The White House revealed on Tuesday that its usually strict rules of engagement, intended to prevent civilian casualties of US airstrikes, have been relaxed in the current offensive against the Islamic State and other radical Islamist groups.
National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden told Yahoo News in an email that a much-publicized statement last year by President Barack Obama that US drone strikes would only be carried out if there is a “near certainty” of no civilian injuries would not apply to the US campaign against jihadi forces in Syria and Iraq.
Hayden wrote that the “near certainty” rule was intended “only when we take direct action ‘outside areas of active hostilities,’ as we noted at the time.
“That description — outside areas of active hostilities — simply does not fit what we are seeing on the ground in Iraq and Syria right now,” she continued, but added that the strikes, “like all US military operations, are being conducted consistently with the laws of armed conflict, proportionality and distinction.”
The statement came after reports that a dozen civilians, including women and children, were killed on September 23 after an errant Tomahawk cruise missile hit a house in the village of Kafr Daryan, in Syria’s Idlib province, believed to be a stronghold of al-Qaeda-linked militants.
In a briefing to the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week, Syrian rebel commanders described scenes of devastation as the bodies of women and children were pulled from the beneath the rubble of the destroyed building, which was apparently being used as a shelter for displaced civilians.
A video allegedly showing the damage from the attack was also posted on the Internet.
When asked about the incident on Tuesday, a US Central Command spokesman said that the military “did target a Khorasan group compound near this location. However, we have seen no evidence at this time to corroborate claims of civilian casualties,” Yahoo reported.
However, Hayden said that the US would “take all credible allegations seriously” and investigate such reports.
In a May 2013 speech Obama acknowledged that American drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen had killed civilians, but defended continuing the campaign while also stipulating that “there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured — the highest standard we can set.”
Obama’s tighter policy on strikes, which are said to now require case-by-case presidential sign-offs, came amid rising anger over civilian deaths in the ongoing US campaign to assassinate alleged terrorist leaders in Pakistan and Yemen.
In December 2013, a wedding procession in Yemen was attacked in what was believed to be a US drone strike. Dozens of people were killed.
A former official, familiar with the rules of engagement, explained that the relaxed policy hinted at by Hayden would also give US Central Command greater freedom to order targeted strikes against the Islamic State without White House oversight.
Led by the US, a coalition of Western nations recently began an airstrike campaign against jihadi targets in Iraq and Syria, and especially the Islamic State group, which has carved out a self-declared Islamic caliphate in the territories of those countries.