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Accountability for international law is sorely needed in Iraq and Syria

ISIS’s “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria has been eradicated, and this is cause for celebration. While much of the damage done by ISIS is permanent, Syrian and Iraqi civilians have been overwhelmingly relieved to see the group expelled from their cities and towns.

That being said, there are serious concerns about the way the U.S.-led coalition and U.S.-backed forces in Iraq and Syria have waged the battle against ISIS. No matter how deplorable the enemy is, human rights, international law and the plight of civilians must never be disregarded.

It’s worth examining the anti-ISIS coalition’s tactics in the battle for Mosul, ISIS’s former Iraqi stronghold. The battle, which lasted from October 2016 until July 2017, was described by the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq Lise Grande as “one of the largest urban battles [to take] place since World War II.” This statement may surprise Americans, as the battle for Mosul was consistently absent from the headlines of U.S. news outlets.

The civilian death toll in Mosul is hard to determine, but the Associated Press puts it at least 9,000, while Kurdish intelligence is said to estimate a staggering 40,000 civilian deaths.

The coalition, whose main member is the U.S., provided air support to the Iraqi troops as they advanced through the city, with some ground support from Shia militias and U.S. Special Forces. While coalition bombing was undoubtedly instrumental in capturing the city, journalists and human rights organizations documented highly problematic decisions made by both the coalition and its Iraqi proxies on the ground.

Amnesty International released a report on the battle for western Mosul accusing ISIS of “war crimes” and the pro-government forces of “repeated violations of international humanitarian law, some of which may amount to war crimes.”

The report alleges ISIS used human shields on a massive scale. When civilians attempted to escape areas of fighting, ISIS executed them and hung their bodies from electricity towers for days, instilling terror into the population.

As the report notes, when faced with these brutal tactics, international law requires the opposing forces adapt their methods of fighting to protect the trapped civilians. The pro-government forces consistently failed to do so.

U.S.-backed forces used IRAMs (Improvised Rocket Assisted Munitions) and “Grads.” Both of these are imprecise artillery rockets designed for saturation fire and should never be used in the vicinity of civilians.

Iraqi photojournalist Ali Arkady documented a division of the Iraqi army torturing and executing suspected ISIS members.

Human Rights Watch has documented similar cases of Iraqi army torture and execution of suspected ISIS affiliates. HRW even recorded allegations that Iraqi soldiers have executed unarmed men and boys attempting to flee, which only assists ISIS’s trapping of civilians.

Contrary to the Pentagon’s claims, coalition airstrikes were often disproportionate and poorly targeted. For example, an airstrike on March 17, 2017, targeted just two ISIS snipers but killed about 230 civilians in the process. The coalition says it drops leaflets instructing civilians to flee ahead of bombings, but such warnings were totally useless under ISIS occupation, where civilians realized that attempts to escape would result in execution.

In June 2017, a general from the U.S.-led coalition told NPR that the coalition used white phosphorous, a chemical weapon that heats to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit and can burn flesh to the bone.

A new report from Amnesty International demonstrates that the U.S.-led coalition in Syria was no better in its fight to take the former ISIS capital of Raqqa from June to October 2017.

Amnesty documented the U.S. firing a “vast number” of imprecise munitions in populated civilian areas. The organization has strong evidence of “potential war crimes.”

This approach is hardly surprising, given that shortly before the operation in Raqqa Secretary of Defense James Mattis promised to wage a “war of annihilation.”

The U.S. has only acknowledged responsibility for 32 civilian casualties in Raqqa — an insultingly low count. Amnesty’s report documents hundreds of civilian deaths inflicted by the U.S. coalition, and the independent monitoring group Airwars has tracked 1,400.

The tactics used by the U.S. in the battles for Mosul and Raqqa are morally unacceptable and make more enemies than they eliminate. The military component of the battle against ISIS is virtually over for now, but as the U.S. continues to wage a variety of counterinsurgencies abroad, Americans must do more to hold our government accountable for its actions.

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