News & Investigations

News & Investigations

Published

September 6, 2021

Written by

Imogen Piper and Joe Dyke

Airwars tally offers assessment of the direct civilian impact of 20 years of US strikes

You often find a similar refrain in US media reporting of the cost of two decades of the so-called ‘War on Terror.’ The trope goes something like this: “more than 7,000 US service people have died in wars since 9/11,” an article or news report will say. In the next line it will usually, though not always, try to reflect the civilian toll – but almost exclusively in generalities. Tens, or even hundreds, of thousands.

Ahead of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist atrocities, and the subsequent launch of the War on Terror, Airwars has been seeking the answer to one important question – how many civilians have US strikes likely killed in the ‘Forever Wars’?

We found that the US has declared at least 91,340 strikes across seven major conflict zones.

Our research has concluded that at least 22,679, and potentially as many as 48,308 civilians, have been likely killed by US strikes.

The gap between these two figures reflects the many unknowns when it comes to civilian harm in war. Belligerents rarely track the effects of their own actions – and even then do so poorly. It is left to local communities, civil society and international agencies to count the costs. Multiple sources can however suggest different numbers of fatalities, meaning that monitoring organisations like Airwars will record both minimum and maximum estimates.

Our key findings of civilian harm from US actions since 9/11 can be seen in this video and the full dataset is available here.

This accompanying article explains the conflicts we covered and our key findings in a little more detail, before outlining our methodology and data sources.

What are the ‘Forever Wars’?

In the days after the terrorist atrocities of September 11, 2001, in which 2,977 people were killed by Al Qaeda in New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia, US President George W. Bush announced the start of a new type of war, one without defined borders, boundaries, or timescales.

“Our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there,” he told Americans. “It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”

“Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen. It may include dramatic strikes visible on TV and covert operations secret even in success.”

“Every nation in every region now has a decision to make: either you are with us or you are with the terrorists,” he concluded.

So it came to pass. The War on Terror has been a near global endeavour. By 2017 for example, the US Department of Defense said it had around 8,000 “special operators” in 80 countries across the globe.

Dubbed the ‘Forever Wars,’ this conflict has not had clear territorial boundaries, though we have included in our dataset the seven most intensive US military campaigns. The types of conflict vary significantly but broadly fall into three categories:

    Full invasions and occupations of countries – Afghanistan 2001-2021, and Iraq 2003-2009. Major bombing campaigns against the Islamic State terror group – Iraq 2014-2021, Syria 2014-2021, and Libya 2016. More targeted US drone and airstrike campaigns against militant and terror groups – Somalia 2007-2021, Yemen 2002-2021, Pakistan 2004-2018, and Libya 2014-2019.

Key findings

Based on official US military data, we have concluded that the US has carried out a minimum of 91,340 airstrikes throughout the 20 years of the War on Terror.

Particular peaks were seen during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when the US declared 18,695 strike sorties. The campaign against the so-called Islamic State also saw a sustained peak, with more than 9,000 strikes a year from 2015-2017.

We then gathered together every reliable estimate of civilian harm as a result of US strikes.

Wherever possible we sought to measure civilian harm just from US airstrikes but in some cases, such as the first years of the Iraq invasion, it was impossible to disaggregate airstrikes from artillery fire and other heavy munitions, which were therefore included.

Likewise in some US-led Coalitions it was impossible to determine whether each individual strike was American, though US airpower has dominated all such campaigns.

Based on our comprehensive review of credible sources, we found at least 22,679 civilians were likely directly killed by US strikes since 9/11, with that number potentially as high as 48,308.

 

The deadliest year came in 2003, when a minimum of 5,529 civilians were reported to have been killed by US actions according to the monitoring organisation Iraq Body Count, almost all during the invasion of Iraq that year. The next deadliest year was 2017, when at least 4,931 civilians were likely killed, the vast majority in alleged Coalition bombing of Iraq and Syria. However, if we include maximum estimates of civilian harm then 2017 was in fact the worst year for civilian casualties, with up to 19,623 killed.

Almost all of the reported civilian deaths from US wars since 9/11 (97 percent) occurred in the two occupations (Iraq 2003-20119, and Afghanistan 2001-2021); as well as in the campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (2014-2021).

In 2011, at the peak of its 20-year occupation, the US had more than 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. That conflict came to an end last month when the final US troops left after a chaotic withdrawal. During the Iraq occupation, troops numbers peaked at 166,000 in 2007, though forces withdrew by 2011.

Just three years later and following the rise of so-called Islamic State, the US and its international partners began an aerial bombing campaign against ISIS in support of allies on the ground. Campaigns to force ISIS from the Iraqi city of Mosul and the Syrian city of Raqqa in 2016-2017 saw some of the most intense urban fighting since the Second World War. In Raqqa alone, Coalition strikes reportedly killed at least 1,600 civilians. While the Islamists lost their last territorial stronghold in April 2019, the war continues at a low intensity.

 

As part of our research, we also sought official US military estimates for the numbers of civilians killed by its own actions since 9/11. Neither CENTCOM nor the Department of Defense have published such findings.

In the Iraq and Syria campaign against ISIS, the US-led Coalition has accepted killing 1,417 civilians – far lower than Airwars’ own estimate of at least 8,300 civilian deaths for that war.

Additionally, in 2016 the US admitted killing between 64 and 116 civilians in Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen in counter terrorism operations in the years between 2009 and 2015. But it provided no further details, dates or specifics – making assessment of those claims near impossible.

More publicly, the United States has admitted to killing two civilians in Pakistan; thirteen in Yemen; and five in Somalia in recent years. At least 394 and as many as 570 civilians have in fact been killed by US actions in those countries, according to monitoring organisation New America.

Airwars approached CENTCOM, the part of the US military responsible for most of these conflicts, directly for this project. It said data on officially recognised civilian harm was not readily available. “The information you request is not immediately on hand in our office as it spans between multiple operations/campaigns within a span of between 18 and 20 years,” CENTCOM said in an email, requesting instead that we file a Freedom of Information request. Such requests can take several years to get a response, with no guarantee of the information being released.

It’s important to note that Airwars has examined only direct harm from US strikes since 9/11 – with many of our sources providing conservative casualty estimates. We are therefore looking at a fraction of the overall civilian harm in these countries.

Between 363,939 and 370,072 civilians have been killed by all parties to these conflicts since 2001, according to the well respected Brown University Cost of War programme.

Even so, we believe this research represents the most comprehensive public assessment available of minimum civilian harm by direct US strikes and actions in the 20 years of the War on Terror.

Methodology

Parts or all of the data presented here were peer reviewed by multiple experts in the field, and our full dataset has also been published, to enable scrutiny.

That said, we acknowledge that civilian harm monitoring mechanisms have varied and evolved extensively over the past 20 years, and are rarely consistent across organisations and campaigns.

Airwars itself was formed in 2014, and has collated data on many of the US’s conflicts since then, using our all-source monitoring in local languages to gather allegations of civilian harm. However, for much of the data in the years before 2014 and for the entirety of the Afghanistan campaign – which Airwars does not monitor – we are reliant upon other organisations. This section will explain where the data was gathered from.

Afghanistan

In Afghanistan the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has released civilian harm data since 2006. This includes likely civilian harm from airstrikes carried out by foreign powers. While the War on Terror was launched by the US, some allies initially joined – including European nations that sent significant contingents to Afghanistan. It was not possible to definitively conclude if all of these strikes were conducted by the US as opposed to allied nations, although the US provided the overwhelming majority of airpower throughout the war.

In the early years of the conflict, for the period 2001-05 before UNAMA was fully operational, we have relied upon an investigative dataset compiled by The Nation, which though well researched did not claim to be definitive.

Iraq 2003-11

The US and UK invaded Iraq in 2003 to overthrow President Saddam Hussein, and then maintained an occupation with the support of other nations until withdrawing all forces in 2011. In the vacuum after Hussein was unseated, multiple militant groups, including Al Qaeda in Iraq, a predecessor of the Islamic State, thrived. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed in ensuing conflict-related violence.

The NGO Iraq Body Count has been collating tolls of civilian harm since the 2003 invasion. It kindly agreed to provide Airwars with all data related to allegations of civilian harm caused by US actions between 2003 and 2013. According to IBC, in many cases such as the initial invasion, and the assaults on the city of Fallujah in 2004, it was near impossible to disaggregate civilian harm caused by airstrikes with artillery and other munitions. As such, the data from Iraq Body Count presented here relates to deaths caused by airstrikes and explosive weapons. Incidents where only small arms fire was involved have been excluded. As with Afghanistan, it is impossible to know for certain whether each strike was carried out by the US or partner nations, though the US provided the overwhelming majority of airpower throughout the war.

Iraq and Syria 2014-2021

In the years after the Arab Spring rippled through the Middle East and North Africa in 2011, the Islamic State militant group seized a swathe of territory spanning northern Iraq and Syria which was roughly the size of the United Kingdom. From 2014 onwards, the US led an international coalition in a bombing campaign against the group, eventually forcing it to cede its last area of territorial control along the Iraqi-Syrian border in April 2019.

Airwars has monitored civilian harm related to the ongoing seven-year war against the Islamic State since the beginning of the campaign, using a standardised methodology and approach for all our civilian harm monitoring projects. Our researchers conduct daily monitoring of local Arabic-language media and social media in Iraq and Syria, documenting and archiving all claims of civilian harm including those claims reported by the local communities themselves. Each event has a unique assessment online, where an archived version of all sources used is also available. Events are considered ‘live’ – constantly updated as new information is found.

Libya

Al Qaeda had a limited presence in Libya following the defeat of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, and was the target of a small number of US strikes. Then from 2014, an Islamic State affiliate emerged in the country – seizing control of several cities and towns a year later.

Airwars researchers have actively monitored all civilian harm caused by all parties in Libya for many years. Based on hyperlocal media monitoring, and reflecting the same methodology and approach as our Iraq-Syria assessments, we have aggregated the number of alleged civilian deaths related to US strikes against both Al Qaeda and so-called Islamic State in Libya since 2012.

Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen

In the years after 9/11 the United States launched an initially secret drone campaign targeting militant organisations in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. These campaigns led to often significant allegations of civilian harm.

In Pakistan, the data was originally collected by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, with those archives transferred to Airwars in 2019. There have been no reported US strikes since July 2018.

In Somalia, Airwars has published a comprehensive review of all civilian harm allegations from both suspected and declared US strikes and actions since the conflict began in 2007.

In Yemen, the data from 2002-2016 was originally collected by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Airwars has actively monitored the US counter terrorism campaign in Yemen since 2017, and all associated allegations of civilian harm.

Differing methodological approaches

In every conflict, those organisations monitoring civilian harm have applied different methodologies. Airwars, TBIJ and Iraq Body Count are for example remote monitors – meaning that they gather all information publicly available and reflect any uncertainties in their findings – for example by using high and low casualty ranges, rather than definitive figures.

UNAMA employs a different methodology for Afghanistan. Based until recently in Kabul, it deployed field researchers in each province to physically investigate where possible sites of alleged civilian harm, and to interview witnesses. While this approach can lead to more certainty about circumstances and casualty numbers in an individual event, it may also mean that some locally reported cases can be missed. UNAMA also does not provide casualty range estimates – publishing just one number of confirmed civilians killed per year.

More information on conflict casualty standards and methodologies can be found at Every Casualty Counts, which publishes global standards on casualty monitoring, based on the expert work of more than 50 specialist member organisations.

▲ Library image: A US Air Force B-52 refuels during the US campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Credit: Department of Defense)

Published

August 18, 2021

Written by

Joe Dyke

Focus will now turn to whether UK, France and Belgium will finally admit culpability

When the Department of Defense withdrew a key part of its annual report on civilian harm earlier this month, it all but confirmed something long suspected – that France, Britain and Belgium know they likely killed civilians in Iraq and Syria in specific events, but refuse publicly to accept it.

The original Pentagon report to Congress, released on May 28th, initially claimed responsibility for the deaths of 50 civilians in eleven airstrikes against the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria in 2017 and 2018.

After Airwars pointed out significant errors, the DoD withdrew and reissued the report along with an addendum, removing nine of the eleven incidents in which civilians died. This amounted to the Pentagon’s effective confirmation that those strikes were carried out by its allies, including the UK, France and Belgium.

Of these nine incidents, two were in fact the same event – seemingly a clerical error. Two more have been publicly claimed already by Australia, which has accepted responsibility for the deaths.

That leaves six events in which the Coalition’s own investigators concluded that 18 civilians had died.

What are the six strikes?

Three of them were British airstrikes. We knew this before due to in-depth reporting by Airwars and the BBC but the Pentagon’s withdrawal of the data all but confirms it.

In the most deadly individual case, on August 13th 2017, 12 civilians were killed, including a young girl, in an airstrike targeting an ISIS mortar system. A further six were injured. In February 2019 the US-led Coalition accepted that civilians were killed and the UK later confirmed it was a British strike – yet without accepting anyone died.

In a second case, the Coalition publicly confirmed the deaths of two civilians in a strike near the Iraqi city of Mosul on January 9th 2017. Again the UK confirmed it was a British strike but without accepting that civilians were killed. This contradicted a Coalition whistleblower, who earlier told the BBC that civilians had likely died in the British attack.

The third British incident occurred in Bahrah in eastern Syria on January 20th 2018. The Coalition’s military assessors admitted the death of one civilian. The BBC and Airwars published an investigation showing it was a British strike and the UK accepted this, but again refused to accept responsibility for any civilian harm.

The reason for the gap between the Coalition and British statements is that London applies a different – and critics would say unrealistic – standard for assessing civilian harm. Whereas the Coalition and the US assess whether they caused civilian harm on the ‘balance of probabilities’, the UK demands overwhelming evidence – described as ‘hard facts.’ In the context of an airstrike from thousands of feet and with no Coalition civilian casualty investigation forces on the ground, such overwhelming proof is near impossible to come by.

To date, the UK has accepted just one civilian death in Iraq and Syria, despite 8,000 declared flight sorties over seven years.

Gavin Crowden, Executive Director of Every Casualty Counts, said that when it came to civilian harm, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) was pretending the “absence of evidence is evidence of absence.”

“The Pentagon has shattered the MoD’s already implausible claim that British forces have caused only one civilian death across Iraq and Syria. This is statistically almost impossible.”

“The [Chilcot] Report of the Iraq Inquiry made clear that the MoD had failed to account for civilian casualties following the invasion in 2003. Almost twenty years on, the MoD is still failing to take even basic steps to identify and record harm caused to civilians.”

French and Belgian strikes

The other three incidents the Pentagon insists were not US actions are believed to be either Belgian or French strikes.

On February 27th 2017 a Coalition strike on an ISIS vehicle near the Iraqi-Syrian border killed at least one civilian and injured another. Local sources said the death toll could have been as high as three. The Coalition accepted causing the harm, and a senior Belgian government official unofficially informed Airwars that the strike was Belgian, though the government has never publicly confirmed this.

On March 21st 2017 a civilian was killed in a Coalition strike in the Iraqi city of Mosul. Again a senior government official unofficially informed Airwars that the strike was Belgian, though the government has never publicly confirmed this.

The final incident, which took place on February 8th 2018, killed one civilian near Al-Bahrah village in Syria. Airwars identified it as a likely French strike, though Paris has always publicly refused to comment.

To date, neither France nor Belgium has publicly accepted killing any civilians in years of bombing Iraq and Syria.

Marc Garlasco, a military advisor for PAX and a former US senior Department of Defense intelligence analyst, said the Pentagon errors would increase pressure on European militaries to stop hiding behind the anonymity of the Coalition.

In 2015 a devastating strike in the town of Hawijah in Iraq led to the deaths of more than 70 civilians. The Coalition eventually accepted responsibility, but no member state did. It was only in 2019, after investigative reporting, that the Dutch government finally admitted responsibility.

“It is time for European MoDs to stop hiding behind American statistics and take responsibility for the harm they cause and provide appropriate amends,” Garlasco said.

“One central issue for civilians is the problem coalition warfare causes for strike attribution, and therefore amends. Too often we have seen war victims unable to make claims or even get answers for why they were targeted because they just don’t know who dropped the bombs. It is unreasonable to put the onus of proof on the victim.”

He pointed out that in the wake of the Hawijah massacre the Dutch Ministry of Defence has opened a review of its civilian harm mitigation policies, working alongside organisations like PAX and Airwars.

“We see a real opportunity in the wake of the lessons we have learned by working with the Dutch MoD. There are now positive examples to follow if Belgium, France, the UK, and any other military intends to take civilian harm seriously.”

Every Casualty Count’s Gavin Crowden said the US civilian casualty monitoring process, though far from perfect, was a clear example for other countries to follow. So far the US has admitted killing more than 1,300 civilians in the war against ISIS.

“If European militaries claim they can fire smart missiles straight into the bedroom of a specific target, they should surely be able to compile basic data about where and when they have conducted operations that may have harmed civilians.”

“The US has shown that this is both logistically, militarily and politically possible. Therefore, we have to conclude that the obstacle among European militaries is simply a lack of will.”

Airwars asked the British, French and Belgian militaries for comment on the Pentagon’s report. None said they intended to review their earlier assessments of no civilian harm, in light of the DoD revelations.

▲ File footage: A U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker refuels a British Tornado fighter over Iraq, Dec. 22, 2015. Coalition forces fly daily missions in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Corey Hook/Released)

Published

August 10, 2021

Written by

Joe Dyke

Allied nations almost certainly killed them. So why did the Defense Department tell Congress that the US was responsible?

This article was originally published by The Intercept on August 5th 2021.

The Defense Department has been forced to withdraw a key part of an official report to Congress, after wrongly claiming responsibility for killing 21 civilians in Iraq and Syria who were actually slain by close US allies.

The Pentagon was alerted to the mistake in June by Airwars, which had previously documented most of the strikes as being carried out by other partner nations in the US-led Coalition against the Islamic State, including the United Kingdom, France, and Australia.

After reviewing the findings, the Defense Department finally admitted the error on August 5th.

“This was an oversight in preparing data for the report,” Pentagon spokesperson Mike Howard said, without giving further details on how the error had occurred. “We regret the mistake.”

The revelations will add to growing concern over the Pentagon’s civilian harm policies, after senior Democrats recently accused the Pentagon of underestimating the number of civilians killed in its latest annual report to Congress and criticized the US military’s failure to pay out a single dollar in compensation to victims’ families during 2020.

“You have to wonder what is going on at the Defense Department and [U.S. Central Command] that they can’t even get right this basic obligation to report civilian harm to Congress and to the public accurately and reliably,” Hina Shamsi, director of the National Security Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, told The Intercept. “This only compounds our concerns about underlying issues such as investigations into civilian harm, in which DOD does not even talk to surviving family members for information.”

“Only US casualties”

The Department of Defense’s latest annual report documenting civilians killed and injured by US actions globally was released on May 28th. The report, in which the Defense Department must inform Congress of all officially recognized civilian harm caused by the US military, has been a legal requirement since 2018.

In the latest report, the Pentagon admitted to killing 23 civilians worldwide during 2020, though monitors such as the United Nations in Afghanistan have shown the real figure is likely many times higher.

The report also incorrectly acknowledged responsibility for 50 historical civilian deaths in 11 airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria between January 2017 and February 2018. The Pentagon at first said the incidents had “inadvertently” not been included in reports in previous years, but most were in fact carried out by allied nations.

While the campaign against ISIS was fought by a coalition of mostly Western nations, the report explicitly stated that it “only lists civilian casualties attributed to the use of U.S.-operated weapons,” meaning no strikes conducted by allied aircraft should have been included.

The Intercept and Airwars cross-checked these incidents against public records and found that of the 11, nine were not carried out by the US at all.

The May Defense Department report to Congress claimed responsibility for the deaths of 50 additional civilians in Iraq and Syria in 2017-2018, of whom only 28 were actually killed by US strikes. Source: US Department of Defense, May 2021.

Most of those incidents had been highlighted in a major investigation last year by Airwars, the BBC, Libération, De Morgen and RTL Netherlands, which concluded that European countries were systematically failing to accept causing civilian harm, even when U.S. military assessors declared otherwise.

The addendum released by the Defense Department on August 5th removed nine of the 11 incidents in which the US acknowledged killing civilians in its earlier report.

Two of the incidents for which the Pentagon claimed as US actions had, for example, already been admitted by the Australian Defence Force, which had taken full responsibility for killing the civilians.

In one of those airstrikes, two civilians were killed and two hurt in Mosul, Iraq, on May 3rd 2017. That event was publicly conceded by the ADF more than three years ago, with an official statement at the time saying: “On 3 May 2017, one Australian aircraft conducted an airstrike in support of Iraqi Security Forces who were under direct fire from enemy fighters in West Mosul. … Based on a review of information now available, it is possible that civilian casualties may have occurred as a result of this strike.”

The UK had explicitly claimed responsibility for carrying out between three and four further strikes on the list, and a senior Belgian official had unofficially acknowledged that country’s responsibility for two other attacks.

Among the British incidents was the killing of 12 civilians in the Syrian city of Raqqa on August 13th 2017. The Coalition officially confirmed it had killed the civilians while targeting an ISIS mortar system; the UK later admitted to carrying out the strike, saying Royal Air Force fighter jets targeted “a mortar team in a building at the location given” during clashes between ISIS and Western-backed Kurdish forces.

Among the victims locally named that day were Walid Awad Al Qus and his young daughter Limar.

A ninth event, which killed one civilian in Al Bahrah in Syria in February 2018, was found by Airwars and Libération to have likely been attributable to the French military. Despite the findings, neither the UK, Belgium, nor France has publicly admitted to killing civilians in any of these strikes.

Airwars highlighted the errors to the US Defense Department in early June; the Pentagon then took two months to send an official correction to the report to Congress. That addendum offered no detailed explanation for the mistake.

“The text and table in the report provided in May 2021 … should be omitted and replaced because only two of the eleven incidents on the original table were ‘attributed to the use of U.S.-operated weapons,’” the text of the addendum states.

CENTCOM under scrutiny 

The US arguably has the world’s most advanced mechanisms for monitoring the civilian harm caused by its own military actions across the globe.

During the seven-year campaign against ISIS, the US military has admitted killing more than 1,300 civilians. While monitors like Airwars put the real figure far higher, other militaries barely accept any responsibility for civilian harm: France has not admitted to killing a single civilian, and the UK has acknowledged responsibility for just one civilian death since 2014.

The great majority of deaths from US military actions occur within US Central Command’s area of responsibility, which includes Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen. In recent years, CENTCOM has faced rising concerns about poor management of its civilian harm monitoring and reporting processes.

CENTCOM declined to comment on whether the error in the recent report to Congress had originated with its own personnel, referring questions back to the Department of Defense.

More forgetfulness on Yemen

While publicly claiming responsibility for the deaths of civilians it didn’t in fact harm, CENTCOM has also once again forgotten some of those it did.

In November 2020, following a major Airwars study of US military actions in Yemen under President Donald Trump, CENTCOM officially admitted injuring two civilians during an airstrike in September 2017.

This was only the second time the US had ever publicly admitted specific civilian harm as a result of its airstrikes and raids in Yemen, which date back to 2002.

But that confirmed event was not included in the most recent report to Congress, and no explanation has been given for its omission.

This marked the second time in the past year that CENTCOM has apparently forgotten recent civilian harm it caused in Yemen. In November, it blamed an “administrative mistake” after saying only that it “may” have killed civilians during a botched raid in Yemen in January 2017. At the time, CENTCOM’s own commander, Gen. Joseph Votel, had told the US Senate he took personal responsibility for the deaths of “between four and 12” civilians in that attack.

Bonyan Gamal from the Yemeni human rights organization Mwatana said such errors are “painful for the families” of those injured or killed.

The recent Pentagon civilian harm report did however confirm one new case in Yemen after an investigation by Mwatana: The US admitted that it had targeted and killed an elderly Yemeni man in a 2019 airstrike. To date, no compensation has been paid or offered, and Gamal said the families of victims want justice.

“When we received the confirmation of civilian harm we contacted the family,” Gamal said. “When I spoke to them they asked ‘OK and now what?’ If there are no steps after an acknowledgment and not even an apology then what is the use for this?”

▲ Aftermath of alleged US-led Coalition airstrikes on Hajin on November 10th, 2018 (via Euphrates Post).

Published

August 10, 2021

Written by

Joe Dyke

Despite less than two per cent of Coalition strikes taking place since the fall of Baghouz, civilian casualties persist

This article was originally published by The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft on August 8th 2021.

For the little media coverage it receives these days, you might be forgiven for believing the US-led coalition’s war in Syria and Iraq to be over. Osama Al-Hamid’s family knows better. Last month, the young boy died during reported fighting between Washington’s local Syrian allies and the Islamic State, in which US airstrikes hit the building he was in. Osama was the latest of thousands of alleged victims of coalition strikes.

August 8th marked seven years since the international coalition, led by the United States, began its concerted bombing campaign against the Islamic State, the terrorist group that by 2014 had seized much of northern Iraq and Syria. Since then, the coalition has declared 34,987 strikes against the Islamist group. Today, ISIS has been reduced from a de facto state controlling territory roughly the size of Britain on either side of the Iraqi-Syrian border, to a few disparate cells living in hiding and conducting occasional terror attacks.

The final piece of ISIS territory, the town of Baghouz in eastern Syria, was recaptured in April 2019. Since then, the intensity of the international campaign has dropped dramatically. Only 483 strikes, or less than two percent of the war’s total, have taken place in the last two years.

The civilian toll has also dropped sharply. Of the 1,417 civilians the Operation Inherent Resolve, or OIR Coalition, has officially admitted killing since 2014, only one has occurred since Baghouz fell.

Airwars puts the real figures of civilians killed by coalition strikes far higher — at between 8,317 and 13,190 likely fatalities between 2014 and today. And since April 2019, between 57 and 112 civilians have been likely killed, the watchdog believes.

Yet despite the near destruction of ISIS, the coalition remains in place, even as President Joe Biden’s administration withdraws from Afghanistan, and claims to be looking to end the “forever wars.” The United States retains an estimated 900 troops in Syria and a further 2,500 in Iraq. Other nations have also seemingly increased the intensity of their involvement in the campaign in recent months. Of the 44 confirmed OIR airstrikes against the Islamic State this year, more than half were French or British. Belgium, which resumed its own involvement in the war in October 2020, has provided no data on its own recent strikes.

No perfect exit

Seven years on, and with most of the war’s objectives seemingly achieved, what is to become of the anti-ISIS Coalition?

There are plenty of legitimate reasons for the Coalition to remain concerned.

Thousands of family members of ISIS militants, including those with British, French, and other citizenships, remain stuck in vast prisons in northern Syria, including the infamous Al-Hol camp near Hassakeh. With some countries unwilling to repatriate their nationals, violence in the camps remains a concern and there are fears the conditions could serve to radicalize a new generation of ISIS.

Outside the camps, fears of an ISIS resurgence remain, with periodic claims of their influence increasing. Recently, reports circulated that ISIS cells were forcing villagers in one part of eastern Syria to pay them money or face punishment. The US’s allies in Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces, may not be able to cope without continued Western military support.

The Coalition is also yet to tackle its historic legacy, with rights groups and family members still seeking recompense for the thousands of civilians killed by its own actions. A recent report by Agence France Presse interviewed victims of the single worst disaster, when a U.S. strike killed more than 100 civilians in the Iraqi city of Mosul in March 2017, and found they were still waiting for compensation.

So there are arguments that supporters of the Coalition mission may may make in favour of staying. But bear in mind that just because it is not in the media that doesn’t make it a cost-free exercise — either financially for the US and partners, or for Syrian and Iraqi civilians.

Data from Airwars’ annual report shows conflicts across the Middle East were less violent in 2020

Last month, Osama Al-Hamid — who looks perhaps four or five in the images posted online of him — tragically died. The exact circumstances of his death, in Kharbet Al Janous near Hassakeh in northern Syria on July 21st, are disputed. What is clear is that the United States carried out two airstrikes against alleged ISIS members while supporting the SDF. Somewhere along the way Hamid was killed. The Coalition’s spokesman said the child was being “held captive” by ISIS, but provided no evidence for the claim.

The intensity of Syria’s civil war more generally has dipped significantly in recent years. Airwars data shows that the number of civilians reported killed last year was roughly a third of the tally during 2019. And as the level of violence decreases, so the questions that leaders have to ask themselves shift.

With US, Russian, Turkish, Iranian and other forces seemingly becoming permanent fixtures in Syria, the potential for fatal miscalculation remains. And with no clear long-term strategy currently being articulated by the Biden administration, there remains a risk of another grinding conflict with no end in sight.

In Iraq, the US-led coalition often found itself fighting alongside Iranian-backed militias during the height of the campaign against ISIS. Yet since the Caliphate’s decline, some of those same groups have begun turning their ire on US bases, particularly as tensions with Tehran again escalate. In another echo of the earlier US-UK occupation of Iraq, Shia politicians from across the spectrum increasingly call on the Americans to leave.

When President Obama withdrew from Iraq in 2011 at the insistence of the Iraqi government, he later faced allegations that his purported hasty exit helped lead to the emergence of ISIS. Biden will be wary of repeating the mistake. But he is also perhaps learning from Afghanistan that there is no perfect time to end a war. Maintaining the coalition in perpetuity in Iraq and Syria, against an elusive foe, brings with it a risk of a new forever war.

▲ US soldiers make their way to an oil production facility to meet with its management team, in Syria, Oct. 27, 2020. (Credit: U.S. Army photo by Spc. Jensen Guillory)