Syria: a new phase in the debate on the use of drones

At the beginning of December, a Syrian family became involved in an attack led by American forces in the Idlib region. Ahmad Qassum's family was hit by a missile launched from an American drone. Ahmad, his wife and their four sons were injured, and the youngest son is now hospitalized in intensive care due to a head injury. The US attack's objective was one of the senior leaders of the Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham Salafist group. The jihadist organization was born recently - on January 28, 2017 - and is part of the al-Qaeda network operating in the region between northern Syria and Iraq. Its name literally means "Organization for the Liberation of the Levant". In May of the same year, the US State Department added the group to the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list.

The episode reopened a never completely resolved debate within the American public opinion (and not only) on the use of drones as means of counter terrorism. Since 2008, the Obama administration has increasingly used drones as a means to conduct the Global War on Terror, which began in 2001 with the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan in response to the September 11 attacks. The prevalent belief was, and still is, that direct intervention may have an excessively high cost both in economic terms and in human lives, not to mention the political impact on domestic and foreign public opinion. The remote warfare conducted through the use of weapons such as drones has opened an ethical and moral debate however. It has involved all political and military leaders of the various administrations that have succeeded in power and that have adopted this strategy.

On February 4, 2002, the CIA used the first Predator drone to target a man who was believed to be Osama Bin Laden near the Afghan town of Khost. Later, it was discovered that it was a man who was collecting metal debris. The spread of the news directly affected both the Langley organization and the Bush Jr. administration, hence the current debate on the use of drones.

In May 2013, former President Barack Obama spoke to the National Defense University on the use of drones as a form of counter terrorism. Several arguments were used in favor of this strategy. First of all, according to intelligence reports, this type of action would have prevented al-Qaeda and its affiliates from actively operating in the years following the September 11 attacks, thus saving the lives of thousands of innocent people - both civilians than military. Later, Obama talked about the legality of these actions. After the US was attacked, Congress had responded by authorizing the use of force: it was therefore a question of self-defense. From that tragic moment the United States went to war against these actors. However, the legal field within which the Bush Jr. and Obama administrations moved is extremely dangerous and ambiguous.

Following this speech, a report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism was released showing how the number of operations using drones - Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) - has increased sixfold in the past 4 years compared to the entire Bush Jr administration: from 52 to 316. This figure indicates that President Obama wanted the least possible involvement of US military personnel on the ground, after more than 8 years of relentless struggle in regions on the other side of the world.

From 2014, according to official American sources, the US-led coalition reported 1,417 civilian deaths in the region occupied by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The impact that this strategy has also had on the perception of Americans towards the peoples of the Middle East is another factor to be taken into consideration if we want to analyze the trend of operations involving the US and its partners in the region. As revealed by several counter terrorism studies, the use of military force is rarely effective against terrorism. It follows that it is difficult to justify the use of drones under the principle of necessity.

Then, it can be said that We can therefore say that the drone strategy is a double-edged sword for those who use it: if on the one hand it reduces the use of military personnel and the cost of long and complex operations on the territory, on the other it opens up an ethical, moral and legal debate on the legitimacy of such actions. The emotional impact on the affected populations, in some cases, has favored and increased the feeling of resentment towards the United States. By now the US is inevitably witnessing the increasingly crumbling of its image as a bearer of freedom and democracy.

Translated by Simona Taravella

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  • L'Autore

    Emanuele Volpini

    Mi chiamo Emanuele e sono uno degli autori della rubrica #FramingTheWorld. Nei miei focus per Mondo Internazionale mi occupo prevalentemente di analizzare e portare contenuti riguardanti il Medio Oriente, con particolare interesse per le dinamiche regionali di Israele e soprattutto e dell'Iran. Laureato in Storia, sto svolgendo una laurea magistrale in International Affairs in modo da poter migliorare i miei contenuti ed essere un'importante risorsa per il team di Mondo Internazionale.

    My name is Emanuele and I am one of the authors of the #FramingTheWorld column. In my focus for Mondo Internazionale I mainly analyse and bring content about the Middle East, with a particular interest in the regional dynamics of Israel and especially Iran. With a degree in History, I am currently pursuing a Master's degree in International Affairs so that I can improve my content and be an important resource for the Mondo Internazionale team.


From the World Middle East & North Africa Sections International Security Framing the World


Syria Drones terrorism counter terrorism Middle East

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