Last September, the US-led international coalition announced that it would carry out airstrikes in Syria and Iraq targeting the Islamic State (IS). In the months since, international efforts to oust IS have taken a devastating toll on civilian areas.
It is no secret that civilians have paid a high price in the international battle against IS. The pro-opposition monitoring group Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) released a reportearlier this month placing the number of civilians killed so far in coalition airstrikes at 169.
In the same report, SNHR documented the May 1 coalition bombing of the village of Bir Mahali in the east Aleppo countryside by coalition forces, resulting in the deaths of 64 people.
The Bir Mahali bombing demonstrates “a blatant disregard for the lives of innocent civilians,” said Fadl Abd al-Gani, the director of SNHR earlier this month.
For insight into the situation, Syria Direct’s Noura al-Hourani interviewed Sham a-Deen Abu Shahba, a law school graduate and eyewitness of coalition airstrikes.
“[Bir Mahali] is not under IS control,” he tells Syria Direct, “and there are no IS military headquarters there. This is what has stirred up fear among the people.”
Abu Shahba, a resident of the nearby IS controlled city of Al-Bab, questions the efficacy of coalition airstrikes, and describes the despair of civilians who find themselves increasingly victimized on multiple fronts.
“After the coalition announcement about waging war only against IS, [civilians] felt frustrated, and their suffering increased since they were now victims not only of IS and the regime, but also the coalition.”
After a coalition airstrike near Aleppo. Photo courtesy of Al-Quds.
Q. Coalition airstrikes on the Islamic State began nine months ago. In your opinion, as someone living in an area controlled by IS, have the airstrikes been effective in weakening IS and limiting its reach?
Coalition airstrikes weakened IS to an extent, but not very much. Since the beginning, IS has relied on reinforcing its funding through human and material support from the taxes and zakat [Islamic charity] imposed on the citizens of areas they control.
Additionally, the airstrikes have pushed many locals to pledge allegiance to IS because they consider the coalition to be in league with the Assad regime.
Q. Many civilians have died in coalition airstrikes. Do you believe this to be intentional? What is the margin of error in these strikes, and is there a way to avoid hitting civilians?
Coalition airstrikes have killed many civilians, and I believe this was intended to provoke the anger of the populace towards IS and incite them to rise up against it. There is no way to avoid hitting civilians, save to stop bombing the areas where they are, since IS has headquarters in areas free of civilians.
Q. Does IS have any deliberate strategy to avoid the coalition strikes, like intermingling with the civilians?
IS does not fear the coalition airstrikes, as it does not concern itself with human lives, but it does not intentionally rely upon civilians as human shields. However, it resides within the area that it controls, as though it is part of its caliphate, and not a military area. So you do not find outward military signs.
Perhaps this is an implicit policy to avoid the coalition airstrikes, but it in no way justifies coalition strikes on civilians.
Q. What are the most important targets that the coalition has launched attacks on previously? In your view, are there critical IS positions that should be targeted by coalition forces but have not been?
The most important targets are the oil fields, to limit their funding, and targets in Kobani and some areas in A-Raqqa city. However, there are many critical positions the coalition has not targeted, like the large oil fields such as Al-Umar. All the fields the coalition has targeted have weak production, like wells, such as the A-Tank and Al-Milh oil fields.
Q. How can people in areas under bombardment tell the difference between coalition bombing and regime bombing?
The people can differentiate the planes by their sound, which they have grown used to hearing daily, as well as the types of weapons and missiles used, which they often document and witness during victim recovery operations.
Q. As you are from a village very close to the village of Bir Mahali that was bombed by coalition forces, can you describe exactly what happened and why they targeted this village in particular? What is its importance?
Coalition forces bombed the village of Bir Mahali at night in a number of consecutive raids, resulting in approximately 65 deaths, all of whom were civilians, among them women and children. This in addition to the destruction of houses, some razed to the ground, as the houses there are simple clay houses.
This village is not under IS control, and there are no IS military headquarters there. This is what has stirred up fear among the people, for it could not have been an accidental bombing.
Q. You mentioned a personal experience to me. What happened?
One of the victims was a relative of mine. [Coalition forces] bombed an IS prison in Al-Bab several months ago, killing approximately 90 percent of the prisoners, civilians, including my cousin. It is true that it was an IS prison, but its residents were civilians and this is an unforgivable error.
Q. What do the civilians want from the coalition forces? What is the opinion on the street about the coalition strikes?
Since the beginning, civilians had hope that the coalition might direct critical strikes in order to overthrow the regime. After the coalition announcement about waging war only against IS, [civilians] felt frustrated, and their suffering increased since they were now victims not only of IS and the regime, but also the coalition.
They want an end to the bombings, to the killing of their children and the destruction of their houses. They want to be saved from the regime, for strikes to be directed at it. Since [the regime] created IS, even if indirectly, any attack on the regime inevitably shortens the Islamic State’s life span.
Q. Considering that these strikes have killed of a number of civilians, do you think that they have served the Syrian people or that they have not been in their interest?
These strikes have not been in the interest of the Syrian people, who have been victims of Bashar’s planes and, to a lesser extent, the coalition airstrikes.
The suffering of the civilians has not ended. It would have been better if the coalition had directed its strikes at the regime, which is considered the fundamental cause of the Islamic State’s appearance in Syria.