On September 17th, 2016, the United States made a fatal mistake, carrying out an airstrike on Syrian government troops that were thought to be ISIS militants, inadvertently killing sixty-two troops and wounding hundreds. This is not the first time a United States led coalition’s use of drones resulted in the deaths of civilians and Syrian troops rather than the intended targets. However, the lack of transparency in drone usage by the US government and the civilian damage drones can cause makes one wonder if drones do more harm than good in the war against ISIS in Syria.
The September 17th incident occurred in Deir al-Zour in the middle of an unraveling Syria ceasefire. According to U.S. Central Command, also known as Centcom, American surveillance had its eyes on vehicles associated with ISIS and attacked when military intelligence identified the vehicle. Twenty minutes into the strike, Russia ordered the US to end the strike because the US were assaulting Syrian government troops who were also fighting ISIS. Within minutes, the attack was over but not before the sixty-two troops had been killed. Erroneous intelligence from the sky played a major role in the deaths of dozens of people with the same goal of those who killed them: fighting ISIS. The United States has expressed regret over the “unintentional loss life,” but to many, that is not enough.
When the United States kills people other than their targets, there are other serious consequences. The Syrian government claims that the strike on its troops was intentional, arguing that the United States supports ISIS as a way to oust controversial President Bashar al-Assad and that the US is not actually fighting terrorism. Of course, Centcom denies this claim. The Syrian Army Command asserts that the US attack even gave ISIS a strategic advantage in Deir al-Zour.
In July 2016, a US-led coalition was accused of killing entire families in Northern Syria when the intended target was, once again, ISIS. These were families running away from ISIS forces . Although sources could not confirm the body count, it was somewhere between 56 and 212 bodies, including women and young children. Different from the most recent drone mistake, the United States did not admit culpability for the July strike; instead, it warned against rushing to conclusions. Though the complexity of a conflict such as that in Syria necessitates such caution, the US government’s lack of transparency does not make it look innocent.
The US military does not release much information on drone strikes. Up until November 2015 when they stopped releasing all reports to the public, Centcom would release reports following internal investigations of airstrikes. However, due to unclear guidelines for what would be released, they often would mostly redact a majority of the information or just not release it. Some claim under the Obama Administration that drone strikes have become more reckless. John Brennan, CIA director under President Obama, stated, “Sometimes you have to take a life to save even more lives…the President requires near-certainty of no collateral damage. But if he believes it is necessary to act, he doesn’t hesitate.” However, in instances like last week where intelligence makes a mistake, it’s hard to have trust in what constitutes “near-certainty.” In 2012, The New York Times reported that American officials consider all military-age men in strike zones combatants unless there is overwhelming evidence after their death that they are innocent. This definition of combatant is misleading and used in order to keep the civilian casualty number reported to the public as low as possible. It is a way for them to manipulate the numbers of civilian casualties. According to a source at The Intercept, a whistleblower publication, “Anyone caught in the vicinity is guilty by association. When a drone trike kills more than one person, there is no guarantee that those persons deserved their fate…so it’s a phenomenal gamble.”
It seems somewhat inhumane to call human lives part of a “gamble,” but that is what drones lend themselves to. They are a more impersonal way of killing. It is more efficient and possibly saves more American lives by not having American soldiers on the ground, but one has to question the humanity and ethics of fighting a war this way. Although technology can be very accurate from the sky, it is not as accurate as actually seeing the target on the ground. Therefore, mistakes happen, when intelligence is incorrect and innocent people are killed by accident. Human-rights group Reprieve claims that as of 2014, targeted killings of 41 men have resulted in 1,147 deaths. All independent investigations of US drone strikes have found more civilian casualties than the United States admits to. Nobody wants innocent people to be killed. The US government does not intend to kill civilians or Syrian troops. However, the current system obviously is not working.
Airwars, a London-based group of independent journalists, completed a comprehensive study about civilians killed in coalition strikes in Iraq and Syria. They claim that in Syria there were 65 coalition strike incidents between September 23, 2014 and June 30, 2015, resulting in around 291 to 354 civilian deaths. However, the coalition has only admitted to one of them in last November in which two young girls were killed in a strike in Harem, Syria. If the United States is going to continue to use drone strikes to battle ISIS in Syria, then they need to be more transparent. Although the people being killed are thousands of miles away, they are still human. Someone living in Syria is not guilty for just living there, and has the same right to life as anyone else. While the idea of killing some to save many is justifiable in some quarters, the value of human life needs to be recognized as well. There needs to be clearer guidelines and definitions of what “near-certainty” and “combatants” are in order to accurately report the causes and effects of drone use. Drones dehumanize killing, making it easier to kill even when the information is not completely reliable or accurate. If drones are to be used, then they should be used responsibly and the government should be transparent about their use.