White Phosphorous Isn’t Winning Hearts & Minds in Syria

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04 July 2017 |Laura Muth | War is Boring

White Phosphorous Isn’t Helping America Win in Syria

“In mid-June 2017, rights groups reported that the U.S.-led coalition had used white phosphorus in Mosul and Raqqa as part of its campaign against Islamic State. The use of such a controversial weapon speaks to a wider and more disturbing problem.

Warfare is becoming increasingly urban in nature and, like a medieval siege, exposing more and more civilians to harm. Modern sieges underscore “the difficulty, if not impossibility, of reclaiming urban terrain from entrenched rebels or insurgents without paying a high humanitarian price,” Foreign Affairs noted.

White phosphorus is an incendiary weapon. Some countries, including the United States at one point in time, also consider it a chemical weapon. International law limits W.P. use in warfare to target-marking for aerial bombardment and creating smokescreens. But even these uses pose risks, as white phosphorus is difficult to control. It can blow on the wind, drifting far from its original target. It burns through flesh and bone on contact.

The United States has, in the past, lied about its use of white phosphorous. The Pentagon initially claimed that, during the 2004 battle for Fallujah, it deployed white phosphorous strictly in accordance with international standards. Later, the military admitted it had actually used W.P. against insurgents as an incendiary weapon.

The danger W.P. poses to civilians compounds in a densely-packed urban setting. As of late June 2017, the United States and its coalition maintained that their use of phosphorous munitions in Mosul and Raqqa were in line with international law. Time will tell if those claims bear out.

But white phosphorous’ resurgence points to a wider problem. Increasingly, campaigns targeting against Islamic militants takes place in cities, where even the most precise weapon can endanger innocent lives — to say nothing of imprecise weapons.

 

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