This roundup, curated by ReThink Media, looks at how the media is talking about drone warfare (and related topics) and what stories are being told.
With little transparency from governments on this topic, this roundup aims to be as comprehensive as possible, identifying breaking news, trends, developing stories, or interesting narratives. Rethink Media also use media coverage to compile a snapshot of strikes each week. The short version can be read here.
US launches more strikes in Syria
The US-led military coalition in Syria launched strikes on January 4th targeting sites officials said were being used to prepare attacks against US troops. A Pentagon spokesperson said the strikes successfully destroyed seven short-range rocket sites that they were targeting.
It’s unclear how the US-led coalition destroyed the sites but the Pentagon said it did not use airstrikes to do so.
About 900 US troops remain stationed in Syria despite the official end of the US-led coalition’s combat mission against ISIS.
The strikes came days after the US military shot down armed drones approaching US troops in two separate incidents in Iraq. Those attacks correlated with the two-year anniversary of the US drone assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. [CNN/ Barbara Starr and Oren Liebermann] [AP][Reuters]
On January 5th, US troops in Iraq and Syria also came under attacks from rocket fire. No casualties were reported. US officials blamed Wednesday’s attack in Syria on Iranian-aligned militias. [Radio Free Europe] [Stars and Stripes/ Corey Dickstein] [Al Monitor/ Shelly Kittleson] [Washington Post/ Alex Horton]
A Dam in Syria Was on a ‘No-Strike List.’ The US Bombed it Anyway
In March 2017, US forces bombed a major dam in Syria despite warnings that doing so could cause catastrophic damage to the area and kill tens of thousands of people, the New York Times revealed.
A major catastrophe was only averted because of the frenzied, heroic efforts of dam workers, unprecedented cooperation between the warring parties, and sheer luck: a massive, 2,000-pound US bomb penetrated five-floors of the dam but failed to explode.
Later, three of those workers who had rushed to help save the dam were killed in a US drone strike while trying to return to their homes. Their deaths have never been acknowledged by the US government.
US military leadership was well-aware of the risks of destroying the dam and had placed it on the “no-strike list.” But a top-secret special forces group, Task Force 9, was able to circumvent military procedures and order the strike without the approval of Pentagon leadership.
Previous reporting from the New York Times showed that Task Force 9 routinely floated rules designed to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure, resulting in dozens of strikes that killed Syrian civilians.
Initially, the military denied US involvement in the strikes at all, attributing the allegations to “crazy reporting.” But in response to renewed questions from the Times, a spokesperson acknowledged that the US did in fact strike the dam, but claimed that the strikes did not pose a risk of causing significant structural damage.
The strikes did, in fact, cause massive structural damage to the dam’s main control center, forcing workers to scramble to manually raise the gates with a crane to prevent rising water from crashing over the dam and flooding thousands of people below.
Nobody within the US military has been disciplined or held accountable for the strike. [New York Times/ Dave Philipps, Azmat Khan and Eric Schmitt]
Pentagon announces new civilian protection measures
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Thursday announced a series of new measures aimed at improving the military’s ability to investigate and prevent civilian deaths caused by US operations.
The announcement comes after the Aug. 29 Kabul drone strike and a series of major New York Times investigations put a spotlight on the military’s systemic failures to protect civilians.
Austin laid out a timeline for the creation of a standardized reporting process for civilian harm incidents, a comprehensive department-wide civilian protection policy, and a new “civilian protection center of excellence.”
The announcement provided few details on the new policies and did not state whether the military will begin to investigate civilian harm on the ground – a step NGOs consider crucial.
“The fact that civilian harm is being recognized as a priority at the highest levels of the department is a positive and welcome step,” the Center for Civilians in Conflict’s Annie Shiel told the New York Times. “But the impact will depend entirely on results.”
The announcement also came on the same day that the RAND corporation published a report that found “considerable weaknesses” in the Pentagon’s approach to evaluating reports of civilian deaths and implementing lessons learned. [New York Times/ Eric Schmitt, Charlie Savage and Azmat Khan] [AP]
Tweet: “This is the result of YEARS of NGO + progressive Hill staff organizing to hold DoD to account for continuously evading oversight over civilian harm in our #endlesswars. As Annie [Shiel] says, it will be key to watch the results, as well as how much power/who’s put in charge to lead.” [Twitter/ Kate Kizer]
Democrats called on Biden to overhaul lethal force policy to protect civilians
In a letter on January 20th, 50 Democrats in Congress called on President Biden to overhaul the administration’s counterterrorism approach to center civilian protection and human rights.
The lawmakers raised serious concerns about “repeated civilian casualties arising from secretive and unaccountable lethal operations” and a “systemic failure” to protect civilians that has persisted for decades.
They also warned that the failure to hold officials accountable or institute policy change sends a message that civilian deaths are an “inevitable consequence of modern conflict, rather than avoidable and damaging failures of policy.” [New York Times/ Catie Edmondson] [Twitter/ Chris Murphy]
Newly Declassified Video Shows US Killing of 10 Civilians in Drone Strike
The New York Times obtained newly declassified video of the infamous Aug. 29 US drone strike that killed an aid worker and nine of his family members, seven of whom were children.
The video shows several blurry figures moving inside a courtyard shortly before the strike occurred. Relatives said that several children had run out to greet the aid worker, Zemari Ahmadi, when he returned home. In November, the Pentagon acknowledged that it was possible to identify one of the figures as a child through the video in hindsight.
“This video footage is painful confirmation of the devastation the United States caused when it killed 10 deeply beloved people,” Steven Kwon, the head of the aid agency Ahmadi worked for, said in a joint press release with the ACLU.
The ACLU’s Hina Shamsi said her organization is working to ensure the safe evacuation of Ahmadi’s surviving relatives and coworkers, who have been put in danger because of the stigma caused by US claims that it had targeted ISIS members and false rumors that they have already been compensated by the US. [New York Times/ Charlie Savage, Eric Schmitt, Azmat Khan, Evan Hill and Christoph Koettl] [ACLU]
How investigative reporter Azmat Khan broke the “Civilian Casualty Files”
Investigative reporter Azmat Khan, who published a major report on civilian casualties caused by US air wars in December, appeared on the New York Times’ “The Daily” podcast. Khan’s reporting, referred to as the “Civilian Casualty Files,” shed light on the “unrelenting toll” that the US air campaign took on civilians in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
On the Daily, Khan told the backstory of how she obtained more than 5,000 pages of the military’s classified civilian casualty assessments through FOIA litigation. She also discussed her experiences visiting strike sites and interviewing survivors – something the US military failed to do in its own assessments.
Khan said she felt “really angry” that the US government wasn’t doing the difficult, on-the-ground work necessary to understand the consequences of America’s air wars. “I hated asking her those questions,” she said, remembering a particularly difficult interview with a Syrian woman who lost eight family members in a 2017 US strike. “But if I didn’t, who would?” [The Daily/ New York Times/ Michael Barbaro] [New York Times/ Azmat Khan] [New York Times Magazine/ Azmat Khan]
“No Money Could Bring Back the Dead:”How America’s Last Drone Strike in Afghanistan Symbolizes its Total Failure Within the 20-Year War
The American Prospect spoke to the family of aid worker Zmarai Ahmadi, who was killed along with nine other family members in the infamous Aug. 29 US drone strike in Kabul.
“I heard a loud bang and ran to the gate where I saw my bleeding son. He was not breathing,” Romal Ahmadi said. “My condition was very bad. I could not go to the funeral.”
“The Americans told us several times that they would pay compensation, but until now we are yet to receive even a personal apology,” Emal Ahmadi said. “No money could bring back the dead, but maybe there is a chance to restart a new life somewhere else in peace.”[American Prospect/ Emran Feroz]
Low-Cost Warfare: US Military Battles with ‘Costco Drones’
While the US and other major powers are pouring billions of dollars each year into advanced weapons systems like hypersonics, small, low-cost drones have become one of most persistent and effective threats to US soldiers stationed in places like Iraq and Syria.
The trend is embodied in an incident in 2019, when US forces in Iraq launched a multi-million dollar missile at a balloon that was wrongly identified as an incoming drone. “We would like to find a cheaper way to solve that problem than by having to fire a missile at it,” Commander Frank McKenzie told the Financial Times.
Many of the US military’s highly-funded advanced detection and air defense systems are rendered ineffective against the drones because of their small size and ability to fly low to the ground. [Financial Times/ Katrina Manson]