Reports

Reports

Published

August 2020

Written by

Mohammed al Jumaily

Assisted by

Anna Zahn, Clive Vella, Dmytro Chupryna, Douglas Statt, Eleftheria Kousta, Giacomo Nanni, Hermes, Laurie Treffers, Maysa Ismael, Ned Ray, Oliver Imhof, Riley Mellen, Samuel Brownsword, Shihab Halep and Vasiliki Touhouliotis

Major Conflict Monitoring

July 2020 saw a continuation of a trend observed the month before, with foreign action in Syria slowly increasing, particularly by Russia. Meanwhile, the US-led Coalition continued its operations against both ISIS and Iranian-backed groups in Syria, though at a seemingly lower intensity.

In Iraq, ISIS’s insurgency had slightly increased in tempo, owing to a renewed campaign by the group at the end of the month known as the ‘Raids of Attrition’, which saw 60 synchronised attacks in both Syria and Iraq. Meanwhile, Turkey’s air and ground campaign against Kurdish militants in northern Iraq continued, though also at a lower intensity

Meanwhile, reported civilian harm incidents in Libya decreased significantly, as warring parties reached a military stalemate. Fears remained that Egypt’s potential intervention in the conflict could escalate tensions further – as well as signs that both the GNA and LNA were using the pause in fighting to secure fresh arms shipments.

Air and artillery strikes see a sharp decrease in Libya

Both reported strikes and civilian harm majorly decreased in July as the military stalemate between the Government of National Accord (GNA) and Libyan National Army (LNA) continued. The number of tracked air and artillery actions by all parties to the fighting fell from 94 to nine, while alleged civilian deaths dropped from between 44 and 54 casualties to zero.

Most reported strikes during July were LNA actions, with four attributed to Khalifa Haftar’s forces. Two further strikes were allegedly conducted by the GNA and/or Turkey. Three more strikes were either contested between parties, or conducted by an unknown belligerent.

Even though none of these events led to reported civilian harm, explosive remnants from the recent battle for Tripoli posed a significant problem for the local population. Many deaths and severe injuries were reported from landmines, allegedly planted by LNA and Wagner forces after abandoning the capital.

In a major political development, Egypt threatened to intervene in Libya should GNA and Turkish forces go east of what was described as a ‘red line’ at Sirte and Jufra airbase. However, parliamentary approval in Cairo of sending troops has so far only contributed to the standoff in central Libya.

Civilian allegedly injured by a landmine explosion near Ain Zara, Libya on July 6th 2020 (via Field Medicine and Support Center)

Russian strikes resume as fears of an imminent Idlib campaign increase

Following on from June, which saw Russian airstrikes resume after three months of calm in northwestern Syria, Russian actions saw a notable increase in July, particularly in the middle of the month. Airwars researchers tracked a total of eight civilian harm incidents – doubling the previous month’s figure. According to local reports, five civilians were killed and up to 27 others injured in these incidents. Two occurred in Hama Governorate, while the other six events took place in various towns in Idlib Governorate.

Four incidents occurred on a single day: July 14th. This sequence of strikes came after a roadside landmine hit a joint Russian-Turkish patrol in the M4 area, wounding three Russian soldiers. Immediately following that attack, Russian warplanes carried out more than a dozen airstrikes on rebel-held parts of Idlib and Latakia, with the Syrian Observatory for Human rights claiming that 23 separate Russian airstrikes occurred on that day.

This sudden escalation raised fears that Russia’s aerial campaign on Idlib might resume. Tensions between Turkey and Russia seemed to escalate even further after Russian airstrikes were conducted on July 15th on the city of al-Bab, where Turkey and its proxies enjoyed a significant military presence. These strikes – the first to occur in the city since 2017 – resulted in the reported death of one civilian and left as many as eleven more injured, eight of whom were children. However, just one week later, Russia and Turkey resumed their joint patrolling of the M4 highway and completed the first end-to-end patrol, which many observers saw as a sign of de-escalation.

Apart from the airstrike on al-Bab, the town of Ariha witnessed a brutal action on July 14th which killed two civilians, named by Ariha Today as Muhammad Deeb Halbiya (40 years old) and his son, Karam Halbiya (12 years old), and injuring up to five others, including four children [Mohammed Al-Mady (13 years old), Mohammed Al-Hassan (12 years old), Noor Aberas (30 years old) and Youssef Al-Hassan]. According to MMC, this came after Russian warplanes allegedly launched 40 missiles on the town of Ariha on that day.

The destructive aftermath of the alleged Russian airstrike in al-Bab on July 15th (via Syrian Civil Defence)

US-led Coalition in Iraq and Syria

July 2020 saw no locally reported civilian harm incidents involving the US-led Coalition in Syria. This follows on from just one such claim in June.

However, US-led Coalition actions in Syria continued throughout the month, in conjunction with local partners. Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) conducted a number of raids on suspected ISIS hideouts in eastern Syria with the support of the Coalition. The first took place on July 3rd in Deir Ezzor province, where SDF special forces dismantled an ISIS terror cell and arrested three suspected ISIS members, confiscating a number of weapons and equipment. The second phase took place on July 17th-18th in the areas of al-Busayrah and al-Shuhail in Deir Ezzor, with the International Coalition providing advice and intelligence. According to the Coalition, ‘several’ ISIS militants were arrested and dozens of weapons were seized during the operation.

Meanwhile, local sources reported that an International Coalition drone targeted a vehicle, north of the town of Ahtamilat in Aleppo’s northern countryside on July 20th. According to Step News, the vehicle belonged to a man named Shujaa al-Muhammad from the town of al-Safira in Aleppo. Local sources said that the driver and two others in the car who were reportedly killed had been ISIS operatives.

Local sources also reported one strike against Iran-backed groups by planes locally identified as belonging to the International Coalition on the town of Duwair in Deir Ezzor’s countryside areas. 

The Iraqi Falcons Intelligence Cell and Baghdad Intelligence Directorate🇮🇶, alongside the 54th Brigade, eliminated 4 suicide bombers💀💣with a fifth self destructing🔥, in the village of Ma'amra al-Zaidan. CJTF-OIR drones supported the operation.💪 #defeatdaesh https://t.co/vlZdAkoXXr pic.twitter.com/QFJnh95RyG

— Inherent Resolve (@CJTFOIR) July 13, 2020

In Iraq, the International Coalition supported Iraqi Security Forces in their own operations against ISIS throughout the month. On July 1st, two French Rafale jets launched a series of strikes in northern Iraq, destroying three ISIS caves and killing an unspecified number of reported ISIS militants. A day later, Coalition F-15E jets targeted an ISIS cave complex in Wadi al-Shai, in the Tuz Khurmato district of Kirkuk. Additionally, during the last week of July, the Coalition provided close air support for Iraqi Special Forces in operations on the outskirts of Baghdad, and south of Kirkuk.

The aftermath of a reported Coalition drone strike Ahtimalat on July 20th (via Step News)

Turkey in Syria and Iraq

Turkish-led actions in both Iraq and Syria continued. Airwars researchers tracked six civilian harm incidents in both countries during the month of July. Four took place in Syria, while two occurred in Iraq. Tracking for Iraq indicated a notable decrease in Turkish operations after it had launched an aggressive campaign against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in June, which had seen up to 150 PKK positions targeted by Turkish jets, helicopters, drones and artillery.

The four incidents in Syria caused up to eight civilian deaths and as many as 15 injuries. Meanwhile, the two civilian harm incidents in Iraq resulted in two civilian deaths and five more injuries.

The first incident in Syria took place at 10am on July 16th in the district of Derbasiyah. Local reports suggest that the incident was either caused by Turkish shelling or by a drone strike which injured a civilian. Later that day, another more significant strike, allegedly launched by a Turkish drone, took place in the same district targeting a Russian communication centre. According to local sources, this attack injured two Russian soldiers, a Regime soldier and two Asayish members. The event came amidst heightened tensions following recent Russian airstrikes on al-Bab [see above].

The incident which reported the highest number of civilian deaths occurred in the villages of Qurt Wiran and Willanli, just northwest of Manbij on July 27th. According to local reports, six civilians were killed and up to ten more were injured after Turkish-led forces shelled the two villages. Three of those killed were reportedly children Hawar news agency obtained the names of five of the victims: Alia Diab (60 years old), Fatima Makhlouf (35 years old), Fares Diab (13 years old), Ghofran Diab (7 years old) and Jamila Diab (11 years).

The incident in Qurt Wiran and Willanli on July 27th prompted a large number of locals to come out to protest Turkish action in Syria on July 30th. (Image via ANF)

Meanwhile in Iraq, the two Turkish strikes resulting in civilian harm occurred within the space of three days. The first took place in Hasinpirka village in the Amedi district of Dohuk. According to reports, a Turkish strike hit two vehicles in the area, reportedly killing two civilians. However, Hamid Zubair, the mayor of the sub-district of Bamarne told Rudaw that the vehicles in fact belonged to PKK fighters, and not civilians. According to reports, the victims’ names were Abdulla Ahmad and Dilovan Shahin. On July 29th, another incident involving Turkish forces occurred in Mount Shekif in Erbil province. According to ANF, Turkish forces shelled the area and injured civilians collecting herbs in the mountains. One woman was reportedly severely injured in the attack.

Kurdish counterfire in Syria

Airwars tracked no civilian harm incidents resulting from Kurdish counterfire actions during the month of July. Since the end of March 2020, Airwars researchers have tracked only one civilian harm incident involving Kurdish factions in Syria.

Russian soldier limping out of hospital following a Turkish drone strike in Derbasiyah on July 16th (via FM Dirbesiye)

US counter-terrorism campaigns

Somalia

After a lull in airstrikes from mid-May – likely at least partly due to the Covid-19 pandemic – the US resumed activities in Somalia in early July. Three strikes were confirmed by AFRICOM, with one allegedly leading to civilian harm. 

On July 9th, one Al Shabaab fighter was allegedly killed by a US strike on a checkpoint near Hantiwadaag.

On July 21st the US conducted its first strike against ISIS Somalia since October 2019 near Timirshe, killing seven members of the terror organisation. The operation was accompanied by Puntland Security Forces on the ground who allegedly killed around 12 ISIS fighters in an exchange of gunfire. US partner forces assisted.

And on July 29th a US strike in Jilib killed one Al Shabaab member and injured another one, according to AFRICOM. However, local media sources close to the terror organisation said  that in fact three named children had been killed when their home was hit by a US missile.

AFRICOM also published its second quarterly civilian casualty assessment report, acknowledging responsibility for one civilian death and three more injured during an event on February 2nd 2020. For six further incidents, AFRICOM denied causing civilian harm, while four recent cases were described as still pending.

Home allegedly destroyed by US strike on Jilib on July 29th, 2020 (via Somali Memo)

Yemen

Airwars tracked one US drone strike allegation in Yemen during July.

According to some local reports, a strike took place in the town of Ateq in Shabwa province on July 3rd. This reportedly hit the house of Bin Adio, the Governor of Shabwa. However, this claim has not been corroborated by other reports from prominent Yemeni outlets such as the Yemeni Press Agency, which says that the fire was instead caused by an electrical fault. CENTCOM itself told Airwars that its forces did not carry out any strikes in Yemen during the month.

Image showing a house on fire after an explosion in Ateq on July 3rd (Image via @Mohamme19780462)

Pakistan

There were no publicly alleged CIA strikes in Pakistan against either Al Qaeda or the Taliban during July. The last such reported or claimed US action was in July 2018.

Advocacy

UK advocacy

In July, our UK Advocacy Officer attended a virtual Panel Discussion on preventing internal displacement due to armed conflict/violence and disasters. Among the suggestions made was that belligerents avoid the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, as a way to prevent reasons of internal displacement.

Also, Airwars and others in the UK’s Protection of Civilians (PoC) working group – which consists of partners including Crisis Action, STC, AOAV, and the APPG on Drones -resumed regular meetings, and agreed to request an update from the UK Government on its ongoing PoC strategy review. Members also discussed upcoming opportunities for engagement and future actions. 

Airwars additionally attended a webinar organised by EveryCasualty on ‘COVID-19 and Casualty Recording’. Insights into statistics gathering and data analysis will help inform our own work at Airwars. 

European advocacy

On July 3rd, our European advocacy officer virtually attended a meeting with the Utrecht Centre for Global Challenges (Utrecht University). One of the topics discussed was how Community Service Learning (CSL) programmes can connect academia and practice. Airwars is currently exploring with the Centre how we can help create spaces for students, for example those studying Conflict Studies, International Affairs or International Humanitarian Law, to better learn from and engage with the work we do at Airwars.

On July 7th, we published a story with updates on progress at the Dutch Ministry of Defence on revising its transparency and accountability practices, in the aftermath of the Hawijah scandal. In a letter to Parliament on June 29th, Minister of Defence Ank Bijleveld laid out a number of changes which she claimed would improve both transparency and accountability regarding civilian harm.

“While Airwars welcomes this next step towards a more transparent Defensie, the content of the data [of airstrikes] is still below standard,” Airwars deputy Dmytro Chupryna noted at the time. ”Other Coalition allies such as the UK already report the specific date, targets and near locations of their airstrikes. For Defensie to become more transparent, improving their reporting on airstrikes really is one of the first steps to take.”

▲ Local Syrians volunteer to help rebuild a hospital damaged in the fighting to oust ISIS from Al Shaddadi, Syria, July 16th 2020. (Image via @SOJTFOIR)

Published

August 7, 2020

Written by

Mohammed al Jumaily

A protracted conflict against the terror group ISIS has left much of Iraq in ruins - though there are signs of rebirth.

On the fateful evening of August 7th 2014, then-US President Barack Obama gave a live address to the nation announcing the beginning of military actions in Iraq against so-called Islamic State (also known as ISIS and Daesh), ushering in a new era of US involvement. The following day, US Navy F-18 Hornet fighters launched the first airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq. Six years on, and 14,700 international air and artillery strikes later as well as thousands more by Iraq government forces, Iraqis are still reeling from the war against ISIS and its aftermath.

The conflict itself displaced over five million Iraqis and left schools, hospitals and other vital infrastructure in affected provinces across northern and central Iraq in utter ruin. While statistics on the number of civilians who perished overall during the war against ISIS varies, Iraq Body Count estimates that 67,376 civilians were killed between January 2014 and December 2017. According to the World Bank, the total cost of the conflict amounts to a staggering 124 trillion Iraqi Dinars ($107 billion), which is equivalent to 73% of the country’s entire GDP in 2013.

It is also estimated that 138,051 residential buildings and units were damaged, half of which were destroyed beyond repair in Iraq during the long war on ISIS. Meanwhile, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) has estimated that the conflict left 6.2 million people in need of targeted humanitarian assistance.

Beyond the cold statistics showing the impact of war on an already beleaguered country, personal testimonies of Iraqis themselves give a more visceral idea of life under ISIS, and the aftermath of the military campaign. They also speak to the ongoing challenges that Iraqis living in formerly ISIS-occupied areas continue to face six years on.

Life under ISIS

By the time the US began its military campaign in Iraq, so-called Islamic State had already seized significant territories in northern and western parts of the country including Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city – plunging the nation into its most serious crisis since the US-British invasion in 2003.

The announcement of a US air campaign came shortly after ISIS’s genocidal campaign on the Yazidi community in Sinjar and its surrounding areas in Nineveh province had begun – and almost two months after ISIS’s notorious massacre [Warning: GRAPHIC] of up to 1,700 unarmed Iraqi military cadets in Camp Speicher. The next three years would see the lives of millions of people change radically. The terror group’s occupation of these territories ravaged communities and decimated the social fabric of many of the cities under the group’s rule. Locals living in areas under ISIS occupation recount wanton acts of brutality by the group, in a bid to enforce their control and dominance.

Khalid al-Rawi, a musician and community activist in Mosul [see main picture], describes the state of fear instilled by the group during their occupation of Iraq’s second city. “I know many musicians who destroyed their instruments [out of fear of being caught] or would go far away in order to play a bit of music… If anyone played music openly, they could have been killed, but musicians wouldn’t have dared to do this”, Khalid recalled to Airwars this week. “People were killed for the smallest reasons by them [ISIS] – I was one of the people who if they caught me, I would have been killed instantly.”

Ziad Ghanim Sha’ban, a lawyer from Tikrit in Salahuddin province, paints a similar picture of violence and fear under ISIS, particularly when it came to religious and ethnic coexistence. “Iraqi society, as you know, is like a mosaic [of different ethnic and religious groups],” explains Ziad. “We have Kurds, we have Sunnis with Shia parents and Shias with Sunni parents, as well as Turkmen in our community – we are one country, but when ISIS came, this changed. They rejected and fought this vigorously, and killed anyone promoting this [coexistence] – this instilled great fear in society and many families were torn from the community.”

Ziad goes on to recall how some husbands and wives who had spouses from southern Iraq – where the population is predominantly Shia Muslim – divorced and ran away to avoid persecution by the group.

War on ISIS and the legacy of the International Coalition

Following a series of gains made by ISIS throughout 2014 that saw the terror group control up to a fifth of Iraq’s territory and 6.3 million people (19% of the population), the Iraqi Government, with the support of the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs) consisting of numerous armed groups, as well as international allies led by the United States, began pushing back against ISIS, slowly reclaiming territory until the group’s territorial defeat in December 2017.

The role played by the US-led Coalition was instrumental in eventually defeating ISIS. The US-led alliance has declared 14,771 air and artillery strikes in Iraq since its inception, providing air cover for Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and decimating ISIS positions in northern and western Iraq. Today the group exists only on the margins of Iraq, harried by ISF and Coalition attacks. However, the human and material cost of this campaign has been immense – and experienced almost exclusively by Iraqis themselves.

ISIS killed and injured many thousands of civilians during its occupation, and many more died in ISF actions. Using local sources, Airwars has also to date tracked 895 separate civilian harm allegations against the International Coalition in Iraq. According to local reports, between 9,801 and 14,037 civilians were claimed killed in these incidents and up to 12,248 others injured. The US-led alliance itself has so far publicly admitted 688 deaths from its actions in Iraq.

Beyond this, the military campaign has left vast swathes of the country in ruins, making it almost impossible for hundreds of thousands of civilians – still displaced by the conflict – to return to their homes.

Khalid recalls a number of instances where families were caught up in airstrikes targeting ISIS militants: “I have a friend whose family, including uncles and aunts, were living in the same house. From what was explained to me, there was one ISIS member on the roof of the house so an International Coalition missile struck the building, killing 13 or 14 members of that family.”

Ziad also recounts the tragic story of his younger brother, who was killed by what he says was an International Coalition airstrike in Tikrit. “I have my brother, a child, named Muhanad aged only 11 years old, who was injured in an airstrike and died immediately and we have still, to this day, not received any compensation or acknowledgement from the Coalition.”

In almost all cases, those interviewed say that very few, if anyone, receives any form of acknowledgement or compensation from the Iraqi Government or from the International Coalition. “The reality is that as a lawyer, as part of a team of lawyers, we submitted more than a hundred complaints against Coalition forces, calling for compensation…In the end we didn’t even receive 5% of the compensation we were entitled to,” Ziad told Airwars.

Reconstruction and Reconciliation

Six years on from the beginning of the International Coalition’s own campaign against ISIS, the societal impact of the group’s occupation and the conflict that ensued has been transformative, and will likely remain with Iraqis for decades. In many parts of the country that were under ISIS rule, communities remain divided, and little effort has been made by central and local governments to bring people together. In the absence of government action, locals have taken it upon themselves to repair the social fabric of their communities, in the days following liberation from ISIS.

Khalid al-Rawi points out that despite the immense challenges faced by the people of Mosul and the difficulties of the last few years, the re-emergence of a vibrant civil society in the city has been an unexpected yet significant silver lining in the post-ISIS years. “A number of initiatives have emerged aimed at promoting reconciliation, which I myself have taken part in. For example, we went to Hamdaniya, [a predominantly Assyrian district, with a significant Christian population] and cleaned and helped rebuild churches; and a number of young people helped clean another church in Mosul.”

He also says that the city’s experience under ISIS rule has changed many people’s attitudes about music and the arts, which were previously, perhaps, looked down upon by many in more conservative parts of the city.

“There is a positive I see [from this experience], a new page has been turned for the youth of this community – a revolution has occurred….from an artistic perspective, before people [used to say to me] music is wrong and haram and if you learn music it means you work in a bar. Now that is not the case, there has been a lot more acceptance after liberation from ISIS.”

Music is back to Mosul.Mosul produced music for centuries and now it is all over the place again.Let's play music… #Mosul2019 #ReviveThespiritOfMosul pic.twitter.com/dTqIrTuDlq

— Mosul Eye عين الموصل (@MosulEye) October 24, 2019

However, Ziad paints a bleaker image of the societal impact of ISIS rule and the subsequent fighting that emerged. In contrast to Mosul’s civic revival, many in Tikrit are afraid to engage in civic activities, he says. “Since the violence we saw in Hawijah and Tikrit in 2013 against protesters and by ISIS during their rule, activists have not emerged in our areas because they saw the executions that would take place if they did come out… Even when protests emerged in Baghdad and the south [in 2019 and 2020], there were no protests in Salahuddin, Anbar, Hawijah and Mosul because [people] knew they could be killed,” explains Ziad.

In terms of reconstruction, efforts by the Government have often seemed futile, with progress slow and, in many cases, non-existent. Despite liberation from ISIS, residents of Anbar, Salahuddin and Nineveh provinces face an uphill task in rebuilding their cities and communities, made even more difficult by government incompetence and widespread corruption.

Abdulrahman Mohammad, a businessman and community leader in Fallujah, who fled his hometown after the arrival of ISIS back in 2014, explains that upon returning to his city after three years, he found a city in ruins and a devastated local economy. “When we came back after ISIS, everything we had was lost. Our factories were destroyed. In the end, the economy of the province [of Anbar] had halted,” explains Abdulrahman. “Work is not given to anyone except to a specific group [of people] through patronage networks,” he elaborates.

“Anbar had 30 very large cement factories, each employing 500 people. To this day, these factories remain damaged and unusable,” laments Abdulrahman, adding that “Efforts to create jobs by the government are non-existent. None.”

The situation in other towns such as Sinjar in Nineveh, and Baiji in Salahuddin, is even more dire. According to the World Bank, 70% of housing assets in Sinjar were damaged, while in Baiji, 94% of residential buildings were damaged.

As Iraq now enters its seventh year following the beginning of the war against ISIS, many Iraqis have little faith in government efforts to rebuild their cities, and are instead forced to put up with the devastation wrought upon them by ISIS and years of war. While the post-ISIS period has brought security to the liberated provinces of Iraq – and has also created a space for local civil activism to flourish in certain areas – many know that there is still a long way to go before the majority can truly taste the fruits of liberation from ISIS.

▲ Musician Khalid Al-Rawi trained with his friends on the Oud secretly under ISIS. Once the city was liberated, he took to Mosul's streets spreading music and arts. This photo was taken near the central library of Mosul University during Mosul Eye's Save The Book campaign in August 2017.  Published with kind permission of Ali Y. Al-Baroodi

Published

August 2020

Written by

Mohammed al Jumaily

Assisted by

Anna Zahn, Douglas Statt, Eleftheria Kousta, Giacomo Nanni, Hermes, Laurie Treffers, Maysa Ismael, Ned Ray, Oliver Imhof, Samuel Brownsword, Shihab Halep and Vasiliki Touhouliotis

Major Conflict Monitoring

June 2020 saw a slight resurgence in foreign action in Syria, with sporadic Russian strikes being reported in Idlib; and with the US-led Coalition continuing its operations against Iranian-backed groups in Syria. In Iraq, ISIS’s insurgency has decreased significantly as Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) have increased the tempo of their own Counter-Terrorism campaigns. Meanwhile, Turkey launched a major joint air and ground operation against Kurdish militants over the border into northern Iraq, in a bold attempt to dislodge the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the region. This led to several disturbing civilian casualty events. 

While the conflict in Libya continued to rage on, the number of strikes decreased significantly as the Government of National Accord (GNA), with Turkish support, continued to consolidate its gains from the previous month against the Libyan National Army (LNA) and its foreign allies. A stalemate at the frontline in Sirte led to almost complete inaction between the two sides. However, foreign actors reportedly used the impasse to funnel more weapons into Libya.

As the chart below shows, the number of civilian harm incidents decreased during June across all major conflicts tracked by Airwars apart from Iraq (due to Turkey’s Operation Tiger Claw against the PKK.) The number of reported civilian harm incidents in Libya decreased by almost 75%.

Air and artillery strikes decrease in Libya as GNA advances continue

June marked the first month in Libya where the GNA and Turkey allegedly caused more civilian harm than the LNA and its allies. While the number of tracked air and artillery strikes dropped significantly from 274 to 94, locally reported civilian deaths only decreased from 64-81 to 44-54.

The GNA and Turkey allegedly conducted 25 air and artillery strikes leading to between 24 and 32 civilian deaths in a successful effort to regain territory from the LNA. In the worst event of the month, between 12 and 20 civilians were killed by a GNA or Turkish drone strike on Qasr Bin Gashir on June 3rd.

Civilian harm reported from LNA and Emirati strikes significantly decreased compared to previous months, as the GNA finally managed to oust Khalifa Haftar’s forces from Tripoli. The siege of Libya’s capital officially ended on 4th June after more than 400 days. Between 16 and 17 civilian deaths were alleged from 59 LNA and Emirati actions in June. The most severe incident took place in Gheryan on June 2nd, when five civilian males were reportedly killed by a drone strike.

Another six strikes by unknown belligerents allegedly led to a further four to five civilian deaths.

The vast majority of these strikes were conducted at the beginning of June, with only seven reported towards the end of the month. Military activity had effectively stalled due to a stalemate at the Sirte frontline, where both sides were sending in reinforcements. AFRICOM also once again overtly called out Russia for supplying the LNA with fighter jets. Strikes by Russian-supplied MiGs reportedly led to civilian harm on two occasions.

Lujain Muhammad Buresh, allegedly killed by GNA shelling on Qasr Bin Gashir on June 1st, 2020 (image via Tarhuna 24)

Russian strikes resume in Syria as ceasefire slowly unravels

After three months of relative calm in northwestern Syria, Russian airstrikes were reported for the first time on June 3rd and then again on June 8th-9th, with some reportedly leading to civilian harm. These actions brought into sharp focus the fragility of a major ceasefire initially agreed in March – raising fears that Russia’s aerial campaign on Idlib could resume. In total, four civilian harm incidents allegedly involving Russia were reported during the month, resulting in eight civilian deaths and the injury of 16 others.

The June 3rd airstrikes took place in an area where the boundaries of Hama, Idlib and Latakia provinces meet, close to the highly strategic M4 highway, where Turkish and Russian forces conduct their joint patrols as part of the truce agreement. These strikes were aimed at pushing Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) militants – who enjoy a significant presence in this area -further away from the M4 highway, to create a buffer from the Sahl al-Ghab area in northern Hama province. 

Five days later, Russian warplanes began reportedly striking a number of areas in Idlib. On June 8th, local sources reported that Russian warplanes hit the al-Muzarra village in Jabal al-Zawiya in southern Idlib, According to SMART News Agency, two civilians were killed and three others were wounded in the attack. According to Baladi News, four civilians from the same family were injured. 

The next day saw alleged Russian strikes in Balyoun, Kansafra, and Idlib city resulting in civilian harm. In Balyoun, one civilian was killed and eight others were injured in an aerial bombardment on residential areas in the western part of the village. According to Baladi News, the civilian killed was Abdullah Ahmad al-Dani from the neighbouring town of Kansafra. In Kansafra, Russian raids killed one civilian and injured four others. Meanwhile, on the same day, three children (Salah Ghajar, Rand Saed al Din and Rand’s brother Huthaifah) were killed when a cluster munition left behind from the previous bombing by Russian warplanes exploded near a farm in the al-Jedar area.

Following this June 8th spike in alleged Russian action, there were no further reports of civilian harm from Russian strikes for the rest of the month.

Civilian body being carried following an alleged Russian airstrike in Balyoun on June 9th (via Syrian Network for Human Rights)

US-led Coalition in Iraq and Syria

The month of June saw only one civilian harm incident locally reported to have involved the US-led Coalition in Syria. This was a welcome decrease from the four incidents reported for the previous month, which remains the highest monthly tally of the year to date.

On June 24th, on the road between Idlib city and the town of Binnish, a Coalition drone reportedly targeted a ‘Santa Fe’ car, allegedly killing Abu Adnan Al-Homsi, a senior figure in Huras al-Din, an affiliate of al-Qaeda. According to SMART, the drone strike also killed a civilian riding a motorbike near the targeted car. This came ten days after a similar incident, when a drone targeted a car carrying two members of Huras al-Din, known as Qasim al-Urduni and Bilal al-Sana’i. However, no civilians were reportedly harmed in that event. 

Another strike on Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham was reported by locals on June 16th, south of Sarmada in northern Idlib. According to local sources, the strike hit an Islamic tribunal in the area. However, both the number and combatant status of people killed in that event is still not known.

Meanwhile, military operations against ISIS targets were also reported throughout the month. On June 20th, the US-led Coalition allegedly launched a strike on the road between al-Dana and al-Bad in eastern Aleppo, killing ISIS commander Fayez al-Akkal, who also served as the former ‘governor’ of Raqqa. On June 21st, another International Coalition strike took place on a motorcycle belonging to an unidentified ISIS militant near the Kubaiba oil field in southern Hasaka Governorate.

Local sources also reported four strikes against Iran-backed groups by planes locally identified as belonging to the International Coalition. The first took place in the town of Maizilliah in Deir Ezzor province on June 6th, killing approximately eight people. The second was in the Thalathat area, west of al-Boukamal on June 8th. Another airstrike was reported in the al-Akershi desert, southeast of Raqqa city, and finally, the last locally reported strike took place in al-Abbas village near al-Boukamal, where according to reports, six headquarters were targeted in a major raid on June 28th.

In Iraq, there was one civilian harm incident reported in the Abu Zuwair area near Baiji. This came after a US MQ-IC Gray Eagle armed drone crashed in the area, which led to shepherds approaching the fallen drone. However, another drone arrived and struck the same area killing the four shepherds near the crashed drone. According to other sources, the shepherds had carried parts of the drone in a pickup truck and were then pursued by a second drone and killed as they tried to leave the area.

Turkey in Syria and Iraq

Turkish-led actions varied considerably in Syria and Iraq during June. The number of civilian harm incidents involving Turkish action decreased considerably in Syria, while Iraq saw Turkey escalating its ongoing anti-PKK campaign, after launching Operation Claw-Tiger.

Airwars tracked one civilian harm incident in Syria involving alleged Turkish action. On June 23rd, a Turkish drone strike reportedly killed three women in the village of Helince, east of Kobani. According to local reports, the house of Amina Waysi, was hit, killing her and two other women – Zehra Berkel, a coordinating member of the Kongra Star women’s movement; and Mizgin Xelil.

#UrgentThree civilians lost their lives due to the targeting of a drone believed to be a #Turkish drone in the village of Helinc east of #Kobanê. pic.twitter.com/0sRPoexp99

— Hoshang Hasan (@HoshangHasan1) June 23, 2020

In Iraq, Turkey launched a major joint air and ground operation against the PKK in northern Iraq on June 17th. According to reports, Special Forces were airlifted to the border region of Haftanin in the early hours of Operation Claw-Tiger. According to the Turkish Ministry of Defence, the campaign targeted 150 suspected PKK positions with jets, helicopters, drones and artillery. 

The unprecedented scale and scope of these latest operations posed a significant risk to civilians living near the Turkish border of northern Iraq. The week following the beginning of operations was particularly harmful to civilians in Dohuk, Erbil and Sulaimaniyah. 

As a result, five civilian harm incidents were reported during Juneh, four of which took place following the beginning of Operation Claw-Tiger. In these events, seven people were reported killed and at least nine others injured. 

The first alleged civilian harm case from Turkish actions took place in Sinjar on June 14th, where local sources reported that “several civilians” were injured in Turkish airstrikes on civilian areas – though the exact number of injured civilians was not specified in local sources. In the first two days of the campaign, three more? civilian harm incidents were reported. The first took place on June 17th, within hours of the launch of the operations in Bradost, northern Erbil province, where a shepherd by the name of Ebas Mexdid Nimet was killed and up to three others were injured. 

Two days later on June 19th, two civilian harm incidents took place. One took place in the Kokar area near the Avamark Resort in Dohuk province, where a Turkish airstrike killed three people and injured two others. Another airstrike on the same day in Barwari reportedly killed a civilian.

#BREAKING #Turkish war planes bombs #Shiladze town in #Dohuk province Iraqi #Kurdistan , killed 3 civilians injured 2 2 hours ago#TwitterKurds @AzadiRojava pic.twitter.com/vIEsaoEYCY

— Hana Çômanî (@HanaComani) June 19, 2020

The final incident took place in Kunamasi, near a resort in the Sulaimaniyah province on June 25th. That airstrikes hit a vehicle carrying PKK fighters, but also struck a mini market belonging to a local family. According to some reports, two civilians were killed and up to five others were injured. A widely shared video showed children playing nearby showered with debris. 

Turkish attacks in northern Iraq in the first week of the campaign drew widespread condemnation from neighbouring countries such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The Iraqi Government also condemned the latest incursion by Turkey into Iraq’s territory as a violation of the country’s sovereignty.

Is this okay with you? @masrour_barzani @qubadjt @jensstoltenberg this is my brother playing with my nephew when a Turkish bomb drops 20 meters away from them in Kuna Masi. #TwitterKurds pic.twitter.com/tNUK8HeWt0

— Jîl Şwanî (@thejilswani) June 25, 2020

Kurdish counterfire in Syria

After more than three months without any civilian harm incidents allegedly resulting from Kurdish counterfire, local Syrian news outlets said that a child was killed after a mortar shell, reportedly from the YPG, exploded near the city of Mare’a in Aleppo province on June 28th. According to Bawabat Aleppo, the child killed was 14 year-old Hamza Ibrahim. The explosion reportedly took place on the road to the nearby village of Esnabel. 

US counter-terrorism campaigns

Somalia

There were no publicly alleged or announced US strikes in Somalia during June, with the last declared AFRICOM action taking place on May 17th.  

Yemen

Airwars tracked one alleged US drone strike in Yemen during the month of June. According to local reports, the strike took place on Wadi Obeida, just northwest of Marib city on June 24th. The strike reportedly hit al-Qaeda militants, who had just escaped a battle with Saudi-backed Yemeni forces in the Qaniyah front of Baydha province. According to one source, the airstrike killed an unnamed senior figure within AQAP. However, this claim has not been corroborated by other reports on the airstrike.

CENTCOM itself said that it did not carry out any strikes in Yemen during the month. However it remains possible that the June 24th event was conducted by the CIA, which carries out a parallel, covert campaign in Yemen. 

Pakistan

There were no publicly alleged CIA strikes in Pakistan against either Al Qaeda or the Taliban during May. The last such reported or claimed US action was in July 2018.

Advocacy

UK advocacy

Airwars participated, along with 1,000 other organisations, in a high level virtual convening on United Nations Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights, which reflected on how the UN’s present counter-terror policies impact on peace, human rights and development

Airwars also observed discussions and side events of the ‘Supporting the future of Syria and the region – Brussels IV Conference,’ and sent a followup question to the panel on ‘Ensuring accountability and civilian protection in Syria’. The question focused on the need for accountability from all the actors involved in the Syrian conflict: 

While casualty tracking indicates that the Syrian regime and its Russian allies are responsible for the deaths of many thousands of Syrian civilians, including women and children, as a result of airstrikes on civilian residential areas, research from monitoring organisations shows that other international actors – such as Turkey and the US-led Coalition – are also responsible for civilian harm, often at significant levels. How can we hold the Syrian regime and its allies to account, while ensuring that other States calling for the protection of civilians are themselves fully committed to meeting accountability standards?

The US State Department – which hosted the ‘Brussels IV’ discussion on Syria – has yet to respond to those questions which resulted from the session.

European advocacy

In June, the Airwars European advocacy team held several roundtables with our Dutch civil society partners. As Dutch Minister of Defence Ank Bijleveld wrote in her letter to Parliament on June 30th, several NGOs, including Airwars, have been meeting with the Ministry to discuss our previously submitted roadmap to improve Dutch policy regarding transparency and accountability for civilian harm. The aim is to agree on a joint plan by the end of the summer, as stated in the Minister’s letter. 

On June 25th, the Utrecht Centre for Global Challenges (UCGC) at the University of Utrecht launched its latest project War/Truth: Civilian harm in remote warfare. In January, Airwars’ European advocacy officer moved into the UCGC office as a societal partner of the centre in order to help facilitate better collaboration on the topic of civilian harm. The goal of our collaboration is to “connect Airwars’ work recording civilian harm with research carried out by the Intimacies of Remote Warfare programme (Utrecht University) into wider questions of transparency, accountability, responsibility and legitimacy.”

Military advocacy

All 38 historical civilian harm allegations from US-led Coalition actions in Iraq and Syria, covering a period from January 2015 to July 2017 – and reviewed by the Coalition for its June report – were rejected as ‘non credible. Each of the 38 cases had been an Airwars referral. 

As Airwars noted in a letter of concern to Coalition commanders, this meant that of the 257 incidents so far reviewed by OIR for 2020, only eight had been deemed Credible – or just 3.1%. 

Airwars expressed concern “that OIR may once again be moving away from engaging with external sources on civcas claims – and instead [is] institutionally focusing on self-reported events. If that is the case it would represent a backward step – particularly with DoD itself now emphasising the value of external sources.”

▲ 'From Idlib to Suwayda. Together we will save the boat from sinking. Revolution from the North to the South' Mural in Idlib, June 8th 2020 (via Enab Beladi)

Published

June 2020

Written by

Mohammed al Jumaily

Assisted by

Clive Vella, Dmytro Chupryna, Douglas Statt, Eleftheria Kousta, Giacomo Nanni, Hermes, Laurie Treffers, Maysa Ismael, Ned Ray, Oliver Imhof, Samuel Brownsword and Shihab Halep

Major Conflict Monitoring

Following on from April, the COVID-19 pandemic has continued to deliver a limited ‘peace dividend’, at least in some conflict nations. Civilian harm allegations against international actors in Syria continue to be minimal – though with a spike in claims against the US-led Coalition. In Iraq – despite reports of an ISIS resurgence – no civilian harm incidents from International Coalition actions were reported. And in Somalia too, the most intensive US campaign ever seen against al Shabaab, which began earlier this year, now appears to be on hold. 

Meanwhile, the violence in Libya continued unabated, with the Government of National Accord (GNA), supported by Turkey, making significant headway in its bid to retake areas in western Libya recently lost to Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA).

The above graph shows the number of alleged civilian harm incidents from tracked belligerents in Syria, Libya, Iraq and Somalia. In Syria, all the incidents reported were conducted either by the US-led Coalition, or by Turkish-led forces. In Iraq, the solitary incident was allegedly the result of a Turkish airstrike. More than six times the number of civilian fatalities resulting from actions by tracked belligerents were reported during the month in Libya than in Syria.

Civilian harm in Libya increases as Turkey and GNA turn the tide against the LNA

Libya saw another increase in both airstrikes and reported civilian harm during May, with the GNA and Turkey for the first time since the beginning of the Tripoli offensive out-bombing the LNA and its allies. However, the LNA was still reportedly responsible for the majority of civilian harm.

The number of overall reported air and artillery strikes by all belligerents slightly rose month on month, from 245 in April to 274 in May. The number of locally reported civilian deaths also increased, from 44-52 to 64-81.

Between 33 and 44 civilian deaths were reported from 52 LNA or Emirati airstrikes. The high ratio of civilian harm stemmed from the often indiscriminate nature of shelling on Tripoli neighbourhoods. In one of the worst LNA incidents, six civilians were killed and up to 24 injured on May 9th on the capital’s Al Sour road.

Some 120 reported GNA and Turkish air and artillery strikes allegedly resulted in 18 to 21 civilian deaths. Between nine and ten civilians were allegedly killed by a Turkish airstrike in the worst event of the month in Qasr Al Hajj on May 8th, 2020.

While 95 further strikes could not be attributed to any one belligerent, 6 were contested between GNA and LNA. These allegedly led to 10 to 13 additional civilian deaths.

After the LNA’s withdrawal from Tripoli in late May, landmines and IEDs left behind by Haftar’s forces posed an additional risk for civilians. AFRICOM also called out Russia for allegedly supplying combat aircraft to the LNA. According to the US military command “there is concern these Russian aircraft are being flown by inexperienced, non-state PMC mercenaries who will not adhere to international law.”

Tariq Mustafa Homs, who reportedly lost a leg after shelling by LNA on Tripoli on May 31st, 2020 (via Burkan Al Ghadab)

The US-led Coalition in Iraq and Syria

The month of May saw an unexpected increase in US-led Coalition military activity in Syria. Airwars researchers tracked four separate claimed civilian harm incidents throughout the month, the highest monthly tally this year so far, leading to eight locally reported civilian deaths. All four incidents took place in Deir Ezzor governorate, which has seen most of the Coalition’s military actions in Syria during 2020.

The first incident took place on May 1st in the Koniko oil fields of Deir Ezzor. According to local reports, a civilian was killed by a US sniper. The victim, who worked as a teacher in Raqqa city, was identified as Yasser Al-Asman. According to Step News, he “was heading on the main road from the countryside of Deir Ezzor Al-Sharqi to Raqqa, but his car veered off the road towards the [oil] field by mistake, which drove the American forces to kill him instantly.”

On May 16th, a major air raid was conducted in the vicinity of the Abu Bakr Mosque in al-Basira, Deir Ezzor. As part of a joint operation between Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the International Coalition, a number of houses were reportedly bombed. According to Euphrates Eye, Coalition forces struck three buildings housing Internally Displaced People (IDP) in the town, killing five civilians in Ibrahim al-Baraka’s house. The day after saw another civilian harm allegation in al-Zir town. According to local reports, a civilian named Muhammad Khleif Al Hamra was killed on the roof of his own house, while watching Coalition forces conduct a raid on neighbouring properties in al-Shouhaibi town.

The final incident took place on May 22nd in al-Shabaka, once again in Deir Ezzor. According to Euphrates Post, Muhammad Al-Ouda Al-Khaled Al-Addad from the city of Al-Shuhail was killed during a joint operation led by the International Coalition. Further details of the raid are not presently known.

Reports also emerged that a senior ISIS figure, Mu’taz Numan Abd Nayif Najm al-Jabouri, was killed in a Coalition airstrike. Al-Jabouri, who went by the nom de guerre, Hajji Taysir, was known as the group’s ‘Governor’ of Iraq and head of foreign operations. He was also claimed to have overseen the group’s chemical and biological weapons research, as the deputy head of ISIS manufacturing in Syria.

Additionally, there were six other unilateral actions that were allegedly conducted by the US during the month. These took place in a number of different Governorates in Syria such as Deir Ezzor, Raqqa, Aleppo and Hasaka. Most of these incidents targeted Iranian-backed groups in Syria – suggesting that these attacks may instead have been the work of Israel.

Meanwhile, International Coalition airstrikes in Iraq also continued. On May 13th, the US-led alliance conducted a major strike on a cave system used as a hideout by ISIS cells in the southwestern desert of Hadar, in Nineveh province. The attack reportedly killed four militants. Five days later, the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service (ICTS) confirmed that 11 airstrikes were conducted against ISIS remnants in Mount Ghurra, south of Dibis in Kirkuk. Additionally, the US-led Coalition conducted another strike on ISIS targets in Wadi Ashi in Kirkuk on May 31st, as part of the Iraqi-led “Heroes of Iraq” operation.

May 13, @modmiliq requested Coalition bombs an ISIS cave. We did. ISF found 4xEKIA. #ReadyAF #DefeatDaesh 💥🇮🇶 في 13 آيار ، قصف التحالف كهف لداعش في نينوى، ممّا أدى الى مقتل 4 إرهابيين وقد تبين ذلك من خلال عمليات التفتيش التي قامت بها الفرقة 20 في الجيش العراقي بعد الغارة pic.twitter.com/MPTzYaGSqA

— OIR Spokesman Col. Myles B. Caggins III (@OIRSpox) May 15, 2020

The Royal Air Force (RAF) has also remained active in Iraq, conducting four airstrikes against ISIS targets in May. On May 8th, an RAF Reaper targeted an ISIS bunker west of Tuz Khurmato in northern Iraq. On May 10th, a pair of Typhoons struck a cave system reportedly used by ISIS militants southeast of Hatra, on the banks of the Tharthar Lake in Anbar province. The third strike took place three days later in Tuz Khurmato against an ISIS bunker, and finally, on May 23rd a RAF Reaper targeted a group of ISIS militants in an unidentified location in northern Iraq.

Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service forces advance across a field near Dibis, southern Kirkuk on May 18th 2020 (via ICTS social media)

In total, the US-led Coalition confirmed that in the month of May, Partner Forces in Iraq and Syria conducted 52 anti-ISIS operations.

Syria: Another quiet month for Russian airstrikes  

For the second month in a row, Airwars did not monitor a single locally reported civilian harm incident from Russian actions in Syria. April and May of this year mark the only complete months without civilian casualties claimed from Russian military actions – and the longest continuous period without reports of civilian harm since the beginning of Moscow’s campaign began in Syria in September 2015.

Despite the absence of Russian actions, there were concerns that hostilities could resume at any moment. Sporadic reports emerged throughout the month of attacks by both Syrian Government forces and rebels.

On May 10th for example, al-Qaeda-linked Huras al-Din reportedly attacked regime forces in the Ghab plain area of Idlib. It was said the fighting had left 21 troops and 13 Huras al-Din members dead. Additionally, on May 15th, there were reports that regime shelling on the town of al-Bara in Idlib killed at least two civilians and injured up to five others.

Turkey in Syria and Iraq

Airwars tracked five separate civilian harm allegations against Turkish-led forces over the course of May – three less than last month’s tally. According to local sources, these incidents led to three civilian deaths, compared to two such deaths in April. At least one child was harmed from alleged Turkish actions.

All the civilian harm incidents which took place in May occurred in the week starting May 13th. That day in the town of Maranaz in Aleppo governorate, a young boy was reportedly severely injured after being peppered by shrapnel from alleged Turkish shelling on the town. Three days later, up to two civilians were killed when according to pro-regime outlets, Turkish-backed forces opened fire on a van coming from Raqqa city near a checkpoint in Ras al-Ain. Kurdish expert Wladimir van Wilgenburg reported that the two civilians killed were Mihemed Xidir Husên and Ziyab El-Elî.

The third incident occurred in Deir Ghosn in Hasaka Governorate on May 17th, when Turkish forces allegedly opened fire on farmers in the area. Just two days later, 30-year-old Mohammed Hajj Hussein Al Khalaf was wounded by an artillery strike on the village of Arab Hassan Kabir, Aleppo governorate. Hawar News spoke to the uncle of the victim, Ali Al Khalaf, who stated that the shelling occurred at 5am while his family was sleeping. The final incident took place in the town of Şiyûx, west of Kobani city after Turkish forces shelled the town, reportedly injuring two civilians.

In Iraq, Turkish fighter jets continued to target Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) positions throughout the month. On May 30th, a Turkish airstrike reportedly hit the Deralok sub-district of Amedi, close to the border with Turkey in the province of Dohuk. The strike killed a father and a son in the area and injured another person. The Turkish Ministry of Defence, however, claimed that the attack had killed two PKK fighters, and not civilians.

Mohammed Hajj Hussein Al Khalaf was injured in alleged Turkish-backed artillery strikes on the village of Arab Hassan Kabir on May 19th, 2020 (via Hawar News).

Kurdish counterfire in Syria

Airwars tracked no civilian harm incidents resulting from Kurdish counterfire actions during the month of May. This is the second month in a row that no civilian harm allegations against Kurdish armed groups have been locally reported – and marked the longest period without reports of civilian harm from Kurdish actions since July 2019.

US counter-terrorism campaigns

Somalia

Airwars recorded four locally alleged US strikes in Somalia during May, of which only one was officially declared. In two events, civilian harm was claimed against AFRICOM.

Up to two civilians were allegedly killed by a US or Kenyan strikes on Araboow on May 13th. The strikes reportedly hit minibuses departing from Mogadishu. AFRICOM denied any involvement in the event.

On May 17th, a US strike allegedly injured four civilians in Kunya Barrow. Sources close to Al Shabaab reported that the strike hit a civilian home, injuring a mother and three of her children.

Picture of an alleged victim of US strike on Kunya Barrow on May 17th, 2020 (via Halgan Media)

Yemen

On May 13th, Yemen Press Agency alleged that US drones had targeted positions in both Marib and Abyan. The first attack occurred in the Wadi Obeida area of Marib city. According to reports, a drone strike hit a house, killing an al-Qaeda operative named Shurfan and injuring the group’s alleged communications officer, Abdullah al-Maliki. Photographs published locally showed an injured Maliki receiving medical treatment.

Yet according to an email from CENTCOM to Airwars, there were no US military strikes during May 2020 in Yemen. This was despite the US Justice Department confirming that a senior Qaeda operative was targeted in a drone strike during the month, with an official press release on May 18th noting that “a counterterrorism operation targeting AQAP operative Abdullah al-Maliki, one of Alshamrani’s overseas associates, was recently conducted in Yemen.”

Meanwhile, a reported US strike in Abyan targeted an al-Qaeda site near the Shakra area, and resulted in the death of Abu al-Bara al-Qifi, a senior figure within the terror group. A third claimed US action took place in al-Arqoub in Abyan on May 16th, killing senior al-Qaeda figure Saad al-Atiqi al-Awlaki. According to Yemen Press Agency, the attack took place between the Laudar district in Abyan province and the Mokiras district of Bayda province. The action came as Saudi-backed forces also launched an attack in the area, which is held by fighters allied to the al-Islah party.

With multiple reports from local sources of US drone strikes in both Marib and Abyan provinces during May – and confirmation of a US attack on al-Maliki, despite CENTCOM denials – this strongly indicates that the US’s covert CIA campaign in Yemen is continuing.

Abdullah al-Maliki who was injured in a US drone strike on Wadi Obeida in Marib on May 13th 2020. Image via @YemeniFatima

Pakistan

There were no publicly alleged CIA strikes in Pakistan against either Al Qaeda or the Taliban during May. The last such reported or claimed US action was in August 2018.

Advocacy

UK advocacy

Airwars marked the UN’s Protection of Civilians week in May 2020 with the Conflicting Truth project, in partnership with the Scottish-American design team Rectangle, who also produce the complex mapping and data representations on the Airwars website.

The project live-streamed the names of 8,337 civilian casualties which Airwars has documented in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Somalia in recent years. The Airwars/Rectangle project aims to show that those killed and injured in conflict are not mere statistics – they are people with names, friends and families. Their loss inflicts severe pain on relatives, and the communities they belong to.

Airwars also joined other international partners and organisations in a Civil Society Call for Action to Protect Civilians during PoC week. The joint statement, signed by 22 organisations, called on the UN Security Council, on Member States, and on the UN System to take urgent, bold and practical steps to respond to the challenges that remain in the protection of civilians in armed conflict.

Airwars’ Deputy Director additionally joined with US partners in a three-day virtual workshop hosted by InterAction, ‘Building the Evidence Base:  Addressing the Reverberating Effects of  Military Operations on Civilian Life’. This gathered together experts undertaking systematic research on the effects of explosive weapons in populated areas. Participants came up with a number of practical and methodological challenges associated with analysing the reverberating effects of conflict, and outlined a way forward to overcome them.

European advocacy

May was a busy month for European advocacy. In the run up to the fourth Dutch parliamentary debate on the Hawijah case, we published a blog with our partner the Open State Foundation (available in Dutch) about the poor quality of the Dutch Ministry of Defence’s recently released weekly reports on Dutch airstrikes as part of the US-led Coalition between 2014 and 2016. 

The parliamentary debate was itself held on May 14th. Our livetweeting of the nine-hour-long event was widely followed by international media. One topic discussed during the debate was our news story from March, in which Airwars revealed that at least one other Coalition ally had refused the airstrike on Hawijah, based on the available intelligence. During all four debates, Airwars was mentioned no less than 54 times.

Military advocacy

On May 1st, the US-led Coalition published its fifth civilian harm report of 2020, declaring that from August 2014 to March 31st 2020 it had conducted 34,819 strikes against so called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Of the 41 historic assessments reviewed by Combined Joint Task Force – Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR), 40 locally reported civilian harm events were rejected as ‘non credible’ – with a single additional event flagged as a duplicate assessment. All but one of the events – covering civilian harm claims in both Iraq and Syria between September 2015 and November 2019 – were Airwars referrals.

This blanket rejection of all locally reported civilian harm events reviewed during May reflected a recent and concerning trend. Of 217 locally alleged civilian harm events in Iraq and Syria assessed by CJTF-OIR to May 2020, only eight events (3.6%) had been accepted as Credible.

On May 6th, the Pentagon also published its third annual report on civilian harm to Congress. This declared that US forces in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Somalia had between them killed at least 132 civilians and injured 91 more during 2019. The Pentagon also reported a further 79 historical deaths from its actions in Syria and Iraq during 2017-18.

Of the 21 historical cases officially conceded from US actions in Iraq and Syria for 2017 over the past year, 18 had been Airwars referrals. Yet every single allegation referred by Airwars to the Coalition for both 2018 and 2019 was rejected – amounting to many hundreds of dismissed local claims.

As Airwars director Chris Woods noted at the time, “Many hundreds of civilian deaths which were credibly reported by local communities appear to have been ignored. This goes against the Pentagon’s repeated promise to engage better with external NGOs including monitors, and we will be asking for an urgent explanation from officials of this apparent backward step.”

▲ An Iraqi Counter Terrorism officer overlooks fields reportedly burnt by ISIS in Dibis, Kirkuk (via @iraqicts)

Published

June 22, 2020

Written by

Laurie Treffers, Mohammed al Jumaily and Oliver Imhof

Foreign power involvement risks linking Syria and Libya wars, experts warn.

Civilians are continuing to benefit from a months-long ceasefire in northern Syria, which has seen casualty numbers sharply fall to levels last seen in the early months of the civil war. Experts remain divided however, on how long this pause in fighting will last – and what it means for Syria and its divided people.

April and May 2020 marked the first complete months since the beginning of the Russian campaign in Syria in September 2015, in which Airwars did not monitor any civilian casualty allegations against Moscow. A ceasefire beginning in early March – and international pressure in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis – brought an end to months of violent air raids on Idlib governorate, which had killed up to 556 civilians.

On March 5th, 2020, Russia and Turkey reached agreement on a ceasefire in Idlib governorate, after recent escalations had led to the deaths of 36 Turkish soldiers. Terms included the provision of a 12 kilometre long safety corridor alongside the M4 highway, which connects Aleppo with Latakia; and joint patrols by Russian and Turkish forces.

“The reason why Russia signed the ceasefire is because it got what it wanted. Their endgame has always been to secure the integrity of the Syrian regime,” argues Alexey Khlebnikov, a Middle East expert and Russian foreign policy analyst with the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC). “The priority in Idlib was never to take it over in its entirety. The campaign was not targeted at getting every centimetre. There were and there are two major goals: securing the M5, which connects Aleppo and Damascus, and the M4 highway, connecting Aleppo with Latakia.”

According to some experts, Turkey did less well out of that agreement. Gerhard Mangott, a professor at the University of Innsbruck specialising in international relations and security in the post-Soviet region, notes: “The ceasefire is a compromise between Russian and Turkish interests, with poor results for Turkey and good results for Russia. Turkey had set an ultimatum to the Syrian government to withdraw to the front line of April 2019, when Syrian and allied forces started their offensive in Idlib. Due to Russian pressure, Turkey had to accept the actual front line.”

Idlib offensive: at least 423 civilian deaths

As the last remaining opposition stronghold, north west Syria was targeted heavily during a three-month campaign by the Assad regime and Russia as they sought to gain control of the region. Russian-backed pro-government forces (made up of Syrian Government forces, Hezbollah, and allied armed groups) attempted to push into both Idlib and Aleppo Governorates, and defeat remaining anti-government rebels.

The beginning of the offensive saw pro-government forces make quick advances against rebel troops. By the end of December 2019, the Assad government had captured large parts of the Ma’arat Al Nu’man countryside including Jarjnaz, the largest town in the area; and had completely encircled the main Turkish observation point in Sarman.

Then, following a short-lived ceasefire between January 9th and 15th, the Syrian Government made some of its most significant advances in Idlib since the civil war began in 2011. By January 28th, pro-government forces had managed to capture Ma’arat Al Nu’man, a city of major strategic and symbolic importance due to its position on the Aleppo-Damascus Highway, which serves as one of the country’s main economic arteries to areas under government control in northwestern Syria.

Just eight days later, the town of Saraqib – another locale which had served as a bastion against the Assad Government for many years – was captured. The following weeks saw more government advances including the full capture of the province of Aleppo for the first time since the outbreak of the civil war.

Russian airpower has been crucial to each pro-government advance. However, these military victories came at a catastrophic cost to civilians, in both Idlib and Aleppo. Heavily populated urban areas were pummelled before each incursion, with almost no respite for residents.

During the three months of the campaign, Russia was allegedly involved in 250 separate civilian harm incidents – averaging more than three events every day. These airstrikes led to between 423 and 556 civilian deaths and the injuring of up to 1,137 more, Airwars monitoring of local sources indicates. At least 128 children were killed during the campaign – more than a quarter of all tracked fatalities – showing that the most vulnerable often bore the brunt of a ruthless air campaign.

Additionally, crucial civilian infrastructure was hit numerous times. Schools were targeted on at least 15 occasions, while hospitals and medical centres were struck at least nine times. This targeting of civilian infrastructure by Assad and Russia was not new. According to the World Health Organisation, there have been 83 attacks on healthcare facilities in Syria since April 2019.

The Idlib campaign triggered a widespread displacement crisis in northern Syria. By the end of the assault, at least 980,000 people, most of them women and children, were forced to flee the violence. According to Mark Lowcock, UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, these displaced people were struggling to survive in what he described as “horrific conditions”.

Tank rolling through ruins in Maarat Numan (via Oleg Blokhin).

Impact of Covid-19

The fighting in Idlib eventually stopped after Turkey escalated its own operations against pro-Assad government forces, following a devastating airstrike on a Turkish infantry battalion on the road between al-Bara and Balyun, which had left 32 Turkish soldiers dead and many others wounded.

Following this event, Ankara took the bold decision to intervene directly on the side of the rebels. The ferociousness of Turkey’s intervention was unprecedented, with Turkish forces launching a barrage of attacks on pro-regime positions, destroying dozens of military vehicles, equipment and several Russian-made air defence systems. These attacks devastated the Syrian Government, with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reporting that 170 pro-regime forces died. Turkish defence minister Hulusi Akar put the toll far higher – claiming that Turkish forces had destroyed two Syrian Su-24 fighter jets, two drones, 135 tanks, and five air defence systems; and had “neutralised” more than 2,500 fighters loyal to the Syrian government.

The risk of being embroiled in an all-out confrontation with Turkey forced the hands of both the Syrian and Russian governments, and prompted a formal ceasefire agreement between Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Vladmir Putin of Russia. While the eventual ceasefire provided a much-needed respite for civilians in northwestern Syria, millions continued to suffer from the after-effects of the brutal campaign. And with the COVID-19 pandemic showing no signs of abating in the region, refugees from the violence in Syria, clustered into overcrowded camps, may remain most at risk of suffering from the virus.

Khlebnikov at RIAC says he does not, however, think the Covid-19 crisis was the main driver of the ceasefire: “I wouldn’t say it is a game-changer or a strong factor in this ceasefire. The Ukraine crisis did not impact Russia’s foreign policy, even though the economy was under great distress. So why would Covid-19? It might affect the intensity of the conflict in the long run, and it slows things down because diplomats and leaders are unable to meet in person.”

Elizabeth Tsurkov, a research fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a Syria expert, agrees: “I don’t think the Covid-19 crisis impacted the calculations of the warring parties in this conflict.”

That the ceasefire has lasted following the Covid-19 outbreak might seem paradoxical, given that both Russia and Turkey recently increased their involvement in Libya. However, those contributions are relatively small for now, compared to Syria. That said, the conflict in Libya has become both interlinked with Syria – with Russia and Turkey again on opposite sides – and also a continuation of the civil war on different soil, as Syrian mercenaries recruited by both Turkey and Russia now fight each other in the Maghreb. Talks between Moscow and Ankara to explore a deal that might see the fates of Syria and Libya connected have been put off for now.

Disinfectant teams battling Covid-19 working in Northern and Eastern Syria (via Rojava Information Center).

“Costs of violating the ceasefire are much higher now”

Previous Syria ceasefires have been fairly short-lived. So why is the Idlib pause still holding more than three months on? “The situation on the ground is different from two years ago. Idlib is now the only lasting stronghold of opposition armed groups and terrorists. And a ceasefire during a civil war, it is not a literal thing. There are certain violations,” asserts Khlebnikov.

According to his own estimates, there were 80 violations of the ceasefire in the first half of May. Even so, Khlebnikov sees the ceasefire as quite successful: “Since March 5th, the violence fell significantly. The first [joint Russian and Turkish] patrols were 5 or 7 kilometres long, now they are 45 kilometres long. This builds trust; and the Russian and Turkish militaries are getting used to interacting with each other on hostile ground. That creates a certain restraint for [other] armed groups to escalate.”

Mangott also views the results of the ceasefire as so far positive: “I think it will last. Russia is in a difficult economic and financial situation, the GDP will drop by 10% this year. There will probably be a drop in military spending. The current spending priority is on social causes [at home] to take care of the economic crisis, so there is no money for an escalation in Syria.”

In mid June there were some reports of violations of the ceasefire, with Russian airstrikes on Idlib and reports of civilian casualties. These appeared to be in retaliation for attempts by the HTS to seize several villages, and attack Russian targets, however. Dr Elizabeth Tsurkov remains positive: “This is the first time in the history of ceasefires in Syria when Russia and the regime will be punished for violating it. Turkish drones will be up the skies, killing soldiers. The costs will be much higher for them. It is difficult to make predictions, because there are too many uncertain factors right now, also looking at the elections in the US coming up. But I think the ceasefire will last for the rest of 2020.”

Tsurkov adds: “The area north of the M4 highway will remain out of regime hands for the foreseeable future. Until a deal is reached, the area will essentially be annexed into Turkey. We are already seeing the dynamics of that in northern Aleppo.”

Amplifying fears in Damascus of a de facto annexation, in mid June Turkish-backed opposition groups introduced the Turkish Lira and the US dollar as local currencies in cities and towns across Idlib governorate in an effort, they claimed, to stabilise the local economy after the ongoing depreciation of the Syrian pound.

Russia’s endgame in Syria 

Whenever it might end, Khlebnikov sees the ongoing ceasefire between Russia, the regime and Turkey in northern Syria as a temporary solution: “It is definitely not a final solution. There are two options with the ceasefire: it will be cancelled, or updated. I don’t think there will be any major breaches.”

“On the other hand, there is a certain risk of escalation, because if Turkey won’t be able to deliver on its promises to clear the buffer zone, that may become a legitimate reason for Russia and the Syrian army to launch operations.” But, warns Khlebnikov: “In the last four months, Turkey allocated about 15.000 troops and upped military equipment. It is amassing its forces in Idlib. Any fight with Turkey will be a disaster for Russia.”

With a mass outbreak of the Covid-19 virus still threatening Syria – with its heavily weakened health care system after nearly a decade of war – a fight between Russia and Turkey on Syrian territory would not only carry great risk for Moscow. It is likely that Syrian civilians would bear the greatest losses, once again.

▲ Russia patrol in northern Syria (via Rojava News Network).

Published

June 2020

Written by

Mohammed al Jumaily

Assisted by

Chris Woods, Clive Vella, Dmytro Chupryna, Douglas Statt, Eleftheria Kousta, Giacomo Nanni, Hermes, Laurie Treffers, Maysa Ismael, Ned Ray, Oliver Imhof, Samuel Brownsword and Shihab Halep

Major Conflict Monitoring

The COVID-19 pandemic has emerged as the most serious public health crisis this century and continues to dominate most governments’ domestic and foreign policy. Airwars research shows that the crisis has brought about a significant though perhaps short-lived peace dividend in a number of conflict nations. April 2020 saw an almost unprecedented reduction in civilian harm incidents in Syria for example, whilst Iraq continues to see minimal reported civilian harm allegations against  foreign actors.

However, this peace dividend has failed to extend to Libya. That conflict has escalated significantly, as Turkey has stepped up its armed intervention on behalf of the Government of National Accord (GNA), against the opposition Libyan National Army. As both sides sought military dominance in Tripoli and other towns and cities across Libya, civilian suffering also multiplied from previous months. 

As shown by the below graph, since the outbreak of COVID-19, civilian harm in Syria, usually the most active conflict which Airwars monitors, has decreased significantly. However, this welcome trend has not applied to Libya, where the fighting became more intense in April, following the escalation of Turkey’s air campaign against the LNA. For the first time since we began tracking civilian harm in both nations, reported deaths in Libya outstripped those in Syria.

Civilian harm in Libya grows as Turkey escalates air campaign

Libya witnessed a significant increase in both reported civilian casualties and airstrikes in April, partly due to the Turkish air campaign in favour of the Government of National Accord (GNA). The number of reported civilian deaths rose from 17-19 in March to 44-52. The number of alleged air and artillery strikes increased by 50% from 163 to 245.

The majority of civilian harm was still allegedly caused by the Libyan National Army (LNA), which reportedly shelled civilian neighbourhoods of Tripoli on many occasions. This led to between 20 and 23 locally reported civilian deaths. In the worst incident, up to four civilians were allegedly killed and up to eight more injured by LNA shelling on Tajoura on April 9th.

Civilian harm from GNA or Turkish actions spiked in April as a result of combined efforts to recover territory previously lost to the LNA in Western Libya. Between eight and ten civilians were reportedly killed by 55 GNA or Turkish air and artillery strikes. On April 28th for example, a GNA/Turkish drone strike allegedly killed up to five civilians in a civilian truck near Ra’s at Tabal.

Once again during the month, many civilian harm events could not be clearly attributed because of indiscriminate shelling in urban areas. These led to 16 to 19 reported civilian deaths either contested between the GNA and LNA, or where the responsibility of no one belligerent could be determined.

Image via Tk Yahroug Kl shy of a truck carrying beehives that was allegedly hit by a Turkish/GNA drone on April 28th 2020

 

Syria: Ceasefire brings month of calm from Russian airstrikes  

As countries across the world battled to contain the spread of COVID-19, the campaign in Idlib was brought to an almost complete halt. Airwars tracked no civilian harm incidents involving Russia during all of April – the first such month of no reported civilian casualties since Moscow first intervened in Syria in September 2015.

The pause in fighting came after UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for a global ceasefire at the end of March so that governments could focus on fighting the virus, and allow for humanitarian workers to reach populations in conflict zones that were most vulnerable to the spread of the virus. The absence of civilian harm attributed to Russia suggested that the ’ceasefire dividend’ brought about by COVID-19 may have been quite effective in bringing about much-needed respite from conflict, at least in Syria.

However, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Russian airstrikes were carried out during April in desert regions of Syria against ISIS positions, killing 28 alleged militants. Additionally, there were sporadic reports of Regime shelling in Idlib Governorate in areas near the southeastern Jabal al-Zawiya region on April 2nd.

The US-led Coalition in Iraq and Syria

April was once again a relatively calm month for the US-led Coalition in Syria, with no civilian harm allegations reported. 

However, there were reports of Coalition strikes against ISIS positions in Syria, as well as claimed unilateral US strikes on Iran-backed forces in the country. On April 18th, a Coalition aircraft targeted two people riding a motorbike, near a school in Al-Hawaij town in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor. According to Deir Ezzor 24, the strike came moments after ISIS militants had destroyed a school with explosives. Most sources reporting on the airstrike say that the two people killed were ISIS militants that were likely involved in the destruction of the school.

On April 21st, local sources reported that a convoy carrying up to 15 members of Iranian-backed groups in Syria was allegedly targeted by a US strike. The convoy reportedly came from Iraq to the al-Thalatat area in the Al-Bukamal desert area, east of Deir Ezzor.

Meanwhile, International Coalition airstrikes in Iraq also continued. On April 10th, the UK declared its first actions against ISIS targets since September 2019. According to a statement by the Ministry of Defence, a pair of Royal Air Force Typhoon jets, assisted by an RAF Reaper drone, struck ISIS militants in Tuz Khurmatu, south of Kirkuk, “removing several Daesh fighters from the battlefield and further degrading the terrorist movement.”

Three days later, US F-15s conducted airstrikes on ISIS locations near Kirkuk in Iraq. The strikes reportedly took place in a river valley, 15 kilometres south of Daquq. According to the Iraqi Security Media Cell, the joint operation with Iraqi Security Forces led to 23 ISIS militants being killed. These attacks came after a recent uptick in ISIS activity in northern Iraq.

Image via CENTCOM of the USAF airstrike in Kirkuk on April 13th 2020.

Turkey in Syria

While fighting in Syria had largely subsided following the ceasefire deal signed between Presidents Putin and Erdogan in Moscow on March 5th, civilian harm incidents resulting from Turkish-led actions continued to be sporadically reported, albeit at a slightly lower rate than previous months. 

Airwars tracked seven separate civilian harm allegations against Turkish-led forces over the course of April. These incidents led to two civilian deaths and the injury of up to 14 more, according to local sources. This represents a significant decrease from the previous month, which saw four civilian fatalities and 27 injuries from ten Turkish-led civilian harm incidents. Additionally, according to Airwars data, children were less harmed from alleged Turkish incidents compared to the previous month when three of the four civilians reported killed were children. In April only one child was reportedly injured.

All the incidents took place in the first ten days of the month (again suggesting a possible ‘Covid effect’.) The deadliest took place on April 2nd in the villages of Qabr al-Saqir and al-Abosh in the Tal Tamr district of Hasakah Governorate. According to local sources, two people lost their lives and four others were injured after Turkish forces fired a barrage of shells on residential neighbourhoods in the villages.

In Iraq, there were local reports of two civilian harm incidents resulting from Turkish airstrikes on the Kurdistan Region of Iraq during the month. On April 15th, an alleged Turkish airstrike on the Makhmour IDP camp killed three women and injured up to four others. In a separate incident on April 28th, Turkish warplanes struck the Xakurke area, on the Iran-Iraq border. The airstrike reportedly killed two civilians, whose identities were later given as Fakher Tazewared (35 years old) and Rashid Miroir (36 years old). The victims were reportedly from the town of Shino in Iran.

Image via Politika of a funeral held for the three women killed in the airstrike on the Makhmour IDP camp on April 15th.

Kurdish counterfire in Syria

Airwars tracked no civilian harm incidents resulting from Kurdish counterfire actions during the month of April. This is the first month that no civilian harm allegations against Kurdish armed groups have been reported since September 2019 – before Turkey’s offensive in Northeastern Syria.

However, on April 28th a large VBIED was detonated in the city of Afrin, killing as many as 42 people and injuring more than 50 others. The explosion took place near the densely populated main market in the city. Some sources claimed that the YPG was responsible for the attack, though these reports were not confirmed.

Image via SCD of a fireman putting out the flames from the car bomb in Afrin city on April 28th.

US counter-terrorism campaigns

Somalia

The number of reported US strikes in Somalia decreased sharply in April, presumably because of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. AFRICOM declared conducting eight strikes at the beginning of the month, seven less than in March. It claimed these had killed 32 Al Shabaab fighters in total.

Local sources at times conflicted with AFRICOM’s own press releases, alleging civilian harm on two occasions. On April 6th, between two and three civilians were reportedly killed by a US strike near Jilib. In addition, one child was allegedly injured, while AFRICOM said no civilians were harmed in the attack.

Additionally, on April 10th one elderly clan leader was allegedly killed according to some local sources. However, AFRICOM later vehemently refuted the claims in a statement: “Immediately prior to the airstrike, this al-Shabaab terrorist displayed the murdered bodies of Somali National Army (SNA) soldiers in a village. Following this act of coercion and intimidation, the al-Shabaab terrorist departed the village. Once isolated in a remote and secluded area, the terrorist was killed by an airstrike executed by the command in coordination with the Federal Government of Somalia.”

On April 27th, AFRICOM for the first time released a quarterly civilian harm report, conceding two civilian deaths – believed to be a father and child – from an incident in Kunyo Barrow on February 23rd, 2019. AFRICOM had originally dismissed the claim. But it reopened an assessment after Airwars submitted a detailed dossier on the incident in January 2020, including what were believed to be precise coordinates for where casualties took place.

Image via Morad News of Ahmed Hussein, allegedly injured in a US strike on Jilib on April 6th, 2020.

Yemen

According to CENTCOM, there were no US military strikes during April 2020 in Yemen. However, there were multiple reports from local sources of two US drone strikes in Marib and Shabwa provinces. It remains possible that one or both of these incidents was conducted by the CIA, which has intermittently been conducting strikes in Yemen since 2002 – but which neither confirms nor denies such actions. 

On April 11th, the Yemen Press Agency reported an alleged US drone strike on the home of a leading figure of the Islah party in Marib, Ali bin Ghareeb, under the pretext of combating al-Qaeda’s presence in the area. Although Ali bin Ghareeb was unharmed, there were reports of civilian casualties from the attack, although no details have emerged on the number harmed or their identities. There were conflicting reports which suggested that the attack was instead carried out by a Houthi ballistic missile, though most sources seemed to allege that US drones were responsible.

A second claimed drone strike took place in Wadi Amaqin in the district of Bayhan in Shabwa Governorate on April 26th. According to Associated Press, two strikes were conducted in the area killing six al-Qaeda militants. Bayhan has long been a stronghold for al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula and has therefore been the subject of numerous drone strikes over the last few years. 

Map via Intelligence Fusion-Asia showing the claimed location of a recently alleged US drone strike in Shabwa on April 26th.

Pakistan

There were no publicly alleged CIA strikes in Pakistan against either Al Qaeda or the Taliban during January. The last such reported US strike was in August 2018.

Advocacy

UK advocacy

Airwars gave a presentation, ‘Using casualty monitoring to hold militaries to account’ in a webinar hosted by EveryCasualty’s Casualty Recorders Network. This was a great opportunity to present Airwars’ work and experience and our recent investigation into European civilian harm, as well as a chance to meet and talk with other organisations who work in this domain.

Airwars also signed a joint letter coordinated by Crisis Action to the UN Security Council, to support calls for a global ceasefire in light of the COVID-19 crisis.

We additionally submitted a short paper to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, concerning the impact of the diversion of arms and unregulated or illicit arms transfers on the human rights of women and girls in Libya.

In April Airwars also signed the NGO Global Compact coordinated by InterAction, which includes commitments towards environmental action and sustainability as a result of the climate crisis.

And finally, Airwars has updated its Arabic-language Methodology, which can be accessed on our website. 

European advocacy

With the past few months heavily focused on Dutch advocacy after the Hawijah scandal broke in October 2019, our deputy director and European advocacy officer have taken the opportunity to reconnect with our partners and allies in France and Belgium. Several digital meetings were held to discuss how civil society in both countries might better encourage progress in terms of transparency and accountability, following our Europe’s Shame investigation in March.  

We also held several online roundtable meetings with our Dutch partners to discuss a conceptual roadmap towards greater transparency and accountability from the Dutch Ministry of Defence, which we plan to present to the Ministry in early June.

As a member of the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), Airwars’ advocacy team also sought with opur partners to improve the forthcoming Political Declaration by nations, which is expected to address the humanitarian harm arising from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

Military advocacy

The US-led Coalition fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria published no monthly civilian harm reports during April. However the Coalition’s civilian casualty assessment team reached out to Airwars on several occasions during the month to request clarification from our specialists on a number of publicly claimed civilian harm events.

 

▲ Image via Enab Baladi of a fighter in Syria resting amidst the rubble, April 2020.

Published

May 2020

Written by

Mohammed al Jumaily

Assisted by

Alex Hopkins, Anna Zahn, Clive Vella, Eleftheria Kousta, Hermes, Laurie Treffers, Maysa Ismael, Ned Ray, Oliver Imhof, Shihab Halep and Vasiliki Touhouliotis

Major Conflict Monitoring

Putin-Erdogan ceasefire brings Russia’s air campaign on Idlib to a temporary halt

As the COVID-19 pandemic morphed into the most widespread global public health crisis in a century, there were growing calls for an end to conflicts around the world in order to give public authorities the respite needed to manage the crisis. This, along with Turkey’s unprecedented intervention in Idlib at the end of February, prompted Presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan to hold high-level talks in Moscow on March 5th. Six hours of negotiation concluded with a ceasefire agreement, which would take hold the next day.

As part of the deal, a security corridor 6km north and 6km south of Idlib’s key M4 motorway, which connects the government-held cities of Aleppo and Latakia, would be created and joint Turkish-Russian patrols along the M4 would take place. According to local sources, there were reports of Syrian Regime bombardment on the first day of the ceasefire on the towns of al-Ziyarah, Bara and Sarmin. However, from March 7th onwards, the ceasefire was largely maintained by both sides. As a result, Airwars researchers reported no civilian harm allegations attributed to Russian airstrikes after March 5th.

However before the ceasefire came into effect, Airwars tracked 10 locally reported civilian harm events  that were both solely and partially attributed to Russia. Of these strikes, seven targeted areas in Idlib governorate, while two took place in Aleppo and one strike hit an area in Hama.

Unsurprisingly, this represented a dramatic decline in alleged civilian harm incidents attributed to Russia duringFebruary. In total, across these 10 new incidents in March, between 32 and 48 civilians were allegedly killed by Russian strikes – in comparison to between 182 and 226 civilians who were reportedly killed the previous month. Among the latest victims were up to 12 children and 7 women. Up to 86 further non-combatants were reportedly wounded during the month by Russian military actions.

While the number of casualties was significantly lower, it is important to note that the number of civilian fatalities per incident was actually higher this month than in February. In March, on average up to 4.8 civilians were killed per incident – more than double the fatality rate per incident for February, which stood at 2.1. This suggests that a greater proportion of strikes took place in densely populated areas where the risk of civilian harm was high.

On March 1st four civilian harm incidents took place. Two occurred in Aleppo governorate (the towns of Kafar Natin and al-Sahara), one took place in the town of Qatoun in Hama, and one in Batneta in Idlib. All the other incidents during March took place in Idlib.

Two of the most devastating airstrikes occurred in al-Fou’a on March 2nd and in Idlib city. In al-Fou’a, local reports estimate that up to 11 civilians were killed and 15 more injured in an attack. The day after in al-Thalatheen Street in Idlib city, up to nine civilians were killed and 21 more were injured after Russian warplanes and Regime forces based in Saraqib allegedly targeted a building sheltering internally displaced persons (IDPs). According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, three members of the Hamdou family were killed including two children named Rimas and Shahem.

However, the most deadly attack this month came on March 5th, on the day Presidents Putin and Erdogan held their talks in Moscow. This alleged Russian airstrike, which many local sources described as a “massacre” hit a shelter for displaced families in Ma’arat Masrin in the northern countryside of Idlib, killing up to 16 civilians and injuring another 32. As many as five children were among the dead, as well as seven women.

طائرات الاحتلال الروسي تقتل 16 مدنياً في "معرة مصرين" بريف #إدلبhttps://t.co/XihIwSITOg#سوريا #روسيا pic.twitter.com/qSwChrSJL3

— الائتلاف الوطني السوري (@SyrianCoalition) March 5, 2020

Turkey in Syria

The deal signed between Presidents Putin and Erdogan in Moscow on March 5th effectively saw the end of Turkish military actions in Idlib and northwest Syria. However, there were several reports of civilian harm incidents that were attributed to Turkish actions in other parts of Syria after March 5th. In fact, despite the ceasefire in Idlib and Turkey supposedly de-escalating its intervention in Syria, Aiwars reported a slight rise in alleged Turkish civilian harm incidents in the month of March – though with a lower death toll from these actions compared to February.

According to local reports, as many as 10 civilian harm incidents allegedly resulted from Turkish-led actions, resulting in 4 civilian deaths and injuring up to 27 others. In comparison, February saw nine civilian harm incidents, resulting in six civilian deaths and the injuring of up to 22 others. Furthermore, children appeared to bear the brunt of these recent attacks, as three of the four civilian deaths reported were below the age of 17.

Three days before the ceasefire deal was signed, on March 2nd pro-Regime sources claimed that Turkish-led shelling on the town of Jourin in Hama had resulted in the deaths of a woman and a child, and the injuring of seven other civilians. This incident resulted in the most civilian casualties out of all Turkish incidents alleged this month.

7 civilians were injured in a terrorist attack with a rocket shell on Jourin town in the far northwest cs of #Hama. The terrorist organizations, backed by the Turkish, fired a rocket shell on #Jourin town that fell on a consolation house & injured seven civilians. pic.twitter.com/sLtuapeNOB

— ?? NadieHarbieh ?? (@HarbiehNadie) March 2, 2020

According to Airwars data, alleged Turkish-led attacks on civilians spiked in the last week of March. Half of the incidents recorded took place during that week. On March 23rd, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that an elderly man was injured in an artillery attack allegedly carried out by Turkish backed forces on the village of Um al-Hawaash in northern Aleppo. Two days later, Turkish-backed Faylaq al-Majd forces allegedly stormed the village of Sukariya in Tal Abyad district, injuring four people, including a child. On that same day, a child was killed and two others were injured in an alleged Turkish landmine explosion in the village of Zaytouna in Tal Abyad countryside. The following day, March 26th, Turkish forces stationed near Azaz reportedly fired rockets towards Tal Rifaat, injuring two civilians displaced from Afrin.

Image via ANF of a child who was injured following alleged Turkish shelling on the village of Sheikh Issa in Shehba, Aleppo.

Kurdish counterfire in Syria

Airwars researchers tracked four alleged civilian harm incidents linked to Kurdish counterfire actions in Syria in March – the name number of incidents reported in February. However, significantly more civilian deaths were reported. As many as seven civilians were allegedly killed from Kurdish actions compared to only one death tracked the previous month. Additionally, between 12 and 25 civilians were reportedly injured in these attacks.

The most deadly incident took place on March 18th in the city of Afrin. According to Al Modon news, YPG forces allegedly launched five mortars on various areas in the centre of Afrin. Two shells fell near the Dersem Hospital in Al-Failat Street, and two more near the Al Shifa’ Hospital near Mazout Street, witha shell also landing on Mazout Street. These attacks resulted in five civilian deaths, including two children, and injured up to 17 others. The Syrian Human Rights Committee published the names of the two children killed – Abdullah Al-Sayyid (10 years old) and Khaled Al-Daba’an (12 years old).

Image via Jesser Press showing the aftermath of the attack on Afrin city on March 18th.

The US-led Coalition in Iraq and Syria

March was yet another relatively quiet month for the US-led coalition in Syria, with no allegations of civilian harm attributed to the International Coalition. The Coalition declared a total of 28 strikes in Syria and Iraq in the month of March. In Iraq, 20 strikes were conducted against ISIS targets, killing 10 militants, CJTFOIR asserted. Meanwhile in Syria, the Coalition launched eight strikes against ISIS targets.

However, March did see a renewal of claims of unilateral actions by the United States. There were reports of at least four airstrikes in eastern Syria, all of which hit areas in Al Bukamal in the Deir Ezzor Governorate. The first set of strikes of the month took place on March 11th on the villages of Al-Suwayyah, Al-Heri, and the Green Belt near the city of Al Bukamal. These airstrikes reportedly targeted sites belonging to Iran-backed Iraqi armed groups such as Harakat al-Nujaba, the Sayed Al-Shuhada Brigades, and the Haydarioun Brigade. The next day saw another set of airstrikes against the same targets in Al Bukamal. One week later, on March 19th, there were reports that the US hit targets belonging to Iranian-backed groups in Albu-Kamal. Finally, on March 24th, US airstrikes once again allegedly targeted Hezbollah positions in the Albu-Kamal area. It should be cautioned that Israel has continued to conduct its own strikes in Syria against Iranian- and regime-linked targets, and the US has not confirmed any unilateral actions, despite local claims.

In Iraq, the US launched airstrikes in the early hours of March 13th on five sites, where rockets and other weapons were stored by Kata’ib Hezbollah. These strikes came in retaliation against a rocket attack that killed two Americans and a British soldier and wounded 14 others at Camp Taji, an Iraqi military base north of Baghdad. That attack was allegedly carried out by a group known as Isabat al-Tha’ireen, believed allied to other Iran-backed groups in Iraq. According to Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, the head of the US military’s Central Command, one of the five sites attacked by the US in response was a weapons storage site at an airfield in Karbala. However, local reports asserted that the airstrikes hit an unfinished civilian airport, killing three Iraqi soldiers, two police officers and a civilian worker named Kerrar Sabbar.

Image via @AIaaAIaabadi of Karrar, a guard at the Karbala International Airport, who was reportedly sleeping in one of the airport’s halls at the time of the attack, and was killed.

Libya

Allegations of civilian harm in Libya remained stable compared to February. Between 17 and 19 civilians were reported killed, a slight decrease on the previous month’s 18 to 23 deaths The number of locally reported strikes increased however by 33% – up from 128 to 163.

The great majority of civilian harm incidents were attributed to the Libyan National Army (LNA). As Khalifa Haftar’s forces lost the ability to conduct drone strikes on Tripoli due to improved Turkish air defence it resorted mostly to artillery shelling, allegedly resulting in 16 to 18 civilian deaths. Altogether 58 LNA actions were recorded, nearly all of them artillery strikes.

In the worst locally reported incident of the month, four civilians, three of them children, were allegedly killed by an LNA artillery strike on Ain Zara on March 19th.

March saw the return of Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones over Libya, helping the GNA (Government of National Accord) to regain some ground. Airwars recorded 20 GNA or Turkish strikes, allegedly leading to one civilian death and two injuries on March 28th.

A large number of strikes could not be attributed once again, most of them indiscriminate artillery shelling often hitting residential areas. Some 81 strikes were conducted by unknown belligerents and two more were contested between the GNA and LNA, reportedly resulting in two civilian injuries.

Image via Tk Yahroug Kl shy of Smoke rising over the Hadaba project area of Tripoli after shelling on March 25th 2020.

 

US counter terrorism campaigns

Somalia

In March Airwars monitored 15 claimed US actions in Somalia, one more than in February and all of which were airstrikes. AFRICOM officially declared 11 strikes in public press releases.

Between four and eight civilians were allegedly killed in three civilian harm events and two more civilians allegedly injured.

In the worst locally reported incident between four and six civilians were said to have been killed by an airstrike near Janaale on a minibus on March 10th.

The Intercept investigated the event and reported that 13-year-old Abdi Farhan Mahmoud and  70-year-old Abdirahman Ali Waadhoor were among the victims. The magazine spoke to Wadhoor’s son who said that his “father is a disabled man. He never had a problem with anyone.”

AFRICOM initially said it killed five Al Shabaab terrorists. It added however that it was currently reviewing information about alleged civilian harm.

In early March, Airwars also held constructive talks at the Pentagon in Washington DC with senior US defence officials, on its new Somalia monitoring project and civilian harm concerns.

Image via Somali Memo of a minibus allegedly destroyed by a US strike near Janaale on March 10th, 2020, which reportedly killed several civilians.

Yemen

According to CENTCOM, there were no US military strikes during March 2020 in Yemen. The last publicly declared CENTCOM action was on June 24th 2019 in Al Bayda province. Airwars researchers also tracked no local claims of US actions in Yemen during the month.

Pakistan

There were no publicly alleged CIA strikes in Pakistan against either Al Qaeda or the Taliban during January. The last such reported US strike was in August 2018.

 

Advocacy

Military advocacy

During March, the US-led Coalition fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria released two monthly civilian casualty reports – covering respectively up until January and February 2020. Of the 79 historical local Iraqi and Syrian allegations reviewed by the Coalition, only one was determined to be credible – a disappointing tally.

In total to March 31st 2020, the US and its allies had conceded at least 1,377 civilian deaths from their actions across Iraq and Syria since 2014.

The one case conceded by the Coalition in March was an Iraqi event which had previously been flagged by Airwars to CJTFOIR. On September 27th 2015, an unknown aircraft had struck the town of Duquq, killing at least seven civilians according to local reports. Almost five years on, the alliance finally accepted responsibility, noting that “Coalition aircraft conducted an airstrike against Daesh fighters. Regrettably, seven civilians were unintentionally killed as a result of the strike.”

Just prior to the global travel lockdown, Airwars also joined several other international NGOs and agencies in Washington DC, for roundtable talks with Acting US Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Dr James Anderson, and other senior officials. The meeting was part of an ongoing Department of Defense policy review into civilian harm reduction, which is expected later in 2020.

Airwars was also a signatory to new civil society guidance for a model DoD policy on civilian harm, which included six policy papers directed at different aspects of casualty mitigation.

Airwars attended both multilateral and unilateral talks at the Pentagon in March (Creative Commons image via Wiyre Media)

European advocacy

On March 10th, our European advocacy officer attended the European Forum on Armed Drones meeting in Brussels, where we presented on our new Somalia database to some of our European partners.

Airwars’ deputy director also engaged in talks with EU officials on their Concept of Protection of Civilians in EU-led Military Operations and provided our expert knowledge on matters such as civilian harm, the protection of civilians, and civilian harm mitigation.

On March 15th, Airwars published a major investigation with international media partners on how key European allies are denying dozens of civilian deaths from their own actions in Syria and Iraq, despite the US-led Coalition finding these civilian harm claims to be credible. The nine-month-investigation with Belgian newspaper De Morgen, French newspaper Liberation, the BBC and RTL Netherlands revealed some shocking facts about how Belgium, France and the UK routinely deny civilian harm from their own military actions.

This past month we also published our analysis of newly declassified documents released by the Dutch Ministries of Defence and Foreign Affairs, and the Netherlands Public Prosecutor’s Office, which revealed a number of concerning facts about Dutch airstrikes on Hawijah and Mosul in 2015, in which dozens of civilians were killed.

The article further revealed that Airwars recently learned that at least one other ally within the US-led Coalition had refused to conduct the Hawijah strike based on the available intelligence. Our publication caused Dutch Members of Parliament to raise questions with the Minister of Defence. Throughout March, Airwars also continued to work alongside our Dutch partners to pursue accountability for Hawijah and Mosul victims, and to improve the Netherland government’s transparency and accountability policies.

UK advocacy

Airwars continued its advocacy work with the UK government in a bid to push for greater military accountability regarding civilian harm and working with partners towards that aim.

Airwars engaged with DFID on our extensive research database as well as our methodology for assessing civilian harm, whilst also discussing possible ways to expand engagement with the UK government on the protection of civilians in conflict.

Airwars also participated in a meeting with organisations such Save the Children, ICRC, UNA-UK Association, War Child, Protection Approaches and others in the Protection of Civilians Working group, to develop lines of engagement with the UK government on its own Protection of Civilian strategy. And the Security Alternative Policy Network’s accountability working group, of which Airwars is a part, held its first call in March, where members agreed on a series of action points and future steps.

At the end of March, Airwars additionally attended a virtual global conference organised by Crisis Action regarding the call for a global ceasefire by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. This morphed into a global campaign to push for a global ceasefire to allow countries better to confront COVID-19 global pandemic.

▲ Image via Syrian Civil Defence of volunteers working to disinfect displacement camps in northern Idlib, March 30th, 2020.

Published

April 2020

Written by

Mohammed al Jumaily

Assisted by

Alex Hopkins, Anna Zahn, Clive Vella, Eleftheria Kousta, Hermes, Laurie Treffers, Maysa Ismael, Ned Ray, Oliver Imhof, Shihab Halep and Vasiliki Touhouliotis

Major Conflict Monitoring

Russia bombardment intensifies as Syrian regime pushes deeper into Idlib

The month of February saw Russian airstrikes again ravage northwestern Syria, as the Syrian Regime continued its offensive in the governorates of Idlib and western Aleppo. For the first half of the month, Russia’s air campaign focused heavily on western Aleppo as regime forces attempted to capture the last remaining territory held by Syrian rebels in the province. The air campaign allowed Regime forces, on February 7th, to push through and take the strategic city of Saraqib, which had served as a bastion against the Assad Government since the early days of the Syrian Revolution. Meanwhile, heavy bombardment in western Aleppo allowed government forces to sweep through and take the last remaining rebel-held areas in Aleppo’s western periphery on February 16th, for the first time in over seven years.

In total, Airwars tracked 109 civilian harm events locally reported during the month of February that were both solely and partially attributed to Russia. Of these strikes, 52 targeted areas in Aleppo, while 57 took place in Idlib governorate.

This represented a nine per cent rise on the 100 events tracked in January 2020. In total, across these 109 new incidents, between 182 and 226 civilians were allegedly killed by Russian strikes – a notable increase from January, when between 145 and 213 civilians were allegedly killed. Among the victims were as many as 55 children and 32 women. Up to 404 further non-combatants were reportedly wounded during the month by Russian military actions.

The tempo of strikes and civilian harm were at their most intense at the beginning of the month, as Syrian regime forces made their most significant advances of the campaign in Idlib and Aleppo. There were an average of 5.5 daily alleged civilian harm incidents in the first week of February. This intensity somewhat lowered as the month wore on to 3.6 daily civilian harm allegations in the last week of the month.

Civilian deaths in Aleppo and Idlib spiked between February 8th and 11th and again on February 25th and 26th, as locals reported a series of mass casualty incidents. In the two days of February 25th-26th alone, Airwars researchers monitored up to 42 civilian deaths and as many as 81 injuries.

The city of Idlib saw two of the most significant mass casualty incidents of the month. On February 6th, Russain warplanes allegedly targeted a van in the Sheikh Thulth neighbourhood killing at least ten people including an ambulance driver, and wounding three others. Just five days later, a deadly airstrike reportedly carried out by Russian warplanes hit the al-Sinaa neighbourhood in Idlib, killing as many as 16 civilians and injuring up to 33 more – the worst incident recorded in the month of February. According to SMART News Agency, among those who perished were seven children. Jala Street and the industrial zones in the al-Sinaa neighbourhood were reportedly reduced to rubble following the deadly attack.

Destruction in the Sinaa neighbourhood in Idlib city following alleged Russian airstrikes on February 11th, 2020 (via Edlib Media Center)

Children were also among the main victims of mass casualty attacks in western Aleppo province. In the village of Abin Samaan, up to 12 civilians were killed, including six children; and up to 20 others were wounded in a series of four airstrikes allegedly carried out by Russian warplanes on a residential area of the village. Abin Samaan had reportedly been a refuge to hundreds of displaced persons fleeing conflict in the province.

The indiscriminate aerial bombardment of Idlib and Aleppo also resulted in another catastrophic wave of displacement. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, by the end of February, at least 950,000 people were forced from their homes as a direct result of the offensive, which began in December.

Turkey in Syria

In February, Turkey took a more active role in the conflict in northwestern Syria, beginning with retaliation against the Syrian Regime’s attacks on Turkish soldiers, and artillery support for Syrian rebel counter-offensives against the Assad Government’s advances – actions which slowly escalated into a fully-fledged military operation in Idlib against Damascus.

By February 12th, Turkey had stationed 30,000 troops at the Syrian border, and sent 5,000 soldiers as reinforcements to Idlib as well as establishing new defensive positions around Idlib city, bringing the total number of troops in the governorate to 9,000. However, a joint Russian-Syrian airstrike on a Turkish Army convoy in Balyun, which killed at least 34 Turkish soldiers – the single deadliest attack on Turkish forces since the start of their involvement in the Syrian Civil War – proved to be a key turning point, and resulted in the beginning of Operation Spring Shield. On February 28th, the Turkish Ministry of Defence claimed that it had struck 200 Syrian Government targets and killed 309 allied forces throughout Greater Idlib, forcing Russia and the Syrian Government to agree to new ceasefire terms.

Meanwhile, Airwars reported a rise in civilian harm allegations from Turkish actions in Syria. According to local reports, as many as nine civilian harm incidents allegedly resulted from Turkish-led actions, resulting in six civilian deaths and the injuring up to 22 others. This was a significant rise from the one alleged death from Turkish actions reported in January 2020.

Coinciding with Turkey’s increased involvement in the conflict in Syria, six of the nine  Turkish-led civilian harm allegations took place in the last week of the month. On February 25th, local Kurdsh news outlets reported that the Turkish army and allied forces shelled the village of Aqiba, killing three civilians and injuring three others. All those killed were from the same family: Seroşet Mihemed Hesen (12 years old), Fatma Ali (46 years old) and Hesen Izet Mihemed (55 years old).

A few days later, on February 28th, Turkish forces stationed at the Sheikh Nasser base reportedly launched rocket attacks on various areas in the town of al-Arima, west of Manbij. The attack also targeted Regime forces, killing four soldiers and injuring at least five others.

Civilians killed in the Akibe village as a result of alleged Turkish shelling (via @Karl_hakon)

Kurdish counterfire in Syria

Airwars researchers tracked four alleged civilian harm incidents linked to Kurdish counterfire actions in Syria in February, twice the number of cases reported in January. However, despite this increase, there was only civilian death reported, compared to the five deaths tracked the previous month. Additionally, between 22 and 24 civilians were reportedly injured as a result of YPG actions.

Three of the four civilian harm incidents took place on February 4th and 5th. At least one civilian was reportedly killed and thirteen others, among them five children, were reportedly injured in alleged YPG artillery strikes on the Al Ittehad al Arabi school in Afrin city on February 4th, 2020. Shabha Press reported that the artillery attack caused material damages to the school, while an educational course was taking place. The Syrian Civil Defence in Aleppo published the names of five of the injured children – Mervan Ali (8 years old), Qutaiba al-Quwatli (5 years old), Ryan Pasha (14 years old), Muhammad Salih al-Muhammad (15 years old) and Ali Arour (2 years old).

On that same day, another civilian harm incident took place in the village of al-Mihsinli near the city of Jarablus in eastern Aleppo, where up to three civilians were injured. The next day saw another attack on Azaz, injuring four civilians, including a woman and three children.

جرحى وأضرار مادية جراء استهداف ميليشيا PYD لمدرسة "الشريعة" في مدينة #عفرين شمال #حلب براجمات الصواريخ. pic.twitter.com/2RbN7gyUnH

— وكالة شهبا برس (@ShahbaPress) February 4, 2020

Images of the damage caused by an alleged YPG rocket attack on a school in northern Aleppo, February 4th 2020

The US-led Coalition in Iraq and Syria

On February 12th, the US-led Coalition was blamed for one civilian harm event in the Khirbet Amo area in the city of Qamishli, in Syria’s Hasaka province. According to local reports, the incident occurred after Coalition forces on patrol encountered a Syrian Regime checkpoint, whereupon dozens of locals began protesting the presence of US-led forces in the area. According to SANA, a pro-regime outlet, locals then began throwing stones at the patrol vehicles. According to reports by Shabha Press, some of the protesters were carrying light weapons This reportedly prompted Coalition forces to open fire, killing a civilian and wounding another.

The Coalition declared a total of 18 strikes in Syria and Iraq in the month of February. In Iraq, 10 strikes were conducted against ISIS targets, killing 16 militants, CJTFOIR asserted. Meanwhile in Syria, the Coalition launched eight strikes against ISIS targets. Airwars did not track any other unilateral strikes carried out by the US during the month.

According to AFCENT, 85 munitions were fired from the air over Iraq and Syria during the month. This represented a 25% increase from January, where only 68 munitions were released.

Official data from US Air Force Central Command showed 85 munitions were fired by Coalition aircraft during February 2020.

Libya

The number of civilian casualties from air and artillery rose slightly in Libya compared to January. Between 18 and 23 civilian deaths were reported, marking a 13% increase on the previous month. This was despite the number of reported strikes falling by 32%, from 189 to 128.

The Libyan National Army (LNA) allegedly conducted 46 of these actions, leading to between 8 and 13 civilian deaths. In the worst incident, between two and three civilians were reportedly killed by shelling on the Al Shok area of Tripoli on February 4th.

The Government of National Accord (GNA) and Turkey conducted 15 air and artillery strikes in February, according to local sources. One of the attacks led to civilian casualties, when a Turkish drone allegedly killed five civilians from one family in Castelverde on February 27th.

As the majority of strikes in Libya were allegedly being conducted by artillery at this time – continuing a trend from late January – it has become increasingly difficult to determine responsibility. A further 61 strikes were conducted by unknown forces; and another six were contested between the GNA and LNA. Between them, these led to five reported civilian deaths.

February was again marked by blatant violations of the UN arms embargo by both the UAE and Turkey. The continued fighting also led to a temporary suspension of ceasefire talks between the GNA and LNA.

Civilian being treated after injury sustained from alleged LNA shelling on Tripoli on February 4th, 2020 (via Tk Yahroug Kl shy).

US counter terrorism campaigns

Somalia

On February 25th, Airwars published a major new resource for Somalia, tracking declared and alleged US counter terrorism actions in the country since 2007.

The nine month review identified significantly higher levels of locally reported civilian harm than previously thought, with up to 280 non combatants allegedly killed in US actions since 2007. Declared US actions and reported militant deaths were also sharply up.

    Overall, Airwars identified 288 declared and alleged US kinetic actions in Somalia from 2007 to February 2020 – with 61 alleged civilian harm events. With a wider focus on US ground operations plus important new FOIA  information, Airwars placed the number of declared US actions at more than 200 (40% up on previous estimates.) The likely fatality range from US actions was placed at 71 to 139 civilians killed since 2007 – with 284 non combatants locally alleged slain in total. Airwars also identified claims of as many as 2,320 al Shabaab and ISIS militants allegedly killed by US forces.

For February 2020 only, Airwars tracked 14 claimed US actions in Somalia, all of which were publicly declared by US Africa Command. Among these were four locally alleged civilian harm events, which between them were said to have killed two civilians and injured seven others.

In the worst incident, a young disabled woman locally named as Nurto Kusow Omar Abukar died and three of her relatives were injured, after a US strike allegedly hit the town of Jilib in Middle Juba on February 2nd.

Yemen

CENTCOM told Airwars that there were no US military strikes during February 2020 in Yemen. The last publicly declared CENTCOM action was on June 24th 2019 in Al Bayda province. Airwars researchers reported no US actions in Yemen during the month.

Pakistan

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

Advocacy

European advocacy

Airwars deputy director Dmytro Chupryna presented in Poland at the 13th Europe-Ukraine Forum, titled ‘New Possibilities, New Threats’, on February 2nd-4th. Dmytro was on the discussion panel ‘Strength lays in numbers’, which aimed to explore security dilemmas in Central and Eastern Europe. The conversation focused on how a data-focused approach can help change military narratives in understanding civilian harm and broader protection of civilians, defence and security-related issues.

On February 6th, Airwars also published an interview by our Dutch conflict researcher and advocacy officer Laurie Treffers, with the authors of Missie F-16. The book interviewed pilots who were active as part of the US-led Coalition against ISIS and deals – surprisingly frankly – with pilot concern about civilian harm. The interview illustrated the likelihood that greater transparency could also significantly improve the experience of pilots once they return from the battlefield.

UK advocacy

In February, Airwars director, Chris Woods participated in the conference ‘Conflict Reporting in the 21st Century’, organised by Action of Armed Violence (AOAV) and Birkbeck, University of London. This brought together leading conflict reporters, academics, photojournalists, film makers and investigators to discuss the main challenges and issues facing contemporary conflict reporting. Chris presented at the session ‘Civilians in modern war’ explaining the concept of all source monitoring and the vital work of Airwars into civilian harm from military actions.

Airwars Deputy Director, Dmytro Chupryna, at the Forum (Via Foundation Institute for Eastern Studies)

▲ Civil defence volunteers look for survivors under the rubble, following a suspected Russian strike in southern Idlib on February 25th 2020 (via White Helmets)