As the student-led mission to prevent mass-atrocities, we are writing in collaboration with members of the international community to express our deep concern about United States-led airstrikes in Syria and Iraq. We urge President Obama to honor international humanitarian law by minimizing harm to civilians during U.S. military operations in Iraq and Syria.
Just one week ago, President Obama confirmed that the U.S. would not apply the principle of “near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured” in its operations in Iraq and Syria, given that they are areas of “active hostilities.” This news came with reports of dozens of civilian deaths in Syria following a U.S. airstrike in Kafr Daryan. Bearing in mind that military action is bound by the principles of distinction, proportionality and necessity, the United States has a clear obligation to prevent civilian deaths, even in its crucial operations in Iraq and Syria.
Failing to take adequate measures to prevent civilian deaths not only violates international humanitarian law, but also runs counter to the stated strategy to degrade and destroy the Islamic State. Civilian casualties have already caused popular Syrian discontent with American bombings in the country and caused Syrian resentment toward moderate armed opposition groups the White House plans to train and equip. Several Syrian commanders of such groups have also expressed their dissatisfaction with the air strikes and the high civilian casualties that the strikes have caused. Ultimately, civilian deaths caused by U.S. bombing only strengthens support for the Islamic State and other violent extremist groups as they seek to portray the United States and its allies as the enemy of the Syrian people.
Acknowledging that information both from US military and groups on the ground is often difficult to verify, STAND would like to echo the questions of the letter drafted by The Prevention and Protection Working Group and addressed to President Obama:
What special precautions is the U.S. taking to protect civilians endangered by U.S. military operations?
What steps are being taken not to harm health facilities, medical personnel, or other first responders, and to avoid further damage to systems and infrastructure that support necessary services including water and food?
What are the diplomatic strategies that the U.S. government is pursuing both with Iraqi tribal leaders in Sunni majority areas vulnerable to IS recruitment efforts as well as with partners like Turkey and Qatar, and civil society leaders and organizations? How is the U.S. engaging diplomatically with these same internal and external actors to peel away and present viable nonviolent alternatives to those who have joined IS?
Underscoring the need for long-term solutions and recognizing that airstrikes are incapable of reaching a successful resolution to the crisis, how is the U.S. government engaging in peacebuilding and development in the short term and beyond to support a successful transition out of cycles of violence?
What is the U.S. doing to investigate reports of civilians being killed and any allegations of violations of international humanitarian law on the part of U.S. armed forces or that of U.S. partners, including the September 23 incident in the village of Kafr Daryan?
Syrian civilians are already feeling the effects of United States airstrikes. Many have been forced to flee, and those who have not face dire humanitarian crises ahead. Furthermore, in Iraq civilians face conditions that the UN claims may amount to serious human rights violations and war crimes. In light of these conditions, we urge the United States to be vigilant in protecting civilians in Iraq and Syria.
STAND: the Student-led Movement to End Mass Atrocities