It’s been reported by such prestigious journals as the Washington Post and the New York Times, and Amnesty International has released a potential war crimes alert: The headlines say the United States is attacking civilians in Syria with incendiary rounds, something that’s been banned by the Geneva Convention — and for good reason.
The world reacts in horror, some in righteous indignation, others with a sort of resigned acceptance, knowing in advance just how horrible America is.
And yet, this seems like an uncharacteristically foolhardy action for the United States to have taken. After all, if it was considered desirous to attack civilians, wouldn’t the military have simply switched to something the rules of war permit, such as the “Mother Of All Bombs”, for example? Wouldn’t that wipe out a city pretty effectively? And, for that matter, why would American forces be shooting at civilians in any case?
Something here doesn’t add up.
White phosphorous is one of the four common allotropes of phosphorous. It is self-igniting in air, and it burns very hot; because of that last, it was at one time used in the manufacture of matches. It was also commonly used in antipersonnel and antistructure munitions during war until the 1980 update to the Geneva Convention, which banned certain types of WP munition; the United States was a signatory to the relevant article in 2009. At present, it’s commonly used in smoke rounds and as flares, and occasionally it is still employed as a component in common explosive munitions. The ban is specifically against the use of incendiaries against civilians, so it is occasionally employed in an antipersonnel capacity against military targets. (Text of treaty here)
The reasoning underlying the establishment of the treaty in general and of this weapons ban in particular is straightforward enough. The civilian populations of almost every country involved in the Second World War were the targets of incendiaries; cities were industrial centers, and burning them was considered the most effective method for eliminating a country’s ability to fight a protracted war. The practical result of this, was horrific; cities like Munich, Dresden, London, and Cherbourg show the scars to this day. Given the type of damage and particularly the level of unnecessary suffering inflicted, it is perfectly reasonable to classify anti-civilian incendiaries alongside chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons and to ban them from the modern battlefield.
White phosphorous is in common, even ubiquitous employment on all fronts of every war. It is the primary component of smoke rounds, as it is unquenchable, burns brightly, and can help produce a thick white smoke cloud. Other uses include as flares and markers for use in artillery targeting. It’s even used by law enforcement; the weapon known as the “Flash-Bang” is designed to blind and stun in order to reduce casualties, and it often contains WP as a primary ignitor.
As such, news of its employment in Syria is hardly startling. And, since military targets (ISIS militants) are fortifying cities, it’s perfectly expected to see smoke and marker rounds fired near civilian structures. Illegal use would be incendiary rounds fired at civilian targets.
So let us examine in detail these accusations:
Amnesty International: “The US-led coalition’s use of white phosphorus munitions on the outskirts of al-Raqqa, Syria is unlawful and may amount to a war crime, Amnesty International can confirm after verifying five videos of the incident. The videos, published online on 8 and 9 June, showed the coalition’s artillery strike using the munitions over the civilian neighborhoods of Jezra and el-Sebahiya. International humanitarian law prohibits the use of white phosphorus near civilians.”
New York Times: “Images and reports from witnesses in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa suggest that the United States-led coalition battling the Islamic State there has used munitions loaded with white phosphorus… The images were distributed by the Aamaq news agency of the Islamic State, as well as a monitoring group called Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently. The Islamic State has made claims of use of white phosphorous by United States-led forces before as part of its efforts to discredit its enemies. White phosphorus, along with other incendiaries, has been used by Syrian government forces battling insurgents in Aleppo and elsewhere…”
The videos are accessible through the relevant article on Snopes, which in my opinion collates the available information as well as it can be done. According to Human Rights Watch analysts, it’s difficult to verify the location of the airbursts, but they do indeed seem to be WP rounds. The detonations are inconsistent with either marker rounds or anti-civilian incendiaries, however. One analyst suggested that an interference impact of smoke rounds might look quite like that.
Coverage of this through other media varies a great deal. For obvious reasons, the ISIS official press organs are roundly condemning as war criminals the people shooting at them; for reasons only slightly less transparent, so are the official Syrian and Russian press outlets. One story at RT claims the Americans are using WP as a chemical weapon — absurd, but in keeping with their overall agenda; RT often fabulizes about American evil, and made similar fantastic (and later debunked) claims against Ukraine during the Donbass conquest in 2014. One perhaps surprising counter comes from Al Jazeerah; their initial stories indicated their skepticism due to a lack of evidence.
That last argument is indeed compelling. Modern militaries are exceptionally good at destroying cities, having perfected that rather disturbing art during the Second World War. The simple fact that Raqqa is still standing indicates that no systematic effort to burn it has been undertaken. There remain four likely possibilities: that this is deliberate anti-American propaganda, that an accidental misuse of a WP round (likely smoke) caused an unintended airburst, that WP was deliberately misused by individual soldiers, or that this is video of WP being correctly employed as some sort of airburst smokescreen.
Note that of these four options, exactly one might possibly be considered criminal, and that the guilty parties in that case would not be governments but individuals — and inept ones at that. Far more likely is the first option, that this is deliberate propaganda — particularly given American use of Assad’s gas attacks against his own people was used as justification for bombing a Syrian airbase a couple of months ago. (I don’t wish to leave out the possibility that the videos were of Assad’s well-documented WP attacks against his own people; these too would be criminal, but America is hardly to blame for Assad.)
Of course, an investigation into allegations of war crimes should be undertaken, especially as there exists video evidence. But pending such an investigation — which can only happen after conflict has ended — my conclusion right now is the same one that Snopes, Amnesty International, and every reputable news source has arrived at: There’s little reason to suspect the United States military is guilty of war crimes here. Let me repeat: Even the Amnesty International accusation, although worded in a fashion that seems to condemn Coalition forces, stops a long way short of stating that WP incendiary rounds were deliberately directed at civilians. And that last would be required for this to be a war crime.
To me, the conclusion seems clear: It’s propaganda. Investigate anyway, but it’s propaganda. A better use of American military time would probably be to prepare for an attack against one of their in-country bases, with these reports used as pretexts — similar to the American actions in April.
The Bottom Line
“War is a crime. Ask the infantry and ask the dead.”
The moral question of the employment of military near civilians is a complex one, so much so that soldiers and even generals are not expected to address it during battle. Instead, we give them general instructions, rules by which warfare may permissibly be undertaken. It is up to us to design those rules such that they will protect civilians from avoidable or excessive suffering. Care must be taken to design them in a way that soldiers will not be unduly tempted to ignore them, however; otherwise, the most common observance of the conventions of warfare will be in their absence.
In this instance, it seems clear — at least as clear as it can be to an outside observer during the fog of war — that the rules of war were very probably not broken in Raqqa. This is a notable exception in the Syrian Civil War; in Raqqa, contrary to every expectation in civilized conflict, ISIS militants are sheltering as close to civilian populations as they can in order to use them as cover. Assad has frequently attacked civilians with incendiaries and chemical weapons. The Russian military is well known to have done this as recently as the 1994 Battle for Grozny.
The United States is by no means unwilling to employ incendiaries in combat. The Pentagon is frankly unapologetic about this, frequently stating that any appropriate weapon can be employed in war, and that incendiaries are often appropriate — for example, in the 2004 Battle of Fallujah. I have no doubt but that we’ll hear a great deal more about this from them after Raqqa has been reduced, but the Pentagon avoids public discussion of methods and tactics during battle — and quite right they are, too.
We have rules of warfare for good reason. If they’re broken, it’s a war crime, and there are appropriate reactions. But if the rules are not broken, we can hardly blame the soldiers who did their best to follow them. The natural horrors of war are properly the responsibility of the individuals who began it and the people who supported it. Should the United States be in Syria, fighting ISIS? Did the civilian population of al-Raqqa support their ISIS rulers? Did Assad do all in his power to oppose them before now? These questions and others like them will, I believe, be the most appropriate method for apportioning what blame should be cast for a war that has gone on far too long.
A Personal Note
I’ve been holding off on posting this until I could hear back from some people I know in the area. However, by this point it seems unlikely that they’ll be able to get back in touch any time soon; if they could get a message out, they would have done so by now. If you believe in the power of prayer, now would be an appropriate time, and this isn’t just because I happen to know them: There’s thousands of civilians trapped in Raqqa, prevented from fleeing by ISIS militants. And they’re all in grave danger.