US general: Why US shouldn't carpet bomb ISIS targets

Carpet bombs violate our 'guiding principles,' says a top US general, who calls for more coalition forces to retake ISIS-occupied cities instead.

Militant Islamic State fighters take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province in 2014. Raqqa was captured by IS in 2013 and has been used as its headquarters since.

A top United States general shot down proposals to carpet bomb Islamic State (ISIS or IS) forces in Iraq and Syria in a teleconference on Monday.

US Army Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, commander of the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF – OIR) of the US-led coalition against IS, spoke from Baghdad on the task force’s ongoing efforts in fighting the militant group. He said carpet bombings will not be a standard strategy going forward.

“Indiscriminate bombing where we don't care if we are killing innocents or combatants is just inconsistent with our values,” MacFarland said.

“We are the United States of America, and we have a set of guiding principles and those affect the way we, as professional soldiers, airmen, sailors, marines conduct ourselves on the battlefield,” he said.

“We are bound by the laws of armed conflict," said MacFarland. "At the end of the day, it doesn't only matter if you win, it matters how you win.”

MacFarland’s position echoes international agreements concerning the use of carpet bombing, or saturation bombing, which involves dropping unguided bombs to inflict damage across a wide area. The strategy was classified as a war crime in 1977 in Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions under the prohibition of “indiscriminate attacks,” which are either not directed at specific military targets or could strike both military targets and civilians without distinction.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has repeatedly suggested carpet bombing swaths of the Middle East, claiming the strategy was a success in the first Persian Gulf War – although the bombs deployed then were aimed at military targets and were not unguided or indiscriminately dropped. While the US-led coalition has carried out around 10,000 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria since 2014, most of which were conducted by the US, those strikes were all targeted attacks as well.

MacFarland noted that Russian is alleged to have used carpet bombs against IS in Syria, but he maintained that the US will not follow suit.

“Right now we have the moral high ground and I think that's where we need to stay,” he said.

Instead, MacFarland said the coalition will focus on fighting IS in the occupied cities of Mosul and Raqqa. Raqqa currently serves as the group’s headquarters. The push to recover the two cities comes after coalition forces retook the IS-controlled city of Ramadi in December, and amid Pentagon plans to “further accelerate” the fight against IS.

"The plan is to hit them in Raqqa in Syria and in Iraq at Mosul, to crush their capitals," an unnamed Iraqi official told Reuters. "I think there is some speed and urgency by the coalition, by the US administration and by us, to end this year with the regaining of control over all territory."

MacFarland did not specify when operations in Mosul and Raqqa would begin, but suggested that additional coalition forces could be needed.

“As we extend operations across Iraq and into Syria, yes, there is a good potential that we'll need additional capabilities, additional forces to provide those capabilities," said MacFarland. "We're looking at the right mix.”

The US has also said it is willing to deploy Apache helicopters in the fight to retake Mosul and could potentially add to the more than 20,000 Iraqi soldiers and police the coalition has trained so far, but MacFarland would not confirm next steps.

“I'd like the enemy to find out about it for the first time when the area around them is going up in smoke,” he said.

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