In recent months, the US has been using drones and surveillance aircraft in Syria to target militants including Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL).
But it’s also been quietly using these strikes against civilian populations in an effort to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe.
According to the New York Times, the Obama administration has “used US drones and a surveillance aircraft to strike civilian targets in Syria since December 2015”.
In recent weeks, the White House has been in direct conflict with the Syrian government, which is demanding the US stop using the drones and other US military technology in Syria.
The Times reported that the US is also concerned that Russia, which has an arsenal of precision-guided munitions that the Obama Administration has refused to use in Syria, will use those same weapons against civilians in the country.
The US is in direct violation of international law by using US military assets in a way that violates international humanitarian law.
What’s the US doing?
The US military has long relied on unmanned aircraft to kill militants, including al-Qaida and Islamic State.
But the use of drones and drones against civilians has only increased under the Trump administration.
In December, the Pentagon released a report called “A Decade of Drone Warfare in Afghanistan” which warned that the Trump Administration’s use of military technology against civilians could lead to a “humanitarian catastrophe” in Syria and Iraq.
The report also warned that a humanitarian disaster could result if the US does not stop using US drones.
What do US officials say about the use?
In a statement, the Trump White House said it is “deeply concerned” by the reports that Russia has used US drones to target civilians in Syria as well as that the White Houses use of US military resources in a manner that violates humanitarian law has been “continuing”.
The White House statement said that the administration is “looking closely at” the report and “will take appropriate action”.
US officials have also argued that the United States has used drones against militants that are part of the so-called Islamic State in Syria that the government in Washington considers to be terrorists.
In response, Russia has called on the US to “stop the use and use of unmanned aircraft in the fight against terrorism” and has called for a “zero-tolerance policy” against use of lethal force by the US.
Russia has also threatened to launch retaliatory strikes on US territory in response to the report.
What are the consequences of using US technology in a conflict?
The use of civilian populations is not illegal under international law, but there are international rules against it.
The United Nations Convention on the Laws of War defines a civilian as “any person who has not been ordered to engage in hostilities”.
In the case of the US, it is a civilian, which means anyone who does not have a military objective and has not engaged in hostilities.
The law also states that “a military objective may include, but is not limited to, civilians, prisoners of war, political prisoners, and members of the armed forces”.
If US drones strike civilian populations, it could lead the UN to classify the attacks as unlawful, which could lead states to join the UN Convention on Torture, which provides for the prosecution of war criminals.
US officials argue that their use of drone technology in order to target the IS group and the al-Nusra Front is in line with international law.
US authorities have also said that it is lawful to use drones in other countries as part of their counter-terrorism efforts.
The White Houses statement on the report said the US and Russia are “working together to implement a new round of ceasefire negotiations in Astana”.
But it said it was important that the parties “agreed on the framework of the ceasefire and other steps to address the conflict and bring an end to the conflict”.
What are Russia’s claims?
Russia’s Foreign Ministry has said that Russia “condemns” the US drone attacks on civilians in Iraq and Syria.
In a report published in November, the Russian Foreign Ministry said that “the US uses the latest drone technology against civilian targets, and in fact the US was not able to distinguish the civilian population from terrorists”.
The Russian statement continued: “The US has always been willing to use this method against any group of people that it considers a threat to its interests.
However, the use by the Americans of this technology is contrary to the rules of international relations, the rules that apply to every country.”
What do the experts say?
Professor David Satterfield, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that using US drone technology is not a “red line” for the Russian side.
He said the report was a “laudable effort to do something that will get the Russian government to change its tune” and to show that it has changed its position on using drones in Syria “with some kind of clarity”.
He said that Russian officials “may be making a big show of being a victim of the Obama regime, but they are in fact doing their bit to prevent the worst possible outcome for the Syrian people