February 11, 2020

Written by

Alex Hopkins

Assisted by

Dmytro Chupryna, Laurie Treffers, Maysa Ismael, Mohammed al Jumaily and Oliver Imhof

During 2019 - for the first time in five years - monitors tracked a sharp move away from US-led Coalition civilian deaths.

Airwars research shows that at least 2,214 civilians were locally alleged killed by international military actions across Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Somalia during 2019 – a 42% decrease in minimum claimed deaths on the previous year. This sharp fall was largely because deaths from reported US-led Coalition actions plummeted following the territorial defeat of ISIS in Syria in March.

However, elsewhere civilians remained in significant danger. Russian strikes in support of the Assad regime claimed at least 1,000 lives in the fierce Idlib and Hama offensives. Meanwhile, Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria in October saw over 300 non-combatants alleged killed.

The year also saw alarming developments in Libya. From April, the Libyan National Army’s Tripoli offensive had a devastating impact on civilians. As more foreign powers joined the conflict, alleged deaths rose by an astonishing 720% on 2018. Almost half of all civilian deaths in Libya’s civil war since 2012 occurred last year.

Download our full annual report for 2019

The US-led Coalition in Syria: a brutal final assault

On March 23rd, after 55 months of war, ISIS was finally ousted from Syria, when the Syrian Democratic Forces seized the town of al-Baghuz al Fawqani in Ezzor governorate. This followed the terror group’s earlier defeat in Iraq in December 2017.

Yet this final assault came at a terrible cost for civilians trapped on the ground. Of the minimum of 2,214 civilians locally alleged killed during 2019, at least 470 deaths (21%) reportedly occurred as a result of US-led Coalition strikes in the first quarter of 2019, in Deir Ezzor governorate.

The aftermath of alleged Coalition shelling of Al Baghouz camp, March 18th – 19th 2019, which allegedly killed at least 160 civilians (via Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently)

After March 23rd, with ISIS downgraded to an insurgency, there was a significant winding down in Coalition strikes. As a result, locally alleged civilian deaths from alliance actions rapidly declined.

For the first time in five years, the Coalition was no longer the primary driver of civilian harm in Airwars monitoring. Indeed, our tracking shows that many more civilians were claimed killed by almost every other monitored belligerent than by the US-led alliance between April and December 2019.

With this shift away from Coalition civilian deaths, Airwars’ focus with the alliance and with partner militaries began moving towards post-conflict restitution and reconciliation engagements.

Syria’s civilians remain at great risk

Civilians may finally have gained respite from Coalition strikes, but 2019 saw them face increased danger on other fronts. Russia’s ongoing campaign in Syria continued to devastate civilian populations and infrastructure.

In total, our researchers tracked at least 1,000 civilian deaths in 710 casualty incidents reportedly carried out by Russia. Some 81% of these events were in Idlib governorate, where Russia lent its formidable airpower to the regime’s offensive to oust the rebels.

The aftermath of an alleged Russian airstrike on a popular market in Saraqib on July 30th (via Edlib Media Center).

Additionally, in October, Syria’s civilians faced a new threat from Turkey. The offensive came against a backdrop of repeated Turkish threats to unilaterally invade northern Syria. The chaotic withdrawal of US forces on October 7th gave Turkey a green light to launch its ‘Operation Peace Spring’.

Airwars research shows that there were between 246 and 314 locally alleged civilian deaths in 207 casualty incidents involving both sides during the final three months of 2019. Most disturbingly, there were numerous claims of war crimes by both sides, including summary executions of civilians and enemy fighters.

Libya: a 720% rise in civilian deaths

Meanwhile, civilian harm spiralled in Libya. Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) launched its offensive on Tripoli in April. However, what was intended to be a brief conflict soon turned into a protracted siege, with foreign powers playing an increased role, particularly in a proxy drone war between the United Arab Emirates and Turkey.

The impact on civilians was dire. Between April 4th and December 31st 2019, local sources reported between 279 and 399 civilian deaths. A measure of the intensity of 2019’s bombing is shown by the fact that more than 48% of all locally reported civilian fatalities in Libya’s civil war since 2012 occurred during the nine months between April and December 2019.

Image caption translation: “Warlord Haftar’s warplane bombs oil facility and tannery in Tajoura, east Tripoli”, June 19th 2019 (via Libya Observer)

Somalia: Record number of declared US actions

In April, Airwars expanded its conflict portfolio when it took over the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s long running monitoring of US counter terrorism drone strikes and civilian harm claims in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan. We are currently reviewing this significant dataset using Airwars’ own internationally-respected methodology.

Our assessment of US air and ground operations in Somalia since 2007 is now complete – with our annual report revealing that a maximum of 44 civilian deaths were alleged during 2019, in thirteen locally claimed civilian harm events. Overall the US declared 63 airstrikes against both al Shabaab and ISIS for the year – the highest ever tally.

Advocating on behalf of affected non-combatants

Our emphasis at Airwars has always been working on behalf of affected civilians. Throughout 2019, our advocacy teams continued to engage with the US-led Coalition and its allies. More than half of all Coalition-conceded conceded civilian harm events during the year were Airwars referrals for example – with at least 220 additional deaths conceded.

Substantial talks on transparency and accountability for civilian harm were also held with senior Pentagon officials; with the British and Dutch ministries of defence; and with NATO’s Allied Rapid Reaction Corps.

In November, the Netherlands finally admitted responsibility for a June 2015 strike in Hawijah, Iraq, which killed at least 70 civilians, according to locals. Airwars is now partnering with a number of Dutch NGOs and academics, with a focus on securing long term improvements in transparency and accountability for civilian harm by the Netherlands military.

“Since Airwars began in 2014, our exceptional team has tracked more than 50,000 locally reported civilian deaths across several conflict nations,” notes Airwars director Chris Woods. “As our 2019 report demonstrates, civilian harm remains a constant in war. Yet too often, belligerents deny or downplay civilian harm – even when local communities themselves are making clear the true costs of conflict.”

Download our full annual report for 2019

Scene of a devastating Coalition strike at Hawijah, Iraq which killed up to 70 civilians (via Iraqi Spring)

▲ The aftermath of an alleged Russian or Syrian regime airstrike on Saraqib, Idlib, June 22nd 2019 (via White Helmets)


August 7, 2019

Written by

Alex Hopkins and Oliver Imhof

The fifth anniversary of the international war against so-called Islamic State has seen the total defeat of the terrorist group as a territorial entity in both Iraq and Syria. Now degraded to insurgency, the US and its allies try to contain the jihadist organisation. However, after five years of fighting the cost to civilians on the ground has been high.

In total, since the US-led Coalition conducted its first airstrike on August 8th 2014, there have been 34,402 air and artillery strikes in Iraq and Syria, by Airwars’ count. In a conflict that has now lasted longer than the First World War, 117,677 munitions have been dropped on ISIS from air – almost seven times more than in Afghanistan during the same period.

The present best estimate by Airwars is that between 8,106 and 12,980 civilians have likely been killed in Coalition actions in four years of fighting – with the alliance itself presently conceding only 1,321 non-combatants deaths from its air and artillery strikes.

On March 23rd, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) forces declared victory over the caliphate established by the so-called Islamic State. While around 40,000 fighters from 80 countries had travelled to Iraq and Syria to join the caliphate, the US estimates that between 70,000 and 100,000 ISIS fighters have been killed – many in airstrikes – since Coalition actions began in August 2014.

Despite declarations of victory, strikes against ISIS remnants have continued into 2019 – though at a very low rate – amid fears of the group rising again. Territory formerly seized by ISIS is now controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces – who are in constant struggle with Turkey. This is due to Turkey’s contention that the SDF is controlled by the YPG/PKK, which Ankara deems a terror organisation. In addition, the SDF is backed by the US – normally a NATO ally to Turkey. The YPG has also called upon the Assad regime, currently bombarding Idlib, for help in the past.

US-President Donald Trump has said that he wants US troops out of Syria as quickly as possible, asking France, the UK and Germany to share more responsibility in Syria. However, uncertainty about what would happen to the US’ Kurdish allies, crucial in defeating and containing ISIS, has kept the US in Syria so far.

Ferocious final assault

The final US-led assault on Baghouz, which led to the fall of the so-called Islamic State as a territorial entity, took a heavy toll on civilian life. Some 98% of the minimum 416 civilians assessed by Airwars as likely killed by the Coalition in the first six months of 2019 perished between January 1st and the final announcement of the liberation of Baghouz from ISIS on March 23rd.

Civilians in the so-called MERV (Middle Euphrates Valley) were particularly at risk due to the high intensity of the bombing campaign. An Airwars analysis indicates a sometimes higher tempo of Coalition actions in Syria in the first two months of 2019 than were recorded at Mosul during March 2017, the most intense and lethal period of the battle for Iraq’s second city.

Civilians still at risk

Following the liberation of Baghouz from ISIS, strikes in Syria all but ceased, and the Coalition has reported only one strike in Syria since May 4th. However, Airwars has continued to track civilian harm from counter-terrorism operations in the country. The Coalition carries out these sorties to support the SDF in their attempts to clear remaining hideouts of ISIS fighters, who often hide in the desert at the Syrian-Iraqi border.

The last civilian harm incident Airwars researchers tracked in Iraq was on March 24th, however, Coalition strikes have continued there, with 231 strikes publicly reported within the first six months of 2019 – a 76% rise on the number conducted in the first half of 2018. Alarmingly, the Coalition slashed transparency for its actions in December 2018, meaning that it’s now impossible to assess where or on which specific dates these strikes occurred – and for Airwars to cross-match any potential civilian harm events.

The Coalition has so far acknowledged killing 1,321 civilians in its strikes across Iraq and Syria, in what it has repeatedly called “the most precise war in history”. There is a huge disparity between the death toll given by the Coalition and Airwars. Our own estimate is that between 8,106 and 12,980 civilians have likely died in strikes by the alliance since August 8th 2014. In total, we our research team has tracked almost 2,900 civilian casualty events allegedly linked to Coalition forces, with as many as 29,400 civilians locally alleged killed in Iraq and Syria.

The house of Ali al-Muhammad al-Furaiji after it was struck by an airstrike between April 14th and 15th 2019 (via Euphrates Post)

Densely populated areas

The war has taken an increasingly deadly toll on ordinary Iraqis and Syrians on the ground as it’s progressed. Likely deaths jumped by 82% in 2016 on the following year when we saw the fighting shift to more densely populated areas. The impact on civilians trapped on the ground was dire. Of the 8,106 civilians estimated killed since 2014, almost 50% of these deaths occurred during 2017, a year marked by the increasingly ferocious battles for Mosul and Raqqa.

Overall, likely deaths fell by 80% in 2018 on the previous year, but by November 2018, with the push to eradicate ISIS from the slithers of territory it clung on to in eastern Syria, civilian harm began to spiral. This suggested that the US-led Coalition had applied few of the lessons learned during the brutal urban assaults on Mosul and Raqqa, when it came to the protection of civilians.

Stories of affected communities must be heard

As the war against ISIS moves into its sixth year, the true impact of the fighting is yet to be revealed, and there are thousands of stories needing to be heard. A major investigation by Airwars and Amnesty International has concluded that 1,600 civilians were killed by the Coalition during the Battle of Raqqa alone – ten times higher than the Coalition admits.

Five years of war against ISIS have had a devastating impact on Iraq and Syria. While rebuilding measures in some areas have been quick, only 6,000 out 24,000 properties destroyed in Nineveh, Iraq have been rebuilt, according to Sky News. As well as continuing to track all claims of civilian harm from alleged Coalition actions in Iraq and Syria – and in other conflicts – Airwars is now focusing on reconciliation and restitution for civilians affected by the military actions of the US and its allies.

While the so-called Islamic State has been defeated as a territorial power, the fight continues on different levels as calls for reconciliation and restitution become more pressing. Justice for civilians affected by the war can play a key role in rebuilding broken societies to establish peace in the crisis-torn region and stop ISIS from rising again.

What a difference rehabilitation can make! This school in west #Mosul has re-opened with support from UNDP & @DFID_UK, allowing almost 700 kids return to school?#IraqStabilization

— UNDP Iraq (@undpiniraq) August 6, 2019

▲ SDF forces backed by the International Coalition attack Al Baghouz on March 3rd 2019 (via Euphrates Post)


May 4, 2017

Written by

Alex Hopkins

At 2,45pm local Iraqi time on August 8th 2014, two US F/A-18 aircraft dropped 500-pound laser-guided bombs on a mobile artillery piece near Erbil being operated by so-called Islamic State fighters. That attack marked the beginning of a major war which would draw in twelve other partners; spread to Syria and beyond; and which would lead to the deaths of tens of thousands of soliders, militant fighters and civilians.

For 1,000 days the US-led Coalition has now bombed ISIL targets across Iraq and Syria. While the terror group has been pushed back in both countries, the civilian toll has been significant. Some of the deadliest incidents and highest numbers of casualties have been observed in recent months, as parallel operations have unfolded in the Iraqi city of Mosul, and in Raqqa governorate, where Kurdish forces backed by Coalition airstrikes continue to pummel the city and surrounding villages. 

To mark this significant milestone in the aerial campaign Airwars is publishing a series of articles written by its researchers, who between them have tracked reports of civilian deaths over 33 months. Though the Coalition has so far admitted to more than 350 civilian fatalities – and has taken steps to improve the quality of its own monitoring – this number is nearly ten times lower than Airwars’ own minimum estimate.

Majed Mohammad al Aswad, the latest of 1,400 likely Coalition victims so far named

These civilian casualties also have names. Of the more than 3,200 civilian deaths presently assessed as likely by Airwars, the names of more than 1,400 Iraqi and Syrian victims are so far known. Majid Mohammed Al Aswad (pictured), Hussein Al-Mohammed Al-Aklah and Hassan Al Abdullah Al Aswad are the latest additions – killed in a likely Coalition strike on Tal al Jayer in Syria on May 2nd.

A significant amount of information has been posted online by civilians affected by Coalition strikes, with the Airwars public database already at half a million words and growing. Yet it would take the US-led alliance nine months to admit their first civilian casualties – and international media too was slow to report on civilian deaths. Compared to coverage of Russia’s brutal aerial operations in Syria, relatively little space was devoted until recently to investigate what has been happening to the men, women and children harmed by Coalition bombs and missiles.

In Mosul, where in recent weeks reporters have proven capable interrogators of the campaign and its civilian toll, Iraqi and Coalition efforts to limit casualties have been haphazard at best, says Airwars’ Baghdad-based researcher, who has visited the front lines five times since October.

The head of the Airwars Syria team reflects on why coverage of Russian and Coalition actions has been so different – even as the civilian casualties inflicted by both parties has converged. And our Amesterdam-based researcher describes a stark contrast between the bloody daily reports tracked from the battlefield, and the sterile, casualty-free war described by most Coalition partners.

Experts also give their thoughts on 1,000 days of war. “Our goal is always for zero civilian casualties,” says Colonel Joseph Scrocca of the US-led alliance. “Coalition forces comply with the law of armed conflict and take extraordinary efforts to strike military targets in a manner that minimizes the risk of civilian casualties.”

Yet Fadel Abdul Ghany of the Syrian Network for Human Rights is one of a number of monitors criticising the 1,000 day campaign. “By not identifying who in the Coalition forces is committing the massacres in Syria, and not offering frank and clear apologies or starting to compensate the victims, it is implied that there are no consequences to such flagrant violations. This has given the military command a green light, promoting a culture where there is no real interest in taking careful decisions or carrying out serious investigations,” Abdul Ghany argues.

The air war against ISIL is simultaneously one of the most public of campaigns, and one whose victims are still easily lost. How are we to make sense of the ongoing war after 1,000 days? We start by explaining the big numbers – from bombs dropped to civilians killed.

The big numbers

Every day since August 8th 2014, Airwars has received a daily public strike report from the US-led Coalition. This is our primary source for information on where and when the US and its allies say they are are bombing, and forms a crucial component of our extensive datasets and graphics. What does this data tell us?

Through May 2nd 2017, the Coalition had carried out a total 21,064 strikes: 12,562 in Iraq and 8,502 in Syria (these figures also now include ground artillery.) The US continues to be the most active partner, carrying out 95% of all Coalition strikes in Syria and 68% of all actions in Iraq according to the latest official data. 

The first of more than 21,000 strikes so far declared by US-led Coalition, August 8 2014

Among the allies, the British remain the second most active partner, with 1,214 airstrikes declared in Iraq and 92 in Syria. France follows with 1,206 reported total strikes. The Netherlands (which paused its campaign on June 27th 2016) is responsible for an estimated 493 strikes, while Australia has carried out an estimated 489 actions. 

The term ‘strike’, however, can be misleading. One strike report may actually include multiple targets hit by numerous aircraft from different allied nations, over some hours. Munitions data released during the war can therefore be a more reliable indicator of the significant degree to which the war has intensified.

From August 2014, the start of kinetic operations, through the end of March 2017, 76,649 munitions had reportedly been dropped on Iraq and Syria – though the real number may be much higher. 

There was a seven per cent rise in bombs and missiles dropped between 2015 and 2016. However, the first three months of 2017 saw a sharp increase in munitions released, representing a 58% rise over January–March 2016. 

However US Army strikes, some unilateral actions and helicopter attacks are still not counted in these monthly tallies, and recent figures provided to Airwars showing 5,500 munitions dropped by the Coalition on Mosul only in March were far higher than the supposed tally for all of Iraq and Syria. 

Marked intensification: January – March 2017 were each record months for munitions dropped across Iraq and Syria

$13 million per day

According to the US Department of Defense, to March 31st 2017 the war against ISIL had cost the United States $12.5 billion since August 8th 2014 – an average daily expenditure of $13 million over 967 days of operations.

So what has the bombing achieved? Latest estimates released by the Pentagon claim that over 70,000 ISIL fighters have been killed since June 2014 – a number which does not appear consistent with earlier government assessments, such as one in September 2014 which claimed that ISIL had between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters combined in Iraq and Syria. The international Coalition itself has lost seven fighters in the war. In February 2015, ISIS released a video showing a Jordanian pilot being burned to death.

Additionally,  many thousands of allied Iraqi and Syrian forces have died. According to Middle East Monitor citing Al Jazeera, 8,000 Iraqi soldiers and Federal Police  have likely been killed in the fight against ISIL.

The rampup in the Coalition-assisted campaign from 2016 onwards has seen much ISIL territory rolled back. At its peak in 2014, the terrorist group controlled more 100,000 square kilometres of Iraq and Syria containing around 11 million people. According to an April 2017 assessment by RAND, it had since lost 57% of its territory – and there had been a 73% reduction in the number of people living under its control as of early 2017.

Graph via RAND Corporation

Syria: over six million civilians displaced

The real impact of the 1,000 day war has been on those civilians on the ground still trapped in ISIL-held territory in Iraq and Syria. Airwars estimates that at least 3,294 non-combatants have died in almost 600 events assessed as having likely carried out by Coalition warplanes in Iraq and Syria.

Furthermore, Russian actions in Syria in support of the Assad regime and against ISIL have killed thousands more civilians. Due to the volume of allegations, Airwars has been unable to fully assess Russian events beyond April 2016. However from September 30th 2015 to April 30th 2016 alone – the period for which strikes have been fully vetted – it is our provisional view that between 2,210 and 2,984 civilian non-combatants are likely to have died in Russian airstrikes.

Millions of other civilians are experiencing the worst refugee crisis since World War II. From the start of the Syrian conflict in March 2011, an estimated 6.3 million people have been internally displaced inside Syria and more than five million have fled the country and have been registered as refugees, according to figures from the United Nation’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

A further 13.5 million Syrian people are in need of humanitarian protection, including basic items such as food, medicine, clean water and shelter. This figure includes five million people in hard to reach and besieged areas.

The escalation of the campaign to oust ISIL from Raqqa which began on November 6th 2016 has exacerbated the humanitarian situation there. “We are concerned for the safety and protection of an estimated 400,000 people in Raqqa who live in hard-to-reach areas under ISIL control,” says Linda Tom, Public Information Officer for OCHA Syria. “This may change, as we are getting reports of population movements in several areas including in the south-east, Shahid Azid Camp and Jib Al-Shaair Camp, but we now estimate the number of recently displaced people to be over 100,000.”

The aftermath of heavy shelling in Central and Western Mosul neighbourhoods (via Amjed Gk, Facebook)

Iraq: millions still homeless

The humanitarian situation in Iraq also continues to worsen. According to figures from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), from January 2014 to April 2017 nearly five million Iraqis across the country had been displaced. Of these more than three million are still currently displaced, while more than 1.7 million have returned to their areas of origin.

The battle for Mosul has had a profound impact on civilians, forcing increasing numbers to flee their homes as the fighting has intensified and moved into more densely populated areas. From the official start of the Mosul campaign on October 17th 2016 to April 20th 2017, IOM estimates that more than 400,000 Iraqis had been displaced due to operations there, while only 100,000 have so far managed to return. 

“Many of those in need of urgent assistance are in close proximity to the battlefield, and some of them are still at great risk due to military operations in the western part of Mosul [under ISIL control],” said IOM Iraq Chief of Mission Thomas Lothar Weiss. 

The battle for Mosul has been described as the most bitterly fought campaign since World War Two, with comparisons being made between ISIL’s ferocious resistance and Japan’s last stand on the island of Okinawa. Yet the enemy in Iraq and Syria is like few encountered before – one which will reportedly go to any lengths, including purposefully putting civilians in the firing line, to hold on to their final strongholds.

Climbing every week: 400,000 civilians have been displaced by Mosul operations since October 17th 2016. (graph courtesy of UN Migration Agency (IOM))

Different data: human sentiment

The huge number of munitions fired and forces deployed against a diminishing number of enemy fighters who are consistently losing territory, means that ISIL will most likely be defeated outright militarily. This leads to questions about whether the force used by the Coalition and local forces is productive or counterproductive in the longer term, in order to bring stability to the region.

“Because there appears to be no strategy in place which integrates the political and diplomatic challenges and how military forces support those desired political and diplomatic outcomes, then we are at high risk of essentially fighting one of these never-ending conflicts,” warns Chris Kolenda Senior Military Fellow at King’s College London. “Even if ISIS is defeated, have we just set conditions for the next insurgency – or have we even set conditions for the US and UK to no longer be relevant actors in Iraq and Syria, because we have so lost the political and diplomatic contest and neither country is welcome anymore?”

Winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of Iraq and Syria’s civilians is therefore essential, and as civilian casualties mount, the Coalition risks losing much-needed goodwill. As part of the report he co-authored, The Strategic Costs of Civilian Harm – Applying Lessons of Afghanistan to Current and Future Conflicts, Kolenda referenced research carried out by Jason Lyall into sentiments expressed by civilians following airstrikes on Afghan villages. It revealed that in areas where the Taliban had a greater local affinity than the government, that when the government or Coalition caused civilian harm the Taliban were given a boost.

Kolenda – who also sits on the advisory board of Airwars – suspects a similar situation may be playing out in Iraq and Syria with ISIL. Furthermore, he believes that this vital tracking of local sentiment is missing from the current war. “There’s a huge gap in the Coalition’s understanding of the nature of this conflict and the effects of civilian harm on our long-term aims of gathering and analysing that data,” he says.

“What we haven’t learned from these kind of wars is that people vote with their feet to the side they view as most credible and most able to protect them. Failure to gather and analyse the population sentiment data for these airstrikes shows that we just don’t understand one of the basics of this kind of war  – that people have agency.”

Destruction at Raqqa December 12th 2016 following a Russian or Coalition raid which killed 21 civilians (via Raqqa is Being Slaughtered)

A ‘just war’: Are the big numbers warranted?

As we move beyond the first 1,000 days of the air war against ISIL, these already giant numbers – the thousands of airstrikes, the munitions dropped, the billions of dollars spent – continue to rise. With the marked escalation of the Coalition campaigns in both Raqqa and Mosul there is also now a sense that we are reaching the ‘end game.’ Yet also likely to rise are those numbers detailing the profound human impact of the war – the alarming rate of civilian casualty incidents, and the ever-rising number of people forced to flee their homes as they seek refuge from the fighting.

Yet how much do the big numbers of this complex war resonate with people away from the battlefield? Moreover, is there perhaps a general view that no matter how bad the metrics, they are somehow justified?

“The prevailing view in the United States,” says Chris Kolenda, “is that ISIS is a terrorist organisation which just needs to be eliminated and it’s unfortunate that there are civilian casualties in the process. Americans tend to believe that the ISIS cancer will metastasize if left unaddressed. Most believe that ISIS causes far more damage to civilians in Iraq and Syria and that ineffectual US military efforts, due to excessive restrictions, will prolong the war and place more civilians at risk of harm.”

Ordinary Iraqis and Syrians on the ground – who have already endured 1,000 days of airstrikes in the effort to defeat Islamic State – might disagree. For too many civilians, each new day brings the ominous sound of yet another air raid, once more putting them in fear of losing their homes, their loved ones and their own lives. It is a situation which we, far away from the battlefield, can barely begin to comprehend.

Bodies are removed from the scene of a US airstrike at Fadhiliya, which killed eight members of one family on October 22nd 2016 (Picture courtesy of Fazel Hawramy)


December 21, 2016

Written by

Alex Hopkins

Russia research team: Kinda Haddad, Abdulwahab Tahhan, F.F. Khalil, Ziad Freeman, Eline Westra, Samuel Oakford and Chris Woods

Likely civilian fatalities from Russian airstrikes in Syria dropped steeply between the months of February and April 2016, according to three months of new data published by Airwars – revealing the impact of a Syrian ceasefire and Moscow’s partial withdrawal of its heavy bombers at the time.

Analysis shows such steps can help save civilian lives. Even so, at least 420 civilians are likely to have died in 132 separate Russian actions during these months. And the decrease in deaths was limited – with Moscow and its allies soon resuming large scale bombardment in a campaign which culminated this December in the recapture of Aleppo.

As part of of its ongoing monitoring of alleged Russian civilian casualty events in Syria, Airwars has now published a 75,000 word assessment covering February, March and April 2016. These include 271 claimed civilian casualty incidents in Syria involving Russian aircraft, alleging as many as 1,481 non-combatant deaths between them.

Each incident is individually logged, accompanied throughout by hundreds of photographs and videos, along with links to original claims and sources. More than 680 civilian victims are named, each tracked and recorded by local monitoring groups. 

Moscow has continued to deny killing any civilians in its air campaign in Syria. Despite this, the provisional view of researchers at Airwars is that in the three months from February 1st to April 30th alone, between 427 and 590 civilian non-combatants are likely to have been killed and 446 or more injured by Russia in 132 incidents. These are events where there is fair public reporting – two or more credible sources – and where Russian strikes appear to have taken place in the area.

Hundreds more civilians died in events where it is not presently possible to determine whether Russia, the Assad regime or even the US-led Coalition was responsible.

February: a heavy civilian toll from Russian strikes

The ferocity of Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria declined sharply between late February and April 2016, according to Airwars assessments.

In February as a whole we tracked a minimum of 347 civilian deaths from 104 incidents which researchers assessed as likely involving Russian aircraft – a halving from January’s all-time high of 713 or more killed. There were few of the mass casualty events which had characterised earlier months, suggesting a shift in Russian tactics and targets – perhaps the result of international criticism at the time.

Even so Russian airstrikes continued to take a heavy toll, with women and children still at significant risk.

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Most of the deaths in February occurred in Aleppo, where 47% of incidents were reported. High numbers of fatalities often occurred on the same day across multiple incidents.

On February 2nd for example – in one of four incidents in Aleppo governorate that day – at least eight children and three women were among those who died in alleged Russian raids on Hraytan. Shaam News Network posted a distressing video showing the body of a dead child “following raids by Russian aircraft“. All4Syria – which like other outlets put the death toll at 15 with more than 50 injured – said Russia had carried out up to 30 strikes on the village.

Crucially, Airwars’ database lists the names of 685 civilians who were killed in alleged Russian strikes between February 1st and April 30th – the result of diligent work by monitors such as the Syrian Network for Human Rights, the Violations Documentation Center and Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently. On numerous occasions entire families are said to have died.

On February 8th, four members of the Hussain Debes family – two girls and two adult males – were among up to 20 civilians who perished in an alleged Russian airstrike on a bus in Salheen, Aleppo, according to local sources. Activists told Shaam News Network that Russian warplanes had fired two missiles, while Orient News said a Russian strike targeted “transport buses carrying civilians, resulting in the burning of the vehicles, the martyrdom of those inside and serious injury to passers-by.”

The body of a child stuck under rubble following an alleged Russian raid on Salheen, February 8th (via SN4HR)

Among the other detailed incident reports released by Airwars is an account of bombings which occurred on February 11th in Hazwan, Aleppo. According to sources, four non-combatants who appear to be from the same family died in a Russian raid. The Violations Documentation Center named the victims as an adult woman, Fatima Darweesh; two girls Sidra Darweesh and Sanae Mahmoud Darweesh; and adult male Hasan Obaid Darweesh.

On February 12th, “an appalling massacre” was reported at al Ghantu in Homs allegedly carried out by Russia – killing up to 16 civilians including four children and a woman.

Among the dead was a member of the White Helmets, named as Osama Al Khatteib. The Syrian Networked initially blamed the regime for his death, but then changed  position and pointed towards Russia, reporting that three rockets were launched on a residential area. Fourteen other victims were named the the Violations Documentation Center, including multiple members of the Rabeah, Othman and al-Khateeb families.

Overall February 2016 represents one of the worst documented periods of Russian actions. Yet in the month’s last days, a significant shift occurred which saw the number of civilians killed plummet.

Bodies are covered following an alleged Russian raid on Al Ghantu, February 12th 2016 (via Syrian Network for Human Rights)

Syrian ceasefire and Russia’s partial drawdown leads to steep drop in likely deaths

The Syrian ceasefire which came into effect on February 27th, followed by President Putin’s announcement that Moscow was partially withdrawing from Syria, had a dramatic impact on civilian deaths.

Airwars tracked an immediate effect on fatalities, with a 67% drop in casualty events between the weeks of February 22nd-29th, and March 1st-6th. When Russia then began to pull its Su-24 bombers out of Syria on March 14th, reported fatalities fell further.

Overall, for March 2016 Airwars has tracked 73 deaths which we assessed as having likely been caused by Russia. This marks a 79% decrease from the 347 civilians recorded as likely killed in February.

Seventy or more civilians also died in 16 contested events, where it remains unclear whether Russia or the Assad regime was the culprit. Indeed, as the ceasefire continued into the Spring, it became more difficult for those reporting casualties to determine responsibility. .

Despite the welcome fall in reported deaths, there were still significant civilian casualty incidents likely involving Russia during the month.

On March 11th – 12th, another public bus was allegedly targeted in a Russian strike – this time killing up to 19 civilians and injuring 20 more as it traveled to Raqqa. Some sources including the Syrian Network for Human Rights didn’t identify the warplanes responsible – a common theme in many reports throughout the month. However Al Araby, Homs Media Center and Shaam News all alleged that Moscow was responsible. Six victims were eventually named by the Violations Documentation Center, including Yasser al Habish (pictured below) and Fawaz al-Haddawi al-Fares and his two sons.

Yasser al Habish, who died when warplanes struck a coach traveling from Raqqa to Damascus, March 11th-12th 2016 (via Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently)

The Coalition and Russia: a narrowing casualty gap

By April the intensity of Russian actions in Syria had further waned: Airwars tracked no alleged events until April 7th, a full week into the month. And overall, Airwars has tracked just seven deaths for April 2016 where Russia was the likely culprit.

Instead we saw a steep increase in the number of contested events – either carried out by Russia, the Assad regime or ground actions – with a minimum of 214 non-combatants reported killed.

This major reduction in likely fatalities from Russian actions in Syria significantly narrowed the gap between deaths attributed to Russian forces, and those blamed on the US-led Coalition.

By March, the 49 civilian fatalities confirmed or likely caused by Coalition actions across Iraq and Syria were close to the 73 deaths attributed to Russia in Syria during that month. And in April – when likely Russian deaths plummeted to an all-time low  – the toll of 114 civilians likely killed in Coalition actions in Iraq and Syria was far above  the seven likely deaths so far attributed to Russian strikes in Syria.

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Welcome as the relative decline in Russian strikes was for Syria’s embattled civilians, it did not last.

April 2016 saw the beginnings of a shift back to the bombing of Aleppo, with 71% of all claimed incidents reported in the governorate. And by the last week of the month Airwars also began tracking a worrying rise in reported Russian incidents, signaling a new phase of the campaign which would have ominous implications for civilians.

Airwars researchers are currently assessing almost 1,000 additional casualty incidents since May 1st 2016 that allegedly involved Russia – including a record 215 events in November alone. This near-unceasing bombing has mainly been in support of regime efforts to recapture rebel-held areas of eastern Aleppo – though other areas of Syria have also been badly hit.

For a brief period in Spring 2016 Russia showed that it was capable of some restraint in Syria. That time has now passed.

Human Rights Watch has determined that Russian-Syrian airstrikes on eastern Aleppo during September and October amounted to war crimes. More recently, the UN’s human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein said on December 14th that “the resumption of extremely heavy bombardment by the Syrian Government forces and their allies on an area packed with civilians is almost certainly a violation of international law and most likely constitutes war crimes.” 

▲ The moment Russian warplanes allegedly struck the Christian area of Jisr al Shughour, February 28th 2016 (via SNN)


December 11, 2016

Written by

Alex Hopkins

Greater accountability and transparency is required in the US-led Coalition’s handling of civilian casualties, according to a major report published by Airwars on December 12th.

Limited Accountability: a transparency audit of the Coalition air war against so-called Islamic State, commissioned by the Remote Control Project, finds systematic failings among all Coalition militaries to properly count the civilian toll of the air campaign.

Airwars’ analysis of the monitoring, assessing and investigation of civilian casualty allegations across Coalition partners shows that processes have been opaque and ad hoc, lacking the common rules and procedures required for baseline public reporting.

The benefits of transparency: a breakdown by nation

Through a detailed assessment of transparency and accountability by each Coalition partner, Airwars has revealed wide variations in transparency standards across Coalition partners.

Canada, the UK, the United States and France have consistently been the more transparent. In contrast, six other nations – Australia, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Belgium, along with Jordan and the Netherlands – have issued extremely limited information on their military actions.

These findings were also borne out by a transparency case study of a sample month of the anti-ISIL campaign. For July 2016, Airwars initially examined all published records of active Coalition partners to see which may have been involved in any particular casualty event. It then reached out to individual ministries of defence for further information to gain more clarity on each nation’s actions in Iraq and Syria during the month. In some instances, this meant that certain countries could be discounted as having been involved in civilian casualty allegations.

Strong engagement from the United States and the United Kingdom led to the opening of seven new investigations. Belgium, Australia and Denmark, however, would not engage on specific civilian casualty allegations; as a result their role in certain civilian casualty events remained unresolved – even if they were in fact not involved.

Improved transparency would not only bring these nations considerable strategic and tactical benefits, but also safeguard their reputation, distinguishing them from other belligerents, such as Russia, and reinforcing their claim that they place a premium on the preservation of civilian lives. However, no Coalition member besides the US has admitted to killing a single civilian in over two years of war.

The current system: inconsistent and unrigorous

Airwars found that current investigations into alleged civilian casualty events are frequently concluded too quickly, with a declassified CENTCOM document published in September 2015 showing that most claims were dismissed within 24 to 48 hours.

Conversely, by July 2016 it was taking 173 days on average from the Coalition killing a civilian in the battlefield, to its publicly admitting that fact.

Timely public reporting by every participating nation on the ongoing air campaign of both the date and vicinity of all airstrikes is essential – along with a prompt disclosure of any investigation findings at both national and Coalition level.

Moreover, the present system for assessing civilian casualties is too reliant upon internal air-only assessment, and as such risks leading to an under reporting of civilian casualty deaths.

Across the 14,200 US-led Coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria in the first two years of the air campaign (to July 31st 2016) officials insist  just 152 non-combatants died in these same actions – one fatality per 93 airstrikes. In stark contrast, Airwars monitoring indicates that at least 1,500 non-combatants died as a result of Coalition actions during this period.

The Coalition had admitted to having caused only 173 civilian fatalities to November 2016, an unprecedentedly low number for recent airpower conflicts.

While self-reporting by pilots has identified civilian casualty cases, similar weight is not currently given to credible external casualty monitors such as Iraq Body Count and the Syrian Network for Human Rights. Although some nations – the US, UK and Canada – have engaged directly with casualty monitors and NGOs, more consistent engagement is required at both national and Coalition level.

In summary, only by establishing a standardised, rigorous and transparent civilian casualty investigatory process can the US and its Coalition allies pay a significant role in reducing harm to non-combatants on the ground.

Signs of improvement and the Trump administration

There have, however, been positive indications of a change in approach. CENTCOM’s active engagement with Airwars on this report and subsequent steps towards improving its civilian casualty monitoring is most encouraging – as is its increased willingness to work with external monitoring agencies.

More notably still, President Obama’s July 2016 Executive Order on Civilian Casualties appears to have led to key developments in US monitoring and reporting of non-combatant deaths from its actions.

Airwars now urges the incoming Trump administration to build upon this process by retaining the Executive Order, and hopes that it will see the continued strategic and tactical benefits of US forces minimising harm to non-combatants on the battlefield.

The Airwars report, written by director Chris Woods, was commissioned by defence think tank the Remote Control Project. The audit was launched in Brussels at the Open Society European Policy Institute – attended by a number of militaries participating in the war against ISIL.




▲ Smoke bellows from Manbij following alleged Coalition strikes on June 22nd (via Syrian Observatory for Human Rights)