Raid on Terrorist Leader Kills More Civilians
The American way of war kills a lot of noncombatants.
WSJ (“U.S. Special Forces Raid Syrian Site in Search of Terrorist Leader“):
U.S. special operations forces carried out a combat operation to kill or capture a high-level terrorist in northwest Syria along the Turkish border, in a mission that included Apache gunships, airstrikes and drones, according to U.S. officials and accounts on social media.
“U.S. Special Operations forces under the control of U.S. Central Command conducted a counterterrorism mission this evening in northwest Syria,” said Pentagon press secretary John Kirby in a statement issued early Thursday. “The mission was successful. There were no U.S. casualties.”
The Pentagon didn’t provide any additional information nor would officials confirm the identity of the terrorist leader or whether the individual was killed or captured.
President Biden is expected to address the military operation Thursday morning, U.S. officials said.
The special forces, in conjunction with other troops, raided a site in the Atmeh area in Syria’s Idlib province for more than two hours, reportedly resulting in multiple deaths and the destruction of some structures, according to eyewitness accounts filtered through social media. U.S. troops exchanged fire with enemy forces on the ground, according to those social-media reports.
At least 13 people were killed, including six children and four women, as a result of clashes in connection with the U.S. raid, Syrian civil-defense group the White Helmets said on its Facebook page. It wasn’t immediately clear whether the people were killed in the raid or in subsequent clashes.
The operation was in the planning stages for at least the past several days, U.S. officials said. Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for military operations in the Middle East, was expected to appear in person at a conference in Washington on Thursday. The organization changed his participation earlier this week to virtual remarks, so he could remain at Central Command’s headquarters in Tampa, Fla., according to people familiar with the matter. By late Wednesday, the general’s staff had pulled him out of the conference altogether, according to officials with the Middle East Institute think tank, where he was expected to appear.
Charles Lister, a Syria specialist at the Middle East Institute, said that based on conversations he had had with individuals in the area and videos posted on social media the raid began about 1 a.m. local time when two or three helicopters landed in the Atmeh area—where there are several camps for internally displaced people—and surrounded a residential building. Using a loudspeaker, U.S. troops demanded that women and children vacate the building, he said.
The target of the raid would have to be a significant individual or individuals given the firepower that U.S. forces brought to the fight and the risks involved, he said.
The area of northwest Syria where the raid took place is nominally under the control of Turkey, but the de facto power is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a jihadist group and former al Qaeda affiliate that is now hostile to both al Qaeda and its rival, Islamic State. Al Qaeda has accused the jihadist group of helping facilitate U.S. drone strikes against its personnel, Mr. Lister said.
The raid and reports of civilian casualties come less than a week after the Pentagon issued revised rules meant to reduce the number of innocent people killed when the U.S. military carries out such operations.
Last week, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin issued a new directive designed to limit civilian casualties as part of a comprehensive overhaul of the military’s policies and practices.
The U.S. military has come under increased scrutiny in recent months for not doing more to avoid killing civilians during operations. Last year, the Pentagon was forced to admit that an airstrike it carried out on a car in Kabul was a “tragic mistake” that killed 10 people, including seven children. But the Pentagon took no disciplinary action against the military officials involved in the errant attack, which the U.S. military initially defended as a “righteous” strike that killed people preparing to attack U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Reports from NYT (“Reports of Civilian Casualties as U.S. Raid in Syria Appears to Target Qaeda Leader“) and WaPo (“At least a dozen killed, including children, after U.S. raid in northern Syria, first responders say“) put the civilian casualties at the top rather than the bottom.
Who the target was or whether has was killed in the raid is unclear. Presumably, since the mission was described as “successful,” the answer to the second question is Yes.
My first reaction to the story, before reading of the noncombatant losses, was that “Apache gunships, airstrikes and drones” are not typically associated with a special operations raid. It’s rather the opposite of stealth. But it is consistent with the American style of combat, which uses airpower—increasingly, remotely piloted ones—as much as possible to minimize losses. It was a practice that I was immensely grateful for as a ground soldier in the first Gulf War 32 years ago. But, of course, that was a traditional war: military forces fighting other military forces far away from noncombatants.
Translating that method to counterterrorism makes “collateral damage” all but unavoidable. The very nature of the enterprise means that terrorist leaders are likely to be living among civilians, often with their wives and children. Killing them is hard to square with traditional just war notions like proportionality.
By all accounts, the SOF guys who went in were blaring, in the local language, warnings for women and children to evacuate. I’m sure they took other reasonable precautions to avoid killing noncombatants. But air to ground missiles fired to soften the target ahead of the raid are far less discriminating.
UPDATE (0803): President Biden has announced that Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, the Islamic State leader who replaced Abu Bakr al-Baghdad after he was killed in an October 2019 strike, was killed in the raid. That may well explain why so much firepower was considered justified in this operation.