A September 30, 2014 report by Yahoo!News highlighted how recent US air strikes on ISIS militant targets in Iraq and Syria reflect the US’s relaxation of its standards for killing civilians by ignoring a 2013 policy meant to reduce civilian deaths. The report followed the Obama Administration acknowledging for the first time that the strict standards President Obama imposed in 2013 do not and will not apply to the ongoing military operations focused on combating ISIS. The Obama administration has claimed that the “near certainty” standard contained in the 2013 policy was intended to apply “only when [the U.S.] take(s) direct action ‘outside areas of active hostilities’.” Due to ongoing conflict as the result of ISIS military actions, Caitlin Hayden, the spokesperson for the National Security Council, noted that the description “’outside areas of active hostilities’ simply does not fit what we are seeing on the ground in Iraq and Syria right now.” Therefore, the US has argued that because the areas in question are considered areas of active hostilities, the near certainty standard does not apply. This interpretation of the 2013 policy is significant because it opens the door for the US to claim any area inhabited by a terrorist group to be an area of active hostilities, therefore disqualifying it from the “near certainty” standard.
The statement by the White House came in response to a September 23, 2014 Tomahawk missile strike on a building in the Syrian village of Kafr Daryan. While U.S. intelligence believed the building to be a stronghold for the Khorasan terrorist group, supposedly plotting attacks against international aircraft, Syrian rebel commanders and political figures have claimed that the building was in fact something completely different, a home for displaced civilians. Syrian officials described the deaths of a dozen civilians, with women and children being hauled from the rubble after an errant cruise missile destroyed this building suspected of being a terrorist stronghold. This is one of many examples in which civilians have been killed or wounded as the result of US air strikes meant to target ISIS militants.
The YahooNews! report that broke this story is unique in that it focuses on the rationale behind US air strikes and the decision to ignore the 2013 policy. While many corporate news sources such as BBC, the New York Times, US News, and the Wall Street Journal have covered and continue to cover the ongoing US air strikes on ISIS militants, the overwhelming majority of corporate news sources have paid very little to no attention to the civilian deaths that have occurred as the result of these strikes. In addition, even fewer corporate media sources raise concerns about the US not adhering to the 2013 policy enacted to reduce civilian causalities. The group that stands to benefit from this lack of corporate news coverage is the US government and military, who are able to continue carrying out air strikes on suspected ISIS targets with little regard for civilian casualties. The fact that the US lacks the willingness to adhere to the “near certainty” standard they created in 2013 creates a dangerous gray area for civilians in areas that are considered to have ongoing hostilities.
Source: Michael Isikoff, “White House Exempts Syria Airstrikes from Tight Standards on Civilian Deaths,” YahooNews!, November 3, 2014, http://news.yahoo.com/white-house-exempts-syria-airstrikes-from-tight-standards-on-civilian-deaths-183724795.html.
Student Researcher: Grant Frazier (Pomona College)
Faculty Evaluator: Andy Lee Roth (Pomona College)