How the West weaponizes civilian deaths

by on October 17, 2016 in International affairs

Civilian casualties

Yemen

Up to January 2016 the UN reported 2,800 dead and thousands more wounded. The UN, necessarily, weighs up its language carefully and blames both Houtis and the Saudi coalition. They do say though:

“Airstrikes have continued into the New Year, with around 11 strikes taking place in the capital Sana’a on Sunday and Monday (3 and 4 January), and further airstrikes are reported to have been carried out in the early hours of this morning,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) spokesperson Rupert Colville told the regular news briefing in Geneva.

He put civilian casualties recorded between 26 March and 31 December, 2015 at 8,119 people, 2,795 of them killed and 5,324 wounded, noting that at least 62 civilians were reported killed by airstrikes attributed to coalition forces in December, more than twice the number of November.

“We have also received alarming information on the alleged use of cluster bombs by coalition forces in Hajjah Governorate,” he added, reporting that an OHCHR team found remnants of 29 cluster submunitions near banana plantations in Al-Odair village in Haradh District. [1]

By March the UN was more frank. 2/3’s of the causalities were caused by Saudi and coalition air-strikes. [2]

By August the UN was reporting that 3,700 civilians had been killed in the fighting. [3]

Syria and Iraq

Airwars is a monitoring organisation looking at civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria caused by US and Russian strikes. Airwars is largely staffed by ex-BBC journalists. It receives funding from the foundation of the wealthy financier George Soros. [4] Russia has recently banned any of George Soros’ foundations from operating in Russia because it sees them as a threat to the Russian state. [5] If there is any bias in their reporting it is likely to be in favour of the US and against Russia.

Airwars offers the following summary for civilian deaths caused in Iraq and Syria between August 2014 and October 2016 by the US coalition:

To October 10th 2016 an overall total of between 3,672 and 5,040 civilian non-combatant fatalities had been alleged from 574 separate reported incidents, in both Iraq and Syria. Of these, Airwars presently estimates that a minimum of 1,660 to 2,504 civilians are likely to have died in Coalition actions. However, some caution is needed given the significant challenges of casualty verification at present. [6]

On Russia Airwars summarises thus:

Between September 30th [presumably 2015 when the Russian campaign started. Ed] and January 31st 2016, a total of 513 reported civilian casualty incidents allegedly involving Russian aircraft have been identified by our researchers.

Claims are drawn from Syrian monitoring groups; from media and social media sites; from militant and rebel groups; and via local and international NGOs and news organisations. These have been cross checked where possible against official Russian military releases.

An overall total of between 2,856 and 3,873 civilian non-combatant deaths have been alleged from these 513 events, although as we explain below this overstates likely civilian deaths from Russian strikes. [7]

Airwars also claims:

As well as inflicting excessive civilian casualties, Russia is credibly reported to have extensively targeted civilian infrastructure in Syria – with water treatment plants, bakeries, food distribution depots and aid convoys all struck. [7]

No specific information is given for the claim that Russia inflicts “excessive” civilian casualties. Nor for the claim that Russia has “extensively targeted civilian infrastructure”.

There must be serious questions about Airwar’s methodology. They admit to using the social media accounts of NGOs, “Syrian monitoring groups”, “rebel and militant groups” and even “terrorists” to produce their figures. [4] That is, a range of groups, all of whom have a strong interest in creating an impression of Russia killing more civilians than they are. Some “Syrian monitoring groups” are funded by the UK, a party to the conflict. [8]  Airwars also references the Anti-Assad and pro-opposition ‘Observatory for Human Rights’ [4] as well as the UK based blogger and hoaxer [9] ‘Bellingcat’ [4] as reliable alternative sources of information. All this must cast into very serious doubt the reliability of Airwar’s reporting on Russian airstrikes in Syria.

This shows if nothing else how claims about civilian casualties are potentially weaponized in war. There are no neutral observers. The only one that might be – the UN – is often hamstrung by a diplomatic need to appear studiously even-handed.

Summary

All these considerations aside lets total up the figures we have reviewed:

Civilian deaths attributed to the US and its coalition in Syria and Iraq and its “ally and partner” Saudi Arabia in Yemen: 2,230 in Yemen (2/3 of the total figure based on the UN assessment that 2/3s of casualties were caused by the coalition) + 3,672 in Syria and Iraq (Airwars – lowest number) = 5,902

Civilian deaths attributed to Russia in Syria: (Airwars – lowest number) = 2,856. NB. Airwars figures for the US in Iraq and Syria are up to date but those for Russia only go up to January 2016 for some reason. (It would be too suspicious to wonder if this wasn’t because the Russian air campaign was drawn-down in March 2016 – so Airwars’ figures relate to the most intense period when, inevitably, civilian casualties will have been higher). If we (and this is a hypothetical exercise) assume the same rate of civilian deaths per month we can extrapolate to a figure for Russia in Syria to be 8,568. (I am aware that such a mathematical exercise might seem a little callous given what the figures are about; but it is necessary to try to achieve some comparison).

With all the qualifications above about problems with inherent bias and methodology of our source for Iraq and Syria, plus the rather large problem that we have had to extrapolate a figure to cover missing data, we are left with two numbers. One for civilians killed in Yemen, Syria and Iraq in current campaigns by the US and its allies and one for civilians killed by Russia in Syria. The figure for Russia is larger but comparable to the figure for the US and its partners and allies. If we included Libya, where the US is currently bombing [10],  the figures would draw closer. Note also that our figures for Yemen only went up to August 2016. Up to date figures from Yemen would also make the two figures draw closer.  (This exercise has started from 2014 when the US started to bomb in Syria. Obviously if we included other campaigns such as Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011 the US would go off the scale in terms of civilian deaths).

Bombing kills people. Modern wars between states and guerrilla armies are often fought amongst civilian populations. Civilians die. No doubt civilians are dying as a result of Russian bombs in Syria. But based on numbers alone (with all the qualifications above) there is no evidence that Russia is alone in being responsible for civilian casualties. While the narrative of the West is to accuse Russia of something especially heinous in Syria, the evidence is not so forthcoming. [11] The current Western narrative about Russia causing “excessive” civilian casualties in Syria does not appear to have a solid basis in fact (if by “excessive” we are to refer to their own standards, which, presumably, are deemed “not excessive”). Claims that seem to focus entirely on civilian casualties caused by Russia would appear therefore to be yet another attempt by Western “liberal” politicians to generate a narrative which legitimises their actions and demonises anyone who stands in the way of their global power plays. Using civilian casualties in this way (as a weapon of war and propaganda) suggests a disinterest in actual civilian casualties for what they are.

Finally the editor would like to offer some advice to the Russian MOD. Don’t downplay the civilian casualties you must (surely) be causing. Why not just admit them and go “oh, sorry” and “we never deliberately target civilians”. That’s what everyone else does. Apparently that’s fine. If you do that you can kill as many as you like. There is no end to it…

Update 27 Oct 2016 – manufactured “war crimes” and manufactured “outrage”?

Recently the US accused Russia or Syria of involvement in an airstrike on a school in Syria. [12][13] Cue outrage in the Western media. [13] However; the Russian side has issued a documented rebuttal. They have published a drone image which they say shows none of the kind of damage associated with an air-strike. They also comment on a photo published by AFP of the alleged air-strike. This photo appears to show a large blast hole in the wall of a classroom in the school. The photo shows all the desks in the classroom completely intact. The Russian side comment that in the case of a real bombing by an aircraft this simply couldn’t happen. On the face of it this seems a very plausible point to make. The Russians further comment that the “information” on this alleged air-strike was provided to Western media via the UK based ‘Syrian Observatory for Human Rights’ and the ‘White Helmets’. (This may be the case; we haven’t been able to check in this case. However; in general, the Western media very often relies on the ‘Syrian Observatory for Human Rights’ as the sole source of information about events in Syria. The ‘Syrian Observatory for Human Rights’ is an anti-Assad ‘information’ clearing house which bases its ‘information’ on reports from ‘activists’ in Syria. The ‘White Helmets’ is an ‘NGO’ which is also aligned with the anti-Assad opposition. The UK  – a party to the conflict in Syria and keen that “Assad must go” funds the ‘White Helmets’. [14] This group is often misleadingly described as ‘local civil defence forces’ by the Guardian. [15] The Guardian frequently cites them as a source for its reporting on Syria as in this example. [15] In the above piece [13] they use the phrase ‘local civil defence rescue group’).

Could the whole outrage about Russian “war-crimes” in Syria be based on a specific new propaganda modus operandi of the Western powers? They base lurid claims on information provided by one party to the conflict – usually published on social media. By basing their claims on this material they provide themselves with an escape route if the claims can ever be substantively proved to have been false. And (perhaps more importantly) they avoid having to substantiate them with their own surveillance footage. (Which may even not support the claim). We have seen this approach in Ukraine where the US Ambassador has routinely made claims based on social media postings. [16] The State Department picks up these social media postings and then the whole Western media follows suit and reports them as absolute matters of fact.

But people should check their sources and evaluate for bias. Otherwise it is just propaganda.

Notes

1. United Nations. January 2016

2. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-35842708

3. Sputnik News. August 2016

4. Airwars – methodology

Airwars – about

5. RT. November 2015. George Soros’s foundations banned as undesirable foreign organisation

6. Airwars – civilian casualties caused by the US

7. Airwars – civilian casualties caused allegedly by Russia

8. RT. October 2016. UK funds “White Helmets”

9. Bellingcat – analysis of fake ‘forensic’ report on Ukraine

10. RT. August 2016. US strikes in Libya

Reuters. October 2016. 

11. RT. October 2016. Russian ambassador demands Foreign Secretary provide proof for claims about “war crimes”

RT. October 2015. Russia asks for proof from the West that it has bombed civilian targets in Syria

12. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/wires/reuters/article-3879622/White-House-blames-Syria-Russia-deadly-Syria-school-attack.html

13. 26 October. Typical one-sided report in Guardian about Russia causing civilian casualties in Syria and this alleged air-strike

14. October 2016. RT. Quotes UK’s Foreign Secretary admitting funding White Helmets

15. Guardian. October 2016. Guardian describes ‘White Helmets’ as ‘civil defense’

16. RT. October 2016. Report on US Ambassador to Ukraine’s use of social media

New Obs review of some of US Ambassador to Ukraine’s use of social media

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