The adjective of choice for describing ongoing Russian airstrikes in northern Syria these days is “fierce,” and it is apt.
The tangle of warring parties on the ground is hard to tease apart, with rebel forces of various loyalties, some Christian, others Islamic or Islamist, battling the Syrian regime but also, often, one another. Iran supports the government; Saudi Arabia, the rebels. The rebels revile the Kurds, and the sentiment is returned in kind.
Turkey has entered the conflict on the side of the rebels, and the combat has become something of a proxy war between Russia and Syria; or, in some readings, Iran and Saudi Arabia; or, in others, Sunni and Shia Muslims — all of which parties have shown themselves to be most belligerent belligerents.
The greatest current show of force, though, has been those fierce Russian bombings, which have allowed Kurdish-led forces to advance into shrinking rebel territory, infuriating Turkey, which hates and fears the Kurds.
Worth pondering, however, is the world’s reaction to the numerous civilian casualties caused by Russia’s recent intervention. Namely, for the most part, silence. The bombing has been indiscriminate (or worse). Four hospitals were recently bombed in a single day. A school that housed displaced people was also hit that day, according to residents. Those 24 hours saw scores of fatalities.
The Syrian government hasn’t shown any restraint either. Its actions have killed over 690 health care workers in more than 300 attacks on medical sites.
For its part, Turkey has been shelling the Kurds, all of whom are considered combatants by the Turks.
Meanwhile, over in Libya, our own government carried out airstrikes this past Friday in the city of Sabratha, where Islamic State terrorists operate, killing an estimated 40 people. A U.S. military spokesman said the attacks targeted a senior Tunisian terrorist linked to attacks in Tunisia last year. According to Sabratha’s mayor, the U.S. warplanes struck before dawn in a district in which foreign workers were living.
What has Libya to do with Syria? Nothing, really. But the widespread civilian casualties in both countries from air attacks do raise an interesting thought.
Remember the Gaza war of 2014, Operation Protective Edge? Israel-haters certainly do, since they take every opportunity to characterize the Israeli response to Hamas’ shelling of Israel from the Gaza Strip as a shocking and contemptible violation of human rights.
Human Rights Watch famously concluded that Israel had probably committed war crimes by striking “protected” sites that intelligence had revealed were harboring munitions and combatants. Amnesty International asserted that “Israeli forces have carried out attacks that have killed hundreds of civilians,” by using munitions against targets in residential areas…
Those areas, of course, are the ones that were favored by Hamas for placement of its munitions and rocket launchers. The critics of Israel, we recall, did not generally note the fact that she was responding to the launching of rockets at her populace by an enemy pledged to her destruction. Or that Israel took unprecedented measures, unheard of in theaters of war, to warn civilians of military action that could affect them. (The highest-ranking U.S. military officer, Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, said that “Israel went to extraordinary lengths to limit collateral damage and civilian casualties.”)
None of that, though, gave pause to groups like Physicians for Human Rights, which condemned Israeli “[attacks that] were characterized by heavy and unpredictable bombardments of civilian neighborhoods…” Or to the United Nations Human Rights Council, which condemned “in the strongest terms the widespread, systematic and gross violations of international human rights and fundamental freedoms arising from the Israeli military operations” in Gaza.
Which raises an obvious “Mah Nishtanah” question: Why are unintended civilian casualties in military operations by others elsewhere in the world different from those in Gaza? It’s an especially troubling question, since no Syrian rebels are lobbing rockets into Russia, and none of Russia’s civilians are at any risk as a result of hostilities in Syria. And even when a group does in fact pose a more than local threat, as in the case of the U.S. attack on ISIS in Libya, are unavoidable civilian casualties characterized by intelligent, civilized people as “war crimes”?
That Israel is treated differently from every other country is an old and tested truism. Still and all, it is galling to once again be reminded of how only one nation alone is judged guilty for unintended and tragic outcomes of — at least in Israel’s case — self defense.