TSG IntelBrief: The Mounting Toll on Civilians in Mosul and Raqqa
March 27, 2017

The Mounting Toll on Civilians in Mosul and Raqqa


Bottom Line Up Front:

• On March 25, the U.S. military confirmed it conducted airstrikes on an apartment building in Iraq in which as many as 200 civilians later died.

• The airstrike occurred in western Mosul on March 17; the building collapsed several days later.

• As the campaigns to retake Mosul and Raqqa from the Islamic State continue, the rapidly escalating toll on civilians will only get worse.

• The Islamic State will continue its brutal strategy of using civilians as both hostages and weapons as it makes its last major territorial stand in Syria and Iraq.


The U.S. military is investigating whether it is responsible for what could be one of the most catastrophic civilian death tolls caused by a U.S. airstrike since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The Department of Defense confirmed that it conducted operations against the large apartment building in western Mosul on March 17; the building collapsed several days later, with reports indicating as many as 200 civilians were killed as a result. The U.S. military will investigate whether its raid was responsible for the ‘collateral damage,’ or whether the so-called Islamic State brought the building down after the strike. The term ‘collateral damage’ intentionally blunts the truth of killing innocent people; that the death of innocent civilians was an accident is little solace to devastated families and communities. The U.S. military makes every effort to avoid civilian casualties, yet the civilian death toll is mounting as the fighting in Iraq and Syria shifts to a far more costly stage.

As the campaigns to retake Mosul and Raqqa continue, the Islamic State is running out of places to withdraw and regroup. As the fierce fighting and high casualty count has demonstrated, the group is not going to walk away from Mosul—the scene of its greatest triumph. There are still tens of thousands of civilians in western Mosul, and likely several thousand Islamic State fighters; the combination of these factors, coupled with a dense urban warfare environment, is a recipe for civilian disaster no matter how careful the U.S.-led coalition and Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) are as they retake the city.

Undoubtedly, the Islamic State will seek to use the tragedy of civilian deaths caused by coalition forces as propaganda. Such efforts will likely have limited effect on the very people the group has brutalized for years and is now using as human shields. The civilians of Mosul and Raqqa—who have seen the reality of the Islamic State’s rule for years now—are beyond the influence of the Islamic State’s online propaganda efforts. For those trapped in the collapsing caliphate, the reality on the ground limits the impact of much of the group’s propaganda, which is largely tailored to external supporters and sympathizers. Still, rumors and accusations of atrocities committed by the U.S.-led coalition will certainly help shape popular opinion once Mosul and Raqqa are retaken, thus serving a purpose for the next phase of the Islamic State’s existence.

In addition to using the people it claims to protect as human shields and cannon fodder, the Islamic State also holds critical infrastructure in both Mosul and Raqqa. Resources such as the Tabqa Dam in Syria are vital to the area, and are under threat from all sides. The coalition has been as careful as possible to avoid both civilian casualties as well as damage to the very infrastructure that those civilians will need to rebuild a fraction of what has been taken from them. Still, as the battlefield shrinks and the fighting intensifies, efforts to achieve the crucial objective of destroying the Islamic State in its current form—a fighting force capable of holding population centers—and the moral imperative of protecting civilian life and property, will inevitably become increasingly imbalanced towards the former.


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