July 22, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: Two Tragedies in Manbij

• The U.S. Department of Defense announced that it was investigating reports that U.S. coalition airstrikes killed a large number of civilians north of Manbij, Syria.

• A July 19 airstrike reportedly killed between 56 to 85 civilians as they fled the battle to retake the area from the Islamic State.

• Such attacks are devastating for the victims’ families and communities, as well as to coalition efforts to safely separate civilian populations from the Islamic State. 

• On July 21, the Syrian National Coalition called for a halt to all anti-Islamic State airstrikes, further hindering the fight against the group.


In what may be the worst incident of its kind for the anti-Islamic State coalition, 56 to 85 civilians were reportedly killed in a July 19 airstrike on a village just north of Manbij, Syria. The incident closely follows a similar case on July 18, when an airstrike in the same area reportedly killed 21 civilians. That these airstrikes were mistakes provides little comfort to the families, while further straining the fight against the Islamic State. The errors also bolster the Islamic State’s argument that it is the only force capable of protecting local Syrians from the Western and Kurdish powers closing in on the city.

The Syrian regime has declared U.S. and French planes responsible for the July 18 and July 19 attacks, respectively. Both French and U.S. officials have disclosed that the coalition is investigating the reports and have questioned the validity of the regime's accusations. While details surrounding the two incidents remain unclear, it is certain—from multiple reports from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) and the Syrian National Coalition (SNC)—that an enormous act of violence was perpetrated against a civilian population reeling from years of horror.

The anti-Islamic State coalition has exerted considerable effort trying to avoid the deaths of civilians. Intermixed populations of villagers and Islamic State fighters present extreme targeting challenges for coalition airstrikes. The coalition is contributing more personnel on the ground to assist local forces, but the vast majority of military support comes from the air. Increased ground capabilities do not erase the difficulties of waging a counterterrorism campaign from 20,000 feet

Incidents like these are devastating—not only to the families and communities of the victims, but to the larger effort to win support from war-weary populations in the fight against the Islamic State. The losses are not alleviated by the fact that they were the result of errors or oversight; from the perspective of a local Syrian who lost loved ones, the notion of supporting a coalition whose incompetence killed members of their community is not much better than supporting one that intended to do so. 

The Islamic State will use the opportunity to exploit local mistrust of Western intentions and actions. Amaq, the group’s media arm, proclaimed American airstrikes responsible for the deaths of 160 people in the village of Tokhar. The Islamic State can now promulgate the narrative that Syrian civilians are in the firing line of three indiscriminate air campaigns—from the Assad regime, the Russian air force, and now the Western coalition. The dual tragedies come on the heels of proposed cooperation between Russia and the United States in an anti-Islamic State air campaign. In the aftermath of the attacks, the proposal will only further fuel mistrust of the West. 

The Syrian National Coalition has now called for a halt to all coalition airstrikes while the incidents are under investigation. Ground fighting in the crucial region surrounding Manbij depends heavily on Western air support. The Kurdish-led forces are already facing an uphill battle; anything that weakens their momentum benefits the Islamic State at a critical moment.


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