On March 23 Syrian Democratic Forces and the U.S.-led International Coalition captured the embattled town of Al-Bagouz, bringing to an end a months-long siege that had displaced more than 70,000 civilians in the course of ousting the Islamic State from its final territorial foothold in Syria. Nonetheless, the ostensible defeat of ISIS continues to prompt questions over the means of achieving accountability for the civilian casualties, widespread destruction, and long-term political consequences of the international community’s military involvement in a Syrian civil war which is now in its ninth year.
An airstrike carried out by the International Coalition in Al-Mansourah on March 20, 2017 is among the single deadliest attacks of the conflict. The Coalition asserted the school it targeted in the Al-Badhiya airstrike was used by the Islamic State as an intelligence headquarters and weapons storage facility. In reality, it was an informal camp hosting internally displaced persons (IDPs), and the attack killed more than 150 civilians.
On the second anniversary of the strike, SPRI attended a panel discussion hosted by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) alongside Airwars, and both the United Nations Commission of Inquiry in Syria and Human Rights Watch presented findings from their extensive reporting on the incident.  Joining the panelists were the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) and international law professor Robert Frau, who addressed the legal obligation of states to investigate such events, the crucial need for transparency and accountability, the Coalition’s failures leading up to and following the strike, and the means of better protecting civilians in conflict.
The Panel’s Findings:
First and foremost, the Coalition must acknowledge the humanitarian consequences of attacks like the Al-Badhiya airstrike. Transparency is impossible without a thorough and methodologically-sound investigation.
The Coalition has a responsibility to engage in meaningful dialogue with advocates of international and human rights law, including the UN and relevant NGOs, as well as the victims.
Finally, decision-making bodies and individuals culpable for crimes like Al-Badhiya must be held to account. Investigations and fact-finding missions, like those conducted by HRW, the UN Commission of Inquiry, and SNHR, make denial on the part of the Coalition impossible. These findings furnish prosecutory evidence, and in the long term they lay bare the shortcomings of the Coalition’s military strategy.
Andreas Schüller, ECCHR Program Director International Crimes and Accountability, emphasized that international law already offers the necessary framework to prevent such events from recurring, yet he criticized the West for undermining international law by prioritizing “security” imperatives (which are the product of a political process) over universal values. Schüller stressed that political considerations should inform state action, but only within the legal boundaries set by international and customary law, not the other way around.
In the case of airstrikes, international law defines exactly which military actions are legal and which are not. Human Rights Watch and the UN Commission of Inquiry explained:
What is required first is an understanding of the justifications for authorizing the strike. Although ISIS combatants were reported to frequent the school, this possibility does not in itself render the school a legitimate military target. Authorizing the strike because combatants may have been present is the flawed premise that underlies the Coalition’s rationale, and it affirms the Coalition had no credible basis for dismissing the civilian fatalities as unintended or unavoidable “collateral damage” in the first place, as Frau observed.
The panel offered two explanations for the Coalition’s insistence on accounting for the civilian casualties as “collateral damage.” First is the Coalition’s failure to consider the basic human rights - primarily the right to life - of those living in the IDP camp, a failure exemplified by the overly broad manner in which it determined what constitutes a “legitimate target.” Nadim Houry, Director of the HRW Terrorism and Counterterrorism program, stated that the Coalition’s definition of “legitimate target” is unknown, leading HRW to assume it takes a maximalist approach by including “affiliates of ISIS” in its definition.
The second explanation is the Coalition’s overconfidence in its operational capacity, namely its dependence on aerial reconnaissance. Informants in the community would have disproved the assumptions made on the basis of aerial reconnaissance. Nonetheless, even aerial reconnaissance would almost certainly have picked up on the children frequently playing in the courtyard of the school, as James Rodehaver, Coordinator of the UN Commission of Inquiry, noted.
Taken together, these circumstances raise a series of pressing questions that must be addressed: Did the Coalition take all feasible precautions prior to the strike? Why has the Coalition not addressed the victims of its attack? Why haven’t the flawed procedures that led to the deadly attack been changed? Why was the Coalition’s later investigation into the strike conducted without speaking to individuals on the ground? And why did that investigation report that only 40 civilians were killed when multiple independent assessments place that figure at 150?
The inherent shortcomings of the practice of aerial reconnaissance must be addressed, especially if it is to serve as the basis of efforts to prevent civilian casualties in the future. As observed by Fadel Abdul Ghany, founder and chairman of SNHR, the fact the Trump administration has already carried out more than twice as many strikes as the Obama administration suggests that no lessons have been learned, while minimizing civilian casualties and providing needed transparency are even less of a priority today.
SPRI attended the event for two reasons. The first is to increase the exposure of the involved organizations, whose work in forensic analysis, international law, and wartime conduct provides practical methods to reduce harm in conflict. The second reason is to incorporate the findings into SPRI’s value-based approach to building a new U.S. foreign policy. Two takeaways bear emphasis:
A critical U.S. foreign policy: law, consequences, and accountability
First, airstrikes such as these violate international law by putting civilian populations at risk of injury, death, or displacement, or depriving them of property and livelihoods. Second, they are ineffective militarily. Notwithstanding government claims to the contrary, it is critical that policymakers understand exactly how incidents like Al Badhiya fail to advance purported military objectives. The strike did not destroy critical ISIS infrastructure, instead it will almost certainly lead to resentment against the Coalition, which is likely to make American objectives a more remote prospect. Finally, even though responsibility is diluted among Coalition members, policymakers who appeal to values must know that accountability is part-and-parcel of credibility.
The need to empower (and fund) the full range of actors who implement international law
The legal process witnessed in this case demonstrates how human rights and international law depend upon an institutional ecosystem comprised of governmental and non-governmental bodies. The forensic research provided by the OHCHR-mandated UN Commission of Inquiry in Syria drew attention to the severity of the Coalition’s crimes. Airwars in turn attributed an estimated 11,841 civilian deaths to Coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. The onsite investigative work of Human Rights Watch further established critical facts and put pressure on the Coalition to acknowledge, belatedly, the strike in Al-Mansourah. The UN Commission of Inquiry clearly stated that the Coalition investigation should have led to the same results in terms of civilian casualties reported by its own forensic sources. Incorporating these forms of evidence into the cases brought to court by organizations like ECCHR can help to maintain and strengthen international law. Bolstering the resources critical to the work of these organizations is ultimately an investment in international law.
 Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, A/HRC/37/72, 01 February 2018, p. 9f, www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/CoISyria/A-HRC-37-72_EN.pdf
 All feasible precautions? Civilian Casualties in Anti-ISIS Coalition Airstrikes in Syria, HRW, September 2017, p. 10, https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/report_pdf/syria0917_web_0.pdf