News & Investigations

News & Investigations

Published

January 15, 2021

Written by

Oliver Imhof

New graphics also compare airstrikes and reported civilian harm by recent US presidents in Iraq, Syria, Somalia.

In it latest data project, Airwars has published comprehensive mapping of more than 5,400 air and artillery strikes in Libya since 2012. The new data covers all known locally-reported strikes to date, conducted by all parties to an on-and-off civil war that is currently on pause, after last year’s UN-brokered ceasefire deal.

A team of researchers, geolocators and specialist volunteers for several months meticulously researched the location of every claimed strike event in as much detail as possible, placing the majority at least to neighbourhood level, and with many civilian harm events now including more exact locations. The new strike data joins more than 230 reported civilian harm events in Libya since 2012 which are already published by Airwars.

The new data and mapping has been visualised by Glasgow-based design studio Rectangle, an innovator when it comes to visualising conflict data. Daniel Powers and Lizzie Malcolm of Rectangle say about the project: “The new maps visualise these incidents by civilian fatalities, militant fatalities, and strikes carried out by each belligerent. The maps are navigable by a histogram of the map data over time, to try to provide an overview of a particularly complex conflict.”

The new interactive map enables users to explore the conflict in Libya and its impact on different regions of the country. Filters make it possible to see which faction bombed how much in which region; and who caused the most reported harm to civilians – revealing a clear correlation between the use of explosive weapons in urban areas and non-combatant deaths. According to Airwars modelling of local claims, the Libya conflict from 2012 to date has claimed the lives of up to 1,100 civilians through air and artillery strikes. Additionally the map also depicts claimed deaths among militant groups.

Claudia Gazzini, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, says of the new mapping: “This is a great instrument that visualises extremely clearly how airstrikes have affected Libya throughout its ten-year transition. In a glance we see with extreme clarity where airstrikes have occurred, how many civilian casualties there have been as a result, and the presumed belligerent.”

Overview of Airwars’ Libya mapping showing the whole range of the conflict

As a timeline above the mapping shows, Libya has witnessed intense periods of fighting since 2012 – with the LNA’s offensive on Tripoli between April 2019 and June 2020 by far the heaviest. Inga Kristina Trauthig, Libya Research Fellow at the ICSR think tank, recalls some of the shocking attacks that occurred during the war. “Buried in this quantitative data are infamous examples, such as the airstrike at a military school in the capital, Tripoli which killed over 30 people in January 2020; as well as numerous strikes against medical facilities, also in Tripoli, in late July 2019 conducted by the Libyan National Army in violation of international humanitarian law.”

Gazzini adds: “What emerges extremely clearly is also how damaging the 14 months war on Tripoli was – the majority of strikes and civilian casualties occurred within that time frame, in many cases by unknown actors.”

Violence towards civilians in Tripoli during the recent siege had also been visualised in detail for Airwars by Rectangle in innovative mapping.

Detailed view of the Battle of Tripoli between April 2019 and June 2020

“What the data really shows us is the overall consistency and ubiquitousness (of the conflict). The data visualisation powerfully brings across how heavily Libya is affected by airstrikes,” says Trauthig.

She pointed out the tool enabled macro analysis of Libya’s war but would also help identify trends during specific time periods of intense conflict “such as the correlation between increased US airstrikes in Sirte with the fight against Islamic State.”

Clicking on the map reveals more detail about individual events, such as the suspected or known belligerent and any associated deaths. Civilian casualty incidents are also linked to the Airwars database, where more granular analysis can be found.

Arabic language researchers on the project included – among others – Osama Mansour, Shihab Halep and Mohammed al-Jumaily. Volunteers included Samuel Brownsword, Eleftheria Kousta, Douglas Statt, Vasiliki Touhouliotis and Anna Zahn. Clive Vella, Giacomo Nanni and Riley Mellen worked on the geolocation team.

New graphs compare strikes, civilian harm from Trump, Obama and Bush

Also being introduced by Airwars are new graphics comparing airstrike and reported civilian harm numbers grouped by US president – initially for the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, and in Somalia.

The US-led war against so-called Islamic State has seen more than 34,000 declared international air and artillery strikes since 2014. Using official Coalition data, Airwars modelling now shows that a slim majority of those strikes took place during Barack Obama’s second term. However more than twice the level of civilian harm was reported under Trump than Obama – partly a reflection of the intensity of the latter stages of the war, though also raising questions about possible relaxation of standards to protect non combatants.

In Somalia too, new graphics show that US actions against Al Shabaab under Donald Trump surged to their highest levels since counterterrorism actions began in 2007. Alleged civilian harm under Trump was more than double that of George W Bush and Barack Obama’s presidencies combined.

Despite a slim majority of declared strikes against ISIS taking place under Barack Obama, more than twice the level of civilian harm in Iraq and Syria was alleged from actions under Donald Trump.

▲ New Airwars mapping reveals thousands of locally reported air and artillery strikes in Libya by belligerents since 2012.

Published

October 23, 2020

Written by

Oliver Imhof

Header Image

Libyan delegates shake hands after signing a ceasefire deal in Geneva on October 23rd 2020 (via UNSMIL)

Agreement could end civil war that has ravaged the country for almost a decade. But questions remain over concrete implementation and foreign involvement.

The two most important parties to the conflict in Libya, the Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan National Army (LNA), agreed on October 23rd to an immediate and permanent ceasefire in Geneva under the auspices of the United Nations. The landmark deal – which took many Libya analysts by surprise – could possibly cement the already peaceful situation of a de facto ceasefire in place since June, when the LNA withdrew its forces from Tripoli.

Besides a freeze on all military agreements with foreign forces operating in Libya in general, the deal also implements various confidence-building measures such as the reopening of airports, seaports and roads between west and east Libya.

Another important feature agreed upon is the identification and categorization of all militias, with a view to reintegrating some of them into Libya’s armed forces.

The influence of militias, especially in and around Tripoli, has been a major factor in the destabilisation of post-Gaddafi Libya. The UN-recognised GNA has failed for example to demobilise its powerful forces, which had been used as justification by the LNA in its recent failed attempt to seize the capital.

Cautious optimism regarding this ceasefire agreement. Contentious issues moving forward:

– the departure of foreign forces & freeze on military agreements– operationalizing cantonment of weaponry/ceasefire– the DDR program proposed, which revives debates on who is a "militia" pic.twitter.com/MGIfxPDQIT

— Emadeddin Badi (@emad_badi) October 23, 2020

The UN-brokered ceasefire has been received positively by many commentators, in contrast with the outcome of the Berlin Conference in January 2019, after which hostilities quickly flared up again due to the lack of any concrete mechanisms and guarantees. This new agreement seems to be more robust, even though many details have yet to be figured out by the committees. Additionally, the military stalemate on the ground over the past months has helped to put a political solution back on the table.

Acting Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Libya, Stephanie Williams, said in a statement: “Today is a good day for the Libyan people.” She added: “The parties agreed that all military units and armed groups on the frontlines shall return to their camps. This shall be accompanied by the departure of all mercenaries and foreign fighters from all Libyan territories – land, air and sea – within a maximum period of three months from today.”

International meddling had been one of the main drivers of the Libyan civil war. The GNA had received extensive support from Turkey in the recent past, which also introduced Syrian mercenaries to the conflict who had previously fought for the Syrian National Army against the Assad regime. The LNA in turn, supported by the United Arab Emirates, Russia and Egypt, has also allegedly made use of Syrian fighters as well as Sudanese mercenaries. The United States had become increasingly vocal this year as Russian mercenaries on the ground and in the air began playing an increasing role in Libya’s affairs. Some of those Russians are already said to have left the oil ports in both Sidra and Ras Lanuf.

International arms shipments and the influx of mercenaries on both sides fuelled the conflict with devastating consequences for civilians. From the overall 777 minimum civilian deaths recorded by Airwars since the end of the NATO campaign in 2011, 429 fatalities (55 per cent) occurred after the beginning of the LNA’s offensive in April 2019. While the LNA and the UAE were accused of  causing 271 deaths, 85 fatalities were attributed by local sources to the GNA and its ally Turkey. The additional deaths could not clearly be attributed to any side.

Libya: Almost 300 civilians were locally reported killed during the LNA's recent failed siege of Tripoli.

Innovative interactive mapping from Airwars reveals the scale of violence experienced by local communities. https://t.co/hwFqCj093G pic.twitter.com/EgVPzfxEC5

— Airwars (@airwars) September 14, 2020

Ending international involvement in Libya will thus be crucial to finally putting an end to the civil war. However, it remains to be seen if all parties abide by the rules this time . President Erdogan of Turkey has already said that the agreement was “not reliable” as it was not made at the highest level.

Germany facilitated the difficult talks in Geneva, which included various parties to the conflict, with Foreign Minister Heiko Maas saying: “The inner-Libyan discussion formats agreed at the Berlin Conference in January culminated in a first, decisive success. Libya has not yet reached its goal, but has cleared an important hurdle towards peace.

It is clear that the people in Libya want and must shape the future of their country themselves. We therefore call on the international actors to support this path unreservedly and to refrain from any further interference.”

▲ Libyan delegates shake hands after signing a ceasefire deal in Geneva on October 23rd 2020 (via UNSMIL)

Published

September 14, 2020

Written by

Oliver Imhof

Header Image

Civilian casualty situation at the beginning of the LNA's Tripoli offensive on April 4th, 2019

At least 200 civilians died during the siege of the capital - with the future still looking uncertain for Libya

Two months after the brutal siege of Libya’s capital ended, new interactive Airwars mapping shows the impact of 14 months of fighting between two rival governments on the city’s beleaguered civilians.

Airwars has visualised every allegation of civilian harm from air and artillery strikes during the period of war in and around Tripoli between April 2019 and June 2020. Glasgow-based consultants Rectangle designed the innovative mapping, in an effort to find fresh ways of visualising civilian harm on the modern battlefield.

The new Airwars mapping uses a sliding timeline to enable an overview of often indiscriminate air and artillery strikes on Tripoli and its suburbs. A fine-detail satellite map of Tripoli and its suburbs makes it possible to see the siege evolving over the 14 months of its duration.

The map utilises a 1km radius hexagonal system, whose height represents the number of civilians reported killed in an incident. This in turn enables users to see the extent of shelling on various neighbourhoods, with casualty spikes clearly revealed in heavily hit areas such as Salaheddin, Abu Salim and Tajoura. The new mapping can also be used as a portal to access individual civilian harm assessments on the Airwars website.

Lizzie Malcolm and Daniel Powers of design consultancy Rectangle explain their rationale behind the new approach: “The challenge of mapping and visualising civilian harm is to balance the presentation of aggregated information and individual details. Maps of large areas and timelines of conflicts are useful for understanding scale. But any visualisation should be a gateway to the evidence and stories about individuals and families,” they tell Airwars.

Over the course of the siege, Airwars recorded 339 civilian harm events in Libya, 197 of which around Tripoli, nearly tripling the number of locally reported incidents since the end of the NATO campaign in 2011. At least 197 civilians were killed by the violence and another 537 were injured by the violence, as the LNA and GNA fought for control of Tripoli.

The LNA’s Tripoli offensive introduced Libyans to a degree of conflict violence not seen since NATO’s intervention almost a decade earlier. Even when the conflict was over, LNA forces and Wagner mercenaries reportedly booby-trapped houses and planted landmines, leading to gruesome additional reports of killed and injured civilians.

The siege of Tripoli has previously been visualised by other organisations, though not via an interactive map. UN agency OCHA has for example provided infographics summing up their findings. And Dzsihad Hadelli has previously visualised Airwars data on civilian casualties for the Libya Observer.

The war on Tripoli is now one year old. But already in this period, as many civilians have been killed by air raids as in all Libyan civil war conflicts since 2012 (Airwars annual report 2020).

Here's a map of all reported air strikes/shellings of the last 12 months. pic.twitter.com/tTYoEaaDSM

— Dzsihad Hadelli (@dhadelli) April 5, 2020

Is justice possible?

Mapping and recording harm in conflicts can help both with the proper investigation of civilian casualties, and of possible war crimes – potentially leading to reconciliation and justice in those parts of society affected by the fighting. “There is no way out of this without people being held accountable,“ says Elham Saudi, Director of Lawyers for Justice in Libya.

Her organisation seeks to document violations of humanitarian and human rights law in Libya, in turn hoping for accountability. “If you’re aiming for criminal responsibility, the threshold is really high. First hand accounts and witnesses are the most important thing,“ Saudi explains. Establishing the chain of command that leads to an event in question is another crucial point, she adds.

As a former resident of Tripoli suburbs, Saudi knows from friends and family what the siege did to Tripoli’s population: “The impact was felt throughout the city, the fear and anticipation of being targeted was quite overwhelming – even if you didn’t live in the areas being targeted, because of the indiscriminate nature of the attacks. You always felt like you were a target.”

However, her organisation does not focus only upon recent events around Tripoli but investigates violations committed in the civil war across the country. The highly polarised political landscape poses an additional challenge, as activists and media in Libya are often affiliated with one of the parties to the conflict: “The hyper-politicisation of everything makes it very difficult to keep the distance from what’s being said in the media. I don’t disregard anything just because it belongs to a certain party.”

“Things get lost if you don’t preserve evidence in a conflict. Preserving evidence is absolutely vital, it’s not just about the present but also about the future for civil society,“ the lawyer elaborates. Social media plays an increasing role there as “Perpetrators help you because they incriminate themselves.“

Mahmoud Werfalli’s arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court, for example, was based on social media accounts of extrajudicial killings. The former LNA commander is accused of executing ten prisoners in Benghazi in 2018, a case that was widely documented on social networks – as are many cases of potential war crimes in Libya.

At this point it remains difficult to predict which alleged incidents might potentially bear fruit in court. War crimes were alleged on both sides of the conflict. “The US is promising because Haftar, as a US citizen, is subject to its jurisdiction; it also allows for individuals to pursue civil responsibility,” Saudi says. Three civil lawsuits attempting to do that have been filed in the US for example, whereby affected families are suing the General for compensation for his alleged responsibility in the deaths of family members as a result of the indiscriminate shelling of Tripoli neighbourhoods by his forces.

Links to individual case assessments that occurred in the Salaheddin neighbourhood of Tripoli

Bringing Libyans back to the negotiations table

Even as the search for accountability continues, rifts remain deep within Libyan society after so many years of civil war. The big question is: how might Libya finally find a way towards a peaceful future?

A pause in fighting between Libya’s rival camps might be expected to generate optimism in a country riven by intermittent civil war since 2011. But instead of improving the livelihoods of the population, both seem keen to return to the status quo that partly led to the siege of Tripoli in the first place. Infighting within both the Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan National Army (LNA); profound economic problems; and deep distrust between all the main political actors, make a peaceful future more uncertain.

Recently popular protests erupted in both GNA- and LNA-controlled territories, that were in turn met with violence by both governments. At the same time, a new military build-up around Sirte has raised fears of another escalation in violence – while a dire economic situation exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic has pushed the population into ever deeper poverty.

Virginie Collombier, Professor of Social and Political Dynamics in Libya at the European University Institute of Florence, has been working on grassroots mediation processes led by Libyans for many years. She sees the first step to a lasting ceasefire taking place at the international level – getting countries now meddling in Libya to respect the commitments they made during the Berlin peace conference: “The aim of the mediation process is to find someone who has the capacities to provide guarantees and enforce things. The UN can’t do anything alone as we see; and the EU doesn’t have the capacities or willingness.“

“Who has the capacities to influence things on the ground: Russia? Turkey?“ Collombier asks.  Neither seems a likely candidate given the ongoing geopolitical struggle between these two states: “Most importantly [there is] the US, but will they work as a guarantor on broader issues related to the economy, and the political framework?“

The current stalemate may however make things easier, Professor Collombier believes: “There is clearly a sense of exhaustion, the meaning of the war is lost, which is something we can see on both sides of the divide.“ She adds: “There is not much we can achieve through violence and weapons, the situation has stabilised around two camps that can block each other.“

However, internal divisions in both the GNA and in Haftar’s camp show that the situation could turn violent again if issues are not resolved. Collombier stresses the need for a dialogue that includes all Libyans, beyond the GNA and LNA: “Voices of Libyans can be heard and put pressure on politics; and diversifying the political sphere is absolutely crucial. There is a need for alternative voices and leaders. There is deep distrust in the current political elite.”

Whatever the result of both reconciliation and accountability processes in Libya, there is a long way ahead for the country to finally find peace. Documenting and archiving the crimes committed during the civil war is only an initial step towards accountability that can then lead to reconciliation between former enemies.

▲ Civilian casualty situation at the beginning of the LNA's Tripoli offensive on April 4th, 2019

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 8, 2020

Written by

Oliver Imhof

Civilians return to shattered homes littered with IEDs and unexploded ordnance

In an extraordinary reversal, the opposition Libyan National Army (LNA) – believed until recently to be the dominant military power in Libya today – has been routed from much of its western territory in just a few weeks. Retreating LNA forces abandoned tanks, attack helicopters and other advanced weaponry as they fled the Government of National Accord (GNA) and its Turkish backers.

In mid-January things had looked very bleak indeed for Tripoli’s GNA. General Khalifa Haftar’s forces had just seized Sirte, the city the GNA had symbolically taken from ISIS with US support back in 2016. Haftar’s opposition Libyan National Army was slowly tightening its grip on Tripoli’s suburbs; and it looked like an equally bloody and destructive battle for Benghazi could be looming.

However a ceasefire deal between Turkey and Russia came to the rescue of the GNA alliance – still more resembling a loose coalition of militias than a national government.

Turkey used that ceasefire to smuggle drones and advanced air defences into the country, as well as Syrian mercenaries, in blatant violation of the UN arms embargo. These turned out to be a game changer, given that the United Arab Emirates and Russia, the LNA’s strongest backers, were either unwilling or incapable of matching Turkey’s support. The LNA quickly lost its air superiority in early February and later also its air defences, as Turkish drones took out several state-of-the-art Russian Pantsir anti-air systems.

How was the LNA’s previous air superiority so quickly dismantled? “First, the Pantsirs being – at least in part – handed over to LNA crews who were under-trained and ineffective. And strong electronic warfare, most likely with a KORAL system, by the Turkish,” explains Oded Berkowitz, an analyst at MAX Security.

 

#Libya– and another video via @libyaalahrartv showing 2 Pantsir S-1/SA-22 Greyhound destroyed in #Tarhuna.

Note how at the start of the video they're just sitting ideally by each other with the radar on… pic.twitter.com/pZAVEVePGr

— Oded Berkowitz (@Oded121351) May 20, 2020

Despite repeated reports of the UAE flying in supplies to Benghazi, the LNA quickly found itself on the ropes. Its most significant loss was that of the Al Watiyah air base close to the Tunisian border on May 18th. Al Watiyah is not only a proper military air base, as opposed to Mitiga airport which is also used for civilian purposes – it also gives Turkey a potential foothold in northern Africa, enabling it to station aircraft there.

After the loss of Al Watiyah in late May, events moved quickly. In the first week of June the GNA completed their rout of Haftar’s forces with the capture of Tripoli International Airport and Qasr Bin Gashir – finally breaking a fifteen month siege of the capital. Meanwhile, Russian mercenaries with the Wagner Group were reported to have abandoned Haftar’s forces, allegedly leaving booby traps and mines in their wake. According to the GNA Ministry of Interior, 25 members of its demining teams had been killed between May 21st and June 4th.

An alleged Teddy Bear IED left behind by LNA/#Wagner in #Tripoli.

As horrible as this is, several points about this of note: Serbian M62P10 HE 120mm mortar bomb (Lot 01 of 2019, clear export violation), Russian MUV-4 fuze & a Russian semtex block initiator.

Just screams Wagner. pic.twitter.com/a61g724w4y

— Cᴀʟɪʙʀᴇ Oʙsᴄᴜʀᴀ (@CalibreObscura) June 4, 2020

Surprisingly, despite the withdrawal of the Wagner mercenaries, Haftar’s forces had received up to 14 Russian fighter jets as reported by US Africa Command in a bellicose public statement. A UN source told Airwars that some of these planes were supplied from Belarus via Russia and on to Syria, where with the addition of some old Syrian air force jets they were transited to Libya – by now shadowed by the US military.

The intervention by Russia so far has been limited and less overt compared to Syria, and may have been intended as a show of strength to keep the GNA from moving into the southwestern Fezzan and Cyrenaica in the East. Russia’s decision to supply attack aircraft to the LNA may also have tipped the United States into overtly backing the UN-backed GNA for the first time in several years.

Haftar’s last bastion near Tripoli was Tarhuna, some 65km southeast of the capital. GNA forces had repeatedly shelled the city in recent weeks and many expected a bloodbath as Tarhuna – historically loyal to the Gaddafi regime – had sided with Haftar through its local Kaniyat Brigade. However instead of fighting, LNA forces chaotically withdrew. Images circulating on social media show the full extent of arms embargo breaches in Libya in recent years, with Russian helicopters and tanks, Chinese MANPADS and anti-UAV guns as well as Serbian mortar shells among the discoveries, earning the nickname of “biggest arms convention in the world.”

#Tripoli: last one for the day, GNA-aligned forces towing an #LAAF helicopter (Mi35) captured near Fom Melgha, at the outskirts of #Tarhuna

Pretty sure no driving test prepares you for this… pic.twitter.com/ywVPxDcWgo

— Emadeddin Badi (@emad_badi) June 4, 2020

Civilians suffer once again

The impact on civilians of the LNA’s fourteen month failed Tripoli offensive can only be described as devastating. Airwars has found that 60% of all reported civilian harm from air and artillery strikes since 2012 occurred since April 4th 2019.

Prior to the siege, Airwars had recorded a minimum of 298 civilian deaths, while another 439 have been reported over the past 14 months. Some 276 of those deaths have either been attributed to the LNA or to its allies, while 87 civilian deaths were allegedly caused by the GNA and Turkey. The latter number is on the rise, with civilian harm from GNA and Turkish actions now escalating as they gain the upper hand.

But it is not only airstrikes that pose a grave threat to civilians. The LNA and its Wagner allies left behind a substantial amount of mines, IEDs and unexploded ordnance. One of the many civilian victims is Saleh, brother of former Airwars Libya Researcher Osama Mansour, who was injured when checking on the family home in the south of Tripoli.

“My brother got there by car, when he wanted to go to our house the neighbour removed a branch of a tree and a mine went off. My brother was hit in the neck and the teeth, lost a lot of blood as well and was unconscious for a couple of minutes,” Osama tells us. “The neighbour lost more blood and has been in surgery twice already, and they still need to remove two pieces of shrapnel from his liver,” he adds. The event is one of many in south Tripoli, with civilians killed or badly injured. “It gives us a very insecure feeling to go back after all the incidents,” Osama says.

The only thing they didn't steal, or burn is my books.#Libya #Tripoli_war pic.twitter.com/O6cNnbfvPa

— Jalal Othman (@jalalothman) June 7, 2020

Besides military mistakes, old grievances and retaliation may soon play a role as well: “There are legitimate concerns about abuses by GNA forces against civilians in newly captured territory. However, GNA officials are mindful of these concerns and they’ll be working to avoid such abuses,” claims Mohamed Eljarh, a well-connected Libya independent analyst. So far, it seems the UN-backed government is struggling to keep the situation under control, with reports of looting and damage to properties emerging over the weekend.

When GNA forces took Tarhuna from the LNA they also uncovered 106 dead bodies, including children and women, in a hospital morgue. Some had allegedly been executed with shots to the head, though so far the exact circumstances of the deaths are unclear.

Future prospects

Although the routing of the LNA marks Libya’s biggest military turning point in several years, the future remains unclear. While the GNA presently has the upper hand, it remains a coalition of necessity – made up of ideologically diverse militias united by a common enemy and now strengthened by Turkey’s intervention. Tensions are likely to arise within the GNA as the shaky coalition adapts to holding more power and territory.

In terms of military goals Mohammed Eljarh says he expects that “Turkey and the GNA will continue to expand their territorial control. Control of key oil facilities in the southwest in particular will be high on the agenda. The GNA is trying to restart some of the oil production from al-Sharara and al-Feel oilfields.”

How far the GNA’s territorial ambitions go also depends on the LNA’s international backers, as Wolfram Lacher from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs explains: “At a minimum, GNA-aligned forces will seek to ensure that Haftar loyalists can no longer use Bani Walid [160km south of Tripoli] as a logistics hub. But it is likely that they will now attempt an offensive on Sirte or Jufra.”

Yet initial attempts by the GNA to take Sirte have failed – met with staunch resistance and airstrikes from pro-LNA fighter jets, and suggesting the LNA and its backers may seek to draw a line at Gaddafi’s birthplace.

Following these newly established facts on the ground, both parties have now agreed to resume the stalled 5+5 talks in Geneva, UNSMIL announced on June 2nd. Haftar has reportedly lost major support from his international backers, especially Egypt. President Sisi brought Aguila Saleh, President of the House of Representatives in Tobruk, and Khalifa Haftar to the table and announced a ceasefire on June 6th. That agreement was then rejected by the GNA. “Only if Russian and Emirati intervention stops the GNA offensives could we see growing calls for negotiations within the GNA coalition,” Lacher says. Perhaps ominously, a day later Egypt was reported to have deployed M1A2 Abrams tanks to the Libyan border.

The UAE for now remains Haftar’s strongest backer, while Russia seems keen to at least hold a stake in Libya, as the recent delivery of fighter planes shows. But that move may backfire – with the US now overtly resisting Russian adventurism in north Africa, while pressuring the UAE to the negotiating table.

Had an important conversation with Emirati Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan on increasing regional stability and supporting a lasting @UN-brokered ceasefire in Libya. Grateful for our strong partnership in combatting the global COVID-19 pandemic.

— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) June 4, 2020

“Haftar’s defeat in western Libya will have wide-ranging implications for his coalition. Many who supported him because they hoped to sweep to power with him will now reconsider their allegiances,” Lacher asserts. “The same goes for his adversaries, among whom Haftar’s offensive had served as a unifying threat and kept distrust and rivalries among them in check.”

It currently seems unlikely that either side can control all of Libya. And distrust between rival leaders has been high in the past, making a ceasefire deal unlikely. The amount of weapons discovered around Tripoli also serves as an indicator that Libya’s on-and-off civil war, now in its tenth year, could still be far from over.

▲ A member of the Danish Demining Group standing in front of a destroyed building in downtown Benghazi, June 2020 (via Liam Kelly)

Published

May 26, 2020

Written by

Laurie Treffers and Oliver Imhof

Airwars and design partners Rectangle are commemorating those civilians killed and injured in conflicts, by livestreaming over 24 hours the names of 8,337 civilian casualties the international monitor has documented in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Somalia in recent years.

The digital event marks the occasion of the UN’s 2020 Protection of Civilians Week.

Every name has a story

Over twenty-four hours starting at midnight London time on May 26th/27th – the date of the UN Secretary General’s annual Protection of Civilians (PoC)  speech –  the names of just some of the many civilians reportedly killed by air and artillery strikes in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Somalia since 2007 will be livestreamed on our website and YouTube channel.

Khaled Mustafa Qurmo and Khaled Abdel Majid were about to drop off their friend Barakat Barakat at his home in October 2019. The three friends were eating pumpkin seeds while driving through Barisha in northwestern Syria when they were reportedly hit by helicopters searching for ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi.

“There were so many shells falling on us, it was like rain. My hand, the one holding up Khaled’s head, got cut off,” Barakat explained to NPR last year. “Am I Baghdadi? How is this my fault? I’m just a civilian. I didn’t have any weapons. We’re farmers. I make less than a dollar a day. Now I’m handicapped, and my two friends are in their graves.”

Barakat Barakat is just one of 8,337 civilian casualties over the past 13 years whose names Airwars has recorded while monitoring conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Somalia.

UN Protection of Civilians Week 2020

Through its daily monitoring of local news organisations, social media and official sources, as well as via sources on the ground, Airwars has in total recorded over 119,000 reported civilian deaths and injuries since we began documenting conflicts in August 2014 – of which more than eight thousand casualties attributed to specific belligerents can presently be named.

This UN PoC Week, Airwars aims to commemorate those who have lost their lives, while calling for governments to better account for their military actions.

The project Conflicting Truth is in partnership with the Scottish-American design team Rectangle, who also produce the complex mapping and data representations on the Airwars website.

This week’s live cast is based on an original installation by Rectangle with Sophie Dyer, first shown in Detroit in March 2019. It had been hoped to show Conflicting Truth in New York during this year’s UN PoC Week. Instead, due to the Covid-19 crisis, the decision was taken to livecast a digital version.

Rimas and Shahem Hamdou with their father Hamza al Haj Hamdou. The children were killed in an alleged Russian strike in Thalatheen Street in Idlib city on March 3rd 2020 (image courtesy of the Syrian Network for Human Rights)

Not just numbers

The Airwars/ Rectangle project seeks 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.

“I was washing dishes. Suddenly our house was filled with shrapnel. I went out and called Arif (my son), but I did not see him. I only saw black smoke. When the smoke faded away, I saw my son on the ground as a martyr,” said a mother whose son Arif was among eight other children reportedly killed in alleged Turkish shelling on Tal Rifaat in Syria on December 2nd, 2019.

The suffering often does not end with losing loved ones or seeing them disabled: it also heavily impacts the lives of those spared by the fighting. “All a young man like me cares about now is how he gets home safe every day. Or when you go to bed, all you’re thinking about is the possibility that a rocket falls on you,” Marwan, a resident of the southern suburbs of the Libyan capital Tripoli recently told Airwars. “I lost friends, relatives, loved ones in this war,” he elaborates. “I’m doing an MA now, and I’m afraid to lose my dream, and my future and I can’t do anything. That makes me want to run away, to live a decent life with equal opportunities.”

Airwars aims to add as many biographical details of victims as possible. On May 16th of this year for example, the 5-year-old Bangladeshi boy Wahi Zuhair Matin was killed in alleged LNA artillery strikes on Al Fornaj neighbourhood in Tripoli. The GNA-affiliated Burkan Al Ghadab Operation wrote on Facebook that the child’s “ambition was to buy a bike and play ‘like the kids’.”

Civil Society Call for Action

Airwars is also joining with 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 calls on the UN Security Council, Member States, and 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.

The UN Security Council added the protection of civilians in armed conflict (PoC) to its agenda in 1999, recognising PoC as a matter of international peace and security. The UN PoC Week is held annually between May 27th and June 1st. The United Nations celebrates UN Peacekeeping Day on May 29th.

▲ The original physical installation Conflicting Truth was shown in Detroit in March 2019, and was developed by Rectangle with Sophie Dyer. It features the names of civilian victims preserved in the Airwars database. (Image courtesy of Rectangle)

Published

April 6, 2020

Written by

Oliver Imhof

First year of renewed civil war sees at least 324 civilians reportedly killed, as first cases of coronavirus now emerge

Tripoli, the capital of Libya, has entered its second year of being under siege, part of the most significant upsurge in violence in the country’s intermittent civil war since 2012. Hundreds of civilians have so far died – with little effort either domestically or internationally to bring the fighting to an end.

While most of the world is currently seeking refuge from the COVID-19 virus in their homes, many Libyans in the nation’s capital face a dilemma: stay in their houses and possibly fall victim to indiscriminate shelling – or leave their homes, and risk getting infected in the ongoing pandemic.

As crude as it may sound, the worldwide corona crisis had initially raised hopes among Libyans that the Libyan National Army (LNA) and the Government of National Accord (GNA) might agree to a humanitarian ceasefire. After years of destruction and mismanagement, the country’s health system is likely incapable of handling both a pandemic and civil war at the same time. An oil blockade in Libya coupled with a global collapse in oil prices is also likely to lead to a severe financial crisis.

“My most recent visit to Tripoli was in early December and it was clear at that point that the population was suffering greatly from the war, with hundreds of thousands displaced from their homes, the only operating airport in the city repeatedly shut down as a result of attacks, and concerns that the fighting would soon enter the city centre,” says Mary Fitzgerald, a well respected Libya analyst.

She adds: “Now four months on – following some of the bloodiest weeks of the war, a damaging oil blockade, and the spectre of the Coronavirus pandemic – Tripoli residents I speak to are even more fearful of the future. The fact that the war continues with no end in sight shows where the belligerents’ priorities lie.”

The impact of COVID-19 on this precarious nation has been further amplified by the recent death from the virus of former Libyan Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril. OCHA has so far confirmed 18 cases and one death in Libya, with over 300 people so far in quarantine.

On this day a year ago, Mr. Haftar began his #Tripoli offensive and promised to take the capital within 2 weeks. Thousands became victims of the ongoing clashes. The NPO @airwars has monitored reports of civilian casualties on both sides. I've collected them in this chart. #Libya pic.twitter.com/CyGAKBwhvX

— Dzsihad Hadelli (@dhadelli) April 4, 2020

Over half of all civilian harm in Libya since end of civil war occurred in the last year

Libya’s population has indeed been suffering greatly from the war. According to Airwars data, between 324 and 458 civilians have been killed nationally by 2,034 air and artillery strikes since April 4th 2019, and another 576 to 850 injured. This means that 52% of civilians killed since the end of the civil war in 2011 have been reportedly slain within the last twelve months.

Foreign meddling has exacerbated the impact on the civilian population. The LNA receives support from the United Arab Emirates, Russia, Jordan and Egypt. The GNA, on the other hand, is publicly backed by Turkey and Qatar.

“The international backers have played a crucial role. The offensive of April 4th, 2019, was immediately met with tremendous resistance, and eastern Libyan fighters did not want to risk their lives for Haftar 600 miles away from home,” explains Jalel Harchaoui, Libya Research Fellow at Clingendael in The Hague.

“The reason the offensive managed to continue is because the UAE intervened militarily. Eager to offset the LNA’s weaknesses on the ground, the UAE carried out more than 900 air strikes in the greater Tripoli area last year using Chinese combat drones and, occasionally, French-made fighter jets,” Harchaoui asserts.

Airwars has recorded local reports of 1,113 LNA or Emirati strikes over the last year, whose air forces have become so intertwined that it’s often impossible to distinguish who bombed. These allegedly led to between 209 and 308 civilian deaths, making the LNA and UAE likely responsible for the majority of civilian harm in Libya since April last year.

Both air forces were also accused of conducting those individual strikes which resulted in the greatest civilian harm over the last 12 months. On July 3rd 2019, an airstrike hit a migrant detention centre in Tajoura, most likely conducted by an Emirati fighter jet, according to the BBC. The number of reported deaths has varied between 37 and 80 civilians, with OCHA and UNSMIL estimates at 44 and 53 deaths respectively. In December, a UN Panel of Experts report raised concerns about the thoroughness of the post-strike investigation at Tajoura, and suggested that deaths had been exaggerated. Conversely, interviews with some eyewitnesses indicate the death toll might actually be higher than 53.

The second biggest reported event was an airstrike on Murzuq on August 4th 2019, allegedly leading to between 42 and 45 civilian deaths, after a town hall meeting was reportedly hit. Again, the LNA or the Emirates were accused.

Turkey responded to the UAE by deploying Bayraktar TB2 drones and military advisers. In December, the two boosted their military cooperation by formalising a deal.

According to Airwars monitoring of local reports, the internationally recognised GNA government and its close ally Turkey conducted 402 air and artillery strikes over the last year, leading to between 55 and 75 civilian deaths.

Al Safwa hospital in Tripoli, allegedly damaged by LNA shelling on March 26th, 2020 (via Seraj)

Modern Turkish weaponry as a game changer

Despite an initially slow performance on the battlefield, the LNA was looking at potential victory towards the end of 2019, when its Chinese-made Wing Loong drones managed to take out several smaller Turkish drones over Tripoli. Haftar now ruled the skies – but was interrupted by the Berlin process and a ceasefire deal between Russia and Turkey. The agreement struck on January 18th brought a brief period of relative peace to the Libyan capital. Meanwhile, international backers used this period to smuggle even more weapons into the country, despite supposed commitments to respect the ongoing UN arms embargo.

The most important introduction was the Turkish Korkut, a state-of-the-art anti-aircraft gun. A UN source, who asked not to be named for this article, told Airwars: “If you fly within 4km of a Korkut you’re toast.” The source added that this strike range can potentially be extended to 11 km, using ATOM munition. However this is reportedly harder to deliver according to the source, making it unclear whether they are currently being used in Libya.

“The Korkuts are currently protecting Mitiga and Misurata airports and they’re easily hidden in a bush or something similar,” the source says. Turkey has supposedly deployed six of these anti-aircraft guns and by doing so “made it clear that Haftar cannot win the war. If the LNA wants to win now, they have to do something unusual on the frontline.”

In addition, Turkey provided T155 howitzers as well as armoured vehicles, the BBC uncovered recently. Mercenaries from Syria have also added manpower to weakened GNA forces.

The UAE seem to have reacted to the beefing up of its opponent’s forces by flying extra military materiel into Libya, sometimes through convoluted routes via Eritrea. What these deliveries contain is opaque: “As they fly it in via plane, it is harder to determine what the LNA received,” the UN source explains.

One interesting recent addition to the LNA’s arsenal is the Chinese-made DHI-UAV-D-1000JHV2 UAV counter-drone gun. Fighters have been spotted with the eye-catching device that takes down drones by jamming their signal on several occasions. However, who delivered the guns to the LNA is unclear according to the UN source.

a much clearer picture 🙂 pic.twitter.com/301Ygmyo4F

— Alhasairi (@Alhasairi1) March 22, 2020

The Berlin process – a failure

The weapon and mercenary influx on both sides is part of the reason why Libya’s hopes for a ceasefire – and any long-term success for the Berlin peace process – have proved disappointing. Instead of concentrating on assisting relief efforts for any local coronavirus outbreaks, Libyan forces and their international backers are instead exploiting distractions among the international community to resume fighting.

“The Berlin process has achieved little more than words on paper. Violations of the arms embargo have actually increased since the Berlin declaration,” Mary Fitzgerald says. “While it remains to be seen what the EU naval operation Irini achieves – though many are sceptical given its limited mandate – the crux of the matter is that no one is willing to name and shame the most egregious violators of the arms embargo, let alone sanction them.”

“I still do not think the LNA will be able to win. But it may enter the downtown area of Tripoli and do tremendous amounts of damage while doing so. One also has to highlight the very possible scenario where the Government of National Accord’s forces and the Turkish mission succeed in expelling the LAAF [Libyan Arab Armed Forces] from Tripolitania altogether,” Jalel Harchaoui concludes.

As the siege of Tripoli enters its second year, all Libyans face a bleak potential future – with worries over an escalating conflict; the COVID-19 pandemic; and financial uncertainties resulting from the collapse in oil prices. However this civil war may end, it will likely have grim consequences for Libya’s long suffering civilians.

▲ A fighter wears a facemask to protect from coronavirus (COVID-19), while taking part in operations in support of Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) against the forces of warlord Khalifa Haftar in Tripoli, Libya on March 25, 2020. (Amru Salahuddien/ Anadolu Agency)

Published

October 18, 2019

Written by

Oliver Imhof

Dozens of non combatants killed during latest Turkish attack on Kurdish regions of northern Syria.

Airwars monitors locally reported civilian harm from all Turkish air and artillery strikes in Iraq and Syria, as well as from Kurdish counterfire actions. Our database can be found here.

More than 120 civilian deaths have been locally alleged in eight days of fighting in northern Syria to October 16th, following a Turkish-led offensive, ‘Operation Peace Spring’, which began on October 9th.

In total Airwars researchers have tracked  between 102 and 126 reported civilian deaths resulting from air and artillery strikes by both sides. Between 71 and 85 fatalities were attributed to Turkish strikes by local sources in 64 incidents, while 31 to 41 non combatants were alleged killed by the People’s Protection Units (YPG) conducting counterfire strikes on Turkish and Syrian towns in 26 incidents.

Around 160,000 people have reportedly been displaced due to the fighting so far.

In the worst reported event to date, between 11 and 19 civilians were reported killed by a Turkish airstrike on a convoy heading from al-Jazira to Ras al-Ain. Four journalists were reportedly among those killed, and the strike supposedly injured up to 74 more people.

In addition, reports of executions of civilians have raised fears of more severe war crimes in the Kurdish-controlled parts of Northern Syria. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), of which the YPG is the backbone, had controlled the territory after defeating ISIS, with the loss of more than 12,000 Kurdish fighters. Observers fear that the jihadi organisation could resurface should the SDF lose control over ISIS prisons due to the Turkish offensive.

Both pictures are from Serêkaniyê after Turkish airstrikes on the city #TwitterKurds pic.twitter.com/bmLUdEf5dS

— Cahîda Dêrsim (@dersi4m) October 9, 2019

Historical data heightens worries for civilians

Casualty data from the latest Turkish incursion is included in a major online Airwars database, which maps all reported civilian harm in Iraq and Syria from alleged Turkish strikes since 2015. As many as 1,650 civilian deaths have been locally alleged in more than 360 incidents.

According to the Airwars grading system, between 433 and 763 civilians had already likely fallen victim to air and artillery strikes across three countries during two previous waves of Turkish attacks on Kurdish-controlled territories from 2015 until October 8th 2019.

Hostilities between the Turks and Kurds flared up shortly after Turkey briefly became involved in the anti-ISIS Coalition led by the US in Iraq and Syria in 2015. Ankara used the opportunity of intervention against ISIS to also attack the Kurds – who make up a large part of the population in the north of both countries. With Kurdish forces gaining strength over the course of the war, fears were sparked in Ankara of an independent Kurdistan which might pose a threat to Turkey’s ambition as a major regional power.

Turkish strikes also heavily targeted ISIS, in particular during the Battle for Al Bab at the end of 2016. That city was almost entirely destroyed in the fighting and between 308 and 585 civilians reportedly killed by Turkish actions, according to Airwars data. In parallel, Turkey has occasionally targeted Kurdish forces in northern Iraq where it also maintains a permanent military presence. The number of civilians killed there has been comparatively low, with Airwars research indicating between 24 and 29 fatalities to date.

Fighting between Turkish and Kurdish forces once again escalated during Turkey’s ‘Operation Olive Branch’ in early 2018. That campaign, launched on January 20th by the Turkish military in cooperation with the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), targeted the canton of Afrin in northwest Syria near the Turkish border. The invasion targeted Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), mostly made up of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). The SDF until then had controlled the Afrin canton, a de facto autonomous region in the mountainous border area. Ankara considers the YPG to be the Syrian arm of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) which it deems a terrorist organisation.

Frontlines during the 2018 Afrin campaign (via Wikimedia)

With Turkish and FSA forces progressing quickly through Afrin, the alliance took full control of the canton on March 24th 2018 after eight weeks of fighting. The operation drew heavy criticism at the time from various governments, which insisted that Turkey’s security concerns did not justify an invasion of neighbouring territory. Following the capture of the regional capital of Afrin city by Turkish forces, the SDF began an insurgency.

Over the past 18 months, Turkish military action had mostly involved sporadic clashes in Afrin and occasional airstrikes in the Kurdish regions of Syria and Iraq, allegedly causing occasional civilian casualties. After the Kurds invited Syrian regime troops into parts of their remaining territory, a Turkish invasion had appeared less likely, given that Ankara does not want a confrontation with the two battle-hardened forces. US and Russian forces had also acted as buffers.

Instead the Turkish military increasingly made use of targeted killings to impair the Kurds, some of which were conducted by the newly designed Bayraktar TB2 drone that is also being heavily used in Libya.

This standoff between the two foes came to an end following President Donald Trump’s abrupt recent decision to abandon the Kurds and withdraw US troops from Syria This led directly to the latest Turkish offensive – which has the stated goal of creating a buffer zone between the two countries.

We defeated 100% of the ISIS Caliphate and no longer have any troops in the area under attack by Turkey, in Syria. We did our job perfectly! Now Turkey is attacking the Kurds, who have been fighting each other for 200 years….

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 10, 2019

Third escalation

In response to the Turkish invasion, Kurdish forces struck a Russian-brokered deal with the Assad regime to help protect their Syrian territory – where they have enjoyed de-facto autonomy for several years. That agreement has raised fears of an open confrontation between Damascus and Ankara at their border. However, the Russian government seems intent on avoiding that scenario so far.

However, a Kurdish withdrawal as in Afrin seems unlikely on this occasion. Greater involvement by the Assad regime and Russia, both accused of deliberately targeting civilian neighbourhoods and institutions throughout the Syrian civil war, could mean new horrors for local populations.

In the most recent development, US Vice President Pence struck a reported ceasefire deal with Turkish President Erdogan on October 17th. That agreement pauses fighting for 120 hours – during which the Kurds are required to withdraw from a 32 km ‘safe zone’ between the two countries. With the Kurds rejecting any occupation by Turkey – while Syrian regime and Russian troops flow into the area – it is presently unclear how likely any such deal is to hold.

US and Turkey reach an agreement to suspend military operation in Syria against the Kurds.-YPG leaving heavy weapons and withdraw its troops from the "safe zone",444km wide,32km deep.-Turkish side will pause 120 hours to allow Kurdish fighters to withdraw from the safe-zone. pic.twitter.com/eVnhZPtuC0

— Military Advisor (@miladvisor) October 17, 2019

▲ Destruction after alleged Turkish shelling on Ayn Diwar on October 11 (via ANF)