The White House has acknowledged for the first time that strict standards President Obama imposed last year to prevent civilian deaths from U.S. drone strikes will not apply to U.S. military operations in Syria and Iraq.
A White House statement to Yahoo News confirming the looser policy came in response to questions about reports that as many as a dozen civilians, including women and young children, were killed when a Tomahawk missile struck the village of Kafr Daryan in Syria's Idlib province on the morning of Sept. 23.
The village has been described by Syrian rebel commanders as a reported stronghold of the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front where U.S officials believed members of the so-called Khorasan group were plotting attacks against international aircraft.
But at a briefing for members and staffers of the House Foreign Affairs Committee late last week, Syrian rebel commanders described women and children being hauled from the rubble after an errant cruise missile destroyed a home for displaced civilians. Images of badly injured children also appeared on YouTube, helping to fuel anti-U.S. protests in a number of Syrian villages last week.
“They were carrying bodies out of the rubble. … I saw seven or eight ambulances coming out of there,” said Abu Abdo Salabman, a political member of one of the Free Syria Army factions, who attended the briefing for Foreign Affairs Committee members and staff. “We believe this was a big mistake.”
Asked about the strike at Kafr Daryan, a U.S. Central Command spokesman said Tuesday that U.S. military “did target a Khorasan group compound near this location. However, we have seen no evidence at this time to corroborate claims of civilian casualties.” But Caitlin Hayden, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, told Yahoo News that Pentagon officials “take all credible allegations seriously and will investigate” the reports.
At the same time, however, Hayden said that a much-publicized White House policy that President Obama announced last year barring U.S. drone strikes unless there is a “near certainty” there will be no civilian casualties — "the highest standard we can meet," he said at the time — does not cover the current U.S. airstrikes in Syria and Iraq.
The “near certainty” standard was intended to apply “only when we take direct action ‘outside areas of active hostilities,’ as we noted at the time,” Hayden said in an email. “That description — outside areas of active hostilities — simply does not fit what we are seeing on the ground in Iraq and Syria right now.”
Hayden added that U.S. military operations against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) in Syria, "like all U.S. military operations, are being conducted consistently with the laws of armed conflict, proportionality and distinction."
The laws of armed conflict prohibit the deliberate targeting of civilian areas and require armed forces to take precautions to prevent inadvertent civilian deaths as much as possible.
But one former Obama administration official said the new White House statement raises questions about how the U.S. intends to proceed in the conflict in Syria and Iraq, and under what legal authorities.
“They seem to be creating this grey zone” for the conflict, said Harold Koh, who served as the State Department’s top lawyer during President Obama’s first term. “If we’re not applying the strict rules [to prevent civilian casualties] to Syria and Iraq, then they are of relatively limited value."
Questions about civilian deaths from U.S. counterterrorism operations have confronted the Obama administration from the outset, after the president sharply ramped up drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, resulting in sometimes heated internal policy debates.
Addressing the subject last year in a speech at the National Defense University, Obama acknowledged for the first time that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, adding: “For me and those in my chain of command, those deaths will haunt us as long as we live.”
Sources familiar with the new “near certainty” standard Obama announced at the time said that, as a practical matter, it meant that every drone strike had to be signed off on by the White House — first by Lisa Monaco, Obama’s chief homeland security adviser, and ultimately by the president himself. The policy, one source said, caused some Pentagon officials to chafe at the new restrictions — and led to a noticeable reduction in such strikes by the military and the CIA.
While the White House has said little about the standards it is using for strikes in Syria and Iraq, one former official who has been briefed on the matter said the looser policy gives more discretion to theater commanders at the U.S. Central Command to select targets without the same level of White House oversight.
The issue arose during last week’s briefing for two House Foreign Affairs Committee members and two staffers when rebel leaders associated with factions of the Free Syria Army, including Abu Abdo Salabman, complained about the civilian deaths — and the fact that the targets were in territory controlled by the Nusra Front, a sometimes ally of the U.S.-backed rebels in its war with the Islamic State and the Syrian regime.
But at least one of the House members present, Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican who supports stronger U.S. action in Syria, said he was not overly concerned. “I did hear them say there were civilian casualties, but I didn’t get details,” Kinzinger said in an interview with Yahoo News. “But nothing is perfect,” and whatever civilian deaths resulted from the U.S. strikes are “much less than the brutality of the Assad regime.”