News & Investigations

News & Investigations


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)


August 2019

Written by

Alex Hopkins

Six monthly update

The first half of 2019 saw the defeat of ISIS as a territorial entity in Syria by the US-led Coalition, though the cost to civilians trapped in Deir Ezzor governorate was significant. Airwars research indicates that civilian deaths likely caused by Coalition strikes rose by 34% between January and June on the first six months of 2018 – with at least 416 civilians killed.

Russia’s campaign in support of the Assad government led to a similar reported civilian toll, with increasingly ferocious assaults on Idlib and Hama governorates claiming the deaths of at least 410 non combatants, mostly since May 1st. 

Elsewhere, in Libya a bloody fight for control of the capital Tripoli between two rival governments saw tens of thousands displaced by fighting. Airwars estimates that locally alleged deaths between January and June 2019 rose more the fivefold on claimed deaths during the first half of 2018.

Meanwhile, in Somalia, the US had already conducted as many counter-terror strikes by June 30th than in all of 2018. 

Russia in Syria

In the first half of 2019, Airwars monitored between 410 and 737 claimed fatalities from 293 alleged Russian casualty events in Syria. This was a fall of 56% on the reported 669 incidents tracked during the first six months of 2018, which had been driven by the ferocious Eastern Ghouta and Dara’a assaults.

However, 75% of Russia’s actions during January to June 2019 took place in the nine weeks from May 1st – as the Assad government’s focused onslaught against both Idlib and Hama intensified, killing hundreds of civilians still trapped on the ground.

Given the volume of allegations, some of these incidents have not yet been fully vetted by Airwars. Initial figures indicate that responsibility for around 70% of the 293 events tracked in the first half of 2019 is currently contested between different belligerents, with sources blaming both Russian and Assad government forces. That does not generally mean such allegations are in doubt – but rather reflects the frequent challenge of positively determining exactly which belligerent inflicted civilian harm.

Overall, Airwars researchers have tracked a total of 3,835 claimed civilian casualty events allegedly involving Russian aircraft between September 30th 2015 and June 30th 2019. The total locally claimed civilian fatalities in these events ranges from 13,305 to 21,441. At least 8,198 of those reportedly killed in these incidents have been individually named by local outlets, on social media, and by casualty recorders.

According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, 6,347 civilians have been killed by Russian warplanes from September 2015 to July 2019. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights puts this figure at 8,114 civilians, giving an averaged estimate of 7,231 non combatants slain by Russian strikes.

The US-led Coalition in Syria

Early 2019 saw the culmination of more than four years of fighting by the US-led Coalition and its Kurdish ground allies the SDF, when ISIS was defeated as a territorial entity in its last Syrian stronghold. However the cost to civilians was again significant. 

In total between January and June 2019, Airwars tracked 46 alleged civilian harm incidents involving the US-led Coalition – significantly below the 293 alleged Russian civilian harm events during the same period in Syria. All but three of these 46 Coalition incidents were in Syria.

The current Airwars estimate is that between 416 and 1,030 civilians likely died as a result of Coalition actions between January 1st and June 30th this year. All but one of these deaths occurred in Syria across 32 fairly reported incidents. This marks a 34% rise on the minimum number of 310 civilians likely killed by the Coalition in the first half of 2018, according to Airwars estimates.  The Coalition has so far conceded causing civilian harm in five incidents in 2019, killing a total of three civilians and wounding six more.

Despite US President Donald Trump’s shock December 2018 claim of an imminent withdrawal from Syria, from January 2019 civilians faced increasing danger as Coalition air and artillery strikes pounded a fast-diminishing slice of ISIS-held territory. Indeed as previously reported, an Airwars analysis of both strikes and engagements in the so-called MERV (Middle Euphrates Valley) 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 deadly period of the battle  for Iraq’s second city.

The impact on civilians trapped in just a handful of towns and villages was often devastating: some 98% of the minimum 416 civilians likely killed by Coalition in the first six months of 2019 perished between January 1st and the final announcement of the liberation of  Baghouz, Deir Ezzor from ISIS on March 23rd.

For January to June 2019, in a reflection of the ferocity of this final stage of the campaign, Coalition air and artillery actions in Syria increased by 102% on the first six months of 2018, with 1,898 strikes reported. Most were by the US.

Airstrikes conducted by both the UK and France, Washington’s most active allies in the Coalition, instead continued to fall from January onwards. Between January and June the UK declared approximately 30 airstrikes, while France reported that its Rafales had carried out 34 strikes. However, this decline in airstrikes was deceptive; French artillery played a crucial early role in the final assault on Deir Ezzor, with Task Force Wagram conducting 126 strikes in the Euphrates Valley between January and June 2019 – of which 114 occurred during January.  The French artillery task force was finally disbanded on April 29th.

With this steep fall in strikes by the UK and France – and likely a limited number of air actions by Iraq into Syria – it is reasonable to assume that the US was responsible for the overwhelming majority of air and artillery strikes during the first half of 2019 – and indeed most associated civilian harm in eastern Syria

Meanwhile, despite the defeat of ISIS in Iraq in late 2017, the US-led alliance reported 231 strikes in that troubled country in the first half of 2019 – a 76% increase on the 131 strikes publicly reported in the first six months of 2018. However, with the Coalition slashing public transparency in December 2018, it is now impossible to assess where or on which specific dates these strikes occurred – and for Airwars to cross-match any potential civilian harm events 

In total, from August 8th 2014 to June 30th 2019 in both Iraq and Syria, Airwars has to date monitored 2,877 incidents locally alleged against the US-led Coalition fighting so-called Islamic State. Among these incidents, it has been claimed locally that a total of between 19,048 and 29,324 civilians were killed.

Airwars presently estimates based both on its own assessments, and events confirmed by the US-led alliance, that a minimum of between 8,175 and 13,051 civilians are likely to have died as a result of Coalition actions. The alliance itself has so far conceded at least 1,321 deaths resulting from 317 events.

Footage from Sky News of Al Baghouz, following the defeat of ISIS as a territorial entity in Syria on March 23rd 2019.


The first six months of 2019 saw a sharp increase in civilian casualties and airstrikes in Libya compared to the same period the previous year. Between 70 and 117 civilians were locally alleged killed between January and June, while in the first six months of 2018 between 13 and 20 civilians were alleged killed.

A total of 163 air and artillery strikes were allegedly conducted between January and June 2018, while 556 reported strikes were monitored in the first six months of 2019 – a 241% increase.

The sharp rise in actions and civilian harm can be explained by the relatively calm political environment in the north African state in early 2018, where the only major battle occurred in Derna, which was later conquered by the Libyan National Army from jihadist forces. The great majority of civilian casualties in that period therefore come from LNA actions.

While early 2019 was also relatively quiet, the situation escalated with the LNA’s offensive on Tripoli beginning in April. Many civilians have died in that battle – slightly more from Government of National Accord strikes in an attempt to defend the capital. The GNA was reportedly responsible for between 28 and 39 civilian deaths, while the LNA allegedly killed between 17 and 38 civilians. 

US counter-terrorism campaigns


The Trump presidency has seen a steep hike in US strikes in Somalia focused on both the Al-Qaeda-affiliated group Al-Shabaab and a more recent campaign against ISIS in Somalia. AFRICOM has informed Airwars that in 2019 to July 2nd, it had conducted a total of 46 strikes – one more strike than the 45 declared during all of 2018.

Yet despite this steep rise in actions, the US has only admitted to two civilian deaths (a woman and a child) from its strikes in Somalia since 2007. This one admission came on April 5th, and concerned a strike a year earlier on April 1st 2018.

However, an investigation by Amnesty International documented what it says were 14 civilians killed in just five recent US airstrikes in Somalia.


The US campaign targeting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS-Yemen continued into the first half of 2019, though at a far slower pace than in previous years.

US Central Command told Airwars that it had carried out nine strikes in Yemen from January 1st to June 30th. It added that during all of 2018, it had carried out a total of 36 air strikes.

There have been no allegations of civilian harm from these January to June 2019 strikes, though up to six terrorists were claimed killed in total. In a January 1st strike on Yemen’s Marib province for example, the US confirmed the death of al Qaeda operative Jamal al Badawi, who had been indicted for his role in the October 12th 2000 bombing of the USS Cole.


No US drone strikes have been reported in Pakistan so far in 2019, with the last claimed CIA strike locallly reported in July 2018.

In a blow to transparency, on March 7th US president Donald Trump revoked those parts of former president Barack Obama’s executive order which had required officials to publish annual figures on the number of civilians killed in US strikes outside of war zones. This order, which had applied to both the CIA and JSOC, covered US strikes in Pakistan as well as Yemen and Somalia.


Major conflict monitoring for June 2019

Russia and the regime in Syria

During June 2019, the Assad government’s assault on Idlib and Hama governorates continued to intensify, with civilians once again paying a major price. Overall, our researchers monitored 118 locally reported civilian casualty events blamed on Russia during the month, a 12% increase on May’s 105 alleged incidents.

This significant volume of allegations meant that at time of publication, Airwars was still researching and assessing June’s civilian harm incidents. Unrefined estimates show that across these 118 incidents, up to 223 civilians were allegedly killed by Russian and/or regime actions. That tally included at least 38 children and 38 women. As many as 395 additional civilians were reportedly injured. As Airwars researchers uncover further information on these events, it is likely that this death toll will rise.

Of June’s incidents, 72% were in Idlib governorate and 21% in Hama. As in May, there were also a small number of events tracked in Aleppo.

Once more, most larger scale casualty events were reported in Idlib. On June 10th for example, between 4 and 13 civilians died in an alleged Russian or regime airstrike on the village of Jbala, Idlib. According to Syria.liveuamap five of the fatalities were children.

At least 10 civilians, including 5 children and a woman, were killed as Syrian or Russian aircraft fired missiles on residential neighborhoods in Jabala, Idlib governorate on June 10th 2019 (via Syrian Network for Human Rights)

Worse still was to come on June 19th when as many as 12 civilians including up to six children died in an alleged Russia or regime airstrike on the village of Benin.  Multiple sources referred to this incident as “a massacre”, with the White Helmets adding that the strike “targeted shops and a main road in the town”. Sources named 11 victims, including several members from the Al Jasem, Dabbas, and Al Qa’oud families.

مجزرة مروعة ترتكبها طائرات النظام في بلدة #بينين بريف ادلب، راح ضحيتها 7 شهداء وعشرات الجرحى

— عبد الغفور الدياب (@abuhuzaifa_) June 19, 2019

Video of the aftermath of an alleged airstrike that struck Benin on June 19th (via @abuhuzaifa_)


As the battle for control of Libya’s capital Tripoli entered its third month, the intensity of the fighting slightly dropped as a result of an ongoing military stalemate and high temperatures. Local sources reported 116 air and artillery strikes, a 47% fall compared to the previous month. Civilian casualties also fell from an estimated 19 to 25 in May, to between 6 and 14 deaths in June. A further 25 civilians were reported injured.

In the worst known incident of the month, up to nine civilians were reported killed by an alleged Libyan National Army (LNA) strike on Tajoura. Additionally, the Tajoura Heart Hospital was apparently damaged in the attack, raising concern about the increased targeting of civilian infrastructure in Libya.

June was also the first month since the beginning of hostilities between two rival governments, where the rebel LNA reportedly caused more civilian harm than the Government of National Accord (GNA). Between 2 and 10 civilians were allegedly killed by LNA strikes, while only one civilian was reportedly slain in a GNA strike. Another three civilians were allegedly killed in a contested event resulting from indiscriminate shelling.

While no foreign airstrikes were publicly reported, the LNA released a prisoner of war, initially believed to be a Portuguese mercenary, who turned out to be an American air force veteran, shot down while flying sorties for the GNA.

The US-led Coalition in Syria and Iraq

No Coalition strikes have been publicly reported in Syria beyond May 4th 2019. However, strikes in Iraq have continued. During June, the Coalition publicly reported 13 strikes up from 11 in May.

AFCENT reported that 135 munitions were dropped from the air over Iraq and Syria during June – a 150% rise on May.

The UK’s MoD said that it had carried out one airstrike against members of ISIS on an area of marshland some 27 miles south-west of Kirkuk on June 13th. The month also saw a detachment of the UK’s “formidable new, fifth generation combat aircraft” the F-35B Lightning flying their first sorties over Syria on June 16th – with more since.

Meanwhile, France reported that two of its Rafales carried out a planned strike mission in Iraq on June 24th as part of Operation Inherent Resolve. The French MoD said this was conducted in cooperation with several other nations of the Coalition.

Airwars tracked one alleged civilian harm event during June. On June 30th, a confirmed unilateral US strike with high-explosive missiles against Al Qaeda at Rif Al Mouhandessen near Aleppo, Syria, on the afternoon of June 30th is also locally reported to have injured at least two children and two women, and killed a number of foreign Al-Qaeda linked fighters. According to Step News, a total of seven injured people were evacuated including the two children and two women, in addition to the bodies of three men.

The US-led Coalition reported that the attack had killed eight members of Al-Qaeda including commanders, though made no mention of civilian harm. A senior official later confirmed the strike to have been a unilateral US action, noting to Airwars, “That was not a CJTF strike.”

آثار قصف طيران التحالف لمقر كان يتواجد فيه قادة وشرعيين من تنظيم حراس الدين في ريف المهندسيننسأل الله أن يتقبلهم في الشهداء

— جليس الشهداء (@jalaysalshuhada) June 30, 2019

Video showing bodies of stuck under the rubble caused by a unilateral US strike in Aleppo on June 30th (via @jalaysalshuhada)

US counter-terrorism campaigns


US Africa Command declared that it carried out six strikes in Somalia during June, down from seven the previous month. It currently assesses that no civilians were harmed in these attacks.

Five of these strikes targeted the terror group Al-Shabaab. On June 5th, one alleged terrorist was killed in an airstrike in the vicinity of Tortoroow. On June 16th, two strikes in the vicinity of Jilib killed two alleged militants; on June 24th a further strike near Jilib killed another alleged militant; and finally a strike on May 25th in the vicinity of Kunyo Barrow killed one more alleged terrorist.

Additionally, there was one declared US airstrike on ISIS in Somalia. As with the three May strikes on ISIS, this event occurred in the Golis Mountains, reportedly killing six alleged militants.


According to CENTCOM, there was one US military strike against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) during June. This occurred on June 24th in Al Bayda. The US command assessed that no civilians were harmed in this strike.

According to Xinhua, five members of AQAP were killed in strike on the Dhi Nhim district in the northwest of al Bayda late in the evening

It is unknown whether the CIA separately carried out any attacks in Yemen during June.


There were no publicly alleged CIA strikes in Pakistan against either Al Qaeda or the Taliban during June. The last alleged strike was in July 2018.


Military advocacy

Between January and June, the US-led Coalition assessed several hundred alleged civilian harm events for Iraq and Syria – finding 50 of them to be ‘Credible’, and 169 events to be ‘Non Credible.’ A further 131 civilian fatalities were added to the official tally – with the Coalition declaring that it had killed at least 1,321 non combatants during the five year fight against ISIS.

Airwars held several meetings with senior European defence officials in the first six months of the year, calling on militaries to improve their own public transparency – and to adopt some of the accountability better practices recently pioneered by US forces.

Team members also held several meetings with US defense officials in Washington DC, as part of a broader engagement by NGOs and international agencies on civilian harm mitigation issues.

European advocacy

In June, our Netherlands-based conflict researcher and advocacy officer Maike Awater attended a gathering organised by Stichting Democratie en Media to meet other organisations working on stimulating public debate. The meet-up was intended to connect organisations working on similar issues, to share thoughts and ideas and to find potential opportunities for collaboration.

UK advocacy

Members of the All Party Parliamentary Groups on Human Rights and Drones collaboratively organised a parliamentary debate on ‘The continued importance of IHL in the Protection of Civilians’ on June 18th.

In order to create a preparatory briefing for MPs, the APPG’s coordinators organised a roundtable discussion in advance of the debate, and Airwars was invited to participate.

A transcript of the parliamentary debate is available here, during which many MPs noted the changing nature of warfare, including the shift to the use of airstrikes and the related fallacy of the precision narrative.

Among others, Ann Clwyd, MP for Cynon Valley, highlighted her “concern about the Ministry of Defence’s ludicrous claim that there was only one civilian casualty resulting from its operations in Mosul and Raqqa in the fight against IS”. She added that the UK could not expect to lead on the global stage in the protection of civilians until a dedicated civilian casualty team, among other measures, was put in place.

The debate comes as the Foreign Commonwealth Office is in the process of revising the UK government’s own lapsed strategy on the Protection of Civilians. Airwars will continue to engage on this critical issue.


Additional reporting: Maike Awater, Abbie Cheeseman, Hanna Rullmann, Osama Mansour, and Chloe Skinner.

Conflict monitoring and assessments (June): Ali Abbas Ahmadi, Maike Awater, Poppy Bowers, Laura Bruun, Abbie Cheeseman, Shihab Halep, Salim Habib, Harry Holmes, Alex Hopkins, Oliver Imhof, Osama Mansour, Hanna Rullmann, Laurie Treffers and Anna Zahn.

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


June 2019

Written by

Alex Hopkins

Major conflict monitoring

Russia in Syria

During May Syrian government forces, supported by Russia, continued to pound rebels in Idlib – leaving in tatters an earlier ceasefire deal brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran. Many civilians trapped on the ground faced a horrifying ordeal, with Airwars tracking a very significant increase in civilian casualty incidents in Syria reportedly carried out by either Russia or the Assad regime.

Overall, our researchers monitored 105 locally reported civilian casualty events blamed on Russia, a massive 304% rise on April’s 26 incidents – and the highest number of events seen since March 2018, in Eastern Ghouta.

The volume of allegations meant that at time of publication, Airwars was still researching and assessing some of May’s civilian harm incidents. Unrefined estimates show that across these 105 incidents, up to 277 civilians were allegedly killed by Russian and/or regime actions. That figure included up to 70 children and 54 women killed. As many as 459 additional civilians were reportedly injured, some critically.

Almost 80  per cent of May’s incidents were in Idlib governorate, with a further 16% in Hama. Civilian infrastructure came under heavy fire. On May 19th, in an incident which killed up to 10 civilians including as many as six children in Kafaf Nabil, Idlib, Step News reported that  multiple airstrikes deliberately “targeted infrastructure and hospitals”,  with Halab Today reporting that 15 homes were destroyed. Many sources said that Mariam Maternity Hospital in southern Idlib was out of service as a result of the raid, while Step News alleged the “destruction of the hospital”. Victims included two children named as Ibrahim and Suleiman al Ismail and their pregnant mother.

Footage showing the aftermath of an alleged Russian airstrike on Kafar Nabil, May 19th (via Halab Today TV)

Airwars tracked four separate casualty incidents in the town of Maarat al Numan in Idlib during May. In the worst of these, between 7 and 12 civilians were reportedly killed with up to 40 more wounded in alleged Russian or regime strikes on a popular market in al Masqed al Kabir square, in the middle of the city on May 21st-22nd. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, there was also a strike near al Kabir Mosque. Reports were grim, with media activist Ghayath al-Daher telling Geiroon that “most bodies were torn to pieces”. One victim was named as the young boy Mohammad al Shawwaf.

Mohammad al Shawwaf killed in an alleged regime airstrike on Ma’aret al Numan, May 22, 2019 (via SN4HR)

May also saw six casualty events in Aleppo governorate, with four occurring within 24 hours on May 28th. In the most concerning,  up to 10 civilians including three children died and as many as 20 more were wounded in an alleged Russia or regime strike on Kafar Halab, local media reported. The White Helmets who were at the scene blamed Russia, and said that high-explosive missiles had struck the market in the middle of the town.

Syrian Civil Defense volunteer putting out a fire caused by an airstrike on Kafar Halab on May 28th (via Syrian Civil Defense).


As the two rival governments continue their struggle for Tripoli, Libya witnessed an increase in the number of strikes compared to April. Airwars monitored reports of 218 airstrikes in May, a 40% rise. Our current estimate is that between 19 and 25 civilians died and 28 to 35 were injured in these incidents, compared to between 37 and 65 killed in April.

The UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) was again allegedly responsible for the majority of civilian deaths, reportedly killing between 13 and 16 civilians. Local sources also accused the GNA of being the perpetrator of the month’s worst civilian harm event, on May 14th, when six civilians were reportedly killed by indiscriminate shelling in Qasr Bin Gashir.

The Libyan National Army (LNA) was itself accused of having killed between 3 and 6 civilians through airstrikes, with the most significant event in Zawiya on May 13th.

For the first time during the renewed fighting in Tripoli, civilian harm was also alleged against a foreign actor. Three civilians were reported killed on May 12th in Naser, with local sources accusing of either the LNA, the UAE or Egypt of conducting the strike. Meanwhile, Turkey was again claimed to have been supporting the GNA with drones and military advisors.

Neither competing government managed to make significant territorial gains in May. General Khalifa Haftar rejected international calls for a ceasefire, and vowed to fight until the pro-GNA militias in Tripoli were defeated.

A child injured on May 3rd in the Al Keramia neighbourhood in Janzur by “indiscriminate shelling” (via Field Medicine and Support Center)

The US-led Coalition in Syria and Iraq

No Coalition strikes have been publicly reported in Syria beyond May 4th, and for the second consecutive month, Airwars tracked no civilian harm events assessed as likely caused by US-led Coalition air or artillery strikes in either Iraq or Syria.

There were, however, allegations of civilian harm stemming from a reported counter-terrorism raid in Al Shahil on May 8th. According to local media, at least five people were killed in a three hour operation between midnight and dawn on the city’s al Katef neighbourhood.

The source Deir Ezzor 24 named Haji Khleif Al-Abdullah Al-Othman and his sons Muhammad and Ahmed as among those killed, when they were reportedly shot at by a helicopter hovering over their home. However, Syria.liveuamap said that the victims were not civilians, but members of ISIS. The source claimed that a total of six ISIS members were killed when the Coalition carried out a landing operation in support of SDF ground forces, who were driving armoured vehicles. There was further dispute among other sources as to the the combatant status of the victims.

On May 18th, representatives of the Coalition and the SDF held a meeting with tribal figures and the families of the victims of both the Al Shalil operation, and an incident in Daman on April 24th-25th. According to Deir Ezzor 24, the families called upon the Coalition to provide evidence that their sons were connected to ISIS, questioning the credibility of such claims. Moreover, the source reported that the Coalition stated at the meeting that the victims “had resisted international Coalition forces during the operation.” The families were reportedly unhappy with the Coalition’s explanation of the event, and had called for the perpetrators to be held accountable.

Demonstrations against the SDF in Al-Shahil in Deir al-Zour, after at least six alleged civilians were killed in a joint US-SDF operation on May 8th (via @ANews_Arabic).

Strikes in Iraq have continued, though at a steeply declined rate. Between May 5th and June 3rd, the Coalition said that it had conducted 11 strikes in Iraq, a 73% drop on the 41 strikes reported in the previous four week period. With the Coalition still refusing to provide the locations of these strikes however, it remains impossible to assess whether they might have caused civilian harm.

US counter-terrorism campaigns


U.S. Africa Command carried out seven strikes in Somalia during May, up from five in the previous month. It currently assesses that no civilians were harmed in these strikes.

Four of these strikes were on the terror group Al-Shabaab. On May 5th, three alleged terrorists were killed in vicinity of Tortoroow; on May 22nd, a strike on the Lower Shabelle region killed two claimed terrorists; and strikes on May 24th and May 26th, both in the Golis Mountains, killed a total of six alleged al Shabaab fighters.

Additionally, there were three declared US airstrikes on ISIS in Somalia. These were all in the Golis Mountain. The first occurred on May 8th against an ISIS encampment and reportedly killed 13 terrorists. This was followed by another strike the following day (May 9th), killing a further four. The final strike against ISIS was on May 22nd and killed two more alleged members of ISIS.

Despite this ongoing ramp up in airstrikes under the Trump Administration, the US has  confirmed responsibility for only two civilian deaths in its secretive war in Somalia. This admission came on April 5th and concerned a strike that occurred on April 1st 2018.


According to CENTCOM, there were no US military strikes against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) during May. It is unknown whether the CIA separately carried out any attacks.

CENTCOM’s last two declared strikes were in Al Bayda on March 29th. The US military command assessed that no civilians were harmed in either of these actions. In total for 2019, CENTCOM says it has so far conducted eight strikes in Yemen.

However as the Saudi-led air and ground war against Yemen’s Houthi government raged on, civilians remained in extreme danger elsewhere. On May 16th, fresh fighting erupted in the port city of Hodeidah as a UN-backed de-escalation deal broke down, while civilian casualties were also reported in the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a.

According to OCHA, in the first quarter of 2019 more than 900 civilian casualties have been reported in Yemen, with Yemenis “More likely to die in their own homes than anywhere else, as a result of war.”


There were no publicly alleged CIA strikes in Pakistan against either Al Qaeda or the Taliban during May.


Military advocacy

Along with other NGO partners, Airwars met with US defence officials in Washington DC during May, as part of a continuing dialogue process to secure improvements in civilian harm monitoring, assessments and reporting by the US military.

We also continue to engage with the US-led Coalition on civilian harm allegations resulting from the war against so-called Islamic State. To May 31st, Airwars had tracked up to 29,313 alleged deaths from 2,874 claimed Coalition civilian harm events in Iraq and Syria since 2014. Our own current estimate is of 8,005 to 12,851 civilians likely killed by Coalition actions.

The US-led alliance has itself so far assessed 2,059 of these incidents as ‘non credible’; and a further 302 events as having caused civilian harm. Overall, the Coalition had admitted to at least 1,302 civilians killed by its actions against ISIS, to May 31st 2019.

In its monthly casualty report for May 2019, the Coalition confirmed an additional six events, one of which was an Airwars referral. A further 15 incidents were classed as ‘non credible – with 111 alleged events still in review.

European advocacy

In May, our Netherlands-based conflict researcher and advocacy officer Maike Awater attended the European Forum on Armed Drones (EFAD) in Brussels, a civil society network of organisations working to promote human rights and respect for the rule of law. EFAD was formed in particular to engage on the growing global use of armed drones, and to address key concerns regarding their deployment and proliferation, through engaging with governments, and with European institutions and civil society; and by promoting political and public debate.

Discussing similar topics, Maike also attended a Brussels conference, European Perspectives on Remote Warfare, organized by PAX. A series of panels discussed how emerging military technologies and new security policies are shaping the norms and principles of war.

On May 28th, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Netherlands Parliament discussed the country’s contribution to the anti-ISIS Coalition in Iraq. During the debate, three political parties – SP, Groenlinks and PvdA – called on the government to release strike data for Dutch airstrikes in the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, for the entire duration of the mission. The parties submitted a total of eleven policy recommendations, to improve monitoring and reporting on civilian casualties from Dutch military actions.

The second panel is covering legal, ethical, and transparency implications of new tech and #remotewar , with @LarryLewis_ from @ElkeSchwarz & @ElenLazarou

— European Forum on Armed Drones (@EFADrones) May 15, 2019

UK advocacy

As our new conflict researcher and advocacy officer focused on UK-based advocacy. Dr Chloe Skinner joined Airwars in May from a strong background in academic research and human rights field work.

The last British government policy on protection of civilians during conflicts was published in 2011, and has since lapsed.  As the ‘penholder’ on the Protection of Civilians agenda at the UN Security Council, the UK is now poised to update its own strategy in the coming months, with NGOs including Airwars participating in the initial phases of this process.

Alongside many of our partner NGOs, and representatives from the Foreign Office, DFID, and the Ministry of Defence, our Deputy Director Dmytro Chupryna and advocacy officer Chloe Skinner attended two roundtable discussions in May, discussing the UK’s role in the Protection of Civilians, and on concrete steps toward a more comprehensive British strategy.

Airwars emphasised the importance of including civilian casualty recording as a requirement in the forthcoming strategy update, as well as the crucial need for improved assessment processes by the MoD. We will continue to assert that civilian casualty recording must be a baseline requirement in any UK protection of civilians policy – strengthening mechanisms for transparency and accountability, as well as informing a ‘lessons learned’ approach to future conflicts.


Additional reporting: Maike Awater, Abbie Cheeseman, Hanna Rullmann, Osama Mansour, and Chloe Skinner.

Conflict monitoring and assessments (May): Ali Abbas Ahmadi, Maike Awater, Poppy Bowers, Laura Bruun, Abbie Cheeseman, Shihab Halep, Salim Habib, Harry Holmes, Alex Hopkins, Oliver Imhof, Osama Mansour, Hanna Rullmann, Laurie Treffers, Clive Vella, and Anna Zahn.


▲ An alleged Russian airstrike hits Jisr al Shoughour, May 22nd (via Mohammed Ghorab)


May 2019

Written by

Alex Hopkins

Following the capture of Al Baghouz and the defeat of ISIS as a territorial entity on March 23rd, US-led Coalition air and artillery strikes in Syria effectively stopped, while actions in Iraq have also heavily declined in recent months. Consequently, Airwars has not tracked a civilian casualty event in Syria assessed as likely caused by Coalition air or artillery strikes since March 21st. However civilian harm has been reported during counter terrorism raids.

The last known civilian harm event in Iraq was recorded on March 24th  – itself the first publicly alleged incident in that country since May 2018.

The Airwars mission to monitor all casualty allegations from international actions in Iraq and Syria remains unchanged – and we will continue to track civilian harm allegations in both countries when they occur, including from Turkey and Russia, which is again on the offensive. Our tracking of civilian harm from all belligerents in Libya also continues – with our team particularly busy monitoring the ongoing battle for control of Tripoli.

From this month, our assessments will also foreground strikes and claims of civilian harm from US counter-terrorism campaigns in Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan, with Airwars now taking over monitoring from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

In addition, our post-conflict work continues to expand. Launched in April, a major Airwars project with Amnesty International revealed that more than 1,600 civilians likely died as a result of Coalition strikes in the devastated city of Raqqa during 2017. Alongside this, our advocacy engagement with militaries and governments continues, as we seek answers on behalf of the most vulnerable peoples affected by war.

Major conflict monitoring


Libya’s two rival governments are engaged in a lethal struggle for control of that troubled nation’s capital. The Tripoli offensive of the rebel Libyan National Army (LNA) began on April 4th, with the month seeing a major spike in both airstrikes and civilian harm allegations. Throughout April Airwars tracked 156 airstrikes, and monitored reports of between 37 and 65 civilians killed.

The largest known share of victims came from airstrikes from the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), with between 14 and 22 civilians reported killed. LNA strikes reportedly resulted in a further 9 to 14 civilian deaths. For a further 14 to 25 civilian fatalities no blame could be apportioned, as many resulted from indiscriminate artillery shelling according to reports. Rapidly changing frontlines and disinformation about territorial control made events particularly hard to track.

In the worst known incident for April, up to 12 civilians were killed in Al-Swani south of Tripoli by indiscriminate artillery shelling. Five days later, up to 8 civilians were killed in Tripoli’s Abu Salim neighbourhood, likely by LNA shelling.

In addition, internationalising of the conflict now seems likely. Remnants of Chinese made missiles were found at the sites of several airstrikes in Tripoli, almost certainly fired by Wing Loong drones. Both the United Arab Emirates and Egypt operate Wing Loongs and back Khalifa Haftar’s LNA – though it is not presently known whether either or both nations was responsible for these attacks.

For its part, the LNA said it had captured a Portuguese mercenary pilot after reportedly shooting down a Mirage flown by a GNA-supporting faction based at Misurata. Both the LNA and GNA appear to be using mercenaries to fly lethal air sorties. And both have repeatedly been accused of receiving arms from foreign backers, in violation of the UN arms embargo.

After a month of fighting there was still no end in sight to the struggle between two rival governments. Territorial control had not significantly changed, contrary to the LNA’s stated expectation to take the capital within days. A protracted stalemate will place at further risk tens of thousands of civilians caught between the two sides.

Besides events in Tripoli, one civilian casualty event was recorded on April 2nd in Kufra in the extreme south of the country. Four civilians were allegedly killed by an unknown aircraft. Both the LNA and the US’s AFRICOM denied responsibility for the attack – although an LNA spokesman insisted the victims were “terrorists.”

Radwan Milad Attiya, reportedly killed by indiscriminate shelling on April 19th (Image via Tripoli Now)

Russia in Syria

As the net continued to tighten during the Assad government’s offensive against rebel forces in Idlib and Hama governorates in Syria, April saw a 30% increase in alleged Russian or regime civilian casualty events – though the number of claimed fatalities fell slightly on March.

In total, between 29 and 59 civilians were locally alleged killed across 26 events in April – compared to between 36 and 94 such fatalities across 20 events during the previous month. Of these 26 events, seven were assessed by Airwars as likely resulting from Russian actions, killing an estimated 7 to 15 civilians. For the remaining 15 incidents, reports were conflicted as to whether Russia or the Assad regime were to blame. Some 42% of April’s 26 events were in Idlib governorate, and a further 42% in Hama.

The worst incident of the month occurred on April 23rd, when up to nine civilians were reportedly killed and dozens more wounded in alleged Russian and regime strikes on Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib. Among the named fatalities were seven year old Ghazi Nahem, eight year old Yunus Ddo, and the little girl Aysha Makhzoum.

Aysha Makhzoum, killed in shelling on Khan Sehikoun on April 23rd (via Khan Sehikoun and its countryside lens Facebook page).

The US-led Coalition in Syria and Iraq

Following the announcement of ISIS’s defeat as a territorial entity in Syria on March 23rd, air and artillery strikes in Syria all but stopped. Between March 24th and May 4th the Coalition reported 23 strikes in Syria. No Syrian strikes have been publicly reported beyond that date, although counter-terrorism raids have continued.

For the first time since the start of anti-ISIS actions in August 2014, Airwars tracked no civilian harm events assessed as likely and caused by US-led Coalition air or artillery strikes in either Iraq or Syria during an entire month.

There were however two allegations of civilians killed in joint counter-terror raids by the US-led Coalition and the Syrian Democratic Forces. On April 13th, between one and five civilians were alleged killed in a joint landing operation involving the Coalition and the SDF at Al Takihi, Deir Ezzor. The raids reportedly targeted the home of an ISIS fighter; however, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, the victims were shot by SDF forces.

In a similar event at around 1 am on April 25th, up to six civilians including a family of four reportedly died in a joint operation by the SDF with air support from the Coalition  at Al Daman. According to Step the house of Farhan Mazhour al-Sarhan was raided, killing Farhan Mazhour Al Sarhan,  two of his adult sons and one of their wives (who was pregnant), Step alleged that the SDF fired on the house knowing that the victims were civilians. A reported eyewitness told Deir Ezzor24 that the SDF shot the family members “in cold blood”.

In a later post, Deir Ezzor 24 claimed that the Coalition and SDF held an extended meeting on May 18th with the families of victims of two “massacres”, the April 25th event in Al Daman and a later event on May 8th-9th in Al Shahil. During the meeting, which was also said to have been attended by tribal elders, the families pressed the Coalition to provide evidence that the victims had any links with ISIS – and to recognise that their intelligence had been incorrect.

Meanwhile, there were 41 strikes declared by the Coalition in Iraq between March 24th and April 20th (a 59% fall on the 99 strikes conducted in the previous four week period). Again, Airwars tracked publicly reported no civilian casualty events.

US counter-terrorism campaigns

Beginning in April, Airwars took over the monitoring of US drone strikes and reported civilian harm in three long-running counter-terrorism wars in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia. In the coming months, Airwars will be incorporating the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s invaluable 17-year archive into its own site – ensuring permanent and public accessibility.


The US has been carrying out covert strikes in Somalia since 2007, primarily focused on the Al-Qaeda-affiliated group Al-Shaabab. Additionally, US special forces continue their more recent campaign against ISIS in Somalia.

During April, AFRICOM says it carried out five airstrikes in Somalia. Three of these were on Al-Shaabab. They occurred on April 9th in the Jilib, Middle Juba region; on April 11th in the vicinity of Garowle, in the Lower Shabelle region; and on April 19th in the vicinity of Jamaame, in Lower Juba. Four Al-Shabaab terrorists were reportedly killed.

Additionally, there were two declared US airstrikes on ISIS. The first of these on April 14th reportedly killed the second-in-command of ISIS-Somalia, Abdulhakim Dhuqub, in the vicinity of Xiriiro, in Bari region. On April 26th, a precision airstrike reportedly killed three ISIS terrorists in the Golis Mountains, in the Puntland region. AFRICOM has informed Airwars that no civilians were currently assessed as having been killed or injured in any of these strikes.

Under Donald Trump’s presidency, US strikes in Somalia have continued to rise. In 2018, there were 43 declared strikes. AFRICOM tells Airwars that it has already conducted 33 airstrikes during the first five months of 2019. In addition to the five strikes in April, there were nine in January, 15 in February and four during March.

The US has only admitted to two civilian deaths (a woman and a child) from its actions in Somalia since 2007. This sole admission came on April 5th this year, and concerned a strike on April 1st 2018. Those conceded deaths came in response to a report by Amnesty alleging at least 14 non-combatant fatalities in five other incidents over the last two years. This illustrates both the importance of fieldwork in uncovering civilian harm -and the significant disparity in casualty estimates by monitors and AFRICOM.


According to CENTCOM, there were no US military strikes against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) during April. It is unknown whether the CIA separately carried out any attacks.

The first know US drone strike outside a regular battlefield took place in Yemen in 2002, killing six alleged Al Qaeda terrorists. In 2007, Al-Qaeda in Yemen and Al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia merged to form Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP), which then became the controversial focus of US covert and clandestine operations in Yemen under President Obama from 2009 onwards.

Yemeni soldiers and US airpower succeeded in removing AQAP from its strongholds. However, the group later became embroiled in the ongoing civil war – one of the greatest humanitarian crises of today, which killed or wounded almost 100 civilians per week during 2018, according to the UN.

US counter-terrorism strikes in Yemen have see-sawed in recent years. In the first 100 days of President Trump taking office more strikes hit Yemen than in 2015 and 2016 combined.

However CENTCOM told Airwars that it did not conduct any strikes in Yemen during April 2019. Its last two declared strikes were in Al Bayda on March 29th. The US military command assessed that no civilians were harmed in either of these actions. In total for 2019, CENTCOM says it has conducted eight strikes in Yemen (two in January and six in March). The January air strikes took place in Marib and Al Bayda governorates.

The US war against Al Qaeda in Yemen is only a small part of the conflicts wracking that nation. More than 8,400 civilians have credibly been reported killed in the ongoing Saudi-led air and ground war against the country’s Houthi government, according to the Yemen Data Project – which has been collecting and disseminating data on the war since 2016. And in April, Bellingcat launched its own investigative website examining Saudi-led strikes in Yemen.


There were no publicly alleged CIA strikes in Pakistan against either Al Qaeda or the Taliban during April.

The US began drone strikes in Pakistan in June 2004. These have been aimed at various groups including Al-Qaeda, the Pakistan Taliban, and the Haqqani Network. The US carried out 10 times more CIA drone strikes in Pakistan strikes under President Barack Obama than under George Bush. However, with the effective defeat of Al Qaeda Central and a decline in militant activity in Pakistan’s tribal areas, strikes have petered out in recent years.

In a blow to public accountability, in March of this year President Donald Trump revoked a key part of an Obama 2016 executive order, requiring US officials to publish annually the number of civilians killed in US drone strikes outside of war zones – describing the order as “superfluous”.

When contacted by Airwars and asked if the US had carried out any strikes in April, the Pentagon said it had “nothing to report on airstrikes in Pakistan”.



At least 1,600 civilians died in the battle of Raqqa – ten times more than the Coalition concedes. That  was the key finding of a major new study by Amnesty International and Airwars which published in April. The groundbreaking project, which combined Amnesty’s extensive fieldwork with Airwars’ rigorous remote monitoring of the Raqqa campaign, offers the most methodical estimate to date of the death toll from the US-led battle to retake the city from ISIS.

War in Raqqa: Rhetoric versus Reality identified almost 500 incidents of civilian harm from alleged Coalition actions, and named 1,000 victims. Amnesty launched a new data-led website to expose the scale of destruction from Coalition strikes on the city. There was also an interactive exhibition at the Architectural Association in London, which included a 360 degree tour of the shattered ruins of the ancient city. This was accompanied by a series of lectures on Raqqa and modern warfare.

There was significant media pickup of the project’s findings, across multiple languages. The Coalition tells Airwars that it is currently assessing 95 Raqqa events referred to its assessors by Amnesty.

Our geolocation team also showcased the Raqqa project’s findings at a workshop in Rotterdam at the Het Nieuwe Instituut, focusing on architecture and investigative journalism. The event specifically explored how satellite image analysis and open source materials are used in our advocacy work to investigate civilian harm claims. 

Talking through geolocation examples and what to look for in photos to locate them in satellite imagery – how would the features in the photo appear from above and which would be significant? Trees, buildings under construction, building heights, power lines.

— Alison Killing (@alisonkilling) May 4, 2019

During April, Airwars’ Netherlands-based conflict researcher and advocacy officer Maike Awater also attended a NATO conference on Cultural Property Protection. The event brought together experts from various domains, including NGOs, policy makers, academics and military personnel.

Back in London, former UK Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson announced to Parliament on April 8th that the MoD would discontinue reporting on “airstrikes” and instead start reporting on each weapon release. This small but positive move was welcomed by Airwars. Along with other NGOs, we have repeatedly stressed that weapon releases are a more useful metric for monitoring intensity of bombardment than the imprecise term ‘airstrike’ – which might refer to multiple weapons fired across a number of engagements.

The US-led Coalition in Iraq and Syria conceded a further 34 civilian deaths in April, bringing the total number of admitted fatalities across the war against ISIS to 1,291. It noted that it is still investigating 122 incidents of alleged civilian harm.

An interview with Mohammed Othman Aswad, the only survivor of an alleged Coalition airstrike on his home in Raqqa, June 28th 2017 (via Amnesty International)

Additional reporting: Maike Awater, Abbie Cheeseman, Hanna Rullmann and Osama Mansour.

Conflict monitoring and assessments (April): Ali Abbas Ahmadi, Maike Awater, Poppy Bowers, Laura Bruun, Abbie Cheeseman, Shihab Halep, Salim Habib, Harry Holmes, Alex Hopkins, Oliver Imhof, Osama Mansour, Hanna Rullmann, Laurie Treffers, Clive Vella, and Anna Zahn.

▲ Smoke rises above Jisr Al Shougur following an alleged Russian strike from a battleship off the coast of Latakia, April 9th 2019 (via LCCSY)


May 2019

Written by

Alex Hopkins

Conflict monitoring

After 56 months of war, March finally saw the defeat of ISIS as a territorial entity when the town of Al Baghouz in Deir Ezzor governorate fell to Coalition-backed Syrian Democratic Forces on March 23rd. However, this final intense month of fighting came at what appeared to be significant cost to civilians on the ground.

March was marked by reports of increasingly distressing, mass casualty incidents in the ISIS-held Al Baghouz camp, culminating in a catastrophic event between March 18th and 19th which killed at least 160 civilians according to local monitors. As a result, March saw a 253% hike in minimum likely deaths from alleged Coalition strikes in Syria on the previous month.

March also saw international strikes in Iraq more than double on February – and the first Coalition civilian casualty event tracked by Airwars in the country since May 2018. But with the alliance having slashed public transparency for its actions it remains impossible to know where Coalition strikes occurred – and, crucially, whether they resulted in civilian harm.

Meanwhile, civilians trapped in Syria’s Idlib governorate found themselves in increased danger from Russian air power. Airwars researchers tracked an 82% rise in casualty events linked to Moscow – the highest number of incidents in a month since September 2018. Up to 94 civilians were alleged killed by either Russia or the Assad regime in March – compared to a maximum of 56 such deaths in February.

Coalition actions fall in Syria – but remain intense

Multiple pauses to allow civilians to leave Al Baghouz in March delayed a final declaration of victory. Just days after resuming the assault on the town, the offensive slowed once again on March 4th as a secondary humanitarian corridor was opened. According to the SDF on March 5th, 3,000 people were evacuated in just a day – figures which, once again, showed that the Coalition’s estimates of the number of civilians trapped in this scrap of land were way off the mark.

The assault resumed on March 10th, and the SDF finally seized the heart of ISIS’s al Baghouz camp – the terror group’s last populated slice of territory – on March 18th-19th. However, skirmishes continued. By March 20th, US President Donald Trump was stating that “the Caliphate is gone as of tonight” – though the SDF and US officials initially exercised more caution. Victory was formally declared by the SDF in a ceremony on March 23rd.

#BREAKING: This is the moment #SDF raised its flag and declared victory over #ISIL in #Baghouz, #Syria minutes ago. After almost 6 years of war, finally the #ISIL/ #Daesh lost its whole territory today and the war on this terror group entered in its next stage an hour ago.

— Babak Taghvaee (@BabakTaghvaee) March 23, 2019

Between February 24th and March 23rd, the Coalition conducted 290 air and artillery strikes in Syria – a 21% fall on the 365 strikes carried out between January 27th and February 23rd. On average, this was 10 strikes per day (down from an average of 13 strikes per day in the previous 28-day period of January 27th to February 23rd). While the tempo of strikes fell, the Coalition bombardment, now focused entirely on a tiny slice of land no larger than a few football pitches in Al Baghouz, remained intense.

According to AFCENT, 900 munitions were released from the air across Iraq and Syria during March 2019 – a 48% rise on February’s 607 munitions.

Continuing the trend of the entire war, the US remained responsible for the vast majority of these strikes during March – and most probably for the majority of associated civilian harm claims.

There was small increase in airstrikes by the UK. The MoD reported approximately 5 to 9 airstrikes in Syria – up from two in February. France meanwhile reported two airstrikes in Syria, down from six in February. There were also six missions by France’s artillery forces in the Euphrates Valley – the same number as for February. The number of strikes conducted by Iraq within Syria in March is not known.

Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation for tens of thousands of Syrians who had managed to flee Al Baghouz remained dire. By March 22nd, Al Hol refugee camp reportedly contained 74,000 refugees – up from 11,000 three months previously. According to UNICEF, some 3,000 ISIS children were housed in camps in north-east Syria by March 13th.

A US Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon refuels from a 28th Expeditionary Aerial Refuelling Squadron KC-135 Stratotanker, March 1st 2019. (via US Air Force)

Likely civilian deaths from Coalition actions in Syria more than triple

In March, civilian casualty incidents linked to the Coalition in Syria rose significantly. Overall, Airwars researchers tracked 15 reported casualty events, compared to seven in the previous month. Of these 15 events – all of which were in Al Baghouz  – twelve are presently assessed as being fairly reported. An event is assessed by Airwars as ‘Fair’ when it involves two or more uncontested and credible public sources, in addition to confirmation where possible that the Coalition carried out strikes in the vicinity that date.

Airwars tracking reveals a 253% leap in minimum likely deaths from the US-led alliance’s actions on February’s minimum figures.  Airwars currently estimates that between 268 and 752 civilians likely died across these 12 Syrian events – a massive increase of 253% on the minimum of 76 civilians likely killed in February. More worrying still, of these 268 civilians at least 59 were children and 14 were women, according to locals. As many as 284 additional civilians were also reported wounded.

As in February however, reporting from the ground remained poor and often confused.  Yet as images of charred bodies and mass graves emerged from the Al Baghouz camp, it became clear – as it has repeatedly throughout this fierce war – that civilians had endured great suffering as part of the final effort to secure a territorial victory over ISIS.

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Coalition incidents of concern in Al Baghouz camp

Disturbing reports began emerging from ISIS-held Al Baghouz camp within the first few days of March – and both the severity and scale of the civilian harm only increased as the month wore on.

Airwars tracked the first of 15 casualty incidents in the camp likely the work of the US-led alliance on March 3rd. Local media reported that the Coalition struck an ammunition depot that caused a large explosion in the camp. According to Hamah Now, up to 250 civilians were killed and wounded in this one event, though the Twitter account sakeraldeen put the number much lower, reporting the “burning of dozens of children and women” when the only field hospital tent in the camp was allegedly hit.

Small arms fire and Coalition air and artillery strikes on Al Baghouz on March 3rd 2019 (via SDF Press).

On March 10th-11th between 50 and 70 civilians – mostly women and children – were also reportedly killed and dozens more wounded when “devastating bombs of enormous proportions” hit the vicinity of the camp in the early hours of the morning. According to Syrian state media Sana News, the strikes “targeted dozens of families” who were attempting to escape areas besieged by ISIS fighters. Despite all sources attributing blame to the US-led Coalition, its spokesman Colonel Sean Ryan told Arabic RT News that the alliance saw “no evidence of casualties among civilians”.

The aftermath of alleged Coalition strikes which hit Al Baghouz camp in the early hours of March 10th-11th 2019. (via @as_saabireen)

Only a few days later, on March 13th, another alleged Coalition airstrike on the al Baghouz camp killed up to 100 more civilians, according to local media. The lowest death count of 20 was given by the twitter account Christian Turner, who said that “warplanes attacked displaced persons and their cars”, though several sources put the number killed as high as 100. Mu’adh Muhammad al-Ali al-Daham, reportedly a prominent ISIS journalist, was claimed killed along with two civilians – a child and his mother, reportedly of French origin.

? 2 ÈME AVIS DE RECHERCHE.Cet enfant Français est gravement blessé il est entre la vie et la mort en Syrie.

Il réclame une certaine « Marianne » peut être sa grand mère.

Merci de partager afin de retrouver sa famille en France ou de procéder à son identification en urgence !

— Idriss Sihamedi☝? (@IdrissSihamedi) March 14, 2019

Tweet from @IdrissSihamedi that reads: “This French child is seriously injured. He is between life and death in Syria”.

According to local media, some time between March 18th and 19th, between 160 and 300 more civilians died in yet another  “massacre” at the camp.

Reporting was however confused, and only two sources specified exact death counts. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 200 people including members of ISIS and their families died in Coalition shelling of the camp on Tuesday March 19th. Of these, the Observatory said that 160 were civilians including 45 children. The victims were then reportedly buried on the morning of Wednesday March 20th.

On March 20th, Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently published several pictures alongside a report that alleged the SDF “dug mass graves to bury those killed and even those merely injured” after taking control of Al-Baghouz.

However, Nors For Studies (an Arabic-language source which describes itself as a Syrian research centre though which was not known for casualty claims in Deir Ezzor until very recently) put the death toll at a staggering 300 civilians, a figure then tweeted by others. There were also claims that of these 300, some had been killed by “sniping”, though Eldorar went on to give some context to the claim by Nors for Studies, reporting on March 20th that “the camps of Al Baghouz have witnessed campaigns of genocide during the past 24 because of strikes by the Air Alliance [the US-led Coalition].”

Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently noted that ISIS had used “hundreds of civilians as human shields during the raids”. In a shocking assertion, the local source also claimed that “immediately after taking control of the town [Al Baghouz], SDF militias dug mass graves to bury those killed and even those merely injured.”

Al Hasaka Arabea claimed that journalists had been prevented from entering the vicinity by “the intelligence service of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party”, who had reportedly removed  “the bodies from the massacres committed by the Kurdish protection units” in a convoy of trucks.

The full story of what occurred in Al Baghouz camp on March 18th-19th, remains unclear, though grisly footage indicates a devastating civilian casualty incident which requires urgent investigation. Moreover, the intensity of bombing in Al Baghouz, coupled with the Coalition’s failure to accurately estimate the number of families still trapped in the area, suggests that little had been learned from the earlier battles for Raqqa and Mosul in 2017.

The aftermath of alleged Coalition shelling on Al Baghouz camp, March 18th-19th, in which at least 160 civilians allegedly died (via RBSS)

Coalition incidents of concern in Iraq

While Coalition actions in Syria declined during March, for the third straight month strikes in Iraq increased. Between February 24th and March 23rd, the Coalition reported 99 strikes in Iraq – a 120% rise on the 45 strikes conducted in the previous four week period. However, with the Coalition refusing to now declare where they had carried out strikes it was impossible to assess whether any of these actions might have resulted in nearby civilian harm.

This was particularly worrying given that during March Aiwars tracked the first publicly reported civilian casualty event reportedly carried out by the US-led Coalition in Iraq since May 2018. On March 24th, a girl was reported killed and a man injured when an airstrike was carried out on a house in Al-Oudan district, north of Rutba, Anbar province, Iraq.

The actions were believed to have been carried out by American forces, according to 24news. agency. Other members of the family were reportedly arrested, though the reason remains unknown.

Russia in Syria: an 82% rise in casualty events

As the Assad government’s offensive against rebels continued in Idlib governorate, Airwars tracked 20 publicly reported civilian harm events in Syria during March allegedly linked to Russia – an 82% rise on the 11 events seen in February. This marked the highest number of claimed incidents in any one calendar month since September 2018.

In total, between 36 and 94 civilians were alleged killed in these twenty March events – compared to between 29 and 56 such fatalities during the previous month.

However, unlike in February when all events were assessed by Airwars as Contested, – with allegations against both Russia and the Assad regime, and with claims against the regime in many cases outweighing those against Moscow – March saw a sharp rise in incidents assessed as likely carried out by Russia alone. Overall, there were 10 such events, counting for between 25 and 63 civilian deaths.

All but three of March’s events were in Idlib governorate, where residential areas of Idlib city itself and villages on its outskirts came under intense fire, resulting in several disturbing mass casualty claims.

On March 13th, between eight and 17 civilians including as many as eight children and four women across multiple families died in alleged Russia airstrike on residential areas in Idlib city, reportedly striking the al Kasih area in the middle of the city and the Al Qousor area. Fatalities included three very young children from the Hawana family along with two teenagers from the Zair family.

A wounded child following an alleged Russian strike on Idlib, March 13th 2019 (via SN4HR)

In the worst alleged Russian casualty incident of the month, as many as 28 civilians died and up to 30 more were injured in what Baladi said were up to “15 successive Russian strikes” on the towns of Kafriya and Al Fou’a in Idlib on March 22nd. Multiple sources reported the use of cluster bombs, while Orient News noted that civilian infrastructure including residential neighbourhoods, markets and mosques were targeted. One victim was named as 50-year-old Ali Wahid Qalla.

The White Helmets remove a child from the rubble after an alleged Russian airstrike on Kafriya and Al Fou’a, March 22nd 2019 (via Syrian Network for Human Rights)


There was only one airstrike reported in Libya in March, conducted by an unknown plane near Brak and allegedly killing three ISIS militants on March 4th.

This low number of reported incidents amounted to the quiet before the storm, as LNA and GNA battled for control of Tripoli during April. According to some, Libya is currently teetering on the verge of its third civil war since 2011, with severe clashes putting civilians significantly at risk.


Military advocacy

The Coalition, unusually, assessed just one civilian casualty incident in March, conceding that two civilians were injured in an event in Rawa, Iraq in September 2017. The original claim of civilian harm had come from a single local source with an unknown casualty toll – an allegation Airwars had provisionally assessed as weak.

The Coalition’s recent confirmation of civilian harm in this event has highlighted both the importance of listening to affected communities, as well as the value of rigorous assessments by militaries

Elsewhere, our military advocacy team spoke at BBC Connected in London, where their presentation focused on how Airwars has frequently challenged the Coalition’s narrative of “precision warfare” through its own monitoring of the digital testimonies of local affected communities.

Next up is @sophiecdyer talking about the work of @airwars #BBCnewsHACK

— BBC Connected Studio (@BBC_Connected) March 26, 2019

European advocacy

March 20th marked the second anniversary of the most deadly Coalition action in Syria in the war against ISIS – an airstrike on the Al Badiya school in Al Mansoura which was  in use as an IDP shelter. At the time of the incident, local sources reported an alarmingly high numbers of civilian fatalities, coupled with photo and video evidence. Airwars assessed this incident at the time as most likely having caused significant civilian harm. However it would take many months for the US-led Coalition to take responsibility.

In the absence of a credible Coalition assessment, two major investigations into al Mansoura were then conducted. On the ground research by Human Rights Watch identified 40 of the civilian victims, while stating that many more were likely killed. And according to estimates by the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, the strike most likely killed over a 150 civilians. The Coalition nevertheless denied that the airstrike had killed civilians until 18 months after the event, when it finally admitted responsibility for the 40 named civilians identified by HRW.

Germany, as part of the international alliance against ISIS, had acknowledged its own role in the strike by providing intelligence on the target site to the Coalition command, as well as battle damage assessment flights after the attack.

In commemoration of the event, German television network WDR covered the incident in a feature that aired on March 14th, which included an interview with our Netherlands-based advocacy officer on Airwars’ own assessment of the incident, and our reflection on the culpability of Coalition allies which provide intelligence which in turn result in civilian harm eventss.

Also marking the second anniversary of the event, the European Center for Constitutional Rights and Airwars hosted a panel discussion in Berlin, with experts from Human Rights Watch, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, the Syrian Network for Human Rights, and PAX discussing the important investigations conducted into al Mansoura, and recommendations for preventing such incidents occurring in future conflict.

"When do we get governments to disclose more information on civilian casualties resulting from air strikes in Syria? How do we challenge failure of duty to investigate?" Tremendous discussion on transparency and accountability at @ECCHRBerlin

— Natalia Benedetti (@_NBenedetti_) March 20, 2019

Additional reporting: Maike Awater, Abbie Cheeseman and Osama Mansour.

Conflict monitoring and assessments (March): Ali Abbas Ahmadi, Maike Awater, Poppy Bowers, Laura Bruun, Abbie Cheeseman, Sophie Dyer, Shihab Halep, Salim Habib, Harry Holmes, Alex Hopkins, Oliver Imhof, Osama Mansour, Hanna Rullmann, Abdulwahab Tahhan, Laurie Treffers, Clive Vella, and Anna Zahn.

▲ The aftermath of alleged Coalition shelling of Al Baghouz camp, March 18th - 19th 2019, which allegedly killed dozens of civilians (via Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently)


April 2019

Written by

Alex Hopkins

Conflict monitoring

During February, civilian harm claims against the US-led Coalition in Syria continued to be a major problem. The month saw several alarming large-scale casualty incidents in the town of Baghouz – the last territorial holdout in Syria for so-called Islamic State (ISIS) – meaning that the likely death toll from Coalition actions in February rose by 27% on the previous month.

Alarmingly, the February also saw a tripling in claimed deaths from alleged Russian and/ or Syrian government actions on January’s estimates. As Assad’s forces stepped up their campaign against rebel forces in north-west Syria, Airwars tracked six reported casualty events in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib. While the majority of sources attributed the civilian harm to regime artillery, there were also allegations against Russia. Up to 56 civilians were claimed killed in contested events implicating both the Assad government and Russia in February – compared to a maximum of 18 such deaths in January.

Coalition actions and reported civilian casualties

During February, ISIS’s former extensive ‘caliphate’ was reduced to just one town in eastern Syria, Al Baghouz. On February 9th, following a week-long pause to allow civilians times to flee, SDF ground forces backed by US-led Coalition air and artillery strikes, again announced a ‘final’ operation to seize the town.

By February 12th, it was estimated that 20,000 civilians had fled ISIS-held areas within recent weeks. By February 16th, ISIS was now reportedly cornered within a 600-700 square metre area of the town. Thousands of civilians still remained trapped, taken as hostage and used as human shields by ISIS or simply refusing to leave – once more postponing any declaration of victory.

Intensity of Coalition strikes in Al Baghouz pocket

A slowdown in the SDF’s advance was reflected in Coalition strike numbers in February. A total of 365 air and artillery strikes were conducted in Syria from January 27th to February 23rd according to official data,  a 70% fall on the previous four week period. Munitions dropped from the air also fell by 70% on January. According to AFCENT, 607 air released bombs and missiles were fired across Iraq and Syria during February – compared to 2,005 munitions the previous month.


This steep fall in strikes may be misleading as an indicator of the intensity of Coalition activity within the tiny Al Baghouz pocket. An Airwars analysis of both strikes and engagements in the so-called  MERV indicates a 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 deadly period of that battle. The Coalition had that month declared 152 strikes on the city, an average of five strikes per day.

Even in February 2019, – a month in which Coalition actions dropped steeply – there were still on average over two and a half times as many strikes per day reported in Al Baghouz than were seen at Mosul.

The intensity of the Coalition’s assault often placed civilians on the ground in grave danger. Indeed, Airwars tracking indicates that the number of civilians likely killed by Coalition strikes in February rose by 27% on January’s minimum figures. Our current estimate is that between 76 and 128 civilians were slain in Coalition actions in Deir Ezzor throughout February. This rise was largely the result of one catastrophic mass casualty event in Al Baghouz on February 11th, which reportedly killed up to 100 civilians – and was the worst reported Coalition civilian casualty incident tracked by Airwars in Syria since June 2017.

As strikes continued to rain down on the town, Airwars once more urged the Coalition to take better steps to protect the most vulnerable Syrians on the ground, while Human Rights Watch expressed grave concern for those attempting to escape ISIS during its  last stand. On February 19th, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights warned that hundreds of families were still trapped in the Baghouz pocket and called for safe passage.

For those who did manage to escape, the humanitarian situation remained bleak. The UN estimated that since December 2018, approximately 45,000 people – many of them women and children – had fled the Hajin and Al Baghouz areas, arriving at the Al Hor camp in Hassakah malnourished, sick, and in dire need of medical attention.

US Army Soldiers assigned to the 3rd Cavalry Regiment, fire their M777 howitzer during counter-fire operations at Firebase Saham, Iraq, December 18th 2018. (via US Army)

While there was a sharp drop in actions in Syria in February, for the second consecutive month, air and artillery strikes in Iraq instead increased. Between January 27th and February 23rd the Coalition reported 45 strikes – more than double the 22 actions publicly declared in Iraq between January 1st-26th. However, with the Coalition having ended transparency for its actions it was no longer possible to determine where these strikes had occurred – and whether they might have caused civilian harm. This was particularly alarming given the relatively steep rise in strike numbers.

Actions by the UK and France, the remaining international partners in the US-led alliance, continued to fall during February. The UK reported just two airstrikes in Syria, down from 19 the previous month. Additionally, it conducted one airstrike in Iraq, on a cave ten miles east of Tal Afar. The month also saw the withdrawal of eight British Tornados from the fight – though RAF Reapers and Typhoons remained in theatre.

Paris reported six airstrikes near Hajin, a 75% fall on the 24 actions conducted in January. There was also a significant reduction (87%) in actions by France’s artillery forces in the Euphrates Valley: six missions were conducted in February by Task Force Wagram, compared to 114 the previous month.

YPG-released footage of airstrikes on an ISIS camp in Al Baghouz, Feb 21st (via YPG Press Office)

The Coalition in Syria: likely civilian deaths rise by 27%

Throughout February, Airwars researchers tracked a total of seven incidents of concern blamed on the Coalition – a 56% fall on the 16 events tracked during January. All seven of these incidents are presently assessed as being fairly reported. An event is assessed by Airwars as ‘Fair’ when it involves two or more uncontested and credible public sources, in addition to confirmation where possible that the Coalition carried out strikes in the vicinity that day.

However, the minimum number of estimated deaths across these seven incidents increased by 27% on January’s minimum figures. Airwars’ current estimate is that between 76 and 128 civilians likely died in these seven events, compared to between 60 and 118 civilians likely killed during January.

Given a collapse in local reporting in Syria, these figures may nevertheless represent an under-estimate of civilian harm. “The information coming out of Al Baghouz was very scarce,” explains Abdulwahab Tahhan from the Airwars Syria team. “Our daily monitoring showed that air and artillery strikes were ongoing, with the possibility that details of many more civilian deaths might emerge once ISIS was defeated and aid organisations able fully to enter the area. This is what we saw in Raqqa, where many more civilian fatalities were uncovered once ISIS had been driven out of the city.”

Coalition incidents of concern in Syria

As fierce clashes occurred in ISIS’s last stronghold, civilians trapped on the ground were repeatedly placed in a perilous position throughout February. Of the seven events tracked in the month, four of them were in Al Baghouz.

In the first Al Baghouz incident, one woman died on February 1st when the Coalition allegedly struck a residential building in the town. Surrounding houses were also reportedly damaged. One source, Suriye UAD, said that Coalition warplanes had struck a mosque, though no other reports supported this claim.

On February 9th, between three and five civilians died in an alleged Coalition airstrike on Al Tayyana town according to local media. Euphrates Post reported that ISIS had attacked the al Omar oil field by motorcycle, after which the Coalition carried out several airstrikes which also killed three civilians and wounded others. Horrya News put the civilian death toll higher, at five.

Just two days later, on February 11th, Al Baghouz again came under intense fire, with Airwars tracking three separate and increasingly severe claimed casualty events in the town. In the first, four civilians died when Coalition jets allegedly struck houses on the outskirts of the town, according to sources including Dama Spots and Saba News. @DeirEzzor24 reported that the fatalities included two children and two women (though Elrabi Elyoum instead claimed that four men had died).

In the second event, a further 16 civilians were reported killed in Coalition air or artillery strikes. Multiple sources including Al Souria and Middle East Online said the victims included seven children and eight women. One man was also reported killed.

Finally, between 50 and 100 civilians were reported slain in another alleged Coalition airstrike on Al Baghouz – making this the most catastrophic alleged event Airwars had tracked in Syria since June 2017. Most sources reported that the majority of the victims were women and children, though only Syria TV gave specific figures, claiming that among the dead were two women and two children. According to SANA News, which is affiliated with the Assad government, Coalition warplanes had reportedly struck a camp for displaced persons though there was some confusion regarding the exact date. SANA placed the incident on February 12th, while LCCSY reported the incident a day earlier.

Photo of the news published by A’maq agency, an ISIS propaganda news channel (via Alsouria).

Coalition incidents of concern in Iraq

There were no known publicly reported incidents of concern in Iraq during February which resulted from US-led Coalition actions.

Russia and the Assad government in Syria

 In February, Airwars tracked 11 publicly reported civilian harm events in Syria allegedly linked to Russia – one event less than during January. However, the minimum number of claimed deaths more than tripled on January’s estimates. In total, between 29 and 56 civilians were alleged killed across these 11 February events – compared to between 9 and 18 civilians during the previous month.

All of these events were assessed by Airwars as Contested, involving allegations against both Russia and the Assad regime. In most cases, claims against regime artillery outweighed those reports blaming Russia – though there were also allegations that Russian forces were conducting artillery strikes.

February saw Assad’s forces ramping up their assault on north-west Syria, with a sharp rise in strikes on towns in northern Hama and Idlib governorates. Of the 11 events tracked by Airwars in February, 64% were in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib, which the director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdulrahman, said had been turned into “a ghost town”.

On February 15th, in what local media described as “a massacre”, up to 14 civilians including up to six children and four women died in alleged Russian or Assad government artillery strikes on Khan Sheikhoun. According to Baladi, regime forces “stationed in the village of Abu Dali shelled the city of Khan Sheikhoun with artillery and missile shells” resulting in “a massacre” of eight civilians.

Most sources joined Baladi in pointing to the regime. However, Smart News and Kafr Zeita blamed Russia. The White Helmets said that “25 rocket launchers” had attacked the city, and put the death toll at nine. @abuhuzaifa tweeted that children had been burned alive in fires. Sources named multiple fatalities from the Al-Aindani and Al Ayan families among those killed.

An unnamed child killed in an alleged Syria regime or Russian artillery strike on Khan Sheikhoun, February 15th 2019 (via Khan Sheikhoun)

Four days later on February 19th, in an event again most likely caused by government shelling, another five civilians reportedly died in Khan Sheikhoun. Khaleej  Online noted that this was “the third day in a row” that regime forces had bombarded the town, adding that the death toll had now “soared to 20 civilians, mostly women and children” – with “dozens” more wounded. Ahrar tweeted that 50 shells were fired on the town. While most sources attributed the civilian harm to the regime, the Step News Agency noted that Russia was also carrying out artillery strikes.

Clouds of smoke rise from Khan Sheikhoun following an alleged Assad regime artillery strike on February 19th (via Ahrar)

Strikes continued to rain down on Khan Sheikhoun for the remainder of the month, and on February 23rd as many as seven more civilians including two children and two women were reportedly killed. Once more, there was disagreement over responsibility: the Syrian Network for Human Rights named Mrs. Adiba Baroud  as killed by a “regime missile launcher”, though Smart News reported that a child died in shelling by Russian forces. Multiple sources published graphic images of victims. Other victims were named as Huthayfa Diop (a young man), his daughter Hala Huthayfa Diop and another child, Muhammad Hassan al-Kurdi.

The White Helmets search rubble for survivors following a strike on Khaan Sheikhoun on February 13th (via @abuhuzaifa_ )


In February, the situation in Libya remained unstable. There were 13 reported airstrikes conducted in various locations across the country.

An ongoing military operation in the south by the rebel LNA intensified in the towns of Murzuq and Ghodwa. The LNA reportedly conducted 10 airstrikes in the region, including at El Fil, Murzuq and Ghodwa. Airwars recorded one instance of reported civilian harm from these LNA actions, with an elderly man claimed killed and a seven-year-old girl wounded in Murzuq town.

Despite ongoing violence at Derna city, media coverage there remained poor. According to Human Rights Watch, as a result of clashes during February in the Old City, at least four women and three children were killed.

Additionally, the US apparently conducted a covert airstrike on February 13th which targeted an al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) convoy in Ubari town. Following the strike, the spokesman for the GNA publicly confirmed that the US had conducted the attack. However, when Airwars reached out to AFRICOM to seek confirmation, officials denied taking part in the raid. However, With the GNA standing by its statement that the US conducted the strike, this suggested the attack may have been a covert  and undeclared mission by the CIA.

Elsewhere, reports said an airstrike was conducted near the Libya-Egypt border; with the Egyptian air force blamed. Additionally, there was a strike carried out by an unknown party in Zliten city near Tripoli, in the west of Libya.


Military advocacy

February saw the Coalition concede 54 civilian additional deaths linked to the 2017 Battle of Raqqa, originating from six Airwars incident reports and one mass casualty event first published by Amnesty International.. These new admissions represented a 33% increase in the number of civilian deaths acknowledged by the international alliance for that battle. While the official death tally now stands at 159, this is far below the Airwars minimum estimate of 1,500 to 2,000 civilian deaths from Coalition actions at Raqqa.

In total, Operation Inherent Resolve had recognised the deaths of at least 1,257 civilians across the four year campaign in Iraq and Syria to the end of February, noting that it was still investigating a further 182 alleged incidents of civilian harm.

An Airwars animation of declared Operation Inherent Resolve strikes prior to December 2018 – when the Coalition stopped publishing the dates and locations of its actions – went viral in February. The original video and its call for the Coalition to reinstate transparency, saw more than 600,000 engagements across Twitter and Facebook, and was re-posted in multiple languages including Arabic, Turkish, French, Spanish and German.

The awareness-raising video, created in collaboration with the Scottish design studio Rectangle, was picked up internationally by commentators, analysts and correspondents.

Airwars tracked & mapped every single Coalition anti-ISIS air & artillery strike (all 32,000) in Iraq & Syria from 2014 to 2018. That ended December 16th when the US-led alliance stopped saying where & when it bombs. For the sake of transparency, @CJTFOIR should reverse decision.

— Airwars (@airwars) February 5, 2019

European advocacy

In February, our Netherlands-based advocacy officer Maike Awater engaged with MPs from political parties in the Netherlands in preparation for a round table discussion with policy experts. This focused in particular on good practice examples of transparency and accountability policies from allies in the international Coalition against ISIS.

Additionally, Maike met with other civic society actors in Belgium, to explore possible approaches to raising awareness of Belgian military transparency issues. With operational concerns often cited by the Belgium government as a reason for poor transparency, discussions focused on whether new opportunities for engagement might emerge once ISIS was defeated as a territorial entity.

Also discussed was the importance of re-engaging in dialogue with political parties in Belgium during upcoming elections. Talks also included a discussion of  standardised policies on civilian harm monitoring, assessments and compensation mechanisms for affected civilians on the battlefield.

Additional reporting: Maike Awater, Sophie Dyer, and Osama Mansour.

Conflict monitoring and assessments (February): Ali Abbas Ahmadi, Maike Awater, Poppy Bowers, Laura Bruun, Abbie Cheeseman, Sophie Dyer, Shihab Halep, Salim Habib, Harry Holmes, Alex Hopkins, Oliver Imhof, Osama Mansour, Hanna Rullmann, Abdulwahab Tahhan, Laurie Treffers, Clive Vella, and Anna Zahn.


March 2019

Written by

Alex Hopkins

Conflict monitoring

In January 2019, the noose further tightened around ISIS in the last remaining scraps of territory it held in Syria’s Deir Ezzor governorate. By February 5th, there were an it was claimewd as few as 1,000 fighters in ISIS’s stronghold within a 20-sqaure-mile area near the southern Euphrates Rivers and the Iraqi border, according to US Central Command (CENTCOM) Commander General Joseph Votel – though he added that between 20,000 and 30,000 fighters might remain in the region, mostly dispersed and underground.

Civilian harm claims also continued against the US-led assault. While January saw a 34% month on month fall in civilian casualties likely caused by Coalition actions, Airwars’ current estimate is that between 60 and 118 civilians were nevertheless killed by Coalition fire throughout the month.

Following President Donald Trump’s shock December announcement of a Syrian withdrawal, the US reportedly began to pull equipment (though not troops) out of Syria on January 11th. While it claimed this would not impact its strategic goals in the country, few indications were given of how such promises might translate in practical terms.

The withdrawal announcement did not diminish Coalition actions during the month. The US-led alliance reported 1,220 air and artillery strikes between January 1st and January 26th – a 30% rise on the 939 strikes conducted in December 2018 – and with all of this fire power concentrated on just a few towns in eastern Syria.

However in a worrying development, even as strikes accelerated the Coalition abandoned a 52-month record of stating where and when its actions occur in Iraq and Syria. Airwars protested to both the Coalition’s commanding general and to senior Pentagon officials about what it described as a short-sighted move, which would be felt most keenly by affected civilians on the ground.

For ordinary Syrians still trapped in Deir Ezzor the humanitarian situation was unremittingly dire. Reports from the ground suggested that as many as 4,000 families were on the move in ISIS-occupied areas, as heavy Coalition fire rained down. Those attempting to flee both ISIS and Coalition air and artillery strikes risked death or starvation.

After almost four months of tracking no allegations against Russia in Syria, January 2019 saw a significant rise in casualty events allegedly involving Russian warplanes. Airwars researchers tracked 13 incidents during the month, the majority of which were in Idlib and Hama governorates.

While there were a number of distressing events tied to Russia in January, it is noteworthy that the death tolls for these events were always in single figures, with a maximum of two or three civilians claimed killed per event. These Russian figures were dwarfed by the kind of large-scale casualty events often attributed to the US-led Coalition in Syria during January.

A Coalition Forces member launches an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle near Hajin, Syria, January 8th 2019 (via US Army)

Coalition actions and reported civilian casualties

January saw a 30% increase in declared Coalition air and artillery strikes in eastern Syria. From January 1st to January 26th, 1,220 strikes were conducted, compared to 939 in December 2018. This is the highest number of strikes in any given month since September 2017 –  all of which were centred on the few villages and towns still held by ISIS.

For the first time in six months, actions in Iraq also increased, though from a very low base. There were 22 Coalition strikes declared throughout January (up from 16 in December 2018). While these likely focused on more rural areas as ISIS attempted to reform, with public transparency slashed by the alliance it was impossible to say for certain where these occurred – and for Airwars to cross-match any potential civilian harm events.

The UK’s Ministry of Defence publicly reported details of an estimated 19 airstrikes in Syria for January and two in Iraq. The same web page listed an estimated 37 UK airstrikes conducted in Syria for December 2018 – almost all of them near Hajin. The MoD reported that Thursday  January 31st saw “the  last operational sorties by Tornado GR4s”, though they would continue to fly armed reconnaissance patrols, “on hand to support the SDF if required”. The UK continued to fly strike missions with its Typhoons and Reaper drones.

Actions by France also fell significantly. In the four week period from January 1st to 29th, Paris reported 24 airstrikes in Syria centred around Hajin – a 20% drop on the 31 airstrikes conducted in the previous four week period. Actions by France’s artillery in the Euphrates Valley fell by 11% on the previous four week period, with a total of 114 shooting missions declared during the month.

With this steep fall in strikes by the UK and France – and likiely a limited number of air actions by Iraq into Syria – it is reasonable to assume that the US was responsible for the overwhelming majority of air and artillery strikes during January, and indeed most associated civilian harm in eastern Syria during the fiercely fought last weeks of the Coalition campaign against ISIS.

The Coalition in Syria: likely deaths fall by 34%

Throughout January, Airwars researchers tracked a total of 16 incidents of concern blamed on the Coalition – the same overall number tracked in December 2018. Of these, nine incidents are presently assessed as being fairly reported. An event is assessed by Airwars as ‘Fair’ when it involves two or more uncontested and credible public sources, in addition to confirmation where possible that the Coalition carried out strikes in the vicinity on the day.

Estimated deaths across these nine January events fell by 34% on December 2018’s minimum figures. Airwars’ current estimate is that between 60 and 118 civilians likely died in these nine January events tied to the Coalition, compared to between 91 and 161 such deaths in December 2018. Of these January deaths, at least 21 were reportedly children and 15 were women.

January 2019 also saw a sharp fall in the number of civilians assessed as likely wounded from Coalition actions in Syria. Overall throughout the month between 11 and 87 non-combatants were reported wounded, according to Airwars monitoring – an 84% decrease on the minimum of 67 civilians declared injured in December 2018. However these may represent under-estimates, with reporting from within ISIS’s last stronghold on civilian harm often fragmentary.

“The Coalition was pushing hard in the last pocket of ISIS in January, with help from the SDF on the ground,” says Abdulwahab Tahhan from the Airwars Syria team. “While the number of likely deaths from Coalition air and artillery strikes had fallen from December 2018, it is very hard to imagine the real situation civilians were facing on the ground –  and our monitoring numbers do not necessarily reflect that. The situation for those trapped in the last scraps of ISIS territory remained dire.”

Coalition incidents of concern in Syria

While overall there was a sharp fall in likely deaths in January, as with December 2018 the month saw a number of alarming large-scale casualty incidents in which entire families were reported slain in devastating strikes on civilian homes and infrastructure.

In the first of several alleged Coalition strikes on residential areas, between seven and 13 civilians including up to five children and three women died on January 3rd when Coalition jets allegedly struck the home of Sulaiman Mohammed al-Ahdab in Badia 24 in Al Shaafa. Local media reported that only Mr. Mohammed al-Ahdab and his daughter survived the attack, while the rest of the family perished. Two victims were named as Hak Jumah al-Shati Abu Muhammad and his wife, who had reportedly moved outside of Al Shaafa to escape the bombing.

A second civilian home was reportedly struck days later when up to 10 civilians – multiple members of the al-Khalif al-Qatmir family including children – died in an alleged Coalition airstrike on the town of  Al Khishkiya , east of Deir Ezzor between January 3rd and 4th. The Euphrates Post provided some context for the attack. It explained that SDF fighters raided the house of Salem Hamid (near the house of Ali Al-Khalif al-Qatmir) who was wanted by ISIS. Thinking the SDF were ISIS, Salem Hamid opened fire on them. The SDF then withdrew and called in Coalition airstrikes, and in the subsequent bombing of the area the al-Khalif al-Qatmir were killed.

Bodies are lined up following an alleged Coalition airstrike on a civilian residence in Al Khishkiya, January 3rd- 4th (via Euphrates Post)

The final two weeks of January were marked by a series of devastating casualty events in Al Baghouz, one of ISIS’s final enclaves in Syria. In what was to be the worst reported event of the month, as many as 39 civilians including up to 22 children and eight women from the families of Al-Ahmed Al-Mu’i, Ahmed Hussein Abu Bakr, and the family of Al – Haj Hassan Khalil Al-Azzawi died in an alleged Coalition airstrike on Al Baghouz on January 18th.

The Al-Anis family was also reportedly killed in its entirety – except for one little boy. In a heart-rending tweet (below), Deir Ezzor 24 published an image of him. Sitting on steps, he clasps his tiny hands, eyes closed, face marked with dust and wounds as he asks for his brothers and sisters, saying that he is okay and that he wants to see them.

#د24: صورة الطفل "عمر أنيس الرميح" الناجي الوحيد بعد مقتل أفراد عائلته جراء القصف من قبل طيران مجهول المصدر الذي استهدف قرية #الباغوز تحتاني شرق #ديرالزور يوم الجمعة الفائت.

— ديرالزور24 (@DeirEzzor24) January 20, 2019

In a familiar story for those monitoring civilian harm, the majority of sources reported that this event happened while civilians were fleeing areas under ISIS control. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Coalition airstrikes were visible in the area between 13.30 and 14.00 that day.

Just seven days later, there was another large scale event in Baghouz when 13 civilians along with 29 members of ISIS died in alleged Coalition shelling of farms between Al Baghouz Foqani town and Al Marashdad village during the night of January 25th-26th, according to local media. While no victims were named, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that the victims included seven members of the same Syrian family, three of whom were children.

Al Baghouz’s residential buildings came under fire yet again on January 29th – and once more the victims were civilians who had been trying to escape fighting elsewhere, this time fleeing the ‘Mohsan’ area following intensified clashes between ISIS and Kurdish militias. Several alleged Coalition missiles claimed the lives of up to 14 including five children and three women, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights and Jisr Press. An entire family – eight members of the Mohammed al-Majd al-Kadran family – were reportedly slain in this one incident.

Aftermath of an alleged Coalition airstrike on Al Baghouz, January 29th, that killed eight civilians (via Deir Ezzor 24).

Russia in Syria

In January, Airwars tracked 13 civilian harm events in Syria allegedly linked to Russia – a sharp rise from the three possible incidents in December 2018 – and the highest number of events since September last year. In total, between nine and 18 civilians were alleged killed across these 13 events.

An 11-week pause in civilian casualty allegations against Russia in Syria had come to a sudden end in the week of December 31st 2018 to January 6th 2019, with up to six civilians killed in multiple reported strikes in Idlib and Aleppo governorates.

On January 4th for example, Zaman Alwasl reported that three civilians died and several others were wounded in Darat Izza, Aleppo in an alleged Russian airstrike on residential areas. According to AMC and Hadi Abdullah, the victims included a father and his child. Smart News named three victims as Umm Muhammad, Mohammed Awasha and Mohammed Awasha, who was reportedly Director of the Civil Defense Center in the village of Orma Kobra.

In total there were six alleged Russian events tracked in Hama during January – two of which were in Al Lataminah. In the first of these Lataminah incidents, multiple sources reported that a girl was killed and several other member of her family wounded on January 11th. Shabab Latamina named her as 14-year-old Rafida Sattouf al-Hudairi, stating – along with some other sources – that she was killed in “the bombing by unmanned aerial action”. Many sources blamed Russia, though others didn’t apportion blame.  It is also worth noting that Russia is not known to have deployed armed drones in Syria. Step News published a video showing destruction in the town following the bombing – along with footage of the girl’s funeral.

Footage of the aftermath of an alleged Russian strike on Lataminah, Hama, January 11th – including the funeral of 14-year-old girl Rafida Sattouf al-Hudairi.

The second Lataminah incident occurred on January 17th. According to Kafr Zeta, a civilian male, named as 53-year-old Khaled Karmo Al-Hilal was killed by a Russian missile. However, Shaam News reported that a man died and several other people were wounded in artillery shelling by Assad’s forces. Baladi and several others sources  also blamed the regime, reporting that it had fired shells from its camp at Qubaybat into residential areas in Lataminah. Syria TV noted that “the regime continued to breach the Sochi agreement signed between Russia and Turkey”. Media activist Khalid al-Hussein told Al 7al that local civil defence had retrieved victims from the rubble, who were then treated in the nearest medical centre.

Khaled Karmo Al-Hilal, killed in an alleged Russia or regime shelling on Al Lataminah, January 17th (via @OKKO5Lc4iNiZH6S)

January also saw five casualty events reportedly involving Russian forces in Idlib governorate. On Janaury 20th, LCCSY reported that two civilians died and nine more were wounded in an alleged Russian airstrike on villages to the west of Jisr al-Shughour – and it published an image (below) showing significant destruction. According to Shaam News – which also blamed Russia – the strikes resulted in the destruction of a bakery and the deaths of a man and a woman in the village of Baksriya.

‘Destruction in villages and towns of rural Jisr al-Shughour West following alleged Russian strikes, after midnight’, January 20th (via LCCSY)


January in Libya was marked by renewed militia shelling in Tripoli as well as the beginning of a new Libyan National Army (LNA) offensive in the south of the country.

In Tripoli, clashes between GNA-affiliated militias and the 7th Brigade flared up again, violating September 2018’s ceasefire. This reportedly led to the death of Mahmud Al Temzini in the south of the city on January 16th. Three days later, the respected photojournalist Mohamed Ben Khalifa was killed by indiscriminate shelling while covering the clashes.

At the same time, the LNA’s ongoing offensive started in the south of Libya. Airstrikes reportedly hit targets in Kufra, Murzuq and near the border with Tunisia though without reports of civilian harm.

In addition, either the LNA or Egypt reportedly conducted an airstrike in Derna. Local reports say the city is currently completely cut off from any communication, and keeping track of the situation there is extremely difficult. Sporadic news coming out of Derna point at heavy fighting in a city that had been declared “liberated” from terrorism in June last year.

1/2 تدين بعثة الأمم المتحدة للدعم في ليبيا بشدة مقتل عدد من المدنيين في اشتباكات جنوب #طرابلس، بمن فيهم المصور الصحفي محمد بن خليفة، والذي شكلت وفاته فاجعة أليمة لليبيين والجسم الإعلامي في #ليبيا ونموذج عن الاعتداءت المتكررة التي يتعرض لها الصحفيون …

— UNSMIL (@UNSMILibya) January 20, 2019

Translation: ‘The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) strongly condemns the killing of a number of civilians in clashes in the south of Tripoli, including journalist Mohamed Ben Khalifa, whose death was a painful tragedy for Libyans and the media community in Libya, and was part of a pattern of repeated attacks on journalists.’


Military advocacy

The UK Parliament’s Defence Select Committee heard oral evidence from Airwars director Chris Woods in January. The hearing came after Airwars submitted written evidence in September 2018 to the parliamentary inquiry into UK Military Operations in Mosul and Raqqa. This warned that UK claims of near-zero civilian harm from almost 2,000 anti-ISIS airstrikes lacked credibility.

While commending the UK for its transparency during the fight against ISIS, Woods said that UK accountability for civilian harm remained poor. He urged the Ministry of Defence to improve its own reporting and assessments of civilian harm; to engage better with external agencies; and to conduct followup investigations where possible on the ground into local reports of civilian death and injury from problematic strikes.

Woods also noted that the US-led alliance had often ceded the social media sphere to the terrorist group in the early stages of the war by claiming zero civilian casualties, or by refusing to engage publicly on individual civilian harm events. By contrast, ISIS had “courted local credibility” by sometimes reporting conservative estimates of civilian harm from Coalition actions in areas it was occupying.

Airwars was joined in the parliamentary hearing by Emily Knowles of the Remote Warfare Programme, and social media specialist David Patrikarakos, for the session titled Global Islamist Terrorism.

Online, Airwars completed uploading its back catalogue of geolocation notes and imagery. Previously only available on request, these materials show how researchers have arrived at a set of coordinates and “geolocation accuracy” via the analysis of open source materials.

Chris Woods of Airwars gives evidence to the UK Parliament’s Global Islamist Terrorism Inquiry

European advocacy

January marked the first month after the Netherlands pulled back their F-16 fighter jets from Jordan. By January 2nd, all of the aircraft had safely returned to their base in Vonkel.

The Netherlands’ first mission ran from October 2014 until July 2016, during which it  flew 2,100 sorties and deployed 1,800 weapons. The second mission ran from January to December 2018, during which time 900 further sorties were flown and 300 weapons deployed, according to official data.

With all pilots and aircraft safely home, Airwars will continue to press officials for more information on the Dutch campaign, which has been rated by Airwars as the least transparent among the 14 Coalition allies. The Netherlands ministry of defence still refuses to say where or when three confirmed Dutch civilian casualty events took place in Iraq – or even to say how many casualties were involved. It is unique among alliance members in witholding such information.

Iraq, Syria and Libya analysis for January: Abdulwahab Tahhan, Shihab Halep, Salim Habib, Sophie Dyer, Maike Awater, Oliver Imhof, Osama Mansour, Poppy Bowers, Abbie Cheeseman, Hanna Rullmann, Laura Bruun, Anna Zahn, Clive Vella, and Laurie Treffers.


▲ An F-15 from the US 391st Fighter Squadron takes off in support of Operation Inherent Resolve from an undisclosed location January 4th 2019. (US Air Force/ Staff Sergeant Stephen G. Eige)


January 2019

Written by

Alex Hopkins

Despite significant falls in both strike numbers and reported casualties, civilians still remained at risk in the three conflict-affected nations presently monitored by Airwars. In total, as many as 5,947 non combatants were locally alleged killed by international military actions across Syria, Iraq and Libya during 2018.

In Libya reported airstrikes were down by a third during the year, while in Iraq both strikes and reported civilian harm fell precipitously. However Syria remained a lethal environment for non combatants. Alongside major territorial advances by the Assad government and its Russian and Iranian allies, there were significant military offences by the US-led alliance and its Kurdish proxies; and by Turkey. IDF officials also declared that more than 2,000 munitions had been fired by Israeli aircraft within Syria during the year, primarily against Iranian and Hezbollah military targets.

Local monitor the Syrian Network for Human Rights estimated that overall, almost 7,000 civilians were killed by all parties to the fighting during the year.

With the US-led Coalition’s conventional war against ISIS likely ending in early 2019, Airwars will continue to monitor actions by all international forces in both Iraq and Syria – while also seeking to ensure accountability for affected civilians.

US-led Coalition actions against ISIS remnants: the year in review

By the end of 2018, so-called Islamic State (ISIS) had reportedly lost 99% of the territory it had held back in 2014 – and the US-led war against the terror group as a territorial entity was expected shortly to reach a conclusion.

By late 2017, the government of Iraq had already announced victory over ISIS. Declared Coalition strikes in Iraq continued to decline heavily throughout 2018, falling by 92% on the previous year. Airwars monitored only three reported casualty events from Coalition actions in the country during 2018. Two of these were self-reported by the Coalition itself, suggesting that local public reporting remains a challenge in Iraq.

The US-led war shifted almost entirely to scraps of ISIS-held territory in eastern Syria, where civilians remained at significant risk. The fight to completely eradicate ISIS became increasingly ferocious as the year wore on, with 50% of all likely civilian deaths for the year tracked during the last quarter, as strike numbers in Syria also rose steeply.

By November 2018, Airwars was tracking the highest reported civilian harm from Coalition actions since the capture of Raqqa in October 2017. Strikes increased by 48% in December, though likely deaths fell by 59% on the previous month. This fall could indicate civilians had managed to escape from areas under assault, though might also suggest – as we have seen in previous battles – that local reporting had broken down during end-stage fighting. This may mean that the death toll might be higher than the figures tracked by Airwars.

Even so, overall 2018 saw a sharp year on year fall in reported civilian harm. According to Airwars tallies, non-combatant deaths from Coalition air and artillery strikes decreased by 80 per cent across Iraq and Syria compared to 2017, falling to between 821 and 1,712 civilians estimated killed during the year.

‘Trump effect’ on civilian harm may be overstated

The significant Coalition civilian death toll of 2017 has been attributed by some to a possible loosening of the rules of military engagement (ROEs) by US President Donald Trump, who took office in January of that year. Trump himself has asserted that he lowered the threshold for anti-ISIS strikes and also changed the ROEs (though some US military commanders have privately contested the latter claim in relation to Iraq and Syria.)

However, a multi-year assessment by Airwars suggests that a far greater likelihood for the steep rise in civilian harm seen in 2017 was due to the phase of the war itself. The Mosul and Raqqa assaults were always predicted to be the most intense, and the most dangerous for civilians, because of the numbers of non combatants still trapped under ISIS occupation at the time and the ferocity of those battles.

A comparison of Airwars civilian harm tallies across the years bears this out. The minimum figure of 821 civilians likely killed in 2018 is similar to tallies seen during both 2015 and 2016, under President Barack Obama. Airwars estimates that at least 712 civilians likely died in Iraq and Syria during 2015 for example. The following year, we tracked a minimum of 989 likely civilian deaths across both countries from January to  October 17th 2016, when the East Mosul assault began.

With Mosul and Raqqa liberated from ISIS’s grip, 2018 saw the war move back towards the kind of lower intensity conflict seen in 2015 and 2016. There were, however, alarming peaks in civilian harm linked to particular assaults, such as the battles for Hajin and al Soussa. What we may be seeing, therefore, is less the differences between two presidential approaches, and more the variations between different cycles of a war.

Even so, the ferocity of the Coalition-led assaults in the last quarter of 2018 on Al-Soussa and Hajin (see below) during which 50% of 2018’s likely deaths occurred, suggest that the US-led alliance applied few of the lessons learned during the brutal urban battles of Mosul and Raqqa, when it came to the protection of civilians. As in 2017, the alliance repeatedly and often aggressively downplayed the impact of its actions on the most vulnerable people on the ground in Syria – despite mounting, credible evidence to the contrary.

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Syria: Coalition likely civilian deaths fall by 73% yet toll still high

Despite the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad announcing in November 2017, that it had defeated ISIS, the terror group clung on to ever-decreasing scraps of territory in eastern Syria throughout 2018. Advances by the Kurdish dominated SDF into these areas were met by fierce resistance, and as the year wore on and the US-led alliance ramped up its efforts to liberate key ISIS-held towns in Deir Ezzor governorate – where 86% of the year’s Coalition casualty events were tracked – civilians on the ground paid an increasingly high cost.

To date, the Coalition has conceded 11 events across Iraq and Syria in which it confirms having killed or injured civilians during 2018 – down from 157 such confirmed events for 2017. An additional 117 civilian casualty incidents were classed by Airwars researchers as ‘Fair’ for 2018 – an 82% fall on the 674 fair events during the previous year. An event is assessed as fair when it has two or more uncontested credible sources, and where the Coalition has confirmed it carried out strikes in the area.

Overall, Airwars itself estimates that between 821 and 1,712 non-combatants were likely killed in these 128 events in both Syria and Iraq in 2018 – an 80% decrease on the 4,205 to 6,472 civilians estimated as likely killed by Coalition strikes in 2017. At least 421 additional civilians were reportedly wounded in these 128 events, an 84% fall from the year before which saw at least 2,686 civilians wounded.

This sharp fall in likely deaths and injuries coincided with a large decrease in Coalition actions. From January 1st to December 29th 2018, the Coalition reported 3,593 air and artillery strikes against ISIS across Iraq and Syria – a 69% fall on the 11,573 actions it reported in 2017. Of these strikes, 252 (7%) were in Iraq and 3,341 (93%) were in Syria.

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Civilian deaths in Syria tied to incidents rated as “Fair”, or Confirmed by the Coalition, fell by 81% to 126 events in 2018. Between 807 and 1,698 civilians were likely killed across such events compared to between 2,989 and 4,613 likely deaths during 2017. This represents a 73% drop in the minimum number of civilians likely killed by the US-led alliance in Syria. Of these 807 civilians, at least 214 were reportedly children and 185 were women.

Following three months of relative calm, February saw likely deaths from Coalition actions more than quadruple on the previous month, with at least 112 civilians likely killed in Syria. With members of the SDF quitting the battle against ISIS to focus on Afrin, this sudden leap in civilian harm could have been a case of there being less eyes on the ground – and a greater focus on air-only attacks. In what was to be one of the highest reported tolls of the year, 38 civilians died on February 3rd-4th in an alleged Coalition airstrike on Deir Ezzor’s Al Bahra village. The alliance itself later classed the event as ‘Non Credible.’

A stills grab from an al Amaq [ISIS media agency] propaganda video detailing reported destruction at al Bahra following an alleged Coalition strike on February 4th 2018.

Likely deaths fell sharply in March and reached a near all-time low in April. However, in May they spiked once more as the US-led Coalition announced the resumption of  SDF ground operations against remnant ISIS forces in northeast Syria, now dubbed Operation Roundup.

July saw another jump in civilian harm claims as the Coalition embarked on an operation to oust ISIS from its last enclave on the eastern banks of the Euphrates River. In the worst of several mass casualty events, up to 59 civilians reportedly died in alleged Coalition (or possibly unilateral Iraqi) strikes on an ice factory on July 12th at the junction of Al Sousse and Al Baghouz in the Deir Ezzor countryside. In an ambivalent later assessment, the Coalition reported that “After reviewing all the available evidence, the preponderance of the evidence did not indicate that the alleged civilian casualties were caused by Coalition operations.”

Due to limited information available to Airwars, we were unable to locate the junction or ice factory, however there is an industrial scale building at a junction leading to Al Bagouz from Al Soussa, for which the coordinates are: 34.5163168, 40.9498215

Ground operations as part of phase three of Operation Roundup commenced on September 11th, leading to a tripling in Coalition strike numbers in Syria. Surprisingly, this did not result in an associated rise in likely fatalities. Indeed, in September Airwars monitored the lowest number of likely civilian deaths in the four year war – possibly because many of the towns in Deir Ezzor had been largely emptied of civilians who were now taking refuge in camps in the countryside, according to some sources.

However, the last quarter of 2018 saw a significant climb in civilian harm allegations, with 50% of all likely deaths in the year occurring within the final three months. Casualty events tripled in October, a month marked by four devastating strikes on mosques which the Coalition itself admitted to targeting, claiming the buildings had been seized by ISIS.

As strike numbers again rose in November, Airwars tracked the highest reported civilian harm since the fall of Raqqa in October 2017 with at least 221 civilians likely killed by the US-led alliance during the month.

In December, marked by the battle for Hajin town itself, the Coalition carried out a massive 939 air and artillery strikes in Syria – a rise of 48% on November – and the highest number of declared strikes since September 2017. Likely civilian deaths fell by 59% on November, but remained at the third highest level seen for the year. Across 15 events our current estimate is that between 91 and 161 civilians died in a number of large scale events centred around Al Soussa, Al Shaafa and Hajin itself.

At least 32 children died in December alone during Coalition actions, according to credible local reports. In one of the worst events of the month, on December 5th, up to 25 civilians died in an alleged Coalition airstrike in Hajin. Victims reportedly included two members of ISIS and multiple children from their families.

Children of Abdul Razzaq al-Jazzar, reportedly an ISIS member, who was killed with his wife and children by an alleged Coalition airstrike on the city of Hajin (via Palmyra).

By December 14th, the SDF had captured Hajin from ISIS, depriving the terror group of its last major chunk of urban territory. Just as with previous assaults on Raqqa and Mosul in 2017, an urban assault of this ferocity frequently comes at lethal cost to those on the ground, placing civilians in an impossible position between ISIS fire and the Coalition’s formidable arsenal.

The shock announcement by President Trump, on December 19th, that the US would withdraw its forces from Syria “as quickly as possible” led to confusion in the region. Up to an estimated 2,500 fighters remained in the Hajin area, it was claimed by Coalition spokesman Colonel Sean J. Ryan  – and the terror group has repeatedly shown its potential for regrouping. There were some signs that Trump himself was acknowledging this, when at the end of the month he was said to be re-evaluating a rapid pullout, according to a Republican senator.

Indeed, there was no slowdown in the tempo of strikes in the last weeks of 2018, clearly indicating that despite announcements to the contrary the war was far from over – and the risk to several thousand civilians still trapped in the so-called ‘Hajin Pocket’ remained.

Turkish military actions in Syria and Iraq remain a concern

The year 2018 also saw Syrians under renewed threat elsewhere. On January 20th, Turkey began air and artillery strikes in the Kurdish-controlled enclave of Afrin, a district of Aleppo governorate which was also home to hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians.

By March 18th, Turkish-backed forces had captured Afrin city and its environs, though at significant cost to those on the ground with, according to Airwars estimates, between 220 and 347 civilians likely killed from Turkish strikes in Syria and a further 17 to 33 civilians killed in YPG counter strikes during the relatively short but fierce campaign.

Turkish actions continued intermittently throughout the year – with both US and Russian forces acting as buffers against Turkish actions against the Kurdish held town of Manbij, for example.

There were also a small number of Turkish strikes in Iraq during 2018, a reminder of Ankara’s continued military occupation of parts of northern Iraq. Between March 21st and December 13th, we tracked nine casualty events reportedly caused by Turkish forces in Iraqi territory, likely killing between 20 and 25 civilians.

The aftermath of an alleged Turkish airstrike on Yilanguz village, Jindires, Afrin, 26th February 2018. (via Evlin.Hassan)

Russian campaign in Syria sees record casualty highs and lows

The first three months of the year proved to be exceptionally lethal for civilians trapped in Idlib and eastern Ghouta, as Russian and allied airstrikes rained down.

Between January 1st and March 31st, Airwars tracked between 1,525 and 2,370 claimed deaths allegedly involving Russian warplanes in Syria, most of which were in Damascus and Idlib governorates.

As the Eastern Ghouta offensive built momentum, civilians were left increasingly with nowhere to run or hide. By March, Airwars was tracking the worst recorded month in the Russian campaign so far. Across 250 alleged casualty events – a volume which exceeded even the 2016 siege of Aleppo – over 700 non-combatants were claimed killed in Eastern Ghouta. Entire families were reportedly wiped out, while others were said to have dug into the earth seeking shelter from the merciless assault.

Following Assad’s complete capture of Damascus at the end of March, there was an 82% drop in Russian casualty events.. That volume remained low, with an average of 21 events per month from April to December.

In a deal brokered in part by Russia, Turkey and Iran, the establishment of a demilitarised buffer zone in Idlib on September 17th was intended to separate government forces from rebel fighters. Surprisingly – and to the huge relief of civilians – this led to a fragile ceasefire, which continued to hold.  

Consequently, from mid-September 2018 and for the first time in three years, Airwars tracked no casualty events which were tied to Moscow. This shift in Russian actions continued until almost the end of 2018 – contrasting with the significant civilian harm still being caused by US-led Coalition actions in the final stages of its own anti-ISIS campaign in eastern Syria.

Overall then in 2018, Airwars tracked a 27% fall in claimed Russian casualty events on the previous year, reflecting the variable tempo of Moscow’s campaign. There were 728 alleged events – the lowest number in any one year since the start of Putin’s campaign in autumn 2015.

Even so, between 2,039 and 3,114 civilians were claimed killed across these 728 events – a 27% decrease from 2017 when between 2,727 to 4,065 civilians had allegedly been killed. This compares to between 1,015 and 2,015 civilians claimed killed in 182 alleged Coalition events during 2018. It should be noted that Moscow has yet to admit to a single death as a result of its own lengthy military intervention in Syria.

Dead bodies are lined up following a mass casulaty event in Douma on March 20th (via SN4HR)

Airstrikes and civilian casualty claims in Libya

In 2018, Libya witnessed a sharp decline in reported airstrikes compared to the previous year, down from 685 to 283 strikes according to Airwars/ New America Foundation monitoring. The minimum number of reported civilian fatalities also fell, from 52 to 35, marking the lowest levels seen since the beginning of the second Libyan civil war in 2014.

This reflected a slight improvement in the overall political situation in the Maghrebian country. Even though Libya remained unstable in terms of security there were signs of detente, with two conferences held between the two major actors, the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan National Army (LNA).

With the latter taking over Derna from the Al Qaeda-affiliated Derna Shura Mujahideen Council/Derna Protection Force in late June, jihadist forces no longer controlled any significant swathes of land in Libya. However, attacks by both ISIS and Al-Qaeda continue to shake the country as both remained active as insurgent groups.

The LNA remained the most military active force in Libya, with 146 airstrikes recorded, reportedly leading to between four and twelve civilian fatalities. Besides Derna, hotspots of activity were in Libya’s south, and in the Oil Crescent which the LNA briefly lost to an alliance of the Petroleum Facility Guards and Benghazi Defence Brigades. Subsequently the LNA gained back control using air power.

Interestingly, in terms of maximum recorded civilian deaths the US proved deadlier than the LNA in 2018 – a first. Given that the US only officially conducted seven airstrikes in Libya during the year this development was worrying, as AFRICOM strikes had reportedly been relatively precise in previous years.

Despite a decrease in tracked airstrikes, Libyan skies remained lawless, to a significant degree. France, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates all reportedly conducted airstrikes in 2018. Additionally, there were also weaker reports of both Italian and Chadian airstrikes.

The UAE in particular was very active, with 57 strikes reported, allegedly supporting the LNA’s effort to take over Derna. No civilian deaths were recorded from Emirati strikes but four people were reportedly injured.

Egypt on the other hand reportedly killed three civilians on May 15th. Overall, Libya’s eastern neighbour reportedly conducted 17 strikes. In its attempts to control the shared border, 27 militants were reportedly killed and 61 vehicles destroyed in aerial actions, according to the Egyptian military.

In addition, artillery was an important factor for civilian harm during 2018. Clashes between GNA-affiliated militias and the 7th Brigade (a non state actor) in Tripoli allegedly led to between 20 and 25 civilian fatalities.

Destroyed vehicle after a US airstrike airstrike which allegedly killed three civilians in Bani Walid (via Almarsad)

Military advocacy

Since Airwars pioneered its military advocacy work following the start of the international campaign against ISIS in 2014, its engagement with Operation Inherent Resolve has grown year on year. The establishment of a permanent Coalition civilian casualty cell in December 2016 has been crucial to that engagement, with Airwars flagging more than 2,000 alleged civilian harm events to the US-led alliance to date. Over time, Airwars has become the dominant source for such claims. In 2018 Airwars referred just under 90% of all reported civilian harm events assessed overall by the Coalition. Of the 64 incidents adjudged Credible by the alliance during the year, 23 were Airwars referrals.

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Insufficient information on the location and time of an allegation continues to be the overriding reason for Non Credible assessments made by the Coalition. In the last year, a third of cases were dismissed on these grounds. For this reason, geolocation remains one of the team’s core activities. Airwars not only provided hundreds of enhanced geolocations to the Coalition relating to civilian harm during 2018, but has also published online a major archive of 600 geolocation notes detailing how coordinates were arrived at by the Airwars team via open source analysis.

The year did see a significant improvement in the transparency of Coalition civilian casualty reporting, with the sharing by the alliance with Airwars of multiple Military Grid Reference System (MGRS) coordinates accurate to within 100m, for both Credible and Non Credible assessments. However, the Coalition continues to withhold the reasons for many of its determinations of civilian harm. For three quarters of all civilian deaths conceded by the alliance during 2018, it gave no further details on the cause.

Airwars believes that one of the best tools available for mitigating harm to civilians is by improving knowledge of the circumstances in which it occurs. In this vein, the organisation contributed written evidence to the UK Parliament’s Defence Select Committee Inquiry into UK Military Operations in Mosul and Raqqa.

Our strategic engagement with other external monitors and investigators also continued to bear fruit. In March, a Mosul casualty case passed to Airwars by Amnesty International field researchers and subsequently flagged by our team to the Coalition, resulted in the third admission of civilian harm by Australia. That same month saw the UK’s Ministry of Defence concede its first civilian casualty in the war against ISIS, a single death in Syria’s Euphrates Valley – though the UK continues to deny any civilian harm from 1,000 targets struck by the RAF during the battles for Mosul and Raqqa.

The year ended with a new advocacy challenge, following the Coalition’s sudden end to the reporting of locations and dates for each air and artillery strike after 52 months of relative transparency. Efforts to reverse this decision – and to translate into systemic change recent gains in the transparency of civilian harm reporting – will be a defining goal of our broader advocacy engagement in the year to come

European advocacy

In the Netherlands, 2018 saw a slight improvement in military transparency. Following the renewal of its mission on January 5th 2018, the Ministry of Defense (MoD) released the locations of the nearest large settlement to Dutch strikes in its weekly updates. Previously no locational data was provided. However, for the first leg of the mission (2014-2016) little remains known about the locations and dates of Dutch military actions, with the MoD still refusing to publish these details. Therefore the Netherlands remains one the least transparent countries of the Coalition.

While the MoD did admit responsibility for killing or injuring civilians in up to three Iraqi airstrikes, it continues to refuse to identify the dates and locations of these events. On April 13th 2018, findings of a Public Prosecution Service assessment of four potential civilian harm incidents were presented to Parliament by the Minister of Defense. As noted in an Airwars article, when our advocacy officer asked the MoD why such basic but vital information as the dates and locations of these events was not shared publicly, a spokesperson responded that on national and operational security grounds nothing further would be divulged.

The political landscape changed slightly throughout the year, following national elections in October 2017. While opposition parties the SP, PvdA and Groenlinks have continued to raise concerns about the lack of transparency on civilian casualties of Dutch airstrikes, the D66 party changed its stance significantly after joining the ruling coalition. In a plenary debate held in December 2018 on Dutch participation in the fight against ISIS, D66 MP Sjoerd Sjoerdsma even asserted that the Netherlands was the most transparent member of the Coalition, despite having previously raised concerns about its lack of transparency.

During this debate, two motions were filed by opposition parties. The first called for an independent investigation into civilian casualties resulting from Coalition airstrikes. The second motion called for the publishing of information on incidents involving civilian casualties from Dutch airstrikes. While the first motion was denied, the second was tabled, and will be brought to a vote in 2019.

Airwars advocacy officer Maike Awater discusses the challenges of Dutch military transparency and accountability.

▲ The aftermath of an alleged Russian or Syrian regime airstrike on Tal Al-Touqan, Idlib, January 3rd 2018 (via Nessma)