Amid all the New Year’s revelry, it was easy to miss the sobering reports about how many civilians were slaughtered last year in Iraq and Syria.
This dire situation, however, ought to have our attention. The Obama administration should make sure that U.S. airstrikes are not part of the problem, and should also increase humanitarian aid.
On New Year’s Day, a human rights monitoring group said that in 2014, nearly 18,000 civilians – including 3,500 children – had been killed in Syria. About 58,000 soldiers, jihadists and other fighters were also killed, making 2014 the deadliest year since the Syrian civil war began in 2011.
The next day, the United Nations reported that 2014 was the bloodiest year for civilians in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion – nearly 12,300 deaths and 35,000 total casualties, about double the number in 2013.
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And this past Tuesday, the U.N. children’s agency reported that at least 160 children were killed and 343 injured in attacks last year on schools in Syria. If these assaults are designed to scare students away, they’re working. UNICEF says that 1.3 million to 1.6 million children are out of school.
You can blame the surging bloodshed on the rise of the Islamic State, a brutal and ambitious militant group that has taken control of vast swaths of both countries.
What can we do, realistically, in 2015?
One priority is to make every effort not to add to the civilian death toll. To its credit, but still late, the Pentagon said last week it will investigate credible claims that airstrikes aimed at the Islamic State have hit civilians by mistake. Of 18 alleged incidents between Aug. 8 and Dec. 30, 13 were found not credible, but five others are under further review, defense officials said.
To try to stop the Islamic State’s advance, President Barack Obama has sent 3,000 U.S. troops back into Iraq and ordered airstrikes in Syria. Those are half measures that won’t completely protect the civilian populations, but they are as far as either Congress or the public appear willing to go.
So the administration and the new Republican-controlled Congress ought to consider what more aid the United States can give to ease the civilian suffering. Already, the U.S. has been the biggest giver of humanitarian aid in Syria, more than $3 billion since 2011. It also gave more than $186 million in relief in Iraq in 2013-14.
For this year, the U.N. is seeking $7.2 billion just for Syria, part of a record global appeal of $16.4 billion. In fact, the world is in the middle of a refugee emergency unseen since World War II, with an estimated 51 million people displaced by violence.
The crisis is centered in Iraq and Syria. The U.N. estimates that 7.6 million Syrians have been displaced internally and another 3.2 million have become refugees in neighboring countries. More than 2 million Iraqis have been forced to flee from their homes.
While those conflicts are half a world away, we can’t turn a blind eye to the carnage that is happening. Wars, by nature, are horrible, but there’s a significant difference – one that should matter to us – between the deaths of fighters and of civilians caught in the crossfire.