AUG. 14, 2015
U.S.-Led Air Campaign Is Linked to Civilian Deaths in Syria
By BEN HUBBARD and KARAM SHOUMALI
ANTAKYA, Turkey -- An airstrike by the American-led military coalition in northern Syria this week killed eight civilians, including two women and five children, according to neighbors and relatives of the dead.
The episode revived accusations by monitoring groups that the United States and its allies are not careful enough about who is killed by the air campaign against militant groups.
The target of the strike, mounted late Tuesday in Atmeh, a village near the Turkish border, was a munitions factory run by an Islamist rebel group. The strike left a yawning crater  strewed with mortar shells.  The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, said 10 foreign fighters had been killed.
But the explosions also caused the roofs of nearby homes to collapse, witnesses said.
"My brother lost his five daughters, and I lost my wife," Maan Amouri said in a telephone interview from Atmeh soon after the blast, referring to his fiancee, Fatima Yassin, who was among the dead.
Monitoring groups say the United States and its allies regularly underreport the civilian toll of the air campaign.
The deaths in Atmeh may dent the credibility of the United States among Syria's rebel groups, when the Obama administration is trying to assemble and train an insurgent force that can grapple effectively with the extremists of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh.
The episode highlighted the complex social dynamics in rebel-controlled areas of Syria, where armed groups often operate in civilian communities and sometimes provide services that are sorely lacking after more than four years of war.
The American-led coalition began bombing in Syria in September 2014 after the Islamic State seized large stretches of territory. Since then, the coalition has mounted 2,300 strikes in Syria, most of them against the Islamic State, but in some cases against the Nusra Front, the Syrian affiliate of Al Qaeda, or against prominent jihadist leaders. 
American officials say they strive to avoid civilian casualties and investigate all reports of wrongful deaths.
In an email on Thursday, the United States Central Command said it had received reports of 31 such episodes since the air campaign began and had dismissed 17 of them as not credible. Six episodes are currently being investigated, the command said.
The command has released its findings concerning two of the 31 reports. One was found not credible. The other was investigated for more than six months and led to a conclusion that two children had probably been killed wrongfully by a coalition airstrike.
Monitoring groups say that the command's figures are a gross understatement and that coalition strikes aimed at militants have taken a much higher toll.
"They do not hit civilians because they are civilians," said Ossama Suleiman, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the conflict from Britain through contacts in Syria. "They have info that makes them think they are hitting ISIS, but sometimes they kill civilians."
By his organization's reckoning, 181 civilians have died because of coalition strikes, including eight in Atmeh. Other groups have reported higher estimates.
The deadliest case reported by the observatory happened in the village of Bir Mahle on May 1, where an airstrike was said to have killed more than 60 people, including dozens of women and children.
A coalition representative said in an email that the coalition did not cause civilian casualties in this case "based on the best available evidence."
Other strikes have killed civilians living or working near facilities used by the Islamic State or the Nusra Front, Mr. Suleiman said, including militant hide-outs, grain silos, oil facilities and fuel depots. At least one strike that killed a militant also killed his wife and children.
Analysts caution that documenting death tolls poses challenges, especially in a place like Syria, where the war's brutality and the spread of extremist groups make it difficult or impossible for journalists and independent monitors to visit the sites of attacks or contact witnesses.
Moreover, local residents sometimes exaggerate the number of victims or conceal the presence of foreign fighters in the area.
"Some of the reports of fatalities caused by the U.S. have proven to be inaccurate, so I would treat the reports with a good deal of skepticism," said Lama Fakih, senior crisis adviser at Amnesty International.
Ms. Fakih said that coalition strikes tend to hit their targets accurately, but that some have nonetheless killed civilians who were near the military targets. She called on the coalition to make more information available about how it selects targets and weighs their military importance against the risk to civilians. When civilians are harmed, she said, the coalition should make sure that they or their families receive compensation.
The strike in Atmeh on Tuesday illustrated the close ties between rebels and civilians.
The strike destroyed a weapons workshop that belonged to a group called the Sunna Army, part of an Islamist coalition that includes the Nusra Front and is fighting the forces of Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad. Civilian homes were close to the workshop, on land owned by Mustafa Amouri, who was known earlier in the uprising for offering hospitality to aid workers and journalists who entered Syria clandestinely from Turkey. Reporters for The New York Times met his family a number of times.
As Syria's conflict escalated from a popular uprising to a civil war, jihadists came to greatly outnumber journalists among the people reaching Atmeh from Turkey, and the Amouri family built ties with Islamist groups who were smuggling fighters and supplies through the village.
Musab Kadour, who lives nearby, said Mr. Amouri rented land to the Sunna Army to build the workshop. One of Mr. Amouri's sons, Muawiya, lived near the factory, and five of his daughters were killed when the blast collapsed the roof of his house, Mr. Kadour said. He added that they ranged in age from 4 to 10. He provided photos of the dead children taken before they were buried.
A family that had fled fighting farther south in Syria was also killed: Qutaifa Yassin; her son, Yousif; and her daughter Fatima, who was engaged to Maan Amouri.
The United States Central Command confirmed in an email message that the coalition had conducted an airstrike in the area of Atmeh, but did not specify the target. It said it was looking into reports of civilian casualties there.
Maher Samaan contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon.
By The New York Times