneva via Flickr).

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  1. One incident, one day, now over 7 years ago. And of course the same thing repeated many, many times in the intervening years.

    The brutal fact is that outside minimal deniability for public relations purposes, none of the major participants in any of the wars in that region, gives a rat’s ass what happens to civilians. Morality literally has no meaning, or place in their discussions. This is exactly the situation within economics, too; the actual human is rigorously excluded as ‘subjective’ and hence at very best unreliable. At worst, an embarrassment.

    Everyone in a position to know what’s going on knows full well that war crimes (all sides) are a dime a dozen. It’s just that nobody in a position to do anything to address this, cares.Partly because there’s no enforcement of accountability for actions. If the Nazis had won WW2, there would have been war crimes trials. With convictions.Roosevelt and Churchill, just to begin with.

    But should that war be fought now, nobody would bother with the formality of war crimes trials, for any other than propagandistic reasons; certainly not moral accountability.. The world has moved on since that notion had any traction in reality.

    Even the rumor of shining knightly armor and associated honor has long rusted into the ground. Nor is there a noticeable war-opposition movement, as there was with Vietnam. So it’s not just the ‘guys at the top’ (and one dame) who are morally corrupt.

    C’est la vie; c’est la mort.

  2. US war policy probably has its best example in Korea.
    USAF General Curtis LeMay: “We went over there and fought the war and eventually burned down every town in North Korea anyway, someway or another, and some in South Korea too.… Over a period of three years or so, we killed off — what — twenty percent of the population of Korea as direct casualties of war, or from starvation and exposure?”
    TIME: American planes bombed “everything that moved in North Korea, every brick standing on top of another,” said Dean Rusk, the State Department official in charge of east Asia at the time. A Soviet study later estimated that 85 percent of structures in the country were leveled. Some 32,000 tons of the bombs dropped were napalm, the jellied gasoline incendiary weapons that burst just above ground level and stick to human flesh.

    More recently, President Trump has used the destruction of Mosul (with “precision munitions”) as an example for his new Afghanistan strategy. As in Vietnam, destroy it to save it.

  3. So, the U.N. contends the U.S. broke International Law by killing Syrian civilians ?
    WOW, no shit Sherlock, I would have thought that was stating the obvious. The thing is U.N. what exactly, (besides stating the bleeding obvious) are you going to do about it ?

  4. Wow! A report from the Human Rights at the U.N.! So tell me if anyone was charged with war crimes? If not, why not? If just to make us feel better why spend the time and money to investigate the violations? Oh I forgot the follow up action is only if the investigations were done about the little and powerless countries like Syria?

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