At least 212 Syrian civilians were killed in bombings by the US coalition in the Tokhar area of Manbij on Tuesday. Manbij is the scene of fierce fighting between Da’esh and the PKK’s YPG offshoot and allies in the SDF (“Syria Democratic Forces”), which have been conducting a fierce battle to take control of the city since May, with close air support from the US coalition.
The first bombings were indiscriminate, and came at 3am while residents were The strikes levelled a school in Tokhar, a town of 3,500 people. The school was well-known as a site at which displaced people were sheltered. Initial figures reported anything from 65 to 160 people being killed in the attack. Abu Omar al-Manbiji, a local citizen journalist, told Syria Direct that the casualty levels were horrific, even at the lower estimates. “So far we count 124 dead from the attack, and that number could very well increase.” Later numbers put the death toll higher, at at least 212 people (and rising). The US command merely claimed that it “needed to investigate” the claims, remaining silent about the online evidence. 21 civilians were also killed in the Hazawneh quarter of the city.
This wasn’t mentioned much by the coalition, of course. An impassive CENTCOM report breezily claimed that their airstrikes had “struck eight separate [IS] tactical units” around Manbij. How a school full of civilians could be mistaken for a Da’esh tactical unit wasn’t mentioned in the report. The Tokhar region is 15km northeast of the city of Manbij, and far from the battlefield. Mainstream media reports, however, quickly wrote them off as “mistaken” attacks, paying little attention to the fact that a very similar incident in Afghanistan occurred, in which the USAF bombed Kunduz hospital last year. The act was later determined to be a war crime, although the US denied it.
How several separate airstrikes on overtly civilian areas could be written off as a simple error (in the age of intelligence and satellite technology) is also a mystery to many Syrians. Coalition spokesman Col. Chris Garver brushed off the attacks by claiming the US is “extraordinarily careful”. Clearly.
In fact, the YPG has regularly been accused of ethnic cleansing, which has included giving the coordinates of Arab civilian settlements to the coalition in order to force them out of their homes with terror bombings. It’s unclear if this was the cause of today’s incident. Either way, the coalition readily complies with the requests. There are allegations of the YPG pursuing a scorched earth policy during the battle for Manbij.
Ten more civilians (and four children) were later killed in bombings of the village of Hamira, which is on the outskirts of the city. Al-Zahuna neighbourhood saw 23 civilian fatalities, and the western gate of the city also saw an unspecified number of civilian deaths. Horrific images appeared online, depicting dead children and horrifically mutilated men and women.
Some outlets reported a death toll as high as 320 civilians in 24 hours. If true, coalition airstrikes have killed more people in 24 hours than Syrian regime bombings have killed in four days. This toll also counted civilians killed in Russian bombings in Idlib during the same period (the strikes were supposedly coordinated with the US) which killed 15 people and wounded at least 35. Da’esh is nowhere near Idlib city or its surroundings. Aid raids killing civilians also occurred in Aleppo.
All these deaths, however, were overshadowed by a much smaller incident. On July 19 2016, fighters from the Nour ad-Din az-Zenki Movement captured what was initially thought to be a child soldier fighting for the pro-Assad Liwa al-Quds (Palestinian) militia in Handarat. The fighter was subsequently beheaded by a member of the group. In a statement the group vowed to punish the men responsible, claiming it was an individual act by the perpetrator.
What followed, however, was more than a little disproportionate. Video footage emerged online of the incecent. Global media outlets, having long ignored regular regime atrocities in Syria (and showed no less indifference to the Manbij and Idlib massacres) sensationalised the killing of a single person, ignoring the murder of hundreds of innocent people.
More often than not, coverage of the execution was disingenuously used to push an agenda, namely the spurious claim that the anti-regime fighters are inherently evil “US-backed rebels” (a claim beloved of left and rightists alike) despite the Zenki Movement having its US support terminated in 2015. “US-Backed “Moderate” Rebels Behead a Child Near Aleppo”, sneered one of the worst of the offending articles, published in the Daily Beast by one Katie Zavadski.
Not only did Zavadski’s article ignore the fact that the captured fighter was a member of a regime militia, but went out of its way to rave about despicable rebel fighters “on the CIA payroll”, as if to suggest that Assad’s enemies are murderous mercenaries and thus the regime is absolved. Even though the Zenki Movement no longer receives US support.
Not only that, but the article drew comparisons with Da’esh, trying to suggest that a single atrocity means that anti-regime forces are identical to the group (a claim refuted more than once). The use of “‘moderate’ rebels” is no less disingenuous. An uninformed reader would come away with the impression that opposition forces in Syria that don’t follow the Da’esh brand of extremism are non-existent. Which is, of course, the intention of the author. Islamophobic narratives also developed, including deliberate attempts to link the group to Saudi Arabia (and all the internet jargon about “Wahhabi-Salafi CIA NATO terrorists” that such claims imply) and falsely portray these actions as common among Islamic groups.
An article in Gulf News blamed a “US-backed Syrian rebel group”, also ignoring the retraction of US support since 2015. The BBC repeated a claim (almost ad-lib) by the Liwa al-Quds Brigade that the “boy” was an innocent civilian. Not only ignoring the photos of the fighter in their military uniform, but also the group’s history of throwing anyone it can get its hands on into battle. In April 2014, Armenian Baghdig Keshishian was killed fighting for the group in Aleppo.
CNN went further, dedicating much of an article on the incident to quoting (ad verbatim) Syria’s state news agency SANA on the group, which said the Zenki Movement is backed by the “Erdogan regime,” which had “facilitates the entry of terrorist mercenaries to Syria through the Turkish border to carry out these crimes.” The fact that Liwa al-Quds claimed to have launched an offensive at the same time as the boy’s capture was also passed over.
It later emerged that the fighter was no “innocent child” at all, but a 19-year-old regime militiamen, as confirmed by social media posts by his sister. Media outlets that had been quick to sensationalise this incident in order to discredit the whole armed opposition ignored this new development, neglecting to clarify the erroneous information they had previously released.
Why is the killing of a combatant fighting for a barrel bombing regime that has slaughtered hundreds of thousands seen as worse than than the death of 320 or more civilians in bombings? In the age of drone strikes and missile attacks, knives and other weapons are simply seen as “messy”. Face-to-face killings are too close for comfort, especially when seen on video. When it’s so visibly carried out by a side you support, you (naturally) tend to feel some sense of or guilt. Bombings are another matter; the victims are generally wiped out quickly and you never get to see the gruesome results at at close range. People feel like they can accept such atrocities with few pangs from their own consciences.
The rhetoric deliberately changes from horror to indifference when mass murder with drones or airstrikes occurs. To pundits and government officials, dropping a bomb on a group of innocent people (while professing to be hitting military targets) is somehow “clean”, a “surgical strike”. If there are victims, it’s unfortunate. But they’re just “collateral damage”. This language deliberately dehumanises the victims. Reading statements about dead civilians makes you feel as if goods were lost, not human life. Which is, of course, the idea. Keep Americans shielded from the actions of their armed forces by eliminating the humanity from murder, both in terms of rhetoric, and by refusing to air the results of the “surgical” bombardments.
Technology has made the human cost of war catastrophic. A man on a control console can press a button and kill thousands without seeing any of his victims. A pilot can fly his plane over civilian homes and drop his bombs without seeing the mangled bodies buried under the rubble beneath him. But this is no excuse for the world to ignore mass murder depending on the visibility of the victims.
The loss of an innocent human life should be a tragedy, regardless of the means of death. Da’esh members beheading western victims with knives in 2014 cannot he called worse than Assad’s men shooting and bombing over 20,000 children. To say nothing of the fact that killing hundreds of Syrians is infinitely worse than opposition forces executing an armed (adult) member of a regime responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. He was 19, accountable for his actions. He consciously chose to fight for a genocidal regime, and he paid the price. Let’s stop disingenuously dancing round the obvious genocide waged by Assad and his allies, be they Russian or American.