September 10, 2018

Written by

Samuel Oakford

The government of Bashar al Assad stands poised to recapture the last part of Syria held by rebels, with millions of civilians also under threat. Yet just three years ago the capital Damascus appeared likely to fall, and with it Assad himself. That dynamic changed with the aggressive intervention of Russia in Syria’s turbid civil war. Airwars reports on Moscow’s most ambitious foreign military intervention in decades, A version of this feature is also published by Foreign Policy. 

When the Assad government moved on rebel-held areas of southwest Syria in late June, events followed a troublingly familiar route. As with the Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta and Aleppo city before it, pro-government forces turned to Russia for blistering and deadly aerial support. Moscow ordered attacks in and around the provincial capital of Dara’a, unleashing a barrage of strikes over a matter of days. In the last week of June alone, Russian forces were implicated in at least 150 alleged civilian deaths, according to Airwars tracking.

Just as in Ghouta and Aleppo, Airwars also monitored multiple reports claiming the consistent targeting of civilian infrastructure, including clinics and other medical facilities in Dara’a, as well as residential areas and shelters where fleeing civilians had sought refuge. On June 28th, at least 20 civilians were killed after alleged Russian strikes reportedly hit several shelters in Al-Massifra. Photographs also showed a hospital in the town in ruins from the bombing.

Compared to other urban campaigns in Syria, the Russian onslaught on Dara’a was short lived. Airstrikes were overwhelming, and by the second week of July the government flag was already being hoisted.

While US Coalition strikes against ISIS remnants are now largely relegated to narrow parts of eastern Syria, the Russian campaign is gearing up again for what may be the deadliest – and effectively final – battle of the war. On September 4th, local monitors began reporting heavy Russian and regime strikes in the northern province of Idlib, the last substantial redoubt of opposition forces including dominant jihadist factions.

The UN has warned that some three million civilians, many displaced from elsewhere in the country, are penned inside Idlib – trapped between encroaching regime forces and the closed Turkish border. Already facing humanitarian catastrophe,this all makes them more vulnerable to airstrikes, which have already claimed thousands of lives in the province.

From verge of collapse to near victory

When Russia began bombing Syria in support of the government three years ago, large swathes of the country had been lost by the regime. ISIS controlled much of Raqqa, Deir Ezzor and Hassaka governorates – while rebel and extremist islamist groups such as Al Qaeda affiliate the al Nusra Front had seized territory across much of northern and southern Syria – and even parts of the capital. As Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov asserted in a September 5th interview, “If you remember, we started assisting Bashar al-Assad in September 2015, when ISIS militants had almost reached Damascus, and the al-Assad Government was on the verge of collapse.”

Since then the regime – backed by intense and deadly Russian airpower, and Iranian and other proxies – has captured large urban centers in the center and north of the country, and eventually pushed opposition groups from the outskirts of the capital itself. Advances by US-backed SDF forces meanwhile droves ISIS from nearly all of northeast Syria. Tens of thousands have been reported killed during these parallel air campaigns.

Yet there have been significant differences between these two campaigns. Although Russia recently declared conducting 39,000 airstrikes in Syria since 2015, those strikes have stopped and started – undulating with political developments. Victory for the US-led alliance has always been focused on the military defeat of ISIS, a goal that the campaign has bulldozed towards at all times. Yet Russia’s goals in Syria have always been wider, with airstrikes and other military support focused primarily on helping the Assad government to secure control over all of Syria.

“The military strategy here depends entirely on the political,” said Yury Barmin, a Moscow-based Middle East analyst. “They don’t carry out airstrikes because they need to eliminate this or that group, but they carry out airstrikes because they need to implement political goals.”

In Idlib, those dynamics still hold out some hope for a political solution. For the last year, the province has been under a partial ceasefire involving Turkey, Iran and Russia. These same powers, pulling at the myriad anti-government forces on the ground, could still reach some sort of agreement, though given the finality of any Idlib offensive for the war, it would likely be far more complicated than anything previously brokered.

Russia has at times halted strikes following local and national ceasefires.  It has ignored other cessations entirely, or observed them only to later escalate ferociously to bring about desired results. Moscow has shown little regard, either in its actions or words, for civilian life – so much so that civilian harm has appeared not just unpreventable but calculated.  Russian strikes in this way can be extremely punitive, said Matti Suomenaro, a researcher at the Institute for the Study of War, a conservative think tank in Washington DC that tracks the Russian campaign.

“A good example of this is after mid-September of last year, when there was an opposition offensive launched in Idlib province,” said Suomenaro. “Russia specifically increased its targeting of almost all medical facilities in southern Idlib, almost as punishment.”

Diplomatically, Russia has also maneuvered cannily with power-players in the region. In southwest Quinetra, Moscow recently refrained from bombing, apparently due to the area’s proximity to Israel. When Turkey shot down a Russian plane and Russia’s ambassador was later assassinated in Istanbul, it led only to more productive relations between the two increasingly illiberal nations.

While the US-led Coalition’s sole aim has been the military defeat of ISIS, Moscow’s campaign has broader aims – with strikes modulating to reflect broader political issues.

‘A counter terror operation’

Though Syrians are by now familiar with Russia’s bombings in their own country, clues to what remains in store for civilians trapped in Idlib, the last rebel stronghold – can be found in both Russia and the Soviet Union’s military past.

Officially, Moscow’s campaign in Syria has been explained as a counterterror operation, key to the national security interests of Russia and carried out at the express invitation of a despotic but technically recognized government. “All of this military activity is a manifestation and kind of support of the concept of sovereignty,” said Timur Makhmutov, deputy program director at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), a think tank based in Moscow.

“We certainly are not going to plunge head-on into this conflict,” said President Vladimir Putin in a televised address announcing the campaign in September 2015. “We will be supporting the Syrian army purely in its legitimate fight with terrorist groups.” In Syria, Russia would provide airpower in support of regime and other ground forces including the Lebanese group Hezbollah and Iranian troops.

An early example of Russia’s approach came halfway through the first year of the Russian campaign. From 99 alleged Russian-linked civilian casualty incidents tracked by Airwars in Syria during October 2015, reports rose steadily, hitting an early peak of 182 in February 2016. Then, after a ceasefire was agreed, allegations fell dramatically, to 39 claimed events by May.

“I think there are some failures and these failures should be recognized on the ground but Russia is trying to make ceasefires to let people who are under the attacks and [in] these crisis situations out,” said Ruslan Mamedov, a colleague of Makhmutov’s at RIAC in Moscow. Russia, he noted, engaged Turkey, which he said helped bring about effective surrenders and evacuations among groups over which they held influence . “These kinds of approaches helped to save lives,” said Mamedov.

Ceasefires in Syria have rarely held. In November 2016, Airwars tracked 215 separate events that included allegations of over 1,000 civilian deaths at the hands of Russia – about two-thirds of which were in Aleppo, which was now under direct attack. By December, all hospitals in eastern Aleppo were reportedly wrecked from regime and Russian bombings – attacks that the UN Commission of Inquiry found to “strongly suggest the deliberate and systematic targeting of medical infrastructure as part of a strategy to compel surrender.” That tactic was a war crime, said the Commission.

“We see that now when the Russians wanted to have a softer approach with the opposition they would stop bombing for a while, introduce short periods of calm,” said analyst Yuri Barmin. “When they see that the opposition isn’t cooperative, then they ramp up the bombing.”

This brutal strategy worked – at enormous cost. Russia, the Assad government and those opposition fighters that remained did reach a deal in mid December that saw at least 34,000 people evacuated from Aleppo to neighboring Idlib governorate. Thereafter, Airwars monitored a significant drop in civilian casualty events tied to Russia in Syria.

Targeting ISIS

When it first militarily intervened in Syria, Moscow claimed to be doing so in order to fight the so-called Islamic State. That assertion has been controversial ever since. Well into 2017, Russia and the regime stood accused by Western adversaries of bombing ISIS lightly, or not at all. It was certainly the case that in the early days of its campaign Russia primarily focused on rebel and extremist groups in the west of Syria, rather than on ISIS.

Yet Russia did later shift its firepower eastward – towards Palmyra and then beyond – in what was viewed in part as a counter to US influence in the area. Soon pro-government forces were racing against the US’s proxy fighters in Syria, the SDF, to reach the Euphrates River Valley area along the border with Iraq. Beginning in September 2017, monitors began reporting significant death tolls from suspected pro-government strikes in eastern Deir Ezzor governorate.

On February 24, 2018, amid the carnage in Eastern Ghouta, UN Security Council diplomats passed a nationwide cessation of hostilities (leaving out ISIS and al Qaeda-linked groups) that was immediately ignored. In the lead up, Amnesty International insisted that Russian and Syrian government forces “deliberately and systematically targeted hospitals and other medical facilities.” Those attacks amounted to war crimes, said the group.

Air strikes, shelling and ground incursions all increased after the resolution. In the month that followed, the UN monitored some 1,700 deaths in Eastern Ghouta, caused in particular by airstrikes. UN investigators recorded 29 separate attacks on health facilities in the enclave.

According to Airwars monitoring, in one seven day period Russia faced allegations of responsibility for over 300 deaths. Doctors Without Borders separately reported a death toll of 1,000 in just two weeks.” Russian officials called the reports “disinformation.” The Siege of Eastern Ghouta was over by April, with much of it in ruin. (By comparison, more than two-thirds of Raqqa was rendered uninhabitable by the US-led campaign there.)

Despite tens of thousands of Russian airstrikes and three years of war, Moscow has yet to concede a single civilian fatality from its Syria campaign. Nor is Airwars aware of any Russian civilian harm monitoring process comparable with that of the US-led Coalition – which by contrast has admitted to more than 1,000 civilian deaths across Iraq and Syria.

“I’m not aware of any serious discussions within the military about who is a civilian and who is a legitimate target,” said Katya Sokirianskaia, director at the Conflict Analysis and Prevention Centre, and a former analyst with the International Crisis Group. “I don’t think for them this is generally a point of concern.”

Both the Russian Ministry of Defense and the Russian Mission to the UN in New York did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

A suspected Russian airstrike on a Daraa suburb on June 30th killed seven civilians according to local reports (Image via White Helmets)

Urban destruction

Recent figures released by Russia’s Ministry of Defense show the staggering scale of Moscow’s deployment in support of the Assad regime. Along with 39,000 airstrikes with more than 86,000 “militants” claimed killed, a total of 63,000 Russian personnel have so far been deployed to Syria.

Deaths among Russian personnel have nevertheless been relatively light – not unexpected given that Russia, just like the US-led Coalition, is primarily focused on remote airstrikes. Most aircrew have died as a result of crashes, though a small number of aircraft have been shot down.

Yet these official combat deaths in Syria appear to be significantly outweighed by those of Russian contractors. In February 2018, at least dozens and possibly hundreds of Russian mercenaries were killed when pro-regime fighters reportedly attacked an SDF base in eastern Syria where American troops were also based.

The roots of Moscow’s intent to minimize official casualties (which can also be seen in the current Ukraine conflict) may be found in another intervention more than three decades ago: the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. By the time they were driven out nearly a decade later, some 15,000 Soviet soldiers had been killed, and the communist bloc was close to collapsing.

“What we call Afghan syndrome – the memories of the Afghan war – are still very strong in this society,” said Katya Sokirianskaia, the director at the Conflict Analysis and Prevention Centre. “The Afghan war in public consciousness is associated with a very protracted war with many casualties among the Russian conscripts which was inconclusive and damaging for the Soviet Union.”

If the approach to keeping its own forces out of harm’s way came from Afghanistan, Sokirianskaia looks to Chechnya for insight into how Russia fights in urban settings. During two wars in the Muslim-majority region in 1990s and early 2000s, urban areas – specifically the capital of Grozny – were levelled.

“I’ve been working on armed conflicts involving Russia for the last 17 years and what we’ve seen is these campaigns have often been indiscriminate,” she said. “Chechnya is a good example – Syria on a smaller scale. In Grozny, with a half million civilians inside, hardly a single building was spared.”

Images of the destruction in Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta drew comparisons to infamous pictures showing Grozny’s shattered skyline. (Russia gleefully trolled those on social media, making the comparison itself.) Thousands of Russian soldiers – and countless more civilians – were killed in fighting for the Chechen city. “The Russian lesson from Grozny was don’t do urban warfare with your own people,” said Michael Kofman, a senior research scientist at CNA.

Yet the wars in Chechnya were not viewed as failures, despite the intense civilian harm they caused.. “Chechnya works fine as far as Russia is concerned because it is [now] peaceful, it is subdued, it has arrived at a method of government which resolves the problem,” said Keir Giles, a senior consulting fellow at Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia Programme. “For Russia, civilian suffering is a tool to be exploited to win the war.”

Syrian civil society and and monitors have made extensive years-long efforts to track the civilian toll of the war in Syria, including from Russian strikes. But do these reports make it back to Russia? How many Russians are even aware of the thousands of civilians killed by their military? The answer – as with most citizens of Coalition member nations like the US – is that very few likely are.

“An average Russian who doesn’t have independent information on Foreign Policy and relies on the state media for their knowledge of international relations trusts the official narrative on who is committing violations,” said Sokirianskaia, the director at the Conflict Analysis and Prevention Centre. “In the end both the media and the Russian citizens prefer to not to really focus on the humanitarian disaster, just to distance themselves from this issue. Everyone knows it is a bloodbath in Syria, but we working to restore peace and are fighting terrorists.”

In response to questions stating that Russian and government forces have killed untold thousands, Vladimir Putin told Fox News in July 2018 that recent US actions also carried a heavy price: “A huge proportion of the civilian population of Raqqa died. It was erased from the face of the earth. It reminds me of Stalingrad from World War II, and there is nothing good about it.”

The Russian president’s point appeared to be that such destruction and mass civilian casualties is an inevitability of urban warfare – whoever the belligerent.

The final blow?

After weeks of protracted and apparently failed negotiations, Syrians are poised once more for the regime – and the Russian Air Force – to turn their firepower upon Idlib. Civilians there have reason to be terrified. According to the United Nations more than three million people are at risk. Most have nowhere left to run.

There is still hope that diplomacy may prevail: after all, Russia’s airstrikes act as a means to an end. Airstrikes in Idlib fell considerably during August, as hope still held that a diplomatic solution from talks in Astana might perhaps peel off some less hardline groups in the province. During the final full week of the month, Airwars monitors didn’t track a single casualty event in Syria that was blamed Russia. That ended on September 4th when reports began trickling in of civilian deaths from Russian airstrikes — all in Idlib.

“We have seen a pattern where the number of airstrikes usually drops before big battles,” said Airwars’ Syria researcher Abdulwahab Tahhan. “If or when this campaign on Idlib starts, the consequences on civilians would be catastrophic. The Syria-Turkish borders are closed and there does not seem any other place they can go to in order to be safe from the airstrikes.”

Any casualties at Idlib will join a lengthy list. In the three years since Moscow entered the war in September 30th 2015, Airwars has monitored over 18,485 alleged civilian deaths tied to Russian actions in Syria. At least 5,917 of those reported killed have been named in local outlets, on social media or by casualty recorders. Though Airwars is still working to vet all the nearly 18,000 deaths alleged against Russia, other casualty recorders such as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, have put the figure at more than 7,800 civilians killed through the end of June 2018.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently implied that some measures will be taken to protect “compliant” civilians in Idlib – just as he claims occurred at Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta: “We always set up humanitarian corridors and always did our best to sign a local ceasefire agreement with the compliant opposition. They were pardoned by the Syrian government, laid down their weapons and rejoined peaceful life in Syria.”

Yet for military planners, any concerns over the safety of civilians will take a back seat to Moscow’s ultimate goal: the complete triumph of Bashar al Assad’s regime.


June 29, 2018

Written by

Samuel Oakford

The US-led Coalition against so-called Islamic State has quietly admitted to killing at least 40 civilians in a March 2017 strike near Raqqa, finally acknowledging what a UN inquiry and human rights groups have long said was among the bloodiest incidents of the four year bombing campaign.

The overnight raid on March 20th-21st 2017 targeted a school sheltering displaced civilians in the town of al Mansoura. A Human Rights Watch (HRW) field investigation published in September 2017 said that ISIS members and their families were also present in the building, though were separate from large numbers of displaced people who had sought safety inside.

After interviewing locals, HRW researchers were able to name 40 civilians who died in the raid, a number it stressed was a minimum, and doubtless far below the true toll. Others have placed the civilian toll that night at 150 or more deaths. 

The Coalition directly cited Human Rights Watch in its admission, included in a monthly civilian casualty review released June 28th. The report stated that the incident was “reopened after the receipt of new evidence from Human Rights Watch.” The Coalition then determined that “During a strike on Daesh militant multifunctional center allegedly caused civilian casualties. Forty civilians were unintentionally killed.”

The admitted number of 40 fatalities appeared to be based on the Human Rights Watch findings, though it was unclear what additional steps the Coalition had taken which had led them to reverse repeated denials issued over the previous 16 months. The al Mansoura raid now represents the second largest death toll admitted to by the Coalition, after an attack days earlier in March 2017 in Mosul which killed over 100 civilians. 

“The updated assessment of the Mansoura allegation was based largely on a video report from Human Rights Watch,” a senior Coalition official told Airwars. “HRW visited the site and interviewed individuals present during the strike and after. Their accounts included specific details regarding the strike more likely to be known by somebody who had been present. Compelling, detailed, and accurate firsthand accounts tend to weigh heavily in favor of a finding of ‘credible.'”

“It’s positive that they are acknowledging this now, but it’s an incomplete step,” said HRW’s Nadim Houry. “We are not getting more clarity about how they are doing these investigations.”

Human Rights Watch investigation into al Mansoura

UN Commission: 150 civilians killed in attack

From the start, the Coalition had strongly pushed back against reports of civilian harm at the Al Badiya school building. A week after the attack – and before any official assessment or investigation had concluded – the then Coalition commander Lt. Gen Stephen J. Townsend told reporters there was no reason to believe civilians had perished.

“We had multiple corroborating intelligence sources from various types of intelligence that told us the enemy was using that school,” Townsend said on March 28th, 2017. “And we observed it. And we saw what we expected to see. We struck it.”

“Afterwards, we got an allegation that it wasn’t ISIS fighters in there… it was instead refugees of some sort in the school,” Townsend explained to reporters. “Yet, not seeing any corroborating evidence of that. In fact, everything we’ve seen since then suggests that it was the 30 or so ISIS fighters we expected to be there.”

Townsend would later take aim at Airwars, claiming that reports of civilian casualties due to Coalition strikes were “vastly inflated.” The al Mansoura allegation, like a growing number related to the assault on Raqqa, was later officially determined to be ‘non-credible’ by the Coalition’s civilian casualty investigative unit.

In March 2018, the UN’s Commission of Inquiry for Syria released  its own findings concerning the incident, stating that 150 civilians were in fact killed in the attack. Unlike Human Rights Watch, the Commission was unable to visit the site (it is banned from the country by the Assad government), but instead conducted a number of remote interviews from outside Syria. The Commission reported that Coalition personnel should have been aware of the large internally displaced person (IDP) presence at the site.

An Airwars survey of local reporting in the lead up to the attack – provided shortly afterwards to the Coalition – had also turned up several reports indicating a significant IDP presence in the vicinity of al Mansoura. After the Commission released its findings, the Coalition for the first time showed a willingness to re-open the case, telling Airwars it would do so “if credible or compelling additional information can be obtained.”

The al Mansoura strike proved further controversial due to the discovery of the involvement of German reconnaissance aircraft. A number of Coalition members, while not carrying out strikes on their own, nevertheless provide intelligence and logistical capabilities to assist  bombings by other nations. Whatever pre-strike surveillance the Coalition conducted at al Mansoura proved insufficient to protect civilians at the site, the alliance’s admission of 40 deaths now shows.

“It is not enough to just say we killed some civilians. No one is saying it was intentional, but that is not the point of conducting the investigation,” said HRW’s Nadim Houry. “Where did things go wrong? What steps have they taken to ensure this doesn’t happen in the future?”

Casualty reports for the al Mansoura event monitored by Airwars varied widely, from several dozen deaths to claims of as many as 400 people killed. Nadim Houry says that 40 fatalities, including 16 children, was HRW’s baseline after visiting the site twice. “40 are the ones that we were actually able to identify, but the actual number is much higher,” he said.

Human Rights Watch also investigated a nearby incident that occurred less than 48 hours later, when at least 44 civilians including 14 children were allegedly killed after bombs hit a market in Tabqa, west of Raqqa city. That March 22nd 2017 incident remains unconfirmed by the Coalition.

Concerns at Raqqa

In a further concession to international NGOs, the Coalition also acknowledges in its latest report the findings of a recent Amnesty International field investigation into civilian harm at Raqqa.

The Amnesty field study, War of Annihilation, looked at four families devastated by the recent fighting for Raqqa. “Between them, they lost 90 relatives and neighbours – 39 from a single family – almost all of them killed by Coalition air strikes,” Amnesty reported.

The Coalition initially greeted the report with hostility. However, it has now opened assessments into five cases based on Amnesty’s findings, while rejecting a sixth. “The Coalition takes these and all allegations seriously, and this month’s civilian casualty report reflects the current status of six cases pertaining to Amnesty’s recent report,” the US-led alliance now notes.

Despite @amnesty’s allegations on @CJTFOIR conduct, they never discussed the article w/us & didn’t thoroughly research things we said. They failed to check the public record & get facts straight. We are open to criticism, but they didn’t make the effort to understand what we do

— OIR Spokesman (@OIRSpox) June 5, 2018

The Coalition’s initial response to Amnesty’s field study was hostile

The fight to capture Raqqa from ISIS did not officially begin until June 6th 2017. Overall, more than 2,000 non combatants were credibly reported killed by all parties to that battle – with mass graves still being discovered. 

Airwars estimates that at least 1,400 civilians perished in Coalition air and artillery strikes before the city’s capture in mid-October. More than 21,000 munitions were fired on Raqqa in just five months – many times more than were released across all of Afghanistan by international forces for all of 2017. 

Despite this ferocious assault, the Coalition has admitted to very few deaths in Raqqa – even as its civilian casualty unit churns through and discards allegations. Only 26 fatalities have so far been conceded.

In the same monthly report that saw the al Mansoura strike acknowledged, the Coalition classed more than 120 civilian harm allegations relating to the battle of Raqqa as ‘non-credible.’ In the last two months alone, the Coalition has evaluated almost 200 civilian harm events from the battle and rated them all in this way.

Overall, the Coalition has only admitted to 4% of more than 450 locally reported civilian casualty events for the battle of Raqqa. Airwars instead rates more than 70 per cent of those cases as Fair – that is, with two or more credible local reports, and Coalition strikes confirmed in the near vicinity. 

“Since March 2018, the Coalition has not assessed a single incident of civilian harm in the Battle of Raqqa as Credible. In other words, they have dismissed all the reports we and others have submitted to them, the majority of which we had significant confidence in,” said Sophie Dyer of the Airwars advocacy team. “This disparity between the local reports we have gathered, and the Coalition’s own assessments – which are heavily reliant on post strike video analysis and observable harm – is greatly troubling.”

Asked why so few casualty claims for Raqqa are being assessed as Credible, a senior Coalition official provided Airwars with the following statement: “A number of factors go into the assessment of an allegation: the quality of the information and detail provided in the allegation, the nature of the strike and the evidence available, for example. Each allegation is assessed with fresh eyes based on the available evidence without regard to previous assessments and without any credibility percentages in mind.

“If any allegation or any grouping of allegations is assessed as ‘non-credible,’ it is because each individual allegation either didn’t correlate to any Coalition strikes, didn’t contain sufficient information to make an assessment, or that an assessment based on all reasonably available information did not corroborate the allegation.”


June 20, 2018

Written by

Samuel Oakford

A new study of the security situation in Libya between 2012 and 2018 by Airwars and the New America Foundation has identified hundreds of civilians credibly reported killed and injured by domestic and international airstrikes – but with no accountability for those deaths from any belligerent.

In total at least 2,162 strikes were identified by Airwars during the nine month research project, based on local public reporting and official claims made between 2012-2018. At least 242 civilians likely died in these actions according to local communities, yet not one of the eight belligerents identified in the new study has ever conceded casualties from its actions – an unwelcome echo of NATO’s 2011 Libya campaign, in which the alliance boasted at the time of causing zero civilian harm.

The new Libya findings were officially launched June 20th in Washington DC. “Libyans have been living with significant security concerns in the years since NATO’s 2011 intervention – though with little interest from the outside world,” said Chris Woods, the Director of Airwars. “A key way to better understand this neglected conflict is to understand what Libyans themselves are reporting – particularly when it comes to civilian harm.”


A small team of Airwars researchers – based in both the troubled nation and in Europe – poured over thousands of local Arabic-language reports dating from the years after dictator Muammar Gaddafi was deposed and killed in 2011.

A range of troubling patterns emerged, including intense urban bombardments; attacks on boats and ocean-going vessels; and the frequent killing of poor foreign workers and migrants alongside Libyans.

By far the most concerning trend was that of impunity among all parties to the conflict. In many respects, Libya offers a more lawless and uncontrolled version of long-criticised US counterterror operations in Somalia and Pakistan. In Libya a handful of countries now conduct strikes unilaterally – with some such as the UAE and France never choosing to declare their actions.

Research indicates that Libya has become a country where other nations and local actors have few qualms about dropping explosive munitions from above – while never taking responsibility for their effects below. New America’s report accompanying the Libya launch is aptly titled Lawless Skies.

Image of an alleged LNA airstrike in Benghazi on October 18th 2014 (via Alzarook_Nabbos on Twitter)

No accountability

NATO’s intense Libya air campaign ended in 2011. But peace did not return to Libya with the death of long-standing dictator Muamar Gaddafi. Instead the North African nation has lurched from crisis to crisis, sliding into civil war in 2014. Even today Libya has two rival governments. Former US president Barack Obama has described his administration’s failings over Libya as his greatest foreign policy regret.

Funded by the Open Society Foundations, Airwars has partnered with the US think tank New America for the Libya project. New America pioneered the monitoring of CIA drone strikes in Pakistan in 2010, and brings a wealth of analytical expertise to the project. Peter Bergen, the Director of the International Security and Future of War Program at New America, said of the partnership: “The two organizations believe that helping to document the largely forgotten war in Libya is a necessary public service.”

The new project seeks to highlight ongoing security concerns for ordinary Libyans – while also helping to provide more reliable data on civilian harm for policymakers and investigators.

“An important feature of the conflict in Libya post-2011 has been the rise of airstrikes by multiple domestic and international belligerents,” New America notes in its own report release June 20th. “At least four foreign countries and three domestic Libyan factions are reported to have conducted air and drone strikes in Libya since 2012.”

Many of the world’s most fearsome air forces, including those of the US, the UAE and France – as well as Egypt – have bombed targets in Libya in recent years. Yet after six years and more than 2,100 airstrikes between them, no single actor has admitted to harming civilians in Libya from the air – a startling and troubling failure of accountability.

Some international powers don’t even acknowledge they are bombing Libya in the first place. The UAE conducts drone and airstrikes from a ‘secret’ base in eastern Libya, deep inside the territory of one of the country’s two main warring factions. Yet no strikes are ever publicly declared – and no subsequent civilian harm acknowledged.

[pullquote] AFRICOM’s Major Karl Wiest  told Airwars that “With regards to the specific incidents you highlighted and asked our team to review, they are not assessed as credible with the information currently available.” [/pullquote]

“One of the most notable lessons of our Libya research was the abundance of belligerents we had to deal with,” said Airwars investigator Oliver Imhof. “It was at times difficult to keep track of them all. It shows to what extent Libya institutionally has become a failed state after the 2011 revolution – even though the extent of the conflict is much less horrific than in Syria or Iraq.”

Problematic as international actions are in Libya, the majority of more than 2,000 airstrikes identified since 2012 were in fact carried out by local actors. The largest and most active Libyan air force is that of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) – which according to its own reports has conducted more than 1,000 airstrikes in recent years.

With the country’s military assets divided after the fall of Gaddafi, a smaller number of strikes has also been carried out by the internationally recognized General National Assembly (GNA). Neither the LNA or GNA has ever been known to have acknowledged killing or injuring a single civilian.

Despite its lack of international recognition, the LNA is in fact far more transparent about its actions than most foreign militaries engaged in Libya. Most of its strikes were officially declared at the time via media and social media outlets. With the exception of the United States (which itself has declared more than 500 recent airstrikes in Libya), no other belligerent regularly reports on its actions.

The array of domestic and foreign actors – and often challenging local reporting of events – can at times be far more confusing than Airwars’ longstanding monitoring in Iraq or Syria.

“We have events in Derna, Benghazi and al Jufra Distract where multiple local sources claimed variously that Egypt, the UAE and sometimes France were involved,” said Osama Mansour, Airwars’ chief Libya researcher.

RT Arabic showing footage of an alleged Egyptian airstrike on Derna on February 15th 2015, reportedly leading to seven civilian deaths

Patterns of civilian harm

The ending of NATO’s 2011 Libya campaign did lead to an initial lull in military actions by all parties. The number of alleged civilian casualty incidents tracked by Airwars was minimal through the end of 2013. However in 2014 – as the nation slipped deeper into chaos – local accounts and public reporting indicated at least 242 strikes – with the following year seeing 201 more strikes.

Yet as so-called Islamic State gained a foothold in Libya – and as the nation’s two rival factions went to war – more than 1,000 airstrikes were reported in 2016. Since then, 536 separate strikes were monitored in 2017, and 121 have been recorded so far in 2018.

Several additional patterns have emerged during the monitoring of strikes. As seen elsewhere in the region, urban areas have often borne the brunt. Nearly a third of all monitored strikes took place in Sirte – largely related to the 2016 US campaign there targeting ISIS.

However, despite heavy bombardments of residential neighbourhoods by various actors in both Benghazi and Sirte, the number of reported civilian deaths in these urban locales is relatively low when compared to recent conflict modelling in Syria and Iraq. This pattern is not limited to urban airstrikes, and may have several explanations — including lower population densities, and possibly more limited public reporting in Libya.

“Notably, the airstrikes that did not result in casualties among civilians were often declared by militaries, whereas in the event of any casualties everyone kept mute,” noted Mansour.

#بنغازي |قصف سلاح الجو الليبي قبل قليل لاهداف تابعه لتنظيم الدوله #داعش بمنطقة شارع الشريف

— إمحمد بالريش (المرنقي) (@belreish) September 24, 2015

Heavy alleged LNA bombardment of residential neighbourhoods in Benghazi in 2015, reported via Twitter

Multiple actors

While American airstrikes in Libya often capture international attention, domestic actors are in fact responsible for most bombings. Airwars has monitored 1,122 strikes allegedly involving the LNA (Libyan National Army) — more than half of all actions documented by Airwars. These allegedly led to the deaths of between 95 and 172 civilians – the largest non-combatant death toll tied to any one belligerent.

The UN-recognised GNA (General National Assembly) has also reportedly conducted at least 68 strikes, leading to a minimum of between 7 and 9 civilian fatalities. However, a number of incidents that cite the GNA also accuse other belligerents, including the United States. Including such contested incidents, between 44 and 66 additional civilians deaths may in fact be associated with GNA attacks.

In 2016, the Obama administration listed Sirte as an “area of active hostility,” thereby avoiding strict limitations and civilian protections imposed by the 2013 Presidential Policy Guidance. Hundreds of strikes followed in Sirte under Operation Odyssey Lighting, between August 1st and December 19th of that year.

US strikes have focused primarily on ISIS targets, though they have at times operated in support of the GNA. The US is the most transparent of all actors in Libya, generally announcing when it has carried out actions. AFRICOM officially declared 495 strikes during the Sirte campaign, with a further 15 strikes before and afterwards.

For those actions, researchers tracked between 6 and 13 likely civilian deaths – none of which have been acknowledged by the US. US aircraft may also be implicated in up to 14 additional events in which at least 34 more civilians reportedly died – though these claims have also been attributed by some local sources to the GNA.

AFRICOM’s Major Karl Wiest  told Airwars that “With regards to the specific incidents you highlighted and asked our team to review, they are not assessed as credible with the information currently available.”

Major Wiest added that the US command had also itself investigated two claimed civilian harm events in Libya, but had deemed them non-credible: “From the Fall of 2016, the command has assessed two (2) recorded CIVCAS allegations related to operations in Libya. After thorough investigations, both claims were deemed not credible. In fact, the evidence gathered in one of the investigations strongly suggested that our adversaries in the region were simply lying about alleged civilian casualties in order to bolster their public perception. Evidence found at the time of the respective investigation to support this finding included our adversaries publishing photographs from another area of responsibility while claiming they were new CIVCAS incidents in Libya.”

AFRICOM declined to offer additional information when asked to identify the two events by date and location.

Additional state actors

Egypt meanwhile has launched an increasing number of strikes in Libya, often in the vicinity of a shared frontier. Strikes also take place on occasion in heavily populated areas. In February 2015, Egypt reported bombing alleged ISIS targets in Libya in response to the gruesome murder of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in the country. The attack, which took place in Derna, reportedly killed at least 7 civilians and injured at least 21, according to local accounts.

Amnesty International later investigated the incident and determined that “the Egyptian Air Force failed to take the necessary precautions” in launching the attack.  According to local sources monitored by the Airwars/ New America project, Egypt has carried out at least 93 strikes in Libya, which have killed at least 13 civilians.

The Egyptian government only occasionally confirms its strikes, often after attacks in border areas where smuggling or terrorist activity is alleged. A reported strike on August 21st, 2017 is indicative: video posted on the Army Facebook page shows the destruction of what the military said were nine SUVs carrying weapons and explosives in the border area. On some occasions, such as an October 30th, 2017 strike in the Kufra district along the border, there are local  reports that the targets hit are in fact civilian vehicles. However given the scarcity of information, it is at times hard to confirm such cases. The Egyptian military has itself not admitted to harming any civilians in Libya.

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مصر تعلن تنفيذ 10 ضربات جوية على الحدود مع ليبيا

بالفيديو | مصر تعلن تنفيذ 10 ضربات جوية على الحدود مع ليبيا

Geplaatst door ‎قناة ليبيا اليوم – Libya Today TV‎ op Woensdag 22 november 2017

Libya Today TV showing footage of Egyptian strikes near the border

Egypt has also played host to UAE assets engaged in their own cross-border raids. The UAE also carries out drone and air strikes in support of the LNA from within Libya. On many occasions, both the Gulf nation and the LNA might be blamed for casualties, making precise tracking more difficult. However, Airwars has monitored at least 41 strikes allegedly carried out by the UAE, leaving at least 11 civilians dead.

“While Egypt mostly seems to be interested in securing its border from smugglers and alleged terrorists with airstrikes, the reasons for Emirati involvement in Libya are less obvious due to its geographical distance,” said Imhof. “However, its current interventionist foreign policy seeking to fight political Islam and jihadism could be an explanation.”

France does not confirm its own actions in Libya, though local reports often accuse Paris of being behind attacks – particularly in the south. Often, blame for such incidents is split between France and the LNA – and in some instances they have blamed one another.  A January 10th 2016 strike reportedly killed at least 15 people — likely combatants. The LNA blamed France, while the French government in turn blamed the LNA. On November 14th of that same year, France allegedly killed at least four civilians in Wadi al Shatii district – though again, this could not be confirmed.

Overall, France has been cited for five alleged strikes in the reporting period, while it was mentioned in three more reports that also blamed the LNA – strikes that allegedly left at least 20 civilians dead.

One of the most troubling aspect of airstrikes in Libya is how many actions are by unknown belligerents. 165 Strikes without any named belligerents were assessed by Airwars. Of those, 25 were incidents of concern according to Airwars researchers, and 12 allegedly left civilian casualties.

On February 7th 2016 for example, an unknown aircraft bombed the Bab Tobruk neighborhood of Derna. Four civilians were reported killed. Though no group or nation claimed responsibility, local sources, including members of the GNA, accused the UAE of involvement.

Researchers contacted all eight local and international belligerents for comment on reported civilian harm from their actions in Libya. Only the US’s AFRICOM responded. These strikes – and the lack of clarity around them – are indicative of what New America has termed ‘Lawless Skies’.

Alnabaa shows the aftermath of the airstrike on February 7th

Troubling targets

A number of troubling patterns emerged from Airwars monitoring of civilian harm in Libya. Maritime traffic is frequently a target – with researchers tracking 66 strikes that reportedly hit vessels, including boats and ships off the coast of Libya.

The great majority of Libyans live in coastal areas, and the waters north of the country are used by an array of Libyan and foreign vessels, including – according to local sources – boats transporting weapons. In some cases such attacks are acknowledged by the LNA, which has posted videos of target vessels, for instance off the coast of Benghazi.

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#سرت صور لناقلة النفط انوار أفريقيا التي قصفت اليوم قبالة ساحل المدينة و إصابة الطاقم الذي بها.. و بعض المعلومات تؤكد أن نسور الجو #الجيش_الليبي قصفت الناقلة.

Geplaatst door ‎عمر الورفلي‎ op Zondag 24 mei 2015

Images of a burning oil tanker and its injured crew members, hit by an alleged LNA airstrike on May 11th 2015 (via Omar al-Warfali)

Airwars also identified a likely under-reporting of civilian casualties among non-Libyan populations. While the killing of Libyan citizens in airstrikes often garners local headlines, the deaths of ‘foreigners’, especially Sudanese or Chadian civilians, tend only to be footnoted, or are even reported only in Sudanese or Chadian media. Yet scattered accounts suggest a significant toll. UNSMIL reported that on May 15th 2018, three Eritreans were killed and eight more injured when their vehicle was bombed along the Libyan-Egyptian border by “unidentified air assets” – most likely an Egyptian airstrike.

Hospitals, power stations and other critical infrastructure have also been targeted or struck by several parties to the conflict in Libya. On Janaury 12th 2016, the LNA reported airstrikes against targets in Benghazi – attacks that the UN Mission in the country (UNSMIL) later condemned for hitting a power plant in the city. In October of that same year, the LNA reportedly targeted a hospital in Benghazi.

The new project by Airwars and New America marks the most comprehensive modelling of airstrike harm since NATO’s 2011 intervention. Even so, its findings may represent an undercount of civilian casualties.

A key part of Airwars’ role is to permanently archive reports and claims – including photographs and videos – in case they are removed from the internet. In Iraq and Syria for example, up to 50 per cent of local reports disappear from the Web within 12 months. People are killed and towns overrun, Facebook and Twitter accounts banned, and videos and news sites blocked.

Those vulnerabilities are likely to extend to Libya, and it is probable that much media and social media material has already been lost, in particular from the earlier years after Gaddafi was deposed.

“Public reporting often seems low in Libya compared to Syria and Iraq, even for recent cases,” says Oliver Imhof. “We simply don’t know how much material was lost over the years, especially during the early years of the conflict.”

The LNA’s 2016 Facebook page – a key resource for confirming hundreds of publicly declared airstrikes – was luckily archived in its entirety by Airwars before being deleted recently by the LNA. Without those archives, a troubling lack of accountability for military actions in Libya would be worse than it already is.


June 5, 2018

Written by

Samuel Oakford

The US-led Coalition appears to have committed violations of international law during the battle for Raqqa, Amnesty International says, after an extensive investigation outlining several incidents in which the Coalition used disproportionate firepower – despite what it says should have been knowledge of the presence of civilians in the city.

“The cases provide prima facie evidence that several Coalition attacks which killed and injured civilians violated international humanitarian law,” said Amnesty in its report – published on the first anniversary of the US-dominated assault on Raqqa.

The heavily Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) began their operations in the city on June 6th 2017, backed by substantial US-led strikes (95% of Coalition airstrikes and 100% of artillery actions during the battle for Raqqa were American). Five months later in mid-October, the city was retaken from so-called Islamic State. 

Estimates of the death toll in Raqqa vary, but local monitors credibly report that at least 2,000 civilians perished at the hands of all belligerents. Airwars researchers put the number likely killed by the Coalition at at least 1,400. But until now there had not been extensive ground investigation into the toll of strikes in the dense urban environment. That includes any efforts by the Coalition itself – which has discarded the great majority of civilian casualty allegations under review for Raqqa by its own investigators – all apparently without speaking to witnesses and victims. To date, the Coalition has admitted to just 26* civilian deaths during the fight for the city.

What I found in #Raqqa , in northern #Syria : Unimaginable destruction of lives, homes and livelihoods. Entire families killed when #USA -led Coalition bombed houses full of civilians. Demand investigations now. Victims deserve justice and reparation.

— Donatella Rovera (@DRovera) June 5, 2018

“It’s not hard to find airstrike sites to visit in Raqqa,” said Benjamin Walsby, one of the Amnesty researchers who traveled to the city. “There’s one on virtually ever street, and often more than one. We analyzed the scene of 42 strikes, and spoke to witnesses, survivors and relatives of the dead. The Coalition has not done the same.”

“The Coalition maintains a transparent process and has demonstrated its willingness to open new cases and even reopen old cases in light of new or compelling evidence,” a spokesperson for the alliance told Airwars. “We have not been approached by Amnesty but are willing to work with them.”

According to the United Nations, as much as 80 percent of Raqqa was rendered uninhabitable by fighting, and the local reconstruction committee recently told Airwars that most damage was caused by airstrikes. Adding to the suffering, hundreds of civilians – by some local accounts more than 1,000 – have been killed by ISIS mines and other explosive remnants since the end of fighting. 

Amnesty researchers spent two weeks in Raqqa during February 2018, visiting the 42 sites and interviewing a total of 112 survivors and witnesses. Amnesty has highlighted the cases of four families who lost dozens of members, illustrating the terrible ordeal Raqqawis faced as a result of ISIS’s criminal behavior – and the disproportionate and at times seemingly indiscriminate nature of Coalition strikes meant to vanquish the militants.

In each case, “Coalition forces launched air strikes on buildings full of civilians using precision munitions with a wide-area effect, which could be expected to destroy them entirely,” wrote investigators. “The civilians killed and injured in the attacks, many of whom were women and children, had been staying in buildings for long periods prior to the strikes. Coalition forces would have been aware of their presence had they conducted rigorous surveillance prior to the strikes.”

“Witnesses reported that there were no fighters in the vicinity at the time of the attacks,” said Amnesty. “Such attacks could be either direct attacks on civilians or civilian objects or indiscriminate attacks.

‘Shocking destruction’

The Coalition was well aware of the strategies ISIS would employ in Raqqa to purposefully endanger civilians, Amnesty investigators contend – including fighting in residential areas, and the use of non-combatants as human shields. The Coalition however did not modulate operations, instead escalating munition use and even turning down out of hand UN calls for a humanitarian pause. 

“The scale of destruction and loss of civilian lives I found in Raqqa is shocking,” Donatella Rovera, Senior Crisis Response Adviser, told Airwars. “It is imperative that the Coalition stop being in denial and carry out proper investigations to establish why so many civilians were killed as a result of its strikes, and that it make available information that is crucial to this endeavour. There is no security rationale for not doing so.”

The first Amnesty case involved the Aswad family. Eight members were, it says, killed in a Coalition strike on June 28th that hit a building owned by four brothers in the family – Jamal, Ammar, Mohammed and Khaled. In the days prior to the attack, neighbors had joined the family in the building’s cellar, attempting to shield themselves from fighting above ground between ISIS and the SDF. Amnesty found that while “IS fighters were in the area at the time” they were “not in the immediate vicinity of the Aswad building.”

Witnesses said that because the building hadn’t yet been finished, people would move across the road to the family’s existing home to “cook and use the toilet.” 

“We were sure that the warplanes would have photographed our street and would know our movements, as we went to and fro between the building and the old house across the street, and would have known that we were civilians, families with children,” Mohammed later told Amnesty. Nevertheless, on June 28th, the building was hit, pancaking upper floors and destroying the structure.

“Fragment of the motor of a US-made AGM-114 Hellfire missile recovered among the ruins of the Aswad family building, destroyed in a Coalition strike which killed eight civilians on 28 June 2017.” via Amnesty report.

Mohammed survived. But his brother Jamal died, along with a neighbour named Mohammed Othman, his wife Fatima and five of their children, aged 8-17. Another brother, Ammar, later also died – reportedly due to a land mine planted by ISIS.

Amnesty investigators visited the site and found remnants of a US-made AGM-114 Hellfire missile, and a US-designed Joint Direct Attack Munition. Both the United States and the UK declared strikes in Raqqa on June 28th.

‘War of Annihilation’

The Hashish family meanwhile lost eight members from an IED explosion at Raqqa, before losing nine more people in a July airstrike. The remaining family members had been staying in a smaller home with five rooms. One morning the area experienced shelling, forcing the family to take shelter. “The strike occurred straight after we re-entered the house,” said Munira, a survivor. “My brothers Hussein and Mohammed and their kids and the neighbors were all killed.” Munira was also injured, along with her children. “My seven-year-old son, Ahmad, was the worst; he suffered severe wounds to his abdomen.”

Munira also described ISIS’s patterns of movement in the city, which put residents in danger. “It was impossible to know which house IS would be in from day-to-day as they used to move around. We heard that they had made openings in the walls of people’s houses so they could move without being seen on the street. Any house was their house if they so wished.”

But she said it was unclear why the house her family was in was targeted. “They [ISIS] did not come to our house; it was an Arabic house [one story], not a tall building, so it wasn’t useful for them.”

Unlike operations in Mosul, which took place over the course of two US administrations, the battle for Raqqa was overseen wholly by the Trump White House and US Defense Secretary James Mattis. Just over a week before fighting reached inside Raqqa, Mattis remarked that the fighting against ISIS was now a “war of annihilation.” By the summer of 2017 – after just six months of the Trump administration – likely Coalition civilian casualties monitored by Airwars had doubled. In Raqqa, the gloves were off, including for US Marine Corps artillery units which fired thousands – or possibly tens of thousands – of rounds into the city.

The worst case documented by Amnesty – almost unfathomably distressing – was that of the Badran family, which lost 39 members alongside 10 neighbours in a number of airstrikes during  the Raqqa assault.

“Members of the Badran family killed in three separate Coalition air strike on 18 July and 20 August 2017 in Raqqa”. via Amnesty report.

First, five family members were killed on July 18th in a reported airstrike on a house in Nazlet al-Shehade – an area to which ISIS had forced that family to move. Two other neighbors were killed, then four other family members died when a strike hit a car in which they were fleeing from Nazlet al-Shehade.

A month later, after moving through the city in search of medical care and fleeing ISIS fire, the extended family returned to a home in the Harat al-Sakhani area. One of the surviving family members, Rasha, explained what happened around August 18th:

“Two days later, we were bombed, both houses where we were staying got bombed. Almost everybody was killed. Only I, my husband and his brother and cousin survived…. We hid in the rubble until morning because the planes were circling overhead. In the morning we found Tulip’s body [her infant daughter]; our baby was dead. We buried her near there, by a tree.”

In total, 28 members of the extended family were killed in the strike, along with five people in a house across the street. “Nothing was left standing, there was only rubble,” said Rasha. “These were simple Arab houses, they were not sturdy. I don’t understand why they bombed us. Didn’t the surveillance planes see that we were civilian families?”

‘Undercounting civilian casualties’

The final case reported by Amnesty involved the Fayad family. Sixteen family members and neighbours were killed in reported airstrikes on October 12, 2017 in the Harat al-Badu area of Raqqa, where many civilians had become trapped in the final days of fighting. Though fighting had briefly paused earlier in the week as part of a truce, the Coalition and SDF then struck ISIS’s remaining strongholds on the night of October 11th and 12th. Among those who perished were multiple victims in the Fayad family. 

According to the Coalition’s own strike reports, its aircraft carried out aerial attacks in Raqqa on each date referenced in the four Amnesty cases.To date, the Coalition has admitted to only 21 civilian fatalities in Raqqa between June and October 2017. Of 225 allegations reviewed, the Coalition has only found 15 cases to be credible. Over 90 per cent of all cases reviewed during the battle have been found to be ‘non-credible’.  In its most recent report, the Coalition rejected 72 reported civilian harm events at Raqqa – while finding none to be credible.

“The low credibility count suggests that some, possibly many, allegations may be dismissed before all necessary efforts are deployed to investigate them,” wrote the Amnesty researchers. “Undercounting civilian casualties could result in underestimating potential harm to civilians in future Coalition operations, as civilian harm mitigation procedures require military units to learn from their civilian casualty assessments, and incorporate that learning into planning future operations.”

None of the more than 100 residents who Amnesty spoke with during their research said they had been approached by the Coalition. As Airwars reported in March, there were ample opportunities for such interaction, including at processing centers run by the SDF.

“Unexploded MK 82 bomb, dropped by the Coalition, in a street in the centre of Raqqa. Months after the recapture of Raqqa unexploded munitions still littered Raqqa, in places where they posed a threat to civilians and where they could have easily been removed.” Via Amnesty Report.

Bodies in Raqqa are still being dug out, seven months after the end of hostilities. In a May interview, a member of the Raqqa Reconstruction Committee told Airwars that remains hastily buried in mass graves during fighting are often too decomposed to be identified. Other bodies are still entombed in the rubble that litters the city. Recovering the dead risks encountering one of thousands of IEDs that ISIS left rigged in Raqqa’s homes and public areas.

“Many of these, as well as unexploded bombs dropped by Coalition forces, continue to contaminate the city, with the cleaning process set to continue for months, if not years,” wrote Amnesty in its report. Desperate for money, children are working as labourers to clear rubble for as little as $4 per day – a job that can prove deadly.

“Why were those who spent so much on a costly military campaign which destroyed the city not providing the relief so desperately needed,” asked one resident of the city.

“Amnesty’s detailed field investigation once again highlights the significant death and destruction visited upon Raqqa last year, primarily by US forces as they ousted so-called Islamic State,” said Airwars director Chris Woods. “There is little doubt that several thousand civilians were killed in the fighting – yet almost no interest from the US and its allies in understanding how and where they died.”

Airwars’ own monitoring has shown a clear correlation between the level of Coalition firepower deployed in Raqqa and likely civilian deaths. As its own report recently noted, “Before the assault on Raqqa had begun in June 2017, the US-led Coalition had been made aware of the high reported civilian toll at Mosul – with Airwars for example publicly highlighting rises and falls in reported civilian harm which were closely tracking munition use. Not only were these lessons not subsequently applied by the alliance – but the intensity of bombardment at Raqqa (given its relatively smaller size, and the shorter duration of the battle) actually worsened.”

Airwars graphic depicting the close correlation between intensity of Coalition bombardment and civilian deaths at Raqqa

*An earlier version of this article stated that the Coalition had admitted to 21 civilian deaths which took lace d the Battle for Raqqa (June-October 2017). As of the Coalition’s latest monthly civilian casualty report that figure is now 26.


May 3, 2018

Written by

Samuel Oakford

After nearly four years of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, the United Kingdom has admitted for the first time that its forces caused civilian harm during anti-ISIS operations, when a missile fired from a Reaper drone this March also killed one non-combatant in eastern Syria.

The May 2nd admission came just a day after an exclusive BBC report quoted a Coalition source who said the British had likely caused civilian casualties “on several occasions.” That source cited a January 9th 2017 strike in Mosul that they said “almost certainly” killed two civilians. The British MoD countered what appears to be its partners’ own findings, contending the dead were probably ISIS fighters.

However in a written statement to Parliament, the British Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson MP, conceded a separate and much more recent incident – far removed from the large-scale battles of Mosul and Raqqa. This occured on March 26th 2018, in an area of eastern Syria where ISIS fighters had yet to be defeated.

“During a strike to engage three Daesh fighters a civilian motorbike crossed into the strike area at the last moment and it is assessed that one civilian was unintentionally killed,” said Williamson, using an Arabic term for the terror group. “We reached this conclusion after undertaking routine and detailed post-strike analysis of all available evidence.”

Failure to investigate on the ground

The question of non-US partner culpability has proved vexing. In May 2017, Airwars revealed that US officials had determined that partner nations had caused at least 80 civilian deaths. No Coalition member will publicly accept responsibility for any of the incidents, which were released in bulk without any identifying information.

Since then, Australia and the Netherlands have joined the United States in admitting to involvement in incidents where civilians were killed or injured. Far larger military contributors the UK and France had remained silent.

In the BBC investigation – for which defence correspondent Jonathan Beale again traveled to Mosul to see the damage wrought on the city by airstrikes – he reported that Britain’s Coalition partners have “highlighted or ‘flagged’, several incidents when UK airstrikes may have caused civilian harm” but “on each occasion the MoD says it saw no evidence it caused civilian casualties.”

The newly conceded British casualty incident was observable thanks to Coalition video taken from the air, according to the Defence Secretary’s statement. From the first Coalition admissions, investigators have shown a bias towards cases: out in the open, and where follow-up investigations – either involving travel to the location or interviews with locals – are not required.

The Coalition and partner allies do not as a matter of policy speak with locals, or visit allegation sites. Yet most civilian casualty incidents monitored by Airwars likely would be impossible to confirm solely based on aerial reconnaissance, occurring as they often do in dense urban environments such as those in Raqqa and Mosul. As former deputy RAF commander Air Marshal Greg Bagwell has recently noted, “you can’t see through rubble.”

Urban strikes

According to the former UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, Royal Air Force planes carried out strikes on more than 750 targets during the campaign to liberate Mosul – “second only the US.” As Airwars has previously reported, Coalition strikes in Mosul were more often carried out with little or no knowledge of who remained inside buildings – an issue that extends to any post-strike analysis.

There is no official civilian death count for the battle of Mosul, but an investigation by the Associated Press has placed the toll at between 9,000 and 11,000 killed by all parties from October 2016 to June 2017. In total, Airwars tracked between 6,000 and 9,000 non combatant deaths variously attributed to the Coalition by local sources, and estimated that a minimum of between 1,066 and 1,579 likely died due to Coalition air and artillery strikes. This almost certainly represents a significant undercount, due to confused reporting at the time. It is telling that Britain’s first civilian casualty admission came not from Mosul – where it launched more attacks than anywhere else in Iraq or Syria – but from the deserts of eastern Syria.

“While the UK’s concession of a civilian fatality from one of its airstrikes against ISIS is a welcome step towards greater accountability, we’re concerned that it has taken the MoD almost four years and 1,600 strikes before making any such admission,” said Airwars director Chris Woods.

“Thousands of civilians have credibly been reported killed in Coalition actions to defeat so-called Islamic State – and airstrikes remain the primary cause of death. We hope the UK will now properly investigate the hundreds of additional potential civilian harm events its aircraft have recently been implicated in.”

▲ RAF Tornado GR4's over Iraq on an armed reconnaissance mission in support of OP SHADER. Royal Air Force Tornado GR4 aircraft have been in action over Iraq as part of the international coalition’s operations to support the democratic Iraqi Government in the fight against ISIL.


April 5, 2018

Written by

Samuel Oakford
Photographs are published with the kind permission of Maranie R. Staab. All rights fully reserved.

Eighteen months ago, Iraqi forces backed by heavy coalition firepower descended on Mosul, Iraq’s second city and the largest ever controlled by the Islamic State. It took them nine months—well beyond initial estimates—to dislodge the terror group. During that time, strategies changed. Under the Obama administration, more commanders with the U.S.-led coalition were given latitude to call in strikes. When Donald Trump took office, he grew that trend, and embraced so-called “annihilation” tactics. In parallel, Iraqi security forces suffered heavy casualties early in the fight among their elite units, and later operated with fewer restraints. By the time the city was captured in July of last year, it was littered with some eight million tons of rubble—three times the mass of the Great Pyramid of Giza, the UN noted.

The urban fighting in Mosul that began on October 16, 2016 was described by U.S. officials as the most intense since World War II. Backing Iraqi forces on the ground, the U.S.-led coalition, which included a dozen partner countries, carried out more than 1,250 strikes in the city, hitting thousands of targets with over 29,000 munitions, according to official figures provided to us. But in the nine months since the reclamation of Mosul, those involved in the operation have conspicuously neglected to assess how many civilians were killed. There remains no official count of the dead in Mosul.

In December 2017, the Associated Press estimated that 9,000 to 11,000 civilians had died in the battle—an estimate nearly 10 times higher than what had been officially reported. At least a third of those deaths, the AP found, came as a result of coalition or Iraqi bombardments. In a separate investigation, NPR reported that the city morgue had recorded the names of 4,865 individuals on death certificates, dating between October 2016 and July 2017, and estimated that more than 5,000 civilians had been killed.

While these reports filled what had, in effect, been a vacuum, they were met with little concern from Western authorities. Neither Washington nor its local and international allies have shown any indication that they will undertake a comprehensive survey of the loss of life in Mosul. Nor have they taken significant steps to compensate the families of those their forces killed inadvertently. While the Pentagon does make such payments and did so during the Iraq war, it has only done so twice in the war against ISIS.

Medics work to stabilize Ammar, age 8. The young Moslawi boy was brought to “Trauma Stabilization Point #2” following an airstrike on the night of June 12, 2017 in West Mosul, Iraq. (Maranie R. Staab)

“It is simply irresponsible to focus criticism on inadvertent casualties caused by the coalition’s war to defeat ISIS,” spokesperson Colonel Thomas Veale told the AP in response to its report. “Without the coalition’s air and ground campaign against ISIS, there would have inevitably been additional years, if not decades of suffering and needless death and mutilation in Syria and Iraq at the hands of terrorists who lack any ethical or moral standards.” This argument—that acting decisively and with overwhelming force in an urban battlefield saved lives in the long term—is belied by an official lack of interest in finding how many died overall, no matter the culprit.

The question of who, if anyone, is accurately tracking civilian deaths is difficult to answer. Both the Pentagon and U.S. embassy in Baghdad directed questions about civilian deaths to the counter-ISIS coalition, the body that represents the countries supporting government forces in Iraq’s fight against ISIS. However, the coalition has only investigated strikes it has identified as its own and found reason to review. This means that only U.S. and French artillery strikes in Mosul, and U.S., British, French, and Australian airstrikes on the city are subject to review—a process which thus far has yielded civilian death estimates far lower than our own, which are based on local reports and the coalition’s own strike data. But the coalition’s tally represents only a small fraction of the overall death toll in Mosul.

To date, the coalition has acknowledged its involvement in the deaths of 352 civilians during the battle for the city. A coalition spokesperson told us that “any assessment on the effects to Iraqi citizens of the ISIS occupation of the city and subsequent liberation by Iraqi Security Forces’ support by the coalition would be conducted by the government of Iraq.” But Iraqi officials have not been forthcoming, and did not respond to requests for comment. In an interview with the AP, Haider al-Abadi, the prime minister of Iraq, even said that, at most, 1,260 civilians were killed in fighting for the city.

With our team of researchers at Airwars, we monitored thousands of local reports and claims from within Mosul during the battle for the city. We also spoke with multiple reporters and researchers carrying out their own field investigations at the time. Based on local reporting and confirmed coalition strikes in the near vicinity, we conservatively estimated that between 1,066 and 1,579 civilians likely died from coalition air and artillery strikes during the nine-month battle, out of a total of somewhere between over 6,000 to nearly 9,000 deaths alleged by local sources against Coalition forces. But in many cases reports from the city were confused: There was simply so much incoming and outgoing fire that it remains unclear whether several thousand civilians were killed by coalition, Iraqi, or ISIS munitions.

Ali’s mother, Noor, grieves over the body of her son. On the night of June 12, 2017 an airstrike hit Ali’s neighborhood in West Mosul, Iraq. The young Moslawi died from blunt force trauma and arrived at the Trauma Stabilization Point (TSP) “dead on arrival.” (Maranie R. Staab)

Interviews with more than 20 journalists and aid workers who were on the ground in Mosul, both during and immediately after the assault, strongly support the view that many thousands of civilians died. Their reporting also showed that simply speaking with locals—something the coalition and American authorities confirmed to us they almost never do as a matter of policy, and Iraqi federal authorities have also not done—can uncover the details of fatal incidents.

On January 24, Iraqi officials announced the liberation of East Mosul.  In late February, Iraqi troops began the far tougher job of penetrating the dense Western part of the city, only capturing it five months later. In the climactic weeks of fighting in Mosul’s Old City, ISIS’s last stronghold in West Mosul, press footage showed civilians attempting harrowing escapes from blocks controlled by the group to those held by Iraqi forces. Many families didn’t make it out. Journalists and aid workers spoke of how Iraqi counter-terror forces—who they described as more careful to avoid endangering civilians—had been depleted in the early stages of the fight. As a result, the less-well-trained security forces took their place in the fight for Western Mosul.

Among them were the Iraqi Federal Police, notorious among locals for their negligence. According to several journalists and aid workers, by the end of the battle, Iraqi forces were launching crude explosive weapons into narrow areas packed with civilians. Some units launched improvised rockets from the back of vehicles. At the time, the Red Cross said civilians were fleeing, “bleeding even from their eyes.”

John Beck, a freelance journalist from Scotland, covered the assault. “When the West came, the Federal Police and Iraqi army took a more prominent role and were less discriminate in their use of heavy unguided artillery,” Beck said. “I began to hear more and more people who said they had relatives buried under the rubble. Many said entire families had been wiped out.”

Human-rights investigators took note. “The U.S.-led coalition was in joint enterprise with Iraqi forces. Its toleration for use of [rockets] enabled the killing of many, many civilians in Mosul,” Benjamin Walsby, a field researcher at Amnesty International, said. In July, Walsby and his colleagues released a significant report outlining the destruction in Mosul. Based on research that included interviews with more than 150 West Mosul residents, as well as medical workers, Amnesty accused ISIS of war crimes, but also said the coalition and Iraqi forces may have committed violations themselves. “I reject any notion that coalition fires were in any way imprecise, unlawful or excessively targeted civilians,” then-coalition commander Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend said in a press conference in July. “I would challenge the people from Amnesty International or anyone else out there who makes these charges to first research their facts.”

An elderly Iraqi man sits outside of a medical Trauma Stabilization Point (TSP) in West Mosul, Iraq. The man is the grandfather of Zainab, a young Moslawi that was injured and who ultimately died following an airstrike on the afternoon of May 31, 2017. (Maranie R. Staab)

Months later, an extensive investigation for The New York Times by journalists Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal determined that in certain areas of northern Iraq, total civilian deaths from coalition strikes during 2016 were more than 31 times higher than official estimates based on video taken by coalition planes and other sources of intelligence. The coalition, they reported, had often misidentified targets. Even with the benefit of drone surveillance and video feeds, its forces had killed civilians where ISIS was not present.

In December 2016, as Khan and Gopal were in the midst of their field research, the Obama administration extended the authority to call in airstrikes to personnel lower in the command chain, moving decision making further from headquarters and to the field level. (This practice continued and grew under the Trump administration, by Trump’s own account.) Khan and Gopal immediately noted an uptick in civilian deaths in areas they’d been surveying. “The number of cases we documented in East Mosul, just within 15 days, it was like night and day, so it was a real change on the ground,” Gopal said.

Journalists who embedded with Iraqi forces have offered specific examples of exactly how civilians were likely killed all over Mosul, and especially in the West, by both the coalition and Iraqi forces. Civilians faced excruciating choices, and often operated with limited knowledge of what was happening around them as they cowered in basements, unsure of how close Iraqi forces were. Who was in homes or other buildings targeted by airstrikes wasn’t always clear. “I can’t see into houses,” as one helicopter pilot told Stars and Stripes.

Injured civilians arrive at “Trauma Stabilization Point #2” in West Mosul, Iraq following an airstrike on the night of June 12, 2017. (Maranie R. Staab)

“We would hear stories of neighbors sheltering together, 40 people, 50 people in a basement,” one Western journalist who was based in Iraq during the assault, and asked that we not share their name due to ongoing work in the region told us. “You can imagine easily a whole family wiped out—a lot of families lived together so it would be parents, their kids and grandkids.”

ISIS certainly put civilians in extreme danger, fighting in their midst, using them as human shields, keeping them in booby-trapped buildings, or executing them outright. In a November report, the UN estimated that at least 741 civilians died in execution-style killings by ISIS during the battle for the city—and hundreds more in shelling and car bombings. Iraqi forces encountered a staggering 700 car bombs in Mosul, according to the coalition. Moslawis told Amnesty International how ISIS would bury bombs under the soil, so civilians were never sure where they could move. One witness recounted how ISIS fighters welded shut the front doors of houses. “They did this to our door, and even worse, they did it to another house in our neighborhood where hundreds of people were staying,” the witness said.

When civilians did flee, weapons fire could come from all sides. Naviseh Kohnavard, a Middle East correspondent for the BBC World Service, recalled the confusion in Zanjili, one of the neighborhoods in Western Mosul hit hardest by fighting. “I saw people coming out; they were bloody and most of the people were carrying out children, and many died in front of us,” she said. Investigations by Mike Giglio of BuzzFeed led the coalition to acknowledge responsibility for the deaths of 36 civilians—but only after he tracked down survivors and witnesses during reporting trips in May. “It’s such a chaotic situation and they don’t have people on the ground,” Giglio said. “All we did to get that information was we drove past checkpoints—my photographer and I—and then I went without an armed escort into civilian neighborhoods and I just asked people where there had been casualties.”

Giglio witnessed incidents first hand as well. In February, he embedded with Iraqi forces in Western Mosul when ISIS fighters—at least one using a tunnel to pop in and out of—began shooting anti-tank missiles in their direction. “I looked down the street and saw the ISIS guy who fired it—they called in an airstrike on this guy’s position,” Giglio said. “An airstrike hit the tunnel, the tunnel was in the street, and I saw it knock down one maybe two houses in the process,” Giglio said. “I think that’s how a lot of this stuff happens.”

Nadia Aziz Mohammed looks on as Mosul civil defence officials search for the bodies of 11 family members, killed in a June 2017 airstrike (Photo by Sam Kimball. All rights reserved.)

Another incident occurred on June 20, in Western Mosul, uncovered later by American journalist Sam Kimball, who was reporting in the area. Once again, an ISIS fighter was seen on the roof of a family home. In the ensuing airstrike, Nadia Aziz Mohammed said she lost 11 relatives. A week later and filmed by Kimball, Mohammed stood a short distance from the home, watching as a bulldozer dug out the remains of her family. By this point in the conflict, the Coalition had informed Airwars that the Iraqi Air Force was no longer carrying out air raids on the city, meaning there was little doubt that any airstrike had been conducted by the U.S.-led alliance. (With the exception of its drones, ISIS had no air force.)

On another occasion—in East Mosul—Kimball told a young man he was looking to speak to victims of airstrikes. The man put out a call and locals began to come forward. “I spoke to so many people who either said I had relatives killed in an airstrike, or my neighbors were killed, or at least one of their family members were killed in an airstrike,” said the young American war reporter.

Among the 352 civilian deaths the coalition has admitted occurred during the Mosul assault, the United States has officially taken responsibility for only one incident that killed civilians to date. On March 17, 2017, an airstrike in the western neighborhood of al Jadida left over 100 civilians dead by the coalition’s own count—likely the deadliest strike during operations in the city. U.S. officials claimed that the two 500-pound bombs that targeted the roof of the building where civilians were sheltering then set off explosives held inside, though locals disagreed with this account.

Activists also moved into the information gap. Perhaps the best known of these is a social media account called “Mosul Eye” run by a Moslawi man named Omar Mohammed. Under ISIS rule and then during the battle for Mosul, “Mosul Eye” meticulously documented reports received from the city. The account relayed reports from sources inside Mosul, or family members of those trapped. These often would have been difficult to fully investigate during the assault. Mohammed maintained that many tens of thousands were killed during the fight for Mosul—an estimate that well exceeds the tallies arrived at by the AP and NPR. “Every day I was receiving reports of families killed by airstrikes or missiles—at least 20 or 25, sometimes 40 people were killed in one house and this was every day,” he told us.

An ambulance leaves Trauma Stabilization Point #2 carrying injured civilians following an airstrike on the night of June 12, 2017. (Maranie R. Staab)

Though the coalition has made strides in reporting civilian harm, the gap between the deaths it has acknowledged and public estimates is substantial.

Across the entire coalition war against ISIS since 2014, the United States and its allies have so far conceded 841 civilian deaths—while Airwars places the likely minimum tally at 6,200 or more killed. As Khan and Gopal’s work has shown, that disparity may stem at least in part from serious procedural issues that implicate the military’s ability to track not just civilian deaths but the location of its bombs—and a failure to investigate events on the ground.

Moslawis recently marked a year since the al Jadida strike that killed over 100 people. For a brief period in 2017, global attention was paid to those civilians killed or injured in the assault on Mosul, and to the limits of “precision” warfare in cities. A year later, the U.S. government appears unwilling to study the civilian toll of massive urban battlefields such as those in Mosul. Americans continue to wage wars without a true understanding of the costs, while Iraqi civilians understand them all too well.



▲ An Iraqi man rushes his son for medical treatment during the Battle of Mosul. (Maranie R. Staab)


March 29, 2018

Written by

Samuel Oakford

Australia has admitted to killing two civilians and injuring two children during the battle for Mosul – the third such admission of harm by Canberra’s military, and one that further sets the Royal Australian Air Force apart from most other Coalition partners which continue to deny civilian casualties from their own airstrikes.

The case originally came to light during a field investigation by Amnesty International – which was slammed for its findings at the time by the US-led alliance. Airwars then published details of the event – which in turn were investigated by the Australian Defence Force (ADF).

The admitted incident occurred in the Mosul neighborhood of Islah al Zirae on the night of May 3rd 2017, during an intense push by Iraqi forces with Coalition air support. Civilians who reported being trapped by ISIS fighters or pinned down by heavy fire attempted to flee once ISIS fighters had withdrawn. In the midst of this, several family members were attempting to evacuate a home they had been sheltering in when it was hit by an airstrike.

The ADF said it carried out two investigations into the attack, and found that the civilians were killed and injured by munitions dropped by an RAAF Super Hornet.

“On the balance of probabilities, our strike resulted in the death of two people and the injury of two others,” deputy chief of joint operations, Major General Greg Bilton, said in remarks reported by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

‘Chaos of airstrikes’

The newly conceded case was one of 45 civilian harm events that Amnesty researchers documented in West Mosul. Amnesty however only published details of nine of the incidents, leaving out the Ishlah al Zirae event because it was based on a single source — a family member of the deceased. The precise date of the incident also could not be narrowed down at the time, with Amnesty flagging it as having likely taken place some time between May 1st and 3rd.

The testimony taken by Amnesty was however shared with Airwars, which in turn alerted the Coalition to the event as part of its own routine advocacy engagement. In its most recent monthly civilian casualty report, released on March 28th, the Coalition said it had been determined that while conducting a strike to destroy an ISIS fighting position in the neighborhood of Islah al Zirai, “two civilians were unintentionally killed and two civilians injured.”

“We were getting dressed to leave and my brother’s family were still getting dressed and putting jackets on the children,” said the relative who survived and spoke with Amnesty researchers. “I set off with my wife and children and we turned the corner and heard an air strikes. I ran back and the house had caved in. My brother died. My sister in law [wife of another brother] also died.”

“People were panicking and running out of their house – four family members were trapped in the house or trying to leave,” said Ben Walsby, part of the Amnesty team that deployed to Mosul. “They hadn’t been able to get out before because ISIS was preventing them, but in the chaos of airstrikes, they felt they had to get out.”

“This was just a quick interview with a family member who had run out of the house because the airstrikes were coming — people were scrambling,” said Walsby.

In their report, Amnesty accused ISIS of war crimes in Mosul, but also said the Coalition and Iraqi forces may have committed violations themselves. The Coalition responded by sharply questioning the veracity of Amnesty’s work.

“I would challenge the people from Amnesty International or anyone else out there who makes these charges to first research their facts and make sure they are speaking from a position of authority,” said Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, then the Coalition’s top commander.

As it turned out, it was the Coalition which needed to further investigate, and in the case of the May 3rd strike, both the alliance and the Australian Defence Force have now accepted responsibility.

Amnesty International investigated civilian harm events in multiple neighbourhoods of West Mosul for its report – including Islah al Zirae

‘Regrettable incident’

There are several reasons why the latest ADF admission is notable. The Australian military remains the only Coalition partner besides the US to admit to any civilian harm in Iraq or Syria since 2014, despite an estimated 10,000 strikes by non-US allies. Countries like France and the United Kingdom have yet to concede a single civilian death — a statistically implausible assertion.

These countries have been aided by a Coalition practice enforced since 2017 that does not identify which partner is responsible for any single event in the alliance’s monthly casualty reports. With rare exceptions, the US itself no longer acknowledges its own Coalition strikes that caused civilian casualties.

The Amnesty account which triggered the Australian investigation – recorded in an informal camp for displaced persons – also illustrates how effective simply speaking with survivors from battles like Mosul’s can be. Australian officials in the May 3rd case were able to conclude involvement without carrying out their own interviews, though only after Amnesty had recorded the initial testimony. As a policy, the Coalition does not conduct interviews with survivors in the aftermath of strikes – a practice that extends into Syria, as recently reported by Airwars at Raqaa.

Australia was identified in December 2016 by Airwars as one of the Coalition’s least transparent members. Since then it has taken steps to improve the reporting of its actions. In September 2017, the ADF reported its involvement in two previous civilian harm events – one an Australian airstrike, the other an action by another ally for which the ADF had supplied flawed intelligence.

“I think it’s very important for us to recognize what a very complex urban environment environment this was, and the face we are operating in a war zone,” said Defence Minister Marise Payne of the latest ADF admission. “Our operators work to the highest standards but regrettably incidents like this happen.”

“The strike was called in because the Iraqi security forces were under direct sniper attack from the building, and the sniper was causing injuries,” said Payne. The witness who spoke to Amnesty, however, said “there were no Daesh around, otherwise how could I have just walked out of my house?”

Airwars director Chris Woods welcomed the latest Australian admission. “With only a single survivor claim and a fairly vague date attached to this incident originally, the ADF would have had to put quite a bit of detective work into identifying its own role in the event,” said Woods. “The event also shows why we must continue to take seriously the voices of affected Iraqis and Syrians.”

▲ Library image: Royal Australian Air Force personnel start post flight maintenance on an F/A-18A Hornet aircraft following an Operation OKRA mission (Via ADF)


March 12, 2018

Written by

Samuel Oakford

An investigation by Airwars for the Daily Beast shows that Coalition-inflicted casualties were vastly higher than are being publicly acknowledged – and the Trump administration has shown little interest in discovering the truth

In the weeks after the defeat of the so-called Islamic State at Raqqa, a woman named Ayat Mohamed—her black clothing covering burns on her body—led a French TV crew to the ruins of a building in the Al Badou neighborhood. Here in late September Ayat’s husband Khaled al Salama, their four children, along with her mother, sister and niece, had all been killed by an alleged strike by the US-led coalition. Their bodies remained trapped below.

“The planes were bombing and rockets were falling 24 hours a day,” said a tearful Ayat. “There were ISIS snipers everywhere, you couldn’t breath.” In all directions, buildings had been destroyed, and it was hard to tell where one structure began and another ended. “My children are still there, buried under the rubble,” she told the camera. “No one has dug them out yet.” Ayat said she could not afford to have their bodies retrieved. “How can I get them out of these ruins, how can I see them?”

Ayat Mohamed, interviewed by France 24 in her ruined neighbourhood

Nearly three more months would pass before some of the bodies were recovered. A picture taken at the scene shows five white body bags labelled with the names of Ayat’s husband, Khaled, and their children Farah, Mohammad, Najah and Hussein. Their remains were dug out on February 12th, according to the local monitor Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS).

“Al Salama’s wife survived the shelling and spent nearly four months communicating with the Raqqa Civilian Council until they pulled out the bodies of her family,” an RBSS representative told Airwars. The location of the remains of Ayat’s mother, sister and niece is unclear, though it is possible they were among the nearly 30 bodies that have been pulled from the building, most of them badly decomposed and many charred after they were burned in the attack. All of the bodies were buried in Tal al Bai’aa cemetery, said RBSS.

More remains of victims are being retrieved in Raqqa every day, some dug out by laborers hired by relatives and loved ones. According to Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, in the month leading to mid-February alone, upwards of 190 additional unidentified corpses had been pulled from the rubble.

Overall, an estimated 2,000 civilians were killed during bitter fighting for control of Raqqa, according to local casualty monitors – in an assault dominated by US firepower. Even now the dying hasn’t stopped. Cut down by explosives left rigged by ISIS, hundreds of returning civilians have been wounded or killed since October. Like those seeking to retrieve their family members, Raqawis, the people of Raqqa, left to fend for themselves have paid desperate locals to try and disarm their homes, or have attempted to make their homes safe themselves—sometimes with disastrous consequences.

All this is occurring as international media coverage of Raqqa dwindles away. Once the center of countless stories about the so-called Islamic caliphate, ISIS’s self-declared capital is now 80 per cent uninhabitable due to destruction from recent fighting, according to the United Nations.

The remains of Ayat’s husband and four children. Image provided by RBSS.

No Accountability By the time US-backed ground forces began moving into Raqqa in early June 2017, a parallel offensive across the Iraqi border in Mosul was nearly finished. After eight months of bitter fighting, parts of Iraq’s second largest city were devastated and thousands of civilians had been killed or injured. In Raqqa, early accounts indicated that just as in Mosul, civilians were being obstructed from leaving – at risk from booby traps laid by ISIS, or targeted by the terror group’s snipers. At the same time, civilians inside Raqqa received conflicting evacuation instructions from the Coalition and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Unlike operations in Mosul, which took place across two US administrations, the fight in Raqqa was carried out entirely under the watch of Donald Trump’s White House. Trump’s promise to delegate everything to commanders in the field—and Defense Secretary James Mattis’ shift to “annihilation tactics”—helped contribute to a drastic increase in civilian casualties from Coalition strikes that took off early in 2017. As The Daily Beast and Airwars reported last year, the number of civilian deaths caused by the Coalition during the entire war against ISIS had already doubled under Trump by the summer of 2017—right in the midst of operations in Raqqa.

According to official data, the Coalition—in Syria almost entirely consisting of American military aircraft and ground artillery units, with limited support from British and French planes—leaned heavily on airpower and artillery during the five months it took to expel ISIS from an area much smaller than Mosul.

Today, the actual number of weapons fired in Raqqa remains clouded by inconsistent statements from US officials. However, according to an Airwars analysis, at least 95 per cent of strikes in Raqqa and all artillery strikes were American. At least 21,000 munitions—and possibly thousands more—struck the city.

What isn’t uncertain is that the intense bombardment resulted in significant civilian casualties. Local monitors estimate that upwards of 2,000 were killed by all parties to the fighting—and many victims, like those in the Salama family, are only now being found.

At the same time, the Coalition’s record on investigating alleged deaths from air and artillery strikes appears to have significantly weakened in Raqqa. Nine months into operations in Mosul – at the end of June – the Coalition had acknowledged responsibility for 43 strikes that it said killed at least 240 civilians and wounded a further 42. (As of its most recent update, the Coalition has admitted to killing 321 or more civilians in Mosul, and injuring a further 46 people in 60 events.) It concluded that 58 additional alleged civilian casualty incidents at Mosul were considered “non-credible”. That meant that after seven months, 43 percent of the 101 total completed assessments had resulted in acknowledgements of responsibility.

In Raqqa, a greater reliance on air and artillery strikes ahead of more cautious ground advances—as well as the limited firepower of local partner forces (the largest weapons wielded by the SDF were 120mm mortars)—all indicated that civilian harm would be more often tied to Coalition actions.

Yet nine months later, only 11 percent of Coalition civilian harm assessments have resulted in an admission of responsibility. Out of 121 reports so far assessed for the Raqqa assault, the Coalition has confirmed involvement in just 13 strikes, which it says left 21 civilians dead and six injured—far short of the 1,400 likely Coalition-inflicted deaths Airwars tracked between June and October.

The enemy forces arrayed against the Coalition in Raqqa also significantly differed. According to Coalition figures, international and Iraqi forces encountered 700 vehicle borne IEDs during the battle for Mosul. In Raqqa, the Coalition and SDF encountered only “around a dozen VBIEDs” between June and Oct. 20, 2017.

Most damage to the city—described in January 2018 by USAID chief Mark Green as devastation “almost beyond description”—was the result of US air and artillery strikes. Satellite images from before the battle show one neighborhood mostly intact. Soon it was mostly gone.

Meanwhile, decisions about what and what not to strike were moved significantly down the command chain, a dynamic that began in late 2016 under President Barack Obama and which was in full effect during the battle in Raqqa. “TEA [Target Engagement Authority] was decentralized from the Headquarters GO level (far removed from the battlefield) and delegated to the appropriate level commander, who was close to the fight,” AFCENT spokesperson AnnMarie Annicelli told Airwars in an email. The “ground force unit,” she said, “controlled all dynamic engagements” of air and artillery.

View of Raqqa’s Old City, taken on June 2nd 2016.

View of the Old City, taken on July 19th 2017. Images from Amnesty International.


A storm of weapons

Fired from afar and usually targeted based on intelligence from local proxy ground forces,the SDF, US bombs, missiles and artillery shells rained almost continuously into Raqqa. According to official figures provided to Airwars, the Coalition launched more than 20,000 munitions into the city during the five-month campaign. In August, that barrage had officially increased to more than one bomb, missile, rocket or artillery round fired every eight minutes—a total of 5,775 munitions during the month.

This was more than all munitions released by the US in Afghanistan during all of 2017. In Mosul – a far larger city with many times as many residents, and where fighting lasted nearly twice as long – the Coalition actually fired on average fewer air-dropped and artillery munitions during nine months of fighting (3,250 per month).

According to Air Force Central Command (AFCENT), Coalition aircraft carried out “nearly 4,500” airstrikes in and around Raqqa between May and October of 2017. During the four month battle for Raqqa, the UK said that its aircraft had hit 213 targets in the city, while France reported fewer than 50 airstrikes on Raqqa over the same period. All other air attacks (approximately 95 percent) and every artillery round to hit the city most likely came from US forces.

During the first half of the battle for Raqqa, fire from A-10 “Warthog” ground assault aircraft accounted for roughly 44 percent of weapon use in Raqqa. The extensive use of A-10s in such an urban setting – which fire 30mm cannons and can also deploy bombs and missiles – was described by US officials at the time as unprecedented.

“The fight itself was within the urban complex of Raqqa and the pilots had to get creative to figure out ways to strike targets at the bottom of these five-story buildings,” said Lt. Col. Craig Morash, commander of the 74th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron. “Urban conflict, at least in this form, was kind of the first time anybody had ever seen it before,” he later told a reporter.

Those A-10s were joined by Reaper drones, B-2 and B-52 bombers, F-15s and F-16s, and long range artillery. Raqqa experienced the full weight of the US warfighting machine.

Quentin Sommerville, the BBC’s veteran Middle East Correspondent, reported extensively from both Raqqa and Mosul. His battlefield dispatches from deserted areas of Raqqa that had been captured from ISIS showed a city in ruins, even as fighting still raged in other neighborhoods. “24 hours of coverage wouldn’t do justice to the total devastation across Raqqa,” he tweeted from the city on September 17th. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“I would say in Mosul artillery and airstrikes were in most cases a last resort,” Sommerville said in an interview with Airwars. “In Raqqa, they seemed like they were used first.”

Recent disclosures suggest the true number of weapons fired in Raqqa may in fact be even higher. Speaking to reporters on January 23rd, Command Sergeant John Wayne Troxell—a senior non-enlisted adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff—said that US Marines stationed near Raqqa had “in five months… fired 30,000 artillery rounds on ISIS targets, killing ISIS fighters by the dozens.”

A spokesperson for the Marine Corps later told Airwars that they were not authorized to verify those figures, while the Coalition said that many of the rounds fired by the unit were aimed “at other Daesh targets in Syria outside of Raqqah.” Artillery, however, has a limited range, and Marines based in Syria during Raqqa fighting likely would have unleashed the majority of rounds inside the city itself, which by June was completely surrounded.

The remains of the building in which Ayat’s entire family was killed. Image via RBSS.

In August, Amnesty International reported that hundreds of civilians were already dead from Coalition air and artillery strikes. “Artillery shells are hitting everywhere, entire streets,” Raqqa resident Ahmad Mahmoud, wounded by artillery himself, told Amnesty in June 2017. “It is indiscriminate shelling and killing a lot of civilians.” A Western reporter in touch with Airwars said survivors from Raqqa later told them artillery was scarier, as it came in deluges and without any warning.

The so-called Islamic State bears significant responsibility for the destruction and death toll at Raqqa, according to investigators. “By deliberately placing civilians in areas where they were exposed to combat operations, for the purpose of rendering those areas immune from attack, ISIL militants committed the war crime of using human shields in Raqqah governorate,” the UN’s Commission of Inquiry for Syria noted in a recent report.

“Despite the fact that civilians were being used as human shields, international coalition airstrikes continued apace on a daily basis, resulting in the destruction of much of Raqqah city and the death of countless civilians, many of whom were buried in improvised cemeteries, including parks,” the Commission also wrote.

Facing down thousands of bombs and shells, residents said ISIS sometimes made civilians wear the same clothes as ISIS fighters so as to appear indistinguishable. ISIS would also position vehicles “next to a house and fire at the planes and helicopters in the sky,” one witness who lost his brother in a subsequent strike told Amnesty. “Then it would move and park next to another house. The helicopters and planes kept trying to hit it. They hit so many houses but they didn’t even hit the vehicle.”

But at times Coalition targeting was less explicable. In one incident, on the night of July 1st, neighbors told Amnesty, a family of five—including three children—died when an airstrike hit their building in Raqqa’s Old City. The house was 100 meters, the witness said, from the closest group of ISIS fighters. The Coalition has identified a number of possible incidents around this date in Raqqa—including one referred to it by a “human rights organization,” and another which the Coalition has already determined was a “non-credible” allegation.

The Salama family appears to have fallen victim to such a scenario. Ayat and her husband Khaled had recently returned to Raqqa in order to bring other family members to safety. Instead they all became trapped as the fighting intensified. According to RBSS, the family was moved by ISIS, reportedly along with many residents of al Amassi neighborhood, to another part of the city called al Badou. There, they were killed in a reported Coalition strike.

Silent media

Despite the horrors experienced by civilians during recent fighting, press reports from Raqqa have been filed far less regularly than its status as the former “ISIS capital” might have suggested. In Mosul, many more journalists covered the battle—often revealing important details about the civilian toll. In December for example, a major field investigation by the Associated Press put the overall civilian death in Mosul above 9,000.

Reporters on the ground in Mosul were able to uncover incidents of civilian deaths from airstrikes, and in several cases help convince the Coalition to concede involvement. The work of BuzzFeed News’ Mike Giglio led to an admission of culpability in four cases, which had left a total of 40 civilians dead. That accountability was only possible after Giglio made unauthorized reporting trips to Mosul, interviewing family members and other witnesses—investigatory steps that the Coalition itself does not undertake. In Raqqa, few media investigations have so far taken place.

When details of civilian deaths do emerge, they gain less traction. In the last month of fighting at Raqqa, a report released by the UN’s humanitarian agency OCHA included details of an October 2nd presumed Coalition strike that hit “a water well located in the outskirts of the Al-Tawaassoiya area in the north of Ar-Raqqa city, reportedly killing 45 civilians.” The next day, another strike hit wells where civilians had again congregated, leaving at least 21 dead according to OCHA. The attacks left the city with no functional wells, said the humanitarian brief.

Those attacks, which followed an alleged pattern of civilians being bombed near water sources, and the targeting of civilians trying to escape the city by boat earlier in the offensive, do not appear to have been widely picked up by English-language media.

“In Mosul, media were falling over each other; almost no stone was left unturned,” said Sommerville. “But Raqqa was more difficult to reach during the offensive, and is still difficult to get to. There we have barely scratched the surface. It seemed to me that wherever we went there were stories of civilian casualties. And no one was investigating.”

Yet access to civilians who had escaped the fighting at Raqqa was possible. The SDF had set up civilian reception centers on the outskirts of the city, where survivors were able to speak freely about their harrowing experiences.

A body part seen in February amid the rubble in the Hadiqa Bayda area of Raqqa. Image provided by RBSS.

“The bombardment had been so heavy that people weren’t even afraid of talking about it in front of the SDF,” said a Western journalist who visited one of the centers. “Almost every single person we spoke to had a relative, friend or neighbor that was killed in some kind of bombardment—whether they were going to get water or something else.”

Though all these civilians passed through central locations, there appears to be little or no official record kept of their testimonies about the toll of fighting and bombing inside the city. “The Coalition has not conducted interviews on the ground in or around Raqqa as part of any civilian casualty investigation,” a Coalition spokesperson told Airwars.

“It is striking to see the Coalition continue to deny civilian casualties even after independent on the ground investigations found the contrary,” said Nadim Houry, of Human Rights Watch. “If they want to talk to survivors, they only need to visit these areas.”

Though Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International were both able to reach Raqqa without permission from the Syrian government, UN investigators have been blocked by Damascus since 2012. The UN’s Commission of Inquiry, established by the Human Rights Council and the only internationally sanctioned body tasked with investigating crimes committed by all sides in the Syrian war, is severely hamstrung. It can only carry out investigations remotely, often via cell phones and the internet.

Ironically, the Syrian government’s attempts to shield its own crimes has also offered a better chance at impunity for its adversaries. “It is beyond comprehension that, despite this extensive range of violations, Syrian victims and survivors continue to be denied any meaningful justice,” said Commission Chair Paulo Pinheiro on March 6th.

Houry of Human Rights Watch visited Raqqa governorate in the lead up to the battle, documenting evidence of at least 84 civilian deaths in two strikes. In each case, HRW provided detailed information to the Coalition, but not a single one of those civilian deaths has been admitted. “The delays at this point suggest either lack of seriousness in the effort or a desire to hide something,” he claims.

The legacy of the fight for Raqqa may now be the thousands upon thousands of unexploded pieces of ordnance that litter the streets, many of them IEDs rigged by ISIS to explode. Coalition countries say they are funding efforts to train and equip cleanup teams, but those efforts appear to be inadequate. On a subsequent trip, Houry documented the toll—at least 491 dead and injured since October—from IEDS, and how desperate many civilians remained.

The going rate for young men to look through properties and remove rubble was around $50 per house, according to one resident. A false step could cost searchers their lives. A successful job could lead to the discovery of more war dead, like the family of Ayat Mohamed. “It’s like playing Russian roulette, but these young men are desperate for money,” said the resident.

Raqqa is only one part of a complex Syrian battlefield that has claimed countless civilian lives. But the defeat of the so-called Islamic State in its self-proclaimed caliphate was a fight orchestrated and carried out in the main by the United States. To date, the Trump administration has shown little interest in properly understanding the civilian harm resulting from its defeat of ISIS.

▲ Photos of bodies pulled from al Tawassouiya neighbourhood (via Reporters Without Borders)