News & Investigations

News & Investigations

Published

March 24, 2022

Written by

Airwars Syria team

A review of 61,000 unique sources reveals the intensity and scale of civilian harm resulting from alleged Russian actions

Since the beginning of Russia’s military intervention in Syria in 2015, Airwars has tracked, documented and preserved every local allegation of civilian harm resulting from Russian actions – over 4,000 individual incidents from 61,915 unique sources.

We have collected 11,181 names of civilians reported killed, and identified 1,383 family members killed in the same incidents. In total, our archive indicates that by March 2022, as many as 24,743 civilians had been locally-alleged killed by Russian actions in Syria, and another 43,124 injured. To date Russia has yet to publicly accept responsibility for the death of a single civilian during the campaign.

Russian and Syrian regime pilots often fly the same Russian airframes, use the same munitions and tactics, and also fly joint patrols. For this reason, local communities can find it extremely challenging to attribute civilian harm directly to one party or another.

In those events where only Russia is implicated Airwars believes the likely civilian fatality toll to be between 4,300 and 6,400. Between 10,000 and 17,100 further deaths are alleged from contested events – where Russia is only one of the belligerents blamed for an attack, primarily alongside the regime.

This briefing focuses on Russia’s engagement in Syria in order to help civil society, journalists, researchers and humanitarian practitioners understand patterns of civilian harm resulting from Russian actions, which can also help inform understanding of Moscow’s ongoing attacks in Ukraine. Airwars continues to document recorded civilian harm resulting from the actions of all other foreign belligerents in Syria – such as Turkish military engagement and US led coalition activities.

Our findings on Russia in Syria present aggregated results from our newly updated civilian harm archive. Each incident of civilian harm presents a unique data point but we encourage all those engaging with these findings to also review our open access archive, where each incident can be reviewed in its entirety: click here.

While we consider all events in our archive as active – meaning they will be updated as new information comes to light – the data presented here reflects can be considered up to date as of March 24th 2022.

More details on our methodology and casualty counting standards can be found here.

Scale of civilian harm

Russia first intervened directly in Syria in September 2015, five years into the country’s civil war, in support of the Syrian regime. In the first three years of the conflict, more than 45,000 airstrikes were declared by Russian forces. While the initial alliance between Russian and the Syrian regime declared they were targeting the Islamic State, the two actors have increasingly focused on clearing rebel-held areas – with the final rebel stronghold in Idlib appearing to be Russian’s primary target today.

Over the course of Russian involvement in the conflict, overall up to 24,743 civilians have been locally alleged killed by Russian actions; including those incidents with contested attribution to the Syrian regime. This includes up to 5,318 children, 2,953 women and 4,208 men where the gender and ages of victims are known.

Our data includes all allegations where one or more local sources pointed to Russian forces as being responsible for civilian casualties – including those events where additional sources blamed the Syrian regime (or in a small number of events, other actors such as the US-led Coalition or Turkey). In total these contested incidents account for 60% of the civilian fatalities linked to Moscow’s actions in Syria in our archive. Until Russia and the Syrian regime are transparent about their actions in Syria, it is highly likely that we will not be able to identify the specific perpetrator of each contested event. That said, the likelihood that civilians were harmed in such attacks is often high.

Each data point represents the number of alleged civilian fatalities in a single civilian harm incident.

Civilians have been reported killed by Russian forces in both large-scale civilian harm incidents and more consistently in smaller-scale harm events that are rarely covered by international media. Most civilian harm incidents involve allegations where between one and 10 civilians are reported killed, although several mass casualty incidents have also been attributed to Russian actions.

As widely documented by conflict monitors, civilian casualties are more likely to occur when actors target populated areas, especially when using explosive weapons with wide area effects. Airwars data shows that there are at least 299 civilian harm incidents in Syria where local sources have alleged that ‘vacuum’ missiles have been used by Russian forces: a particularly deadly explosive that can suck the oxygen from the air and cause a blast wave so massive it can destroy even reinforced infrastructure. These incidents account for up to 1,480 alleged civilian fatalities.

Location of incidents referencing use of vacuum missiles during the Battle of Aleppo – 2016.

In the campaign to capture Aleppo in 2016, Russian forces were alleged to have used these weapons 23 times on the densely populated city, according to Airwars monitoring of hyperlocal sources.

While vacuum missiles are not banned under international law, their deliberate use on civilian neighbourhoods is prohibited. Russian forces have also been accused of using prohibited ‘cluster’ bombs – munitions that have a large and inaccurate blast radius, and are likely to cause significant harm beyond the intended target.

In 567 civilian harm incidents recorded in the Airwars archive, local sources reported that cluster munitions have been used – accounting for up to 3,640 civilian deaths, and 7,040 civilian injuries.

Civilian targets – attacks on residential neighbourhoods and civilian infrastructure

Within the first three months of Russian attacks in Syria in late 2015, Airwars found that local reports of civilian harm were already indicating a clear trend of systematic attacks on civilian neighbourhoods and vital infrastructure.

Local communities and civil society organisations, such as the Syrian Network for Human Rights, have continued to report on and document this major trend. On February 27th 2022, less than a week after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, local activists described “massive destruction” on a marketplace in the town of Afes in Idlib province; up to two people were killed and another four injured in the action attributed both to Russian forces and the Syrian regime.

This is one of 204 unique incidents in the Airwars archive where Russian forces were locally blamed for civilian harm in an attack on a marketplace; in total these incidents account for up to 3,051 civilian fatalities.

While it is not unusual for belligerents monitored by Airwars to harm civilians in attacks which strike marketplaces, our data indicates that Russian forces are likely to do so at a far higher rate than most. Our monitoring of alleged civilian harm resulting from US-led Coalition actions in Syria, for example, finds that despite similarly intensive campaigns conducted predominantly by airstrikes, US-led Coalition actions led to claimed civilian harm events in marketplaces on forty occasions. Of those events, Airwars presently assesses that 23 incidents did likely result from Coalition bombings. The alliance itself has also publicly conceded civilian deaths and injuries in six of those marketplace attacks – a clear contrast with Moscow’s ongoing refusal to concede any harm from its seven-year campaign.

Russian forces in Syria, along with the Syrian regime, have also been accused of repeatedly attacking medical facilities, hospitals, and clinics throughout Syria with explosive munitions. Overall, our research identified 229 incidents where civilian harm reportedly occurred in medical facilities following alleged Russian and/or Syrian regime actions. In many incidents, local sources reported “total destruction” of facilities – without any possibility of reconstruction.

#حلبطيران النظام و روسيا يدمر مشفى بغداد في قرية عويجل بشكل كامل بعد قصفه بصاروخين ارتجاجيين وهو المشفى الثالث الذي يتم تدميره خلال يومين pic.twitter.com/H2523kXUz2

— شدا الحرية (@tv_shada) November 15, 2016

Other civilian spaces have also been hit during Russia’s campaign; in at least 180 civilian harm incidents recorded by Airwars, fatalities and injuries occured in schools. Educational facilities have frequently been the site of reported Russian incidents, including universities, where at least two attacks struck campuses, including the University of Ebla. On January 21st 2018, one civilian was reported to have been killed when Russian “heavy aerial bombardment” struck the university. On the same day there were 15 additional raids on the area which further damaged the University buildings.

Local reporting also reveals at least 53 cases where civilians were reported killed by Russian strikes on factories and water sanitation stations. In 2016 alone, eight attacks on factories and twelve attacks on water stations were reported; most of these were part of a major regime-led campaign to gain control of Aleppo city. In one incident on September 23rd 2016, up to 250,000 people in eastern Aleppo were reported to have temporarily lost access to water completely, when an air raid on the neighbourhood of Bab al Nayrab hit a water pumping station.

As Russian forces and their Syrian regime allies have closed in on the final rebel-held enclave in Idlib, critical civilian infrastructure continues to come under attack. From September 2021 until January of this year, civilian harm incidents have been reported resulting from attacks on poultry farms at least twice a month. Overall, despite the lower tempo of the conflict in 2021, it was also the year that saw the most attacks on farming facilities.

“Oh God, by the size of the beauty of your paradise, show me the beauty of the next in my life and fulfil for me what I wish, and comfort my heart.” – Jude Yasser Shara’s, aged 21, last Facebook post minutes before artillery shelling killed her in Idlib City on September 7th 2021. Jude was reported to have recently gradauated from an undergraduate degree in Psychology and was he head of Al Seraj al Munir Kindergarten (Image shared via Idlib Media Centre).

Targeting humanitarian response

In 12 cases identified in our datasets, civilians were harmed in incidents where Russia was accused of targeting humanitarian response efforts – often in conjunction with the Syrian regime.

In four incidents, local sources reported civilian harm after attacks on food convoys. In the first of these cases, on November 25th 2015, eight civilians were reported killed, including a child, when Russian planes hit a series of trucks close to the Turkish border. Russia accepted responsibility for the attack, but did not accept responsibility for the civilian casualties – and denied that the trucks were part of a humanitarian convoy.

Potential implications of Russia’s actions in Syria for Ukraine

Airwars has actively monitored, assessed and preserved all community-reported civilian harm claims from Russian actions in Syria since September 2015 – resulting in a major public database that presently runs to 650,000 words.

Our detailed findings are clear. Civilian harm from Russia’s actions in Syria has been both extensive and continuous. Civilian neighbourhoods are routinely targeted by both air and artillery strikes, often with no suggestion of the presence of armed rebels. Marketplaces, hospitals, schools, critical infrastructure, and first responders, are also routinely struck. Indeed the frequency of such attacks compared to those of other actors in Syria, leads Airwars to conclude that Russia deliberately and routinely targets both civilians and civilian infrastructure, as part of a broader strategy to drive civilians from rebel-held areas.

Many of the profoundly concerning and potentially unlawful Russian actions in Syria – which Airwars and others have extensively documented – are now reportedly being witnessed at scale across Ukraine, with multiple towns and cities under direct attack. Indeed, with the addition of tens of thousands of Russian ground forces and weapon systems never deployed in Syria – such as guided missile strikes and MRLS salvoes – the potential exists for far greater civilian harm in Ukraine than that extensively documented for Syria.

Moscow’s extensive ongoing attacks on urban centres – where millions of Ukrainians remain trapped – is particularly concerning. According to United Nations monitors, the great majority of civilian deaths and injuries result from the use of wide area effect explosive weapons on urban areas. Upcoming UN-brokered talks in Geneva to restrict the urban use of such weapons offer a clear opportunity for other nations to distance themselves from Russia’s outrageous actions.

▲ Locals trying to rescue injured civilians from the rubble not long after aerial and missile bombardments in Douma and nearby locations around Damascus, reportedly killing between 42 and 70 civilians on Sepember 13th 2015. (Image via SNN)

Published

September 30, 2021

Written by

Airwars Syria team

Airwars has tracked up to 23,000 civilian deaths from Russian military actions since 2015 - with Moscow yet to concede a single casualty.

To mark the sixth anniversary of Russia’s military intervention in Syria, Airwars is highlighting just five of the countless civilian harm events that characterise Russian involvement in the conflict.

Overall since 2015, we have identified 4,615 incidents where Russia is alleged to have caused civilian deaths or injuries. This September alone, we estimate that ten civilians have been killed by alleged Russian strikes – including five children. This brings the total estimate since 2015 to a minimum of 14,216 civilians killed only in incidents Airwars has deemed fair, confirmed or contested.

This figure is a conservative estimate. As many as 23,936 civilians overall are locally alleged to have been killed by Russian actions – among the worst tolls of any belligerent or conflict monitored by Airwars. However, many of these reported deaths are contested between Russia and the Syrian regime it supports, making clear attribution frequently challenging. Airwars is continuing to carry out deep research into events that took place between late 2019 and 2020, with the updated civilian harm data expected to be released early next year.

Our Syrian team members have selected five major incidents from our archives that show how Russia has waged war in Syria – and the ongoing cost of its operations on civilian life.

We focus on civilian harm caused by high-intensity vacuum missiles; the staggering numbers of children credibly reported harmed; the challenges of naming all victims during such a high intensity conflict; and finally, the use of targeted attacks on healthcare workers and first responders.

Focusing on the civilian harm caused by Russia alone does not reflect the full picture of large-scale death and destruction over the past ten years of conflict in Syria. Airwars continues to monitor all foreign interventions in the Syrian conflict; for example, our monitoring of US led coalition activities can be found here, while our monitoring of Turkish military engagement can be found here.

Syrian monitoring groups – such as the Syrian Network for Human Rights; the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights; and the Violations Documentation Center – also continue to track the devastating civilian harm caused by the ongoing civil war, most of it resulting from the actions of the Assad regime.

Case 1 – Vacuum missiles

Vacuum or ‘thermobaric’ missiles are a particularly deadly weapon, allegedly used by both Russian and Syrian Regime forces throughout the conflict. Russian forces were first accused of using vacuum missiles in Syria on the first day of airstrikes, on September 30th 2015, in an attack that reportedly killed 18 civilians in Talbiseh. A doctor working at the hospital receiving casualties described the impact of the missile as causing “cases of suffocation as a result of dust and smoke”, killing civilians with “enormous pressure or shrapnel that pierced their bodies and tore some of them into pieces”.

Absolute confirmation of the use of a particular weapon in Syria remains a major challenge. Of the 4,615 civilian harm events categorised by Airwars as likely being Russian (including contested events such as Russian and/or regime attacks), we identified 244 incidents where local sources mentioned that ‘vacuum missiles’ had been used in the attack. These strikes were found to have caused at least 875 deaths.

While we may not know for sure if vacuum missiles were used in each of these events, we have chosen to highlight one case that offers some insight into the level of destruction caused by high explosive weapons, and the complexity of such events.

April 17th-18th 2017: Ma’arat Hurma

This incident took place in April 2017, where nine children and their grandmother were likely killed in repeated airstrikes on Ma’arat Hurma, Idlib. The site was reportedly hit multiple times, with buildings almost completely raised to the ground and victims buried under many layers of rubble. In the final high-intensity strike, an ambulance being used to tend to the initial victims, was left burning.

Media outlet RFS observed that “the raids were highly explosive and caused extensive destruction to civilian homes. Six houses and more than 25 shops were destroyed and other material damage occurred in the places where rockets fell”.

Our assessment identifies the victims likely killed in the attack – all members of the Al Nabo family, with the youngest child just two years old. Images posted to social media show the buildings razed to the ground, while a video posted by first responders, the White Helmets, show the bodies of small children being carried through the rubble.

Read the full assessment on our website here.

The moment missiles hit Ma’arat Hurma. 

Case 2 – Children killed and injured

At least 4,831 children have been reported killed by alleged Russian airstrikes in Syria since 2015. In 2016, one of the deadliest years for civilian casualties in Syria, an average of 169 children were killed each month by alleged Russian actions.

While ceasefire agreements in 2020 saw a downturn in Russian strikes, this temporary relief for Syrians has likely now come to an end, as we’ve seen the resumption of weekly, and sometimes daily, Russian airstrikes in different parts of Syria. In September 2021 alone, children account for half of all deaths caused by alleged Russian strikes and almost half of all injuries. This includes one child reported injured earlier this week, in alleged Russian or Syrian regime strikes on the town of Majdlaya.

Taking the most conservative estimates – the minimum number of reported civilians killed – children could account for 34% of all casualties in Syria resulting from alleged Russian strikes. The indiscriminate nature of Russian airstrikes has resulted in the deaths of entire families of children, including babies just a few months old.

August 19th & 20th 2021: Balshoun and Kansafra

Two civilian casualty events took place over 48 hours in August 2021, where alleged Russian airstrikes in Idlib hit two families. At least eight children were killed and another injured.

On August 19th, four children were killed and another injured by alleged Russian or regime strikes on Balshoun. Three of the children were killed alongside their mother and their young cousin – all members of the Ajaj family.

One of the children killed was 8-year old Hamza Khaled Habib, cousin of the Ajaj family. In an event that reflects the scale of civilian harm in Syria, Hamza was being raised by his uncle, as his own father had already been killed in a previous airstrike. The Syrian Civil Defense (also known as the White Helmets) posted a video capturing Mr Mohamed Ajaj mourning for his wife, children and young nephew, all killed in this attack.

Read our full assessment of the incident here.

Only a day later at Kansafra, another Idlib town, another family was almost entirely killed, including at least four children – aged three, six, nine and twelve years old, members of the Al Omar family. A reporter with AFP saw the father crying over the bodies of three of his children in a cemetery. The reporter observed that the fourth child had to be buried in a hurry, because bombing had begun again in the area.

Only one of the Al Omar children survived the attack, the youngest, who the mother managed to rescue just moments before the strike.

Read our full assessment of the incident here.

The bottle belonging to one of the children killed in alleged Russian strikes on Kansafra town, Idlib – August 2021 (Image posted on Twitter by @thawrat111)

Case 3 – The unnamed

Of all civilians alleged harmed by Russian airstrikes – estimated by Airwars at as many as 23,936 killed and 41,452 injured – we have found full or partial names for just 8,472 individuals.

This means that 87% of all civilians reported harmed in Russian strikes cannot be identified using current available datasets. While on-going deeper research being conducted by Airwars might be able to address at least some of these events, it is highly likely that we may not know the identity of many thousands of victims until Syria’s conflict ends, and a substantial truth and reconciliation process can begin.

This is due to a number of reasons, not least that the use of high-intensity weapons by Russian and other forces in Syria cause significant destruction, and often make immediate identification of casualties impossible. Syria also houses the highest number of internally displaced people in the world, estimated by UNHCR at 6.2 million, including 2.3 million children. Local sources in many cases may not recognise victims, especially those recently arrived with little documentation.

March 22nd 2019: Kafriya and Al Fou’a

On March 22nd 2019 in Kafriya and Al Fou’a in Idlib, an incident that was referred to by several sources as a “massacre”, killed up to 28 civilians and injured as many as 30 others. A doctor named Abu Mohammed was quoted by Smart News as identifying more than 15 raids on the towns of Kufriya and al-Fuha and he noted that many civilians had moderate injuries, “mostly children and women”. The use of cluster bombs and high explosive missiles was pointed out in various sources and could be one of the reasons for the difficulty identifying victims.

Despite Airwars’ researchers finding 28 unique sources reporting on the incident, we were only able to identify one individual who was killed – Ali Wahid Qalla, a 50 year old man displaced from Eastern Ghouta. The identity of dozens of others, including children, remains unknown.

Read our assessment in full on our website.

ارتفاع حصيلة شهداء المجزرة التي ارتكبتها الطائرات الروسية في بلدة #كفريا شمال إدلب إلى 20 مدنياً بينهم 4 أطفال وأكثر من 30 جريحاً من بينهم حالات حرجة و 13 طفل.هؤلاء اصبحوا مجرد ارقام عند الاعلام المنافق pic.twitter.com/hRFOay4PvZ

— عبد الغفور الدياب (@abuhuzaifa_) March 23, 2019

‘The death toll from the massacre committed by Russian planes in the town of #كفريا North Idlib killed 20 civilians, including 4 children, and more than 30 wounded, including critical cases, and 13 children. These have become just numbers for the hypocritical media’

Case 4 – Attacks on healthcare workers and rescuers

In March 2020, WHO’s Regional Emergency Director in the Eastern Mediterranean, Richard Brennan, called out the international community for ignoring attacks on healthcare facilities in Syria: “What is troubling, is that we’ve come to a point where attacks on health — something the international community shouldn’t tolerate – are now taken for granted; something we have become accustomed to”.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) provide on-going monitoring of attacks on healthcare centres, noting that such operations are against International Humanitarian Law and constitute war crimes. According to PHR, 244 attacks on medical facilities have been carried out by either the Syria Regime or Russian forces. One such attack was investigated by the New York Times, which showed how Russian airstrikes hit four hospitals in just 12 hours in May 2019.

As PHR notes: “When these attacks on health care become as prolonged and widespread as they have in Syria, the consequences reach far beyond the individuals and facilities lost – the attacks reverberate across the civilian community, inciting fear that seeking medical treatment or going to a hospital will result in death, injury, kidnapping, torture, or imprisonment, both for the patient and the medical provider.”

One type of event Airwars researchers often report on during monitoring of Russian strikes in Syria, are so-called double-tap strikes – where first responders are hit in a second airstrike after an initial attack has caused casualties.

These first responders are most often the White Helmets, officially known as the Syrian Civil Defense, who report that 252 of their volunteers have been killed since the start of the conflict and over 500 volunteers injured. White Helmets continue to risk their lives and are often the only response teams available in remote or poorly resourced areas.

June 26th 2019, Khan Sheikoun

An event that took place in June 2019 is one such example, where an alleged Russian strike killed two White Helmets volunteers in Khan Sheikoun, Idlib, who were tending to the victims of an earlier strike. The two volunteers, Ali Al Qadour and Omar Kayyal, had been in an ambulance treating victims of an initial strike in the east of Khan Sheikhoun; another five of their colleagues were also wounded.

The Syrian Civil Defense published a statement that said “a thorough examination of the evidence, such as eyewitness accounts and the identification of munitions used in the attack on white helmets, has proved conclusively that the aircraft that committed the crime of targeting and killing our volunteers belong to the Russian Air Force, which used surveillance aircraft”.

The assessment is available in full on our website.

The burial of a White Helmets volunteer, following a reported Russian airstrike in June 2019 (Image via Idlib Media Centre)

 

▲ A street in Ariha city raised to the ground by alleged Russian aistrikes in February 2020, including the almost complete destruction of Shami Hospital. Image via Halab Today.

Published

September 30, 2020

Written by

Airwars Syria team and Shihab Halep

At least 17 nations have intervened militarily in Syria in recent years. In their own words, Syrians describe the often devastating consequences for civilians.

In 1996, the US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was asked by reporter Lesley Stahl about sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq: “We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?” Stahl asked. The Secretary of State responded: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it.”

Airwars data collected from local sources indicates that since 2014, at least 15,000 civilians were likely killed as a result of airstrikes and shelling from at least 17 foreign powers fighting within Syria, including members of the US-led Coalition; Russia; Iran; Turkey; and Israel. Thousands more have been injured. Here the Airwars Syria team asks: has the price paid by civilians been worth it?

For some Syrians, the intervention of so many foreign powers in Syria has its origins in the Assad government’s mishandling of mass demonstrations in the early days of a national uprising. Jala, a Syrian woman now living in London, told Airwars “Had the crisis been managed correctly by the Syrian regime back in 2011, and had the regime focused on a political solution and refrained from using power against its own people and from deploying the army in Dara’a, the intervening powers wouldn’t have found a pretext, and we wouldn’t be talking about the intervention now.”

Reasons for the intervention of so many foreign powers in Syria vary widely. For Russia, assistance to the Assad government has helped deliver long dreamt of access to a Mediterranean port. For Iran, its costly efforts to ensure the survival of the Syrian regime while seeking to promote a regional anti-Israel axis have been paramount. For the United States and its Coalition allies, a desire to defeat the terrorist group Islamic State has more recently been supplemented by a desire to counter Iranian and Russian plans for Syria. President Erdogan of Turkey has used the chaos of Syria’s wars to impose a buffer zone in northern Syria and disrupt Kurdish efforts to carve out a new state. And Israel, although not involved in the ground conflict, has nevertheless conducted hundreds of airstrikes against both Iranian and Hezbollah forces within Syria in recent years.

With so many foreign powers and their proxy actors fighting within Syria, this chart by analyst Charles Lister from 2016 indicates the sheer complexity of the situation.

This *simple* chart shows all states of hostility currently being played out on #Syria’s territory#IntractableWar pic.twitter.com/1inprNB6U0

— Charles Lister (@Charles_Lister) February 13, 2016

The US-led Coalition and civilian harm

Without the intervention of so many foreign powers in Syria, the recent history of the nation would have looked very different. Starved of Russian and Iranian support, the Assad government would most likely have been overrun by rebel forces. ISIS would also likely have surged, using the vast arsenal of weapons it had captured in Iraq during 2014 to occupy more and more Syrian territory.

So did the international intervention save the Syrian peoples? Or instead has it elongated and exacerbated the conflict, and consequently the suffering of civilians?

Following an earlier military intervention in Syria by Iran in support of the Assad government, six years ago this week the US-led Coalition launched its first airstrikes in Syria on September 23rd 2014, targeting both the so-called Islamic State that now controlled vast swathes of Syria; and also al-Qaeda’s local Syrian faction. Dozens of strikes by US, Saudi, Emirati and Jordanian aircraft that day – as well as Tomahawk missiles fired from US warships – led to the Coalition’s first reported massacre of civilians in Syria in Kafar Dryan. The Coalition still denies civilian casualties in that attack.

According to Airwars data gathered from local sources on the ground since 2014, the long running Coalition campaign against ISIS in Syria has so far likely killed at least 5,658 civilians, a high proportion of whom were women and children. Almost four thousand more civilians have reportedly been injured. The alliance itself presently concedes 671 non combatants killed by its actions.

Hasan Al-Kassab is an activist from Raqqa, who worked in the research unit of the Euphrates Project which funds many reconstruction and body retrieval projects in Raqqa. Hasan told Airwars that he lost two of his uncles during the Coalition’s Raqqa campaign in 2017. One uncle, Abdul Latif Hasan Al-kassab, was taking water from the Euphrates river when a Coalition airstrike targeted the area on June 25th 2017. His uncle was immediately killed along with two other civilians. His other uncle died when another Coalition airstrike targeted a building in Raqqa days before the city was liberated. “There is no mechanism to contact the Coalition who I believe is responsible for the death of my two uncles to investigate their death,” says Hasan today.

Additionally, Hasan told Airwars that the Initial Response Team in Raqqa has so far found 28 mass graves in Raqqa, containing more than 6,000 bodies, with two thirds of them believed to be civilians.

Destruction in Raqqa city in 2017, following the Coalition’s successful campaign to oust ISIS (Picture via Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently)

Zain Al-Abidin Al-A’kedi, an activist from Deir Ezzor living in northern Syria, told Airwars that he believes that the Coalition’s intervention against ISIS in Syria was necessary, but had come too late. “The wasted time led to an increase in the number of deaths and casualties by ISIS and the US-led Coalition airstrikes, in addition to huge damage in the cities and towns,” Zain said.

Firas Hanosh, an activist from Raqqa and a former doctor with Medecins Sans Frontières in one of Raqqa’s field hospitals, also believes that the US-led Coalition intervention in Syria was necessary, because local forces were unable to defeat ISIS. However, he argues that the Coalition’s choice of the mainly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces as its ground proxy was a mistake. “The US-led Coalition didn’t choose the right partner on the ground (SDF) , which is racist against the Arab civilians.” Firas told Airwars that it is unsafe for him to return to his ravaged home city. He says he is also worried about being arrested by the SDF, because of his work as an activist monitoring the situation in Raqqa.

Wary of intervening on the ground in Syria or getting involved in the civil war, the US still needed to combat ISIS. It therefore turned to the Kurds – initially helping the newly formed SDF to drive out ISIS from its own areas. “Without the Coalition’s intervention forces, we would have lost Kobane, Qamishli and other Kurdish areas.” Dlshad, a Syrian cyber security engineer now living in Washington DC ,said. However, as the SDF then advanced against ISIS in primarily Arabic-population territory, tensions rose.

Other Syrians believe the US and its allies had hidden motives. Jala, a Syrian woman now living in London, believes that the US intervention in Syria, though declared to be against ISIS, was in fact aimed at controlling the oil fields of North East Syria. President Trump has done little to dispel this view, and US troops today occupy many of Syria’s oil fields.

Assad’s allies: Russia and Iran in Syria

Even as the US-led Coalition was ramping up its attacks against ISIS in Syria, the regime was losing badly on the ground to rebel forces. Reports estimated that despite Iranian and Hezbollah support, Bashar al-Assad held only 25% of Syria by late 2015. Assad asked for support from his Russian allies – leading to Moscow’s largest foreign intervention since its disastrous Afghanistan campaign of 1979-1989. The outcome in Syria would prove to be very different.

The first Russian airstrikes in Syria took place on September 30th 2015, targeting the towns of Za`faranah, Talbisah and Ar-Rastan in Homs; and Al Makrmeya and Jisr al Shughour in Idlib. From the first day, the effects on civilians were devastating. At least 43 civilians reportedly died in Russia’s initial airstrikes – with more than 150 more injured.

A BBC map from 2015 indicates how little territory the Assad government still held before Russia’s armed intervention.

Accused of indifference to civilian harm from its actions in Syria – and even the deliberate targeting of communities – Moscow has yet to admit to a single civilian death in five years of war. Airwars monitoring has so far recorded 4,487 locally reported problem airstrikes by Russia in partnership with the Assad government from 2015 to 2020 – which between them reportedly led to the deaths of as many as 22,000 non combatants, and the injuring of up to 40,000 more.

“The Russian intervention in Syria is not new,” argues Dlshad, a cyber security engineer now living in Washington DC: “I come from Rmeilan city which is rich with oil, and the Russians have been in the city for a long time.” That said, Dlshad believes the Russian intervention both extended the life of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime – and in some cases curbed his actions. He argues for example that Assad would have been more brutal against his own people without Russian control.

“The Russian military involvement changed the military equation,” argues Abdulkarim Ekzayez, a Research Associate at the Department of War Studies at King’s College, University of London and himself a Syrian: “Large-scale aerial attacks on vital infrastructure such as hospitals, schools and bakeries have weakened the resilience of the targeted communities in opposition held areas. Consequently the regime was able to take control over most of the opposition pockets in central and southern Syria, pushing all opposition factions into the north west with clearly defined contact lines between the two warring parties.”

Mohammed Al Fares, the nom de plume of a humanitarian worker living in Idlib, believes that the Russians have followed a systematic plan to target civilians in Syria – something the US-led Coalition tried to avoid, he says. However, Jala believes that none of the actors in the Syrian conflict cared deeply about civilians, including Syrian fighters on the ground because they focused only on achieving military gains and not on civilians.

The other key ally of the Assad government, Iran, has taken a different approach. Years of sanctions have left it with a poorly equipped air force. Instead Tehran’s efforts in Syria focused on its domestic rocket and drone programmes, in turn channelling them to both Hezbollah and to the Syrian regime.

In addition, Iranian ground forces have played a key role in the fighting. The Quds Brigade is known to be involved at a senior level in the Syrian conflict and even in changing the structure of the Syrian army. The Syrian 4th Brigade is close to Iran for example, while the 5th Brigade has closer links to Russian forces.

Qassem Soleimani, the former head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, pictured near Aleppo’s historic castle after the city’s capture from rebels (Image via Zaman al Wasl)

Unilateral interventions in Syria

With a weak government in Damascus, multiple foreign powers have for years conducted unilateral actions in Syria in support of their own national interests. The United States has long targeted al Qaeda-linked fighters in western Syria for example; while the British conducted a controversial targeted killing of a UK citizen in 2015. Two nations in particular have fought lengthy unilateral campaigns.

Turkey has launched several massive operations in North East Syria, alongside its earlier targeting of ISIS in Idlib. In January 2018, Ankara launched Operation Olive Branch in Afrin, and later Operation Peace Spring in October 2019.

Overall, hundreds of Syrian civilians have been locally reported killed by Turkish actions – both against Kurdish forces, and ISIS-occupied areas such as al Bab.

Syrians interviewed for this article were strongly opposed to Turkey’s interventions. “There was no threat against Turkey. Why did Turkey intervene? Turkey is racist against the Kurds and that’s it,” claimed Dlshad.

H.J, a female architect from Damascus who asked not to be fully named for safety reasons, argued: “Syrians thought that Erdogan was helping the Syrian cause, but he eventually used it as a bargaining chip with Europe; causing destruction and division between Arabs and Kurds, and turning Syrian youth into mercenaries”.

Israel’s own unilateral aerial campaign in Syria has proved devastating against both Iranian and Hezbollah forces. In early 2019, a senior Israeli commander declared that the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) had dropped more than 2,000 bombs on Syria during the previous year, while Prime Minister Binyamin Netenyahu said that “the IDF has attacked hundreds of times Iranian and Hezbollah targets.”

Despite the significant scale of Israel’s intervention, international attention has been limited. This may in part be due to the low levels of reported civilian harm from Israeli strikes in Syria compared with other foreign powers. Since 2019, Airwars monitoring indicates that between 13 and 22 civilians were killed and over 40 injured in nine Israeli airstrikes of concern. With its focus in Syria almost exclusively on military targets, Israel appears to have limited the widescale civilian harm seen in the actions of others.

According to Mohammed Al Fares, a Syrian spoken to for this article, “It is good that Israel is destroying the regime’s military installations. However, they are doing it because they don’t want Iran to get an upper hand in Syria, not for the sake of the Syrian people.”

The reverberating effects of foreign intervention

Years of conflict in Syria, combined with external intervention by at least 17 foreign powers, have changed the face of the country for ever. According to the UNHCR, there are 6.2 million people, including 2.5 million children, currently internally displaced within Syria, the largest such population in the world. Beyond Syria’s borders, the total number of registered Syrian refugees has so far reached 5.5 million.

The direct links between external interventions and the displacement of civilians can be challenging to unpack.

In North East Syria for example actions by rebels; by ISIS; and later by Turkish forces, saw more than 215,000 people driven from their homes. While many have returned, an estimated 100,000 remain displaced.

Similarly, Syrian Arab Army operations supported from the air by Russia have proved highly disruptive. During the last major campaign between December 2019 and March 2020 in North West Syria, the UN reported a new displacement of more than 960,000 people, including more than 575,000 children.

Humanitarian worker Mohammed Al Fares, himself an IDP, told Airwars about his own experience. “When you are forced outside your residence, you die slowly. You lose everything, your home, your land, your job and your money. You try to start over and build a new life, but it is difficult.”

A Syrian woman pictured in an IDP camp in north east Syria (Picture courtesy of Refugees International)

The destruction of Syria’s infrastructure over the past nine years has also been extreme – much of it the result of foreign actions. Among the most brutal examples have been Aleppo and Raqqa – the first significantly at the hands of Russian forces; the latter mostly as a result of  the US-led Coalition’s targeting of ISIS. According to ReliefWeb: “About a third of homes in Syria were thought to have been damaged or destroyed by 2017. In 2018, the UN estimated the cost of material destruction in Syria at $120 billion.”

Hasan Al-Kassab told Airwars that eleven bridges in Raqqa were destroyed including Raqqa’s New Bridge during the Coalition’s 2017 campaign, and that civilians are only slowly starting to return because of a lack of basic services. For example, 60% of Raqqa is still without electricity.

East Aleppo, which witnessed brutal bombing by the Assad government supported by its Russian ally, experienced a similar fate. Battles which began in  2012 reached their climax in November 2016, when SAA troops began a decisive campaign that ended a month later with the retaking of the city. This caused very significant damage to Aleppo.

H.J, the architect from Damascus, believes that the destruction in Syria has been systemic and not just ‘collateral damage’ as militaries claim. “The destruction caused by all different actors is called many things, of which: Urbicide/ Identicide. That is, to commit a massacre against the urban environment; to target relationships that connect people and places, erasing their identities. Nowadays, one third of Syria is destroyed, and about 80% of Syria’s Night lights are gone.”

Significant opposition remains from many countries to the reconstruction process in Syria while Bashar al-Assad remains in power. However, the US is implementing small scale rebuilding activities in areas under SDF control, focusing on basic services like water, electricity and rubble removal that don’t reach the level of reconstruction. At the same time, with Russia and Iran unable significantly to support the regime financially as it seeks to rebuild Syria, limited scale investments risk lining the pockets of warlords, profiteers and cronies.

A price worth paying?

Mohammed Al Fares believes that overall, external intervention by so many foreign powers has had a negative impact on the course of the Syrian revolution, and on the general situation in the country. “Syrians had been in a state of solidarity with each other when the revolution started and [they eventually] controlled about 70% of Syria. External intervention including money channelling, divided the Syrians and brought into the decision making people who were not fit to lead. This in turn made the revolution very political until it lost its momentum. However, the revolution continues with its youth, women, elders and children despite all the obstacles it faces”

However others see more subtlety. According to Hasan Al-Kassab from Raqqa: “We can’t put all the interventions in the same basket. The Coalition intervened to eliminate ISIS, Russia intervened to oppress the people and legitimise the regime against the civilians, while Turkey intervened to fight the PKK and secure its borders. However every intervention is still an occupation, because there is no mechanism to give oversight to the people. They built military bases and disturbed the fabric of the Syrian people.”

From her side, H.J, the female architect from Damascus, argues that after the regime started killing civilians in 2012, the Syrian people tolerated even ‘allying with the devil’ to oust Bashar Al-Assad. ‘’I didn’t personally support this opinion, but we needed any offerings, we naively thought that the world would help us without anything in return. We were wrong, and all interventions were bad. The country was divided, and military bases were established.”

With peace still nowhere in sight in Syria – and fighting likely to resume as the Covid pandemic recedes – there is little sign of foreign powers withdrawing any time soon. While their interventions have radically changed conflict dynamics, they have done little to support the Syrian peoples in their aspirations for freedom and justice. Yet if the same kind of resource spent by foreign powers on bombs and missiles could one day be diverted to Syria’s infrastructure development, to education, and to the fostering of civil society, another future remains possible.

▲ Syria's Bashar al-Assad in the cockpit of a Russian Su-35 fighter at Hmeimim air base, Latakia in December 2017 (Image via Syrian regime Facebook page)