President Joe Biden announced today that a US attack in northwestern Syria killed Islamic State's top leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi. Al-Qurayshi became the leader of the Islamic State after the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was killed in a similar crackdown led by US special forces in 2019.
"Last night, under my direction, U.S. forces in northwestern Syria successfully conducted a counter-terrorism operation to protect the American people and our allies and make the world a safer place," Biden said in a statement. Speaking on the raid Thursday morning, he commended the "pronounced preparation and precision" employed by U.S. troops in conducting the attack and said he "directed the Department of Defense to take every precaution possible to stop the." Minimize the number of casualties." Civilians".
Within this framework, however, the number of civilian deaths is lost. Syrian defense group White Helmets reported that at least 13 people were killed in the operation, including six children and four women. "During the planning process, the US military was very concerned about the family who lived on the first floor," reported CBS News. "Before the operation began, the troops asked the civilians to leave the building."
It must be said that civilians died at the hands of al-Qurayshi, who detonated a bomb early in the operation. Biden notes that al-Qurayshi "decided to surround himself with families, including children." There is no escaping the fact that he and his group are defending themselves and have done terrible things.
But the Pentagon called that operation "successful," and Biden, who spent much time blaming al-Qurayshi for his role in the civilian deaths, expressed no remorse for it.
Since the beginning of the year, the United States has shown questionable respect for civilians and children in its military operations in the Middle East. US forces carried out airstrikes on a prison housing Islamic State militants in late January, despite the fact that nearly 700 children were being held there. "It is unclear how many of the detained children were combatants and how many were detained simply because they were considered too old for IS family camps," the New York Times reported. The teenage inmates were among nearly 500 people who eventually died as the Syrian Democratic Forces and US forces fought to regain control of the prison.
January also saw numerous reports of past attacks, which are now being investigated more closely. During previous campaigns against Islamic State, the US military put the ISIS-controlled Tabqa Dam, Syria's largest dam, on a "do not attack" list. Separately, a US special forces bombed it in 2017, despite a military report warning of an attack and saying the resulting flood could "kill tens of thousands of civilians." Behavior in Afghanistan was also criticized in January. The New York Times published footage of a US military attack in Kabul on August 29 that killed 10 civilians (including seven children), clearly showing that children were nearby before the attack.
A day after the Times published images from Kabul, congressional Democrats sent a letter to Biden condemning "repeated civilian casualties from secret and unexplained deadly operations." Just a week later, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin issued a directive urging the military to "intensify efforts to protect civilians."
In fact, Biden alluded to this growing concern when discussing Thursday's attack. "We made this decision to minimize civilian casualties," Biden said of the decision to conduct a raid rather than an airstrike. That may be true, but claiming civilian casualties and still praising the accuracy of the attack is simply insensitive.
There is still a question mark over US military involvement in Syria and how long our operations will be needed, an issue Biden did not address in his comments. Former President Barack Obama said in 2014 that the campaign against ISIS “would be a long-term campaign. There are no quick fixes.” But given the current state of the fight, it's not clear why we're still in it eight years later.
Even in the group's early years, ISIS did not pose an existential threat to the US; it certainly doesn't now. The group was effectively defeated years ago and has not occupied any territory in Iraq or Syria since 2019. Nevertheless, around 900 US troops are currently stationed in Syria and tasked with fighting ISIS. The Biden administration says they're unlikely to remove them any time soon (despite a lack of congressional approval for that presence). While stationed there, they will come under attack from militias who want to make them disappear.
America's involvement in Syria poses dangers to both civilians and US troops, and our military withdrawal is long overdue. An ISIS leader was killed today, but US officials must not belittle the civilian casualties that accompanied his death. Unless they recognize that we can and must do more to mitigate the damage, civilians will continue to suffer.