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After Civilian Deaths, Human Rights Watch Says U.S. Strikes on Syria May Violate Laws of War

September 29, 2014
Story
WATCH FULL SHOW

Guests

Nadim Houry

Human Rights Watch senior researcher for Lebanon and Syria and the director of the Beirut office.

As U.S. strikes on Syria expand, Human Rights Watch says a bombing last week on the town of Idlib should be investigated for possible violations of the laws of war. The strikes killed at least seven civilians, including five children, in the early morning hours of September 23 in the village of Kafr Deryan in northern Idlib province. Local activists at the scene of the attack collected and videotaped the remnants from the weapons used in the strikes. Human Rights Watch reviewed the footage and identified the remnants as debris of a turbofan engine from a Tomahawk cruise missile, a weapon that only the U.S. and British governments possess. "Witness accounts suggest that the attack on the village harmed civilians but did not strike a military target, violating the laws of war by failing to discriminate between combatants and civilians, or that it unlawfully caused civilian loss disproportionate to the expected military advantage," HRW details. The group has called on the U.S. government to investigate the allegations and publish its findings. We are joined by Nadim Houry, Human Rights Watch senior researcher for Lebanon and Syria.


TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Overnight, U.S.-led warplanes hit grain silos and other targets in northern and eastern Syria. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the attacks killed a number of civilians working at the silos. Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch is calling for an investigation of possible unlawful U.S.-led airstrikes in Syria last week. According to the group, at least seven civilians, including five children, died in the early morning hours of September 23rd in the village of Kafr Deryan in northern Idlib. Local resident Abu Ossamah said the victims were displaced civilians who had fled the Assad regime.

ABU OSSAMAH: [translated] The military headquarters are far from the city, in the mountains. There are no military headquarters inside the city. All the people who were killed today were displaced civilians from Aleppo fearing the bombs of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president.

AMY GOODMAN: Local activists at the scene of the attack collected and videotaped the remnants from the weapons used in the strikes. Human Rights Watch reviewed the footage and identified the remnants as debris of a turbofan engine from a Tomahawk cruise missile, a weapon only the U.S. and British governments possess. Human Rights Watch put out a statement reading in part, quote, "Witness accounts suggest that the attack on the village harmed civilians but did not strike a military target, violating the laws of war by failing to discriminate between combatants and civilians, or that it unlawfully caused civilian loss disproportionate to the expected military advantage," unquote. The group has called on the U.S. government to investigate the allegations and publish its findings. On Thursday, two days after the attack on the village, Pentagon spokesperson Rear Admiral John Kirby said there had been no "credible" reports of civilian deaths from U.S.-led strikes in Syria.

Well, for more, we’re going to Beirut, to Lebanon, where we’re joined on the telephone by Nadim Houry. He is the Human Rights Watch senior researcher for Lebanon and Syria and the director of the Beirut office.

Nadim Houry, welcome to Democracy Now! Tell us what you have found.

NADIM HOURY: So we were able to speak with three local residents in the village of Kafr Deryan, who told us that there were actually two separate strikes that evening on the village—one that hit, actually, a Nusra group of buildings outside the village, and shortly thereafter, missile strikes that destroyed two homes in the village, that killed seven civilians, as well as two men. There is some contradictory information about the identity of these two men. One person said they may have been Nusra, while others said they were civilians. This is what we know. We also were able to review photographs and footage taken from one of the activists on the ground. We were able to speak to him on Skype. He shared with us his footage from the site where the two homes were destroyed, and we saw evidence of the remnants of the Tomahawk cruise missile that was used on those homes.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, talk about the significance of this, Nadim.

NADIM HOURY: Well, I mean, the first step is, what we need is more clarity exactly what happened. This is why we’re calling for an investigation. Right now, we’ve got local testimonies. The area is very hard for us to reach. It’s very dangerous, so we’re not able to go there ourselves. But we believe that the U.S. should disclose what information it has and should investigate, because there is credible information that civilians were killed and that these strikes may have been illegal, because there’s no evidentiary—evidence of any military target.

Secondly, I think that there’s a very important issue here to be discussed, which is these strikes are supposed to be about protecting civilians and countering terrorists. But if they are killing civilians, they are going to actually attract more support for groups like Nusra and ISIS in northern Syria, and ultimately will be self-defeating of any initiative to protect civilians. So I think it’s very important to have full transparency about these strikes and also to remember that, you know, really, they have to—the U.S., in its strikes, has to respect international humanitarian law, distinguish between civilians and military, but also take all precautionary measures to minimize civilian harm.

AMY GOODMAN: Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the military is aware of the reports of civilian casualties from U.S. airstrikes in Syria, but skeptical of their accuracy. He told the Associated Press, quote, "We don’t believe that there’s much reason to be too concerned about any collateral damage, you know, to civilian property, that kind of thing. But on the civilian casualty issue, certainly we take that seriously, and we’ll continue to look at that and review that as we work through the damage assessment process." Is that enough for you, Nadim Houry?

NADIM HOURY: Not at this stage. You know, we still don’t know—you know, so we’ve got accounts coming from local residents saying there were two different areas targeted—one outside the village, one inside the village. The U.S. still has not disclosed what they were trying to hit. You know, the sort of dismissiveness that we’ve seen over the last few days is not very encouraging. Of course it may take time, but clearly, you know, this was very expensive weaponry that was used, so clearly they were trying to hit something. And it’s important to understand what it was and what measures are being taken to minimize the civilian harm.

So we’re hoping that the U.S. administration would give more details, would conduct an investigation and actually give their answers. And we have not come out with a definite answer about what was hit. We’re saying we’ve got very credible information from three separate sources indicating at least seven civilians were killed, including five children. We’ve got their names. We’ve got images for some of the victims. And we also have a video evidence that what destroyed these homes, where these kids were, was most likely a U.S. Tomahawk missile. Now, you know, the sort of burden shifts now on the U.S. Army to sort of say, "OK, these are the precautionary measures that we took, and this is why we think, you know, there’s no credible reporting that there were civilian casualties," because clearly we find the information to be credible.

AMY GOODMAN: Nadim, this report from Reuters today: "U.S.-led air strikes hit grain silos and other targets in Islamic State-controlled territory in northern and eastern Syria overnight, killing civilians and wounding militants ... The aircraft may have mistaken the mills and grain storage areas in the northern Syrian town of Manbij for an Islamic State base," according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Do you have any more information on this?

NADIM HOURY: Not yet. We’ve seen the reports, and we’re trying to confirm the information. It’s very hard to reach people in Manbij these days. But what I can tell you is people in Manbij had—one person in particular had contacted us because they have a relative in that town, and they were very worried, because some relatives are actually being detained by the Islamic State, they’re civilians, and they were worried that the U.S. would be striking these prisons. So there’s a lot of fear in northern Syria today that some of these strikes will injure civilians. We have to investigate these particular claims about civilians being killed. But, you know, ISIS is not just present outside of towns. They have administration buildings in the middle of towns that they operate. Some of them are military installations. Others are being used by ISIS to administer the towns, including courts, including prisons, where they’re holding inmates and so forth. And we just have to, you know, gather more information.

But clearly there’s a high risk for civilian casualties, and this is why our call is for the U.S. to take maximum precautions to minimize civilian harm and to avoid, you know, any strike that would directly target civilians or a strike that would have a disproportionate impact on civilian victims versus the military advantage that would be had. I think this is very important for the lawfulness of these strikes, but also ultimately also very important for what the U.S. is trying to achieve in Syria at the end of the day. These sort of strikes will end up alienating a lot of civilians in northern Syria. But again, we still don’t know enough, and this is why we’re calling on maximum transparency from the U.S. Army.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the shifting alliances here? You have the Syrian president, Assad, voicing his support for any international antiterrorism effort. You have people struck being people who are fleeing from the Assad regime. Can you talk about what’s happening in Syria right now?

NADIM HOURY: Obviously, it’s very complicated. I think the first point to keep in mind is the issue is not just, you know, there are the good guys and the bad guys, and let’s figure out who the good guys are or not. We have seen, for example, the Assad regime, its army has committed systematic crimes against humanity. We have also seen some groups, such as ISIS and also the Nusra Front, commit crimes against humanity. We’ve also seen some rebel groups commit violations, as well, that are very grave. The key here is, you know, that a lot of these alliances are localized. What we’re seeing now is a lot of this, my enemy—you know, the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend. So we see the Syrian government is quite happy to see strikes coming down on ISIS, particularly Nusra, as well, while at the same time they’re clearly—you know, the U.S. government has made it very clear that they don’t consider the Assad government to be a legitimate partner in their alliance. We’ve also seen opposition groups, more mainstream groups, divided in their views. Some have welcomed U.S. strikes on ISIS, because they have also been attacked by ISIS, while others are afraid that what the U.S. strikes will end up doing is reinforcing Assad, the Assad government. So, yes, it is confusing on one level. But for us, the main guiding principle should be, at this stage, protection of civilians. I think if one keeps this principle in mind, it will actually clarify and make it easier to pursue certain priorities in Syria.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Nadim Houry, I want to thank you for being with us, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher for Lebanon and Syria, director of the Beirut office, where he is speaking to us from in Beirut, Lebanon.


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