Civilian Casualties: “Attrition” vs “Annihilation”

Secretary of Defense James Mattis recently announced that the US had “accelerated” its tactics against the Islamic State (ISIS), moving from a policy of “attrition” to one of “annihilation”. While this statement leads one to ponder whether Secretary Mattis is going to unleash the terminator on Islamic State fighters in the cities and backcountry of Syria, it is easy to disregard how this policy of “annihilation” will affect civilians trapped living within Islamic State infected countries.  Attrition or annihilation. Some choice for locals– if they had one.

According to Airwars, at least 3962 civilians have been killed by coalition forces, led by the U.S., since their campaign against ISIS began in 2014. Determining exact civilian casualty figures is impossible thanks to the challenges of gathering information following strikes. Although, one has to wonder if the U.S. really even tries. The U.S. estimates they have killed just 352 civilians since 2014. While exact figures are indeterminable, it is the discrepancy of more than 3000 individuals that is most troubling.

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Residents of west Mosul’s Jadidah neighborhood help Iraqi civil defense workers retrieve bodies from a home destroyed by an airstrike last month that the coalition is investigating.- LA Times

The realist would argue that civilian deaths are an unfortunate, unavoidable consequence of war and that Trump’s policy of annihilation will liberate the civilians from the true oppressor – ISIS– while ending the war faster. This appears to be the stance of the Trump administration with James Mattis declaring that civilian casualties “are a fact of life.” Alternatively, the liberalism response would be that increased airstrikes ultimately cause more civilian harm through increased civilian deaths and damage to infrastructure including homes, schools and religious artefacts. Thus, contributing to the radicalization of the local population by justifying ISIS’s hostility.

Let’s break down these two approaches to see the effect on the number one victim of ISIS – the civilian population. Is the “attrition” approach of slowly wearing ISIS down less harmful for civilians than the new “annihilation” approach of containing ISIS through bombing them off the face of the planet?

The statistics on civilian casualties in Syria rightfully places the blame on a number of sources, including, for example, the U.S.-led coalition, ISIS, Russia and government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.  For the purposes of simplicity, we will focus on the US –led coalition and ISIS.

burn victim
Zorha Hasan Ali, 63, shows burns she suffered during an airstrike in east Mosul on Nov. 17.- LA Times


Up to 400,000 people are estimated to have been killed in Syria since the civil war there began. Approximately half of these people are said to be civilians. ISIS is estimated to be responsible for just 1.8% of all civilian casualties in Syria between 2011 and March 2017. That is less than Russia, who claimed to enter Syria to fight ISIS (See graph below). It is, however, four times higher than coalition forces. It should be noted though that the U.S. only entered into a war against ISIS in 2014, three years after the conflict began. When it comes to children, ISIS are reportedly responsible for twice as many deaths as the coalition. When you consider how grossly underestimated U.S. statistics are, numbers of children killed by both parties are probably relatively equal. The war of attrition from the U.S. began in 2014 and we are yet to see any sign of ISIS backing down. So perhaps a more aggressive method is necessary?





-A new, tactic aimed at hitting ISIS harder without altering the foundations of the war on ISIS. Sounds good. Will it work? Clearly, the Trump Administrations “Annihilation” approach to ISIS will also directly result in a higher number of civilian casualties as additional air strikes are made, each with less bureaucratic red tape compared with previous administrations.  Look at the spike in civilian casualties since the Trump administration took office in January of this year:

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Coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria: Alleged civilian deaths and levels of reporting-  Airwars

While the end goal of taking down ISIS might seem worth the collateral damage against civilians to some people, these people are unlikely to understand the true consequences of this assumption. It is a well-known fact that violence against civilians in terrorist areas only breeds the very conditions necessary to radicalise these civilians. Just as Americans were outraged by 9/11, an attack on their front door killing innocent lives that led to the ‘war on terror,’ it makes equal sense that innocent civilians, whose innocent families and homes have just been destroyed by U.S. strikes, would also be outraged and want retribution. Fighting terrorism with terrorism clearly isn’t working and escalating the violence against ISIS is only likely to invite more horrific attacks from ISIS in response.


The sharp increase in civilian casualties from the U.S. also leads to questions over the legality of such tactics. There are specific laws that govern what is acceptable conduct during war including International Humanitarian Law(IHL). This framework relies on set principles of war such as the rule of precaution, in which “all feasible precaution” must be taken to avoid, or at least minimise death, injury and damage to civilians and their possession. President Obama signed Executive Order 13732 in July 2016 on U.S. pre and post strike policies and procedures addressing civilian casualties, outlining intentions to adhere to IHL. Meanwhile, it is no secret that the Trump administration has fast-tracked its plans against ISIS. In particular, they have increased the frequency and availability of air strikes to remove targets and shifted decision-making responsibilities down the chain of command. Such changes are clearly creating conditions in which civilian casualties are less likely to be minimised as evidenced by the sharp increase in deaths in March alone. Trump is certainly stretching IHL to its limits, if not outright violating certain rules.

The Winner?

As events such as the Manchester bombing continue to remind us of the capabilities of ISIS, many will be in favour of Trump’s new, aggressive tactics against ISIS. There is no guarantee this will help bring ISIS down though and may, in fact, lead to both more civilian casualties and more terrorists. As many new recruits turn to the internet and youtube to learn from ISIS, the war against ISIS will require smarter, innovative tactics that move away from bombing each other. For now, we can only sit back and watch how devastating Trump’s “annihilation”  tactics become for the innocent civilians on the ground in Syria.


By Michaela Hickey


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