A US-led coalition has boasted of strides in its military campaign against the self-proclaimed Islamic State in recent weeks, and a string of lone-wolf terrorist attacks across the globe seems to suggest that ISIS is feeling the pressure.
But as the Syria Democratic Forces besiege the ISIS stronghold of Manbij, reports are emerging that US-led airstrikes on Monday may have killed several dozen civilians in and around the northern Syrian city. And groups in the Syrian opposition coalition are calling on the anti-ISIS coalition to halt further airstrikes until these deaths are investigated.
“We believe that such incidents indicate a major loophole in the current operational rules followed by the international coalition in conducting strikes in populated areas,” wrote Anas Al-Abdah, president of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), in a letter to the coalition’s foreign minister, according to The Wall Street Journal.
“It is essential that such investigation not only result in revised rules of procedure for future operations, but also inform accountability for those responsible for such major violations.”
Such incidents, Al-Abdah went on to write, would “prove to be a recruitment tool for terrorist organizations.”
Estimates of the death toll vary. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 21 civilians died on Monday after an airstrike hit one district in Manbil. A day later, it said 56 more were killed in an area to the north of the city, including 11 children. Some Syrian sources put the number significantly higher. Hasan al-Nifi, a community leader in Manbij, told Al Jazeera that after the village of Tokhar was hit on Tuesday with airstrikes, “the death toll rose to 212 and the numbers are rising.”
"It seems that the Syrian Democratic Forces under the leadership of the International coalition which is in charge of planning have decided to adopt a scorched earth policy," Al-Nifi told the network.
A representative from another human-rights monitor, the Turkey-based Syrian Institute for Justice, told The Washington Post that entire families had been killed in Tokhar, putting the death toll at 85 in that village alone.
US Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on Wednesday that the US-led coalition would investigate the reports of civilian casualties.
The tragedy may already be straining a coalition of Kurdish and Arab forces assembled by the United States to fight ISIS. The Washington Post quotes one former local council member in saying that “people are now full of hatred” for the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, with some of the force’s members questioning whether they want to remain.
Syria’s foreign ministry blamed French forces for the airstrikes on Tokhar and US forces for those in Manbij on Monday, though US and French authorities would not say which of the coalition members had carried out bombings on those two days.
This report contains material from Reuters.