March 7, 2018

Written by

Samuel Oakford

Note: this article has been updated to include a response from the Coalition. 

United Nations investigators charged with monitoring the Syrian conflict have accused both Russia and the US-led Coalition of potentially violating international law or war crimes for strikes in the country during 2017.

In a year which saw shocking reports of civilian harm across Syria, the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic launched a blistering attack on the many belligerents, domestic and foreign, who now crowd Syria’s soil.

The latest report of the Commission of Inquiry outlined cluster munition use by pro-government forces; an attack on a hospital that was treating victims of an April 4th 2017 sarin gas attack; and a brutal pro-government campaign in the second half of that year in the Aleppo countryside, targeting schools – a campaign which the Commission said amounted in each instance to war crimes.

ISIS was accused of using snipers and landmines to deliberately target civilians at Raqqa, forcing them to remain within the beseiged city, and of forcibly moving civilians into neighbourhoods under attack from assaulting forces: “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 Commission noted.

Investigators also cited the US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) for conscripting children as young as 13 as fighters. In the aftermath of fighting in Raqqa, the Commission noted, the SDF has been interning up to 80,000 displaced people in desert camps, ostensibly to vet them for possible connections to ISIS. According to the Commission, “Irrespective of the legitimacy of a security threat, the blanket internment of all internally displaced persons from Raqqah and Dayr al-Zawr by the Syrian Democratic Forces cannot be justified.”

The Commission also implicated, in effect, four of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council with involvement – either directly, or by association – with likely unlawful airstrikes. That marked a significant change from late 2015, when Commission chair Paulo Pinheiro said there was “no possibility that we will investigate the American air strikes or French or British or Russian.” In the years since, Russian and US-led airstrikes have reportedly killed thousands of civilians in Syria, leading to a far more robust response from the Commission. 

In the case of November 13th 2017 airstrikes in Aleppo, UN investigators took the important step of naming Russia as the perpetrator — not simply “pro-government” forces or the regime and its allies. In a separate investigation, the Commission offered new details about what may be the deadliest airstrike of the entire US-led campaign in Iraq or Syria – an alliance that also counts among its ranks UNSC permanent members France and the United Kingdom.

Highest civilian toll of entire Coalition war

On the night of March 20th-21st 2017, the Al-Badiya school in al Mansourah, by almost all accounts filled with at least 200 internally displaced people, was struck by the Coalition.The US-led alliance has confirmed it conducted the attack – though continues to insist that only ISIS fighters died.

In a September 2017 Human Rights Watch report, researchers interviewed local residents who said some “ISIS members and their families displaced from Iraq had moved into the school prior to the attack,” but that many also were “completely unaffiliated with ISIS.” HRW found that at least 40 named civilians, including 16 children were killed, and said the toll was likely much higher. The UN-sponsored Commission now assesses that 150 civilians were in fact killed that night – and insists no Islamic State fighters died.

Human Rights Watch investigation video interviewing al Mansour survivors

Though it is not allowed to enter Syria by the Assad government, the Commission was able to interview 20 survivors, relatives, rescuers and other witnesses. “Interviewees explained that, since 2012, Al-Badiya school housed internally displaced families,” wrote the UN investigators. “Some of the residents were recent arrivals while other internally displaced persons had been living in the school for years.”

In the weeks after the strike, Airwars itself provided the Coalition with a 28-page dossier of reports monitored prior to and after the attack which in part described the movement or presence of IDPs in the near area.

In their new report, UN investigators found that the school was hit by three separate airstrikes, “each using multiple bombs that destroyed most of the building rendering it uninhabitable.” They also obtained photographs which showed the type of aerial weapons, including Hellfire missiles, which were likely used.

The al Mansoura strike, and the Coalition’s response, immediately raised serious concerns. As reports emerged suggesting a large civilian toll, the Coalition’s then-top commander General Stephen J. Townsend appeared to preempt his own investigative team.

“We had multiple corroborating intelligence sources from various types of intelligence that told us the enemy was using that school,” Townsend told reporters 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 continued. “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.”

The aftermath of a Coalition strike on a school in Al Mansoura, March 21st . This is one of the few images to show the destruction of the attack. (via Mansoura in its People’s Eyes)

In its most recent report, the Commission of Inquiry rebutts that version of events. “Information gathered by the Commission does not support the claim that 30 ISIS fighters were in the school at the time of the strike, nor that the school was otherwise being used by ISIS,” it wrote. Investigators said the Coalition should have been aware that the school had been sheltering displaced families for five years. Indeed, among the reports provided to the Coalition by Airwars that described the presence of IDPs were several that predated the strike by several weeks.

The Commission concluded that the Coalition violated international law in failing to “take all feasible precautions to avoid or minimize incidental loss of life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects.”

The Coalition’s investigative team ultimately concluded that allegations of civilian harm in the Mansoura incident were “non-credible.” As in other high profile US or US-led attacks, Coalition investigators did not visit the site of the strike, instead relying on its own internal sources such as strike video. The Coalition’s subsequent investigation, said the Commission, should have been able to “identify the high number of civilian casualties resulting from this incident.”

Even after Human Rights Watch provided the Coalition with detailed information from its own in-person investigation and published those findings, the Coalition did not reopen the case. Reached by Airwars following the release of the Commission’s report, the Coalition repeated their earlier non-credible assessment but said they would consider the findings.

“Based on all evidence provided, to include weapons system video, we have no solid indication civilian casualties resulted from this strike,” said a Coalition spokesperson. “We are interested in the facts the U.N. used to reach a different determination than our assessment. We have in the past re-examined our assessments based on new information, and are willing to reevaluate this assessment if credible or compelling additional information can be obtained.”

Possible Russian War Crimes

The tandem Russian-Syrian aerial campaign in Syria continues to pose significant roadblocks to accountability. Most reports citing Russia during the recent bombing in eastern Ghouta, for instance, have also cited the regime as the possible culprit. Unlike the Coalition however, neither Moscow nor the regime make any effort to admit civilian harm. That makes the second significant case study of international strikes so important in the new UN report.

In an important piece of detective work examining a mass casualty event at Atareb on November 13th 2017, the Commission’s investigators were able to study flight records and pilot communications – and declare that the Russian air force was responsible for a series of strikes that left at least 84 civilians dead and some 150 injured. “Using unguided weapons, the attack struck a market, police station, shops, and a restaurant, and may amount to a war crime,” the Commission said in a statement.

Aftermath of the November 13th attack in Atareb. (via Syrian Network for Human Rights)

At the time of the attack, while some local reports did cite the regime the large majority blamed Russia alone. Based on those reports, Airwars assessed that the events in Atareb were the deadliest in all of Syria that week to be tied to Russia. According to to the UN, these early accounts – monitored by Airwars – citing local testimony and observations of planes flying overhead proved accurate.

The first target hit in Atareb was a police station, where at least 13 officers and six prisoners died. The Commission found that the police were not involved in fighting, and that the station was not a “lawful military objective.” Four minutes later, a nearby three-story building was bombed.

A third, catastrophic wave of strikes then followed, hitting “a market street killing and maiming civilians and destroying vegetable and clothing shops as well as nearby residential buildings.” The Commission said it was able to corroborate local accounts by using video captured at the scene, and via satellite imagery.

“Shop owners explained that, at the time of the attack, the market was crowded with people who had left work, most of whom were men since many women had stopped going to the market after the earlier attacks,” wrote investigators.

In the market area, the Commission found evidence consistent with damage caused by unguided Russian-made OFAB-500 bombs. Elsewhere was an entry hole through which an unexploded bomplet fell. “Evidence at the scene and video evidence is consistent with a BeTAB-500 unguided ‘bunker buster’ carrying 12 rocket-assisted penetrators,” wrote investigators. “Using such weapons in a densely civilian populated area was certain to impact civilians.”

While Coalition strikes have mostly tailed off after Syrian Democratic Forces captured Raqqa in October 2017, Russian strikes have been blamed for record numbers of civilian deaths in recent weeks. Between February 19th and February 25th alone, Airwars tracked a record 78 new alleged Russian civilian casualty incidents in Syria – nearly all in eastern Ghouta – that reportedly left at least 324 civilians dead. 

On March 5th 2018, the UN Human Rights Council requested that the Commission of Inquiry conduct an urgent investigation into the offensive in the besieged suburb of Damascus.


March 2, 2018

Written by

Samuel Oakford

Reported Russian airstrikes in eastern Ghouta sharply increased in the last full week of February, allegedly killing hundreds of civilians and reaching levels never before tracked by Airwars researchers.

Syrian government strikes on the rebel-held suburb of Damascus, where 400,000 people remain trapped, had already escalated at the start of February ahead of a possible ground offensive by regime forces. Aid agencies and monitors described the bombings as the worst in years. At a Security Council briefing on February 28th, UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock said that over 580 people had been reported killed due to air and ground strikes in eastern Ghouta since February 18th, along with upwards of 1,000 people who had been injured.

That briefing came four days after the Security Council had voted for a ceasefire in the country. What had happened since, asked Lowcock? “More bombing,” he said. “More fighting. More death. More destruction. More maiming of women and children. More hunger. More misery. More, in other words, of the same.days.” Airwars monitoring now indicates that – according to local reports – Russia was likely responsible for a large number of those deaths.

28 airstrikes in only 25 seconds in Qhouta 3 days ago!!.According to my college @Mahmoudadam87 the civilians still inside the shelters so far, they don’t trust the ceasefire agreement because Assad’s regime forces still bombing #Eastern_Ghouta .

— Khaled Khatib (@995Khaled) February 28, 2018

Hundreds reported killed

Between February 19th and February 25th, Airwars tracked a record 78 new alleged Russian civilian casualty incidents across Syria  — almost eight times more than the week prior. All but four of the strikes were reported in eastern Ghouta, where not a single Russian strike allegation was monitored the week before. Two more strikes were reported in Hama governorate, and one each in Aleppo and Idlib governorates.

At least 324 civilians were alleged killed in the 78 strikes, including 59 or more children and 42 women. A further 140 people were reported injured. All but six of the reported deaths were located in Eastern Ghouta. Airwars is still vetting these reports – a task made more difficult because Russia does not release reliable data on where it is bombing – and these numbers should not be directly compared with more fully evaluated civilian casualty figures for the US-led Coalition.

WATCH : This is a basement where 46 families were sheltering from the relentless bombing in #Ghouta #Syria. A 5 hour daily ceasefire is not good enough…

— SavetheChildren News (@SaveUKNews) February 27, 2018

The reported intensity and toll of Russian and regime strikes suggests an unprecedented onslaught, worse even than the bloodiest periods of the aerial assault on Eastern Aleppo in late 2016. 

“This is not the first time Russia joined the regime in bombing Eastern Ghouta,” said Airwars Syria researcher Abdulwahab Tahhan. Two weeks earlier – from February 5th to February 11th – Tahhan’s colleagues tracked 44 civilian casualty incidents allegedly tied to Russia, 24 of which were located in Eastern Ghouta. Then, for roughly a week allegations against Russia fell, only to leap up again, worse than ever.

“It is a pattern we have seen over and over again. Some weeks Russia would open hell on civilians, and some weeks, especially leading up to peace talks, Russia would carry out fewer airstrikes,” said Tahhan.

On February 20th, at least 20 civilians including women and children were reported killed when aircraft fired on Beit Sawa, a town in Eastern Ghouta. The Syrian Network blamed both the regime and Russia, and the Ghouta Media Center posted graphic photographs of corpses wrapped in cloth. Two photographs showed young children who had been killed, their lifeless bodies covered with the dust of debris.

Victims of alleged Russian or regime airstrikes in Beit Sawa. (via Ghouta Media Center)

On the same day, 18 people were reported killed, including 8 women and children, in Arbeen. Distressing photographs showed children wrapped in cloth. Reports cited both the regime and Russia as responsible for bombing in the area.

The following day in Kafar Batna area of Eastern Ghouta, Step News reported that “Russian warplanes and helicopter gunships launched dozens of air strikes” in the vicinity, killing around 20 people, including 7 children.They later raised the number killed to 35, again citing Russian involvement.

Similar reports streamed out. There were, the UN reported, 14 attacks on hospitals, three on health centers and two on ambulances between February 18th and 22nd alone. On that latter date, the Syrian Network reported the deaths of at least 34 people, including seven children and nine women, due to “Syrian/Russian” shelling on Douma in Eastern Ghouta.

On February 23rd, the Syrian Network reported the deaths of four children, Sedra, Samer, Ahmed and Jana Salam, who it said were killed “along with their mother as Syrian/Russian warplanes fired missiles” on the town of Ein Tarma in eastern Ghouta.

On February 24th, local media reported possible Russian involvement in air raids on Douma, east of Damascus, that reportedly claimed the lives of at least 17 civilians. Smart News said the bombings were “likely to be Russia,” while the Syrian Network for Human Rights described the attack – one of several in the area on the 24th – as the work of “Syrian/Russian regime” forces.

Sedra, Samer, Ahmad and Jana Salam. (via the Syrian Network)

‘Devoid of respect for international law’

After days of negotiations and false starts, the Security Council passed Resolution 2401 on February 24th, demanding an immediate country-wide ceasefire. The Council’s wishes were flouted almost immediately, and reported strikes continued in Eastern Ghouta in the hours afterwards. Russian President Vladimir Putin then ordered a daily five hour truce in Ghouta – from 9am to 2pm local time – a step tepidly endorsed by aid officials but called far short of what was needed.  

“I have to declare that I know no humanitarian actor, zero humanitarian actor, who thinks the five hours is enough for us to be able to deliver relief into Eastern Ghouta and to organize orderly medical evacuations out,” UN humanitarian adviser Jan Egeland told reporters on March 1st. 

“Eastern Ghouta is devoid of respect for international law,” Egeland said amid reports that pro-government forces had begun further ground incursions at the limits of Eastern Ghouta.

Many reports of incidents that cite Russia also name the regime as involved, and it’s not always clear which – or both – took part in a particular strike among potentially dozens in a neighborhood. This dynamic is only more confusing for monitors when it happens in dense urban areas like Eastern Ghouta. “It is not unusual to see local monitors reporting them both,” said Tahhan.

Analysts suggested a number of reasons for the sudden and deadly increase in Russian activity.

“I would attribute the shift to the stabilization of the front in Idlib Province in early February after Turkey deployed observation posts into Eastern Idlib Province,” said Chris Kozak, a senior analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. “Russia started shifting its strike pattern around that time.”

“I’m not sure why they [Russia] ramped up the bombings but one explanation could be that for the past few weeks Russians have been constantly reporting on rebel shelling from Eastern Ghouta including on the Russian embassy,” said Yury Barmin, a Mideast analyst at the Russian International Affairs Council in Moscow. “But I think it’s also indicative of the general dynamic — deescalation zones are unraveling and Russians would like to grab more land if they can.”

“I would imagine that it is linked to Escalation in the north,” said Barmin. “I think they want to move all those rebels from Ghouta to Idlib and secure the capital. The escalation in Idlib was a good excuse to pull this off.”

Afrin casualties continue

Elsewhere in Syria, there was disagreement about whether the Kurdish enclave of Afrin was included in the Security Council ceasefire.

Though a number of key players, including France, Germany and the US insisted that it was covered, Turkey – which launched an invasion of Afrin in January – claimed that it was not.

On March 2nd, the Afrin Health Council raised its estimate of civilians killed by Turkish forces to 207, and said that over 600 people had been reported injured. As Turkish and allied forces steadily encroached from the borders, thousands of civilians who had fled rural areas of the enclave to Afrin city risked falling into greater danger.

Turkey appears determined to face down three major powers (France, Germany and the USA) after– President Macron insisted the ceasefire “applied to all of Syria, including Afrin"– The US State Dept urged Ankara to "go back and read" the UNSC resolution

— Airwars (@airwars) March 1, 2018


January 29, 2018

Written by

Samuel Oakford

More than a week of Turkish-backed air and artillery strikes and ground incursions into the Kurdish controlled Syrian region of Afrin have led to multiple credible reports of civilian harm.

Affected areas include not just the Afrin enclave but also civilian towns within Turkey – and Turkish-occupied towns in Syria – which have seen retaliatory attacks from Kurdish forces.

A new rolling assessment published by Airwars has so far tracked 24 claimed civilian casualty events within Afrin blamed on Turkey – and a further nine events attributed to Kurdish forces.

From the start of operations on January 20th to January 28th, at least 41 to 55 civilian deaths have been assessed by Airwars as likely caused by Turkish-backed forces, along with an estimated 10 to 15 civilian fatalities tied to Kurdish counterfire.

That civilian toll could increase dramatically if the fighting moves into more heavily populated areas where tens of thousands of civilians – many displaced from elsewhere – have taken shelter in Afrin and other Kurdish-held areas of northern Syria. The Afrin district of Aleppo governorate is cut off from the bulk of the remaining Kurdish-controlled areas in Syria (known as Rojava by Syrian Kurds) by Turkish-backed opposition forces to the east. To the north and west lie Turkish border areas from which Turkish-backed forces have punched through into Afrin district in several areas.

The Turkish flag is shown raised at Burseya Mountain in Syria, within the Kurdish-held Syrian enclave of Afrin, on January 28th 2018 (image via Turkish Armed Forces)

Civilians on the move

Activists and aid workers on the ground tell Airwars that most displacement from the recent fighting has so far been confined to the Afrin region, as civilians move from targeted villages to other areas, including the city of Afrin itself.

“The town itself has become a refuge for civilians from neighbouring border villages who fled their homes due to the Turkish offensive,” wrote the Kurdish Red Crescent in a January 26th Facebook post.

On January 26th, UNICEF reported that civilians “attempting to flee the area in search of safety have reportedly been prevented from leaving AFRIN.” Violence, the organization said, was “reported to be so intense that families are confined to the basements of their buildings.”

Seven days and #Turkish shelling continues on the villages of the city of #Afrin thousands of civilians are hiding in the shelters and the situation is very bad .

— Shero Alo (@SheroAlo1) January 27, 2018

The Afrin region is already filled with vulnerable civilians, including 125,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) that the UN estimates are in Afrin district and nearby SDF-held areas of “northern rural Aleppo.”

After just two days of fighting, on January 22nd the UN’s humanitarian agency OCHA reported the displacement of some 5,000 people “from the border communities of Bulbul, Shankal, Admanli, Balal Kuy and Ali Bakki to the central parts of Afrin District.”

See here for more on reported civilian casualty claims relating to Afrin

Ground operations have heavily utilized Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army units. Airstrikes have been uneven, and limited compared to artillery fire, said Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The Turks are in some respects mimicking the recent American model in Syria – utilizing proxy ground forces, and backing them with heavier weapons from a distance.

“It seems the Turkish strategy is just to blow stuff up with a lot of artillery fire and pushing the FSA in,” said Cook. “What’s clear to me is the Turks are very nervous about throwing their own guys into this, and they want the FSA to be their cannon fodder.”

The US-led Coalition has employed a similar strategy to back the proxy Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in campaigns to take Syrian cities including Manbij and Raqqa. The SDF, however, is heavily dominated by member of a Kurdish separatist faction called the YPG. Justifying its attack on Afrin, Turkey in turn cites YPG ties to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which has waged a three decade insurgency inside Turkey, and is listed as a terrorist entity by both Ankara and Washington.

Turkey at odds with US

While the YPG is Ankara’s target, it remains unclear just how far Operation Olive Branch, as it’s been dubbed, will go. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said the first move in a four-part operation will be to secure a 30-kilometer “safe zone” along Turkey’s border, while President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to move on Manbij, which is located to the east of where Turkish-backed opposition forces have operated along the border since 2016.

The US has at least 2,000 troops still in Syria, including a semi-permanent presence in the vicinity of Manbij. A move on that larger area by Turkey could prove explosive, pushing Washington to finally choose between loyalties to dueling Kurdish and Turkish allies. Turkey is a part both of NATO and a supporting cast member of the anti-ISIS Coalition. That US-led alliance in turn has relied heavily on Turkish bases to fly missions over Iraq and Syria – including those in direct support of the SDF.

US officials have warned Turkey against incurring a heavy toll in Afrin. On January 24th, the White House said President Trump had urged Erdogan on a phone call that day to “deescalate, limit its military actions, and avoid civilian casualties and increases to displaced person.”  The US has, however, stopped short of calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities.

“The violence in Afrin disrupts what was a relatively stable area of Syria. It distracts from international efforts to ensure the defeat of ISIS, and this could be exploited by ISIS and al-Qaida,” US Defense Secretary Mattis said during a recent trip to Indonesia.

Deadly attacks

Even as regional and international powers have grappled with the implications of the Afrin assault, the civilian toll has climbed.

What appears to have been the deadliest incident since the incursion began took place on January 21st, when at least 10 civilians – mostly children – were credibly reported killed on a poultry farm in A’nabka by Turkish fire. The local outlet Afrin Now initially named seven victims – 6 children and an adult woman – and later provided Airwars with the names of three additional victims, who it said belonged to a displaced family.

A child is removed from the rubble following an alleged Turkish airstrike on A’nabka in the Afrin countryside (via Afrin Now)

On January 23rd, local outlets reported that between four and six more civilians were killed and and 16 wounded in an alleged Turkish attack on Jindires. Photographs posted on social media showed destruction in what appeared to be residential areas of the town. Additional graphic photographs uploaded to the website of the Manbij Military Council showed bodies being loaded into the back of a pickup truck. 

‘The effects of the destruction as a result of heavy Turkish shelling of civilian houses in the area of Jenderes in the countryside of Afrin.’ (via Afrin Now)

On January 26th, seven more civilians – reportedly belonging to a family displaced from Idlib –  were alleged killed by Turkish strikes on Ma’abatli village. The outlet Free Afrin identified five victims, including a 14 year old child. 

Boushkin Mohama Ali, director of Afrin Now, a local monitor in the Kurdish district, said that more than 40 civilians had been killed in Afrin district by January 27th. “The situation is getting worse every night,” he told Airwars in a Whatsapp exchange. “The shelling includes several areas, especially the villages of Jindires, Rajo and Bulbul – in the border area between Syria and Turkey.”

“There are more than 100 displaced families from the villages of Afrin who moved to the center of the city of Afrin and reside in schools and cellars, and many [more] displaced families reside in the center of the city of Afrin in the homes of their relatives,” said Ali.

Activists and monitors say casualties from Turkish strikes are so far largely being limited to more rural areas outside of Afrin city. Monitoring also suggest this is the case: only one civilian casualty incident recorded by Airwars researchers – a January 20th airstrike – was reportedly inside the city itself.

The #Turkish army targeted one of the mosques in Jondiers in the countryside of #Afrin .

— Afrin Now (@afrinnow) January 27, 2018

#Turkish shelling today on the village of Blilko in the countryside of #Afrin .أثار القصف التركي اليوم على قرية بليلكو في ريف عفرين .#عفرين_الآن

— Afrin Now (@afrinnow) January 27, 2018

“The bombing so far has been in villages and towns around Afrin, but there have been few bombs in Afrin city,” Dr. Noori Sheikh Qanbar, head of the Kurdish Red Crescent, told Airwars. He said that the bombing in Jindires on January 23rd – southwest of Afrin city – had lasted for 24 hours, and claimed the lives of five people while leaving 27 wounded. Qanbar said that to January 26th, the Kurdish Red Crescent had so far documented 162 wounded civilians.

Turkish civilians under fire

Kurdish attacks have also reportedly claimed lives, both in Turkey and in Syria. On the night of January 19th, Airwars monitored reports that at least one civilian was killed in Al Bab by Kurdish shelling. The following day another civilian was killed by shelling in Kilis, across the border in Turkey. On January 22nd, Airwars monitored three separate incidents in the Turkish town of Qeirekhan. In one case, Shahin Elitash, an electric company employee, was killed while repairing power lines.

On January 24th, reports from FSA-held areas in Aleppo governorate indicated that several civilians were injured in a Kurdish strike that allegedly claimed the life of a Turkish-backed opposition fighter. Smart News agency said the rocket attack took place in Abla, south of al Bab. That same day, at least two additional civilians were killed and more than a dozen reportedly injured when rocket attacks hit a mosque and homes in Kilis.

See here for more on reported civilian casualty claims relating to Afrin

Information about operations and civilian casualties is, however, often widely contradictory. Falsely attributed photos and videos of conflict victims have made monitoring more difficult.

“There are many inflated news reports published by both parties [pro-Kurdish and pro-Turkish media],’ said Ali of Afrin Now.

The weak quality of some sourcing inside Kurdish-controlled Afrin – and in some cases, misleading or exaggerated reports – has made tracking civilian casualties more difficult. Social media accounts have for example circulated photographs of victims which Airwars researchers were able to tie to past events.

“Some monitors and media outlets are transparent as to whose side they’re on. Pro-Kurdish sites generally seem to report only on the civilians killed by Turkish airstrikes and artillery, while those on the Turkish side are mostly reporting on the civilians reportedly killed by YPG missiles,” said Airwars’ chief Syria researcher Kinda Haddad. “There are still some media outlets reporting on civilian casualties regardless of where they die  – but the fact that some monitors and media outlets appear to be taking sides is worrying.”

Military toll

Both sides in the Afrin battle are well armed and equipped, and are using battle hardened troops. However the use of heavy Turkish air and artillery power places the Kurds at a disadvantage.

On the night of the 25th-26th, Turkey said that 48 targets were “destroyed” in attacks that involved “27 warplanes.” Reports on the ground however suggest that strikes have been more limited at night, and that artillery has often featured more heavily than aircraft.

After a week of fighting, Turkey reported that three of its own soldiers had been killed along with 13 FSA fighters. It also claimed that more than 440 Kurdish forces had been ‘liquidated’ – numbers that are impossible to confirm.

Meanwhile, Kurdish sources reported that one tenth that number of YPG fighters – 43 so far – had been killed, while claiming that more than 300 Turkish soldiers had been slain.

There's a significant disparity between official Kurdish and Turkish reports: with each side claiming few of its own casualties, and many opposing troops killed

— Airwars (@airwars) January 27, 2018

▲ A public funeral for military and civilian victims of Turkey's assault on Afrin, January 22nd 2018 (via Afrin Now)


January 10, 2018

Written by

Samuel Oakford

A former deputy commander of the Royal Air Force – who previously oversaw airstrikes in Iraq, Syria and Libya – says that despite British claims to the contrary, it is inconceivable no civilians have been harmed in more than 1,600 UK airstrikes against so-called Islamic State.

Air Marshall Greg Bagwell, who retired from the RAF in 2016, told campaigning group Drone Wars UK in an extended interview that “I don’t think it is credible… that we have not caused any civilian casualties.” On the same day that Bagwell’s interview was published, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) was still being quoted as saying that “We’ve not seen any evidence that we have caused civilian casualties.”

Senior opposition Labour MP Clive Lewis has called on the Ministry of Defence to “stop treating the British public as mugs” with its “fantasy approach to zero civilian casualties.”

Air Marshall Greg Bagwell (Image via Drone Wars UK)

According to Air Marshall Bagwell, the Ministry of Defence’s focus on defending its claim of zero civilian casualties is contributing to a false image of risk free war, noting that “the 100% claim and the incessant pressure on its defence has frustrated me.”

“I think it’s unfortunate that we continue to maintain a pure 100% argument,” Air Marshall Bagwell told Drone Wars, in an interview published on January 8th. “Although we do our utmost to both prevent civilian casualties and conduct post-strike analysis to confirm, I don’t think it is credible to the average listener that we have not caused any civilian casualties just because you have got no evidence to the contrary.”

Bagwell also called into question the accuracy of battle damage assessments, which are used to determine possible civilian harm, noting that “you can’t see through rubble.”

‘Second only to the United States’

The UK is the second most active member of the anti-ISIS Coalition after the United States. Through December 12th, the British Ministry of Defense (MoD) has reported 1,626 airstrikes – 1,357 in Iraq and 269 in Syria –  which the MoD claims have left upwards of 3,000 ISIS fighters dead. But it has always maintained in parallel that there is no evidence to suggest civilians died as a result of any bombings.

As the war against ISIS moved deeper into heavily populated cities during 2017, British claims of zero civilian harm appeared ever more unlikely. Following the battle for Mosul, former British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon MP boasted that the UK had struck more than 750 targets in the city – “second only to the United States.” Yet a recent Associated Press investigation found that as many as 11,000 civilians may have died in that assault – at least a third killed by air and artillery strikes.

In a September 2017 response to a Freedom of Information request filed by the Press Association, the MoD was still asserting that according to their records “we have found no credible evidence of civilian casualties [that] have been caused by RAF strikes in Iraq or Syria” over the preceding year. Earlier FOIA requests have been answered similarly.

Until 2016, Air Marshall Bagwell was Deputy Commander at Royal Air Force Command, involved in handling Britain’s involvement in the Washington-led Coalition. “He’s a very senior commander with a lot of experience, and I suspect he is only saying publicly what a lot of officers are saying privately amongst themselves,” said Chris Cole, director of Drone Wars. “Suggesting there may not have been any civilian casualties from more than 1,600 airstrikes is simply not credible.”

Bagwell agrees. “It is almost unbelievable that someone, somewhere, has not been killed by accident,” he said. The former RAF commander also warned that the British public was receiving a warped version of what their counterterror operations resulted in, portraying war as clean.

“There is a danger at the moment that we are conditioning ourselves to think in a certain way – that wars are bloodless and we can carry out war in a ‘nice way,’” said Bagwell. “Thinking war is bloodless is a mistake.”

While downplaying the extent of non-combatant fatalities and emphasising the war’s “precision,” top American officials have conceded civilian deaths. “We can make a mistake, and in this kind of warfare, tragedy will happen,” said US Secretary of Defense James Mattis in August 2017. British officials have rarely made such statements, or have waited as Bagwell did, until they retired.

Members of Parliament have taken note. Afghanistan veteran Clive Lewis, chair of the All-Party Parliamenty Group for Drone Warfare and Labour’s former Shadow Defence Secretary, told Airwars that “The Ministry of Defence’s insistence that it has not caused civilian casualties from airstrikes in Iraq and Syria is increasingly untenable, given the lack of transparency surrounding how it investigates civilian casualty reports.”

“The longer the government insist on this fantasy approach to zero civilian casualties, the more they undermine the public’s trust in the government on this matter and beyond,” said Lewis. “This erosion is dangerous and completely unnecessary. My message is clear: Do not treat the British public as mugs.”

The Ministry of Defense does not appear to be budging. In a written response to Parliament on January 8th, Mark Lancaster, the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, claimed that “we have been able to discount RAF involvement in any civilian casualties as a result of any of the strikes that have been brought to our attention.”

A Royal Air Force Tornado GR4 armed with Paveway IV laser guided bombs, shown at a base in Cyprus during 2015. Credit: Cpl Neil Bryden/ MoD


By its own admission, the Coalition’s air campaign has killed more than 800 civilians. Airwars researchers estimate the toll is far higher, at over 6,000. By either measure, it appears certain that the United Kingdom – like France and other major partners – have been responsible for some civilians deaths.

In May 2017, Airwars revealed that US officials had judged their coalition partners responsible for at least 80 confirmed deaths due to airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. But with the exception of Australia, no member of the Coalition besides the US has ever admitted to killing a single civilian in Iraq and Syria.

Those 80 deaths were quietly included in an April 2017 civilian casualty report, released by the Coalition. They did not include dates or locations for any the deaths – a decision made to insulate allies from identification. Subsequently, the US stopped publicly identifying its own strikes in Iraq and Syria that killed civilians – again, a step to prevent any ally from being identified by elimination. This meant that survivors and family members of victims could not know which country was involved in dropping bombs which harmed their loved ones, even if the Coalition had admitted responsibility.

In evidence presented at the UK’s Parliament in 2017, Airwars director Chris Woods told MPs and peers that he was “surprised” by MoD claims that it had not caused any civilian harm in Iraq or Syria, based on his private conversations with senior defence officials.

While the MoD has never admitted to civilian casualties, it does review allegations. For 2016, Airwars identified more than 120 alleged incidents in which British airstrikes might have resulted in civilian harm. However  in each case the MoD has so far assessed, the UK has determined  that there was no evidence to suggest civilian casualties.

The disparity has raised questions about the UK’s battle damage assessment capacities, and whether they are fit for purpose. “Our view is, if the British repeatedly cannot see civilian harm, but all of the modelling indicates that we should be seeing civilian harm, then that suggests that the aerial civcas monitoring that the MoD is using is not fit for purpose,” Airwars director Chris Woods told the parliamentary inquiry in July 2017.


December 16, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

When Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi announced victory over so-called Islamic State in Iraq on December 9th, his allies in the international Coalition had just begun their 40th month of bombing ISIS targets in the beleaguered nation. A grinding territorial war was finally ending.

“Our forces fully control the Iraqi-Syrian border, and thus we can announce the end of the war against Daesh,” Abadi said, referring to the group by an Arabic acronym. “Our battle was with the enemy that wanted to kill our civilization, but we have won with our unity and determination.”

As Iraqi forces celebrated in Baghdad with a military parade, the Coalition congratulated Iraqis on the defeat of their common enemy – while the US pledged its continued backing of Baghdad. With ISIS now losing all major territorial footholds in the country, the toll of the occupation – and from the internationally supported campaign to remove the terror group from Iraq – are still being measured.

Estimates of how many have died since ISIS began its blitz across northern and western Iraq in 2014 remain fragmentary. Thousands of civilians were killed, disappeared or were captured and enslaved, as ISIS fighters targeted minority groups like the Yazidis — crimes that a UN Commission of Inquiry would later label genocidal.

“The public statements and conduct of ISIS and its fighters clearly demonstrate that ISIS intended to destroy the Yazidis of Sinjar, composing the majority of the world’s Yazidi population, in whole or in part,” concluded the commission.

A Yazidi boy – his face and hair matted with dust – re-enters Iraq from Syria, at a border crossing in the town of Peshkhabour in Dohuk Governorate. Photo: UNICEF/Wathiq Khuzaie

When they weren’t shooting civilians, ISIS often trapped them in their homes as Iraq’s cities and towns came under assault — at times even welding them inside. Mines and improvised explosives were widely dispersed in homes and in the street. These will likely kill Iraqis for years to come. The Coalition recently reported that it has so far helped remove “nearly 40,000 kilograms of explosives since April 2016 from liberated areas in Iraq.”

Thousands of captured Iraqi soldiers and police officers were also murdered during the early stages of the occupation, their executions shown in graphic ISIS propaganda videos. During recent operations to capture Mosul, the UN estimates that at least 741 civilians were summarily executed by ISIS fighters, with hundreds more killed by the groups’ artillery and vehicle bombs.  Mass graves are still being found.

“There are many layers of the dead in and around Mosul,” said Katharina Ritz, head of delegation for the ICRC in Iraq. “From different stages of this latest conflict, such as the discovery of many mass graves reportedly linked to ISIS rule, to those who died in various ways during the assault, and those who died at the end and were buried under rubble.”

The heat map shows the locations of alleged Coalition strikes resulting in civilian casualties in Iraq (via the Airwars database) throughout the war. The intensity of colour shows where most claims have been reported. The largest dot represents Mosul.

Iraqis bore brunt of military cost

Ground fighters on all sides of the conflict in Iraq suffered heavy casualties. US military officials have thrown around large numbers — claiming anywhere from 45,000 to 70,000 or more ISIS fighters killed since Coalition operations began. But analysts have questioned whether the number of ISIS fighters in general has tended to be exaggerated, especially by Western militaries.

In the fight for Mosul, elite units like Iraq’s Special Operations Forces were so heavily depleted during fighting — by some estimates they suffered “upwards of 50 percent casualties” in East Mosul — that their role in the more densely packed West was severely diminished.

In March, CENTCOM chief Gen. Joseph Votel said that 774 Iraqi troops had so far been killed in Mosul. US officials have since put the number of Iraqi military dead in Mosul at 1,400. Other estimates place the number even higher: In November 2016, the UN reported that 1,959 members of the Iraqi Security Forces and supporting forces had been killed that month alone in Iraq. After the Iraqi government protested, the UN stopped publishing estimates of government forces killed in the fighting. Many more Peshmerga fighters and irregulars with Popular Mobilization Forces militias also died fighting ISIS.

Partly as a result of this high Iraqi toll, in December 2016 the Obama administration loosened restrictions on who could call in airstrikes, allowing personnel farther down the command chain to do so. That decision allowed faster approval of attacks, which Coalition officials said would help assist ground troops.

However some journalists on the ground have said that this led to an immediate rise in civilian casualties, a toll that only grew as operations in Mosul continued into the city’s West and ultimately ended in a hellish assault on the narrowly packed Old City.

Though civilians, Iraqi forces and members of ISIS were killed in significant numbers, remarkably few Coalition personnel have died during combat operations – a measure not just of battlefield superiority but of how intensively the alliance depended upon remote air and artillery strikes. As of December 15th, just 13 US service members were reported as killed in action during the entirety of Coalition operations in Iraq and Syria going back to 2014. Partners like France have only suffered rare casualties during operations around Mosul, and not from direct fighting.

There are few conflicts in the history of warfare where a force’s own ability to destroy an enemy over extended periods has been matched by their own relative safety from harm. By comparison, partner forces on the ground suffered casualties at hundreds of times the rate of the Coalition’s.

A heavy civilian toll 

In contrast with high Coalition tallies of ISIS fighters killed, estimates of civilian deaths have been treated conservatively by belligerents and, in many cases, by the media. The air campaign against ISIS began in Iraq on August 8th 2014, when US jets bombed targets as part of an effort to stave off the terror group’s attempt to capture, enslave or exterminate fleeing Yezidis in northern Iraq. By then, the extremist group had already captured large areas of Western and Northern Iraqi, including Iraq’s second city Mosul.

Eight days into the US intervention the first civilian casualties tied to US strikes were alleged. On August 16th outlets including the German press agency DPA and Al Jazeera reported that 11 civilians had been killed in Sinjar. According to local accounts, munitions aimed at fleeing ISIS fighters had instead hit civilian homes in the area. More than three years on, the Coalition has yet to assess this first claim – one of hundreds of Iraq allegations so far unaddressed by the US-led alliance.

It wasn’t until November 20th 2015 that the US first admitted responsibility for any civilian deaths in Iraq. Initially, the US said four civilians had been killed in a March 13th strike in Hatra that same year. Not publicly reported at the time, the incident was brought to the attention of the Coalition by the owner of one of two cars bombed near an ISIS checkpoint. After a Washington Post investigation, CENTCOM raised its estimate of civilians killed to 11. Among the dead were five children and four women. A redacted investigation was posted online by CENTCOM — a practice neither the US or Coalition would continue. Links to the original investigation have now been removed.

Out of some 800 local allegations against the Coalition in Iraq which have been identified by Airwars, the alliance has so far confirmed responsibility in 107 incidents – conceding a minimum of 471 civilian deaths and 97 injuries.

Eighty additional civilian deaths have been confirmed by the Coalition in unidentified events which were the result of non-US Coalition actions — strikes which could have taken place in either Iraq or Syria. America’s allies still refuse to accept responsibility for any of those 80 deaths.

Based on available public evidence, Airwars researchers currently assess 180 further incidents as likely the responsibility of the Coalition. The present Airwars estimate of the total number of civilians killed across all 287 events is between and 2,129 and 3,152  non-combatants.

Beyond the Coalition’s much lower estimates of how many civilians were killed due to its own strikes, the UN in Iraq has released only minimum figures for estimated civilian deaths which they acknowledge to be far below the true toll. In the case of one key province – Anbar – where much of the recent fighting has occurred, the UN has rarely offerted any casualty data. In its most recent monthly report, UNAMI, said it had once again been unable to obtain casualty figures for the province at all.

Only one group, Iraq Body Count, has attempted to systematically capture the death toll caused by all parties in Iraq since before ISIS first began its expansion. From January 2014 – when ISIS captured Fallujah – Iraq Body Count has recorded more than 66,000 civilians having been reported killed in violence throughout Iraq. Their monitoring has led to a preliminary count of 9,791 deaths during operations to recapture Mosul. Clarifying and unraveling reports will still take time, said Iraq Body Count co-founder Hamit Dardagan, who also works as the organisation’s principal analyst.

“After ISIS’s ousting we have a range of reports of mass graves of different age, and disentangling all these will take a lot of time, especially in relation to the more immediate reports that appeared and may in some cases have concerned the same victims,” said Dardagan. “The same need to disentangle multiple accounts of aggregate deaths holds true for OIR and Mosul. We have seen the official accounts, as you will have, but one wonders how even they could be near-finished as yet.”

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Possible under-reporting of civilian harm

While there is little dispute that many thousands of Iraq civilians died in the past 42 months of war, understanding how non-combatants met their deaths often remains a significant challenge.

The Iraqi military has so far issued no estimates of the civilians killed by its own operations. The tally from ISIS killings, while likely running into many thousands, remains to be fully assessed.

The total number of deaths locally alleged from Coalition actions in Iraq between August 16th, 2014 and December 5th 2017 ranges from 9,736 to 13,972 civilians killed in 800 claimed events – though Airwars currently assesses the likely minimum tally at between 2,129 and 3,152 civilians killed, based on available reports.

In 276 cases, Airwars researchers were not able to determine who carried out the reported strike, and these remain labelled as ‘contested.’ Most of these incidents took place in 2017, predominantly in Mosul. This ambiguity in monitoring reflected an increasingly chaotic situation in the final year of fighting.

There are also worrying indicators that civilian casualties in Iraq from all military actions may have significantly been under-reported. Just over half of all admitted Coalition events in the country were never publicly reported at the time – we only know about these civilian harm incidents because Coalition pilots and analysts internally flagged concerns.

In addition, while the number of Coalition strikes overall in Iraq and Syria were roughly equal, Airwars has tracked almost twice the number of confirmed and likely civilian deaths from Coalition actions in Syria (3,823) than it has for Iraq (2,129). That disparity is thought to be linked to the far poorer local quality of civilian casualty reporting by NGOs and media within Iraq. How many more casualties were never reported we cannot know.

“Civil society groups are much better developed in Syria, after six years of war. Many have undergone extensive training in Turkey and have become expert at documenting violations,” said Benjamin Walsby, Middle East researcher at Amnesty International. “Generally speaking, Iraqi groups were not as well developed as their Syrian counterparts.”

Because of this gap in consistent monitoring – and the Coalition’s own lower estimates –  the individual investigations of journalists and human rights workers like Walsby have played a key role in better understanding the toll of the war. In November, journalists Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal, writing in the New York Times, estimated that based on a field study of attacks in Northern Iraq, the actual toll of Coalition strikes in certain areas could be upwards of 30 times what has been publicly acknowledged.

The destruction of cities 

The number of bombs and missiles unleashed on both Iraq and Syria rose considerably as the fighting escalated. Figures for munitions released by Iraqi forces have not been issued so far, while ISIS bragged of deploying hundreds of vehicle borne car bombs during the fighting. An average of five VBIED attacks were faced daily by Iraqi forces during fighting in East Mosul.

Accorded to US Air Force figures, the number of weapons released from aircraft under Coalition control rose from 6,292 in 2014 to 38,993 during the first 11 months of 2017. However, these figures exclude fire from Coalition helicopters, and ground based sources like artillery and HIMARS rockets. According to Coalition figures provided to Airwars, the number of munitions fired into Mosul during the 9-month battle to liberate the city exceeded 29,000. France alone reported more than 1,200 artillery strikes on Mosul.

The fighting has left swaths of urban areas in ruins, often the result of Coalition and Iraqi airstrikes and artillery fire into areas where ISIS proved difficult to dislodge. In the battle for Ramadi, where elite counterterror forces were back by heavy Coalition and Iraqi aerial support, UN analysis of satellite imagery showed more than 5,600 structures were damaged, nearly 2,000 of them destroyed.

A graphic produced by the United Nations showed damage to buildings in Ramadi.

Particularly damaging in the fight for Mosul were improvised rockets, hurled into the Old City by Iraqi forces. “The scale of death and destruction wrought upon Mosul and other parts of Iraq is almost unfathomable,” said Walsby, “Much of this was caused by Coalition airstrikes and Iraqi forces’ use of rocket assisted artillery, among other tactics. Fighting IS was difficult, but there were many things that Coalition forces and their Iraqi partners could and should have done differently to prioritise protection of civilians.”

In total, Airwars presently estimates that between 1,066 and 1,579 civilians were likely killed by Coalition strikes in the vicinity of Mosul between October 17th and mid July. However this may represent a significant under-reporting, with a determination of responsibility presently impossible in many further cases. Overall, researchers monitored between 6,320 and 8,901 alleged civilian deaths in which the Coalition might have been imnplicated – with thousands more ISIS fighters and Iraqi ground troops also killed.

As this Airwars chart shows, reported civilian deaths in Iraq rose dramatically in 2017, reaching peak levels in March with the battle for West Mosul.

The limits of precision warfare

The deadliest strike admitted to by the Coalition across Iraq and Syria took place on March 17th 2017, in the al Jadida neighborhood of West Mosul. At least 105 civilians were killed when the Coalition dropped two 500-pound bombs which targeted snipers on the roof of the building. American officials claimed the house was rigged to explode, though locals have maintained that was not the case.

Though US and Coalition officials have insisted the anti-ISIS operation has been the most “precise air campaign in the history of warfare”, its undeniable physical and lethal toll has shown certain limits to high-tech warfare as it is currently being fought in urban areas.

Too often during the fighting in Raqqa and Mosul, heavy air and artillery strikes were used to clear buildings of ISIS fighters where the immediate presence of civilians appeared to be unknown.

“There’s no doubt that the technology is advanced and we can put rounds in places where we’ve never been able to before, but in urban environments the enemy can turn every building, every room into fortified positions you are taking out infrastructure and you are taking out civilians if they are in what the enemy wants to be a part of,” said John Spencer, a former army infantryman and deputy director of the Modern War Institute at West Point.

“If we know that the character of warfare has changed, and the people that want power figure out that’s where they get the most advantage, we should be adapting.”

While the overall civilian casualty toll has been relatively high, perhaps more remarkable was the number of Iraqis who were able to escape the fighting – despite the intensity of battle. Through October 31st of this year, 3,173,088 Iraqis had been displaced by fighting across the country according to the UN. 2,624,430 had returned to where they were previously displaced from. Through October 18th, 793,422 people had been displaced from Mosul, and 300,576 had so far returned to their homes.

Aftermath of alleged coalition strike on Mosul May 21 2015 (via Mosul Atek)

A lack of allied accountability 

In an apparent effort to improve transparency among its Coalition partners, in April 2017 the US ceased identifying its own strike numbers in Iraq and Syria. However, based on earlier modelling and military reports from other countries, the US clearly carried out the vast majority of actions — well upwards of 90% in Syria.

In Iraq (where the Baghdad government invited the Coalition and its members to operate) non-US partner nations played a larger role – responsible for about one third of all Coalition airstrikes. As of December 1st 2017, the UK had launched the most strikes in Iraq of any ally, with 1,357 reported. It was closely followed by France – which declared 1,265 airstrikes and more than 1,100 artillery actions. Australia conducted approximately 600 strikes; the Netherlands 490; Denmark 258; Belgium 370 and Canada some 246 airstrikes.

With the exception of Australia, no Coalition member besides the US has admitted to a single civilian casualty in more than three years of war. This remains true despite an Airwars investigation that revealed in May 2017 that the US military had determined that at least 80 civilian deaths were the responsibility of other Coalition members. Even now, those deaths remain unclaimed by any nation. Family members of most victims of Coalition strikes in Iraq still cannot know what country was responsible for those deaths.

Key improvements in civilian casualty monitoring were introduced by the Coalition during the war – including the move to regular monthly casualty reports; a significant expansion of the alliance’s CIVCAS cell; the regular releasing of assessment co-ordinates; and the Coalition’s engagement with external agencies such as Airwars. Even so, more than half of the alleged casualty events tracked during the war have yet to be assessed – and it remains unclear how committed the Coalition allies will be to properly investigating this backlog as the ‘hot’ war ends.

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An uncertain future

The war to defeat ISIS as a territorial entity in Iraq had the backing of the United Nations and the international community – and the active support of more than 70 nations. “The military victory over ISIS must be applauded,” said Sahr Muhammedally, Middle East and North Africa director at CIVIC. “Now comes the harder part for the Iraqi government and anti-ISIS coalition to restore critical infrastructure destroyed during operations; and clear buildings and roads of booby traps so people can return home safely. There must also be a robust presence of properly trained security forces to provide security and prevent revenge attacks against returning civilians.”

Like Syria, Iraq is not a member of the International Criminal Court, meaning that even ISIS’s crimes there do not fall under its jurisdiction. While the UN Human Rights Council has created a Commission of Inquiry for Syria, it has not yet done so for Iraq.

This September, however, the UN Security Council authorized a probe of ISIS’s crimes in Iraq which will preserve evidence for eventual criminal prosecution. Groups like Human Rights Watch criticized the move for falling short of a mandate to consider all crimes allegedly committed during the fighting, including by Iraqi, Kurdish and Coalition forces.

“ISIS drew worldwide condemnation and generated widespread publicity. It had to be defeated; we are all too aware of its unspeakable crimes,” said Amnesty’s Walsby. “What is yet to be properly acknowledged is the terrible price that thousands of Iraqi civilians paid for their liberation, at the hands of Iraqi and Coalition forces. Any victory statement that fails to acknowledge this is both deeply flawed and could prove short lived.”

“The challenges in Iraq after ISIS are many, but ensuring that all Iraqis are protected from harm and their losses dignified and recognized is essential to build the foundation for stability and reconciliation in Iraq,” said Muhammedally.


Note: Since our report was posted, two important stories were published December 20th by the Associated Press and NPR, concerning the civilian toll in Mosul.

After an extensive investigation involving on the ground interviews, local morgue reports and reference to NGO databases – including Airwars’ – the AP determined that between 9,000 and 11,000 Mosul residents died during the 9-month assault on the city. Their analysis showed that roughly one third of those deaths were the responsibility of US-led Coalition or Iraqi forces. The likely civilian toll from morgue records “tracks closely with numbers gathered during the battle itself by Airwars and others,” wrote the authors of the AP report.

Based on figures obtained from the Mosul morgue, NPR put the number of civilians killed in the city at “over 5,000.” That number, NPR noted, “is likely more than the number of ISIS fighters believed to have been in Mosul and presumed dead.”

▲ A stunned local at the scene of an alleged Coalition strike on the Sunni Waqf building in Mosul, September 29th 2015 (via NRN News)


December 2, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

Three weeks after journalists Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal published a damning New York Times account of civilian deaths caused by anti-ISIS airstrikes, the Coalition has yet to respond publicly. The investigation represented the first large scale, methodical ground survey of airstrikes and the harm they have caused in the war, in this case from three areas of Northern Iraq targeted by the Coalition. Civilian casualties were found to be 31 times more likely than the alliance was admitting.

Airwars recently sat down with Khan and Gopal in New York City to learn more about how they carried out their investigation. Below are highlights from the interview, lightly edited for clarity.

Airwars: No one had completed this kind of scientific study before during the conflict. Going into it, what did you expect to find? How did it compare to what you encountered?

Azmat Khan: We began planning this in February 2016. By April I was on the ground [In Iraq] and I was embedding with local forces, both Shia militias and then with Peshmerga forces, in certain frontline towns. I remember early on seeing how pivotal these airstrikes were in terms of re-taking cities.

There was one town that was really important to Shias, and so dozens of Shia militias had tried to retake it — Bashir — from where ISIS had launched mortars with chemical agents into a neighboring town, Taza. I watched several Shia militias based in Taza try and fail to retake Bashir, putting in all of their troops. Then the peshmerga agreed to try and retake it, and they put in maybe a fraction of the number of troops, but were supported by Coalition airstrikes in a way the militias weren’t, and Bashir fell within hours.

Azmat Khan

It really showed me the extent to which these airstrikes played a pivotal role in re-taking territory, but also the level of devastation. Many parts of Bashir were just up in smoke, when I visited the day after it was re-taken.

Unless you were on the ground, you couldn’t get a real sense of that scale. There’d been good accounts looking at civilian casualties — but nobody had looked at both those that successfully hit ISIS targets and those that didn’t, so a systematic sample. That’s what we teamed up to do. As more cities were being retaken, we though there’s an opportunity to do this.

I think what surprised me was I expected there to be vast discrepancies between the Iraqi Air Force’s civilian casualty rate and the Coalition’s, but the 1 in 5 statistic [1 in 5 airstrikes, they found, killed civilians], that appeared to be consistent across the board, in the entire sample of airstrikes, as well as those identified only as Coalition. That shocked me.

Anand Gopal

Anand Gopal: We had actually done a lot of reporting on airstrikes in civilian mass casualty incidents that didn’t make it into the piece — early on in Hawija; the takeover of Ramadi which was really devastating; Fallujah and Tikrit as well. I think initially we were both really shocked in the difference between what we were getting anecdotally and what was being reported. That’s sort of what inspired this initially. It took a little bit of time for us to figure out the best way to do this would be house to house – systematically.

Khan: It was hard to do that until October… that’s when they [Iraqi forces] were up to the Christian neighborhoods, Bartella was taken around this time. They had started the official campaign, but they weren’t in East Mosul.

Airwars: So It’s October 2016, that’s when you are starting the systematic sample?

Khan: That’s when I was first able to visit a significant number of airstrikes in downtown Qayyarah, a large enough sample to understand that this is possible, we can successfully do this. We came back in January, and then several more times.

On the ground

Airwars: How did you go about this work?

Gopal: For example in downtown Qayyarah you could see that every fourth house was destroyed. So we decided to start at one point in a town and go systematically and just go street by street. We went with various people, police officers and others.

Khan: First I went in with a local blacksmith; later on we went with federal police officers. We went in with many different people at many different times, just to make sure that we were protecting against any potential bias. .

Gopal: We also had to make sure we didn’t miss any of the destroyed places, so we got satellite imagery and [got an analysis of] the before and after satellite imagery to actually mark the destruction, for instance. Many of them are airstrikes, but some of them are demolitions. After ISIS was ejected, people come and demolish [an ISIS] house in retribution. Some of them were not the result of airstrikes at all.

Khan: Those are not in our sample. We excluded anything that was damaged from something else, like a demolition.

Gopal: Two challenges — one is to isolate those that were due to airstrikes from the rest, and the second is to figure out if it is Coalition or Iraqi.  

Airwars: So once you had these cases on the ground, did you match them with reported strikes?

Khan: I had early on gone in and done a calculation – I think there were 450 or so airstrikes officially labeled as “near Qayyarah”, the entire district, not even just downtown,  according to the Coalition’s daily summaries of airstrikes. Then we went through the civilian death casualty reports acknowledged by the Coalition, and found two civilian death reports, one of which was later amended to an injury.

And then we checked Airwars as well, to see whether any allegations matched, and I know there were at least two certain matches from our sample in downtown Qayyarah. Then we looked at open investigations to see if any might match. But of the 75 civilian deaths in that sample of 103 airstrikes, none of those 75 civilian deaths we found had been admitted to or acknowledged to by the Coalition, to date. And none of the 21 deaths from strikes that fell even just within 50 meters of a logged Coalition strike had been acknowledged by the Coalition.

Airwars: That’s mindboggling.

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.)

Airwars: And your sample, if anything, likely would have shown fewer civilian deaths — less than West Mosul?

Khan: Yes, the strikes in our 103 sample — which is how we arrived at the 1 in 5 rate — did not include West Mosul, and they occurred before the rule change in December [when the Obama administration made calling in airstrikes easier in support of Iraqi forces].

Gopal: For complex tribal and patronage reasons, strikes in the areas we looked at may be more accurate than those in, say Anbar province. This is because they are populated by the Jibburis, a large tribe whose members maintained a close relationship with US forces over the years. This dates back to a split between Jibburi sheikhs and Saddam Hussein in the late 1980s; by the 2003 invasion, these sheikhs had become one of America’s few Sunni allies, and they were rewarded with police and government posts.

This put them on the opposite side of al-Qaeda in Iraq, and by 2014 they had become known for their fierce resistance to ISIS. This means that the Coalition enjoyed a far better and more extensive informant network in northern Iraq than it did in Anbar. Given our focus on Ninevah and not Anbar, it is likely that if there was any geographic bias, it led us to undercount the civilian casualty rate.

‘Incredible devastation’

Airwars: What was it like on the ground when you talked to people?

Azmat: It was really tough because there is so much sensitivity involved; many are very traumatized.You also have to be very, very clear that because you are a journalist, you are not an aid worker, which is how many people can sometimes view Westerners. Even asking questions about losses — you have to be so careful about that, and it involved usually meeting with as many survivors or people who were eyewitnesses.

If anything, these people we interviewed skewed pro-government, because they were the ones who were allowed to return. All of our interviews happened with people who were living in these areas. We aren’t at a camp saying, “Tell me about your home?” We were at these places where the [strikes] had happened and we knew and could verify that these people live right next door.

Gopal: I know many children of ISIS members had probably been killed, but they are not in our sample because those families have fled or have been arrested and are kept in camps.

Airwars: What did the places you went to look like?

Gopal: Qayyarah was heavily damaged, I’d say. Every street – probably every three or four houses.

The Coalition’s own video of its attack on the Rezzo family home – since removed from its official YouTube channel

In all, Khan and Gopal found that among 103 airstrike cases they identified after house to house surveying, one in five had caused civilian deaths – a figure greater than 31 times what the Coalition itself had acknowledged in the survey areas.  

Khan: I’ve been to every one of the 103 [sites] and there were some distinctions. In Shura, by the time of liberation most of the airstrikes happened during the liberation period, not all but most. During the liberation period Shura was pretty depopulated; civilians had mostly left. So it was destroyed. It had just been shot up. Apparently ISIS fighters were staying in tunnels underneath homes. These houses, you could just find incredible devastation, but probably the least amount of civilian death because civilians had left at the time of the bombing.

In terms of verifying allegations, our work went far beyond interviews and analyzing satellite imagery. In addition to interviewing hundreds of witnesses, we dug through rubble for bomb fragments, or materials that might suggest ISIS use, like artillery vests, ISIS literature, sometimes their bones, because nobody would bury them.

We also got our hands on more than 100 sets of coordinates for suspected ISIS sites passed on by local informants. Sometimes we were able to get photos and videos as well. And ultimately, we verified each civilian casualty allegation with health officials, security forces, or local administrators.

The killing of a family

During the course of their research, Khan and Gopal learned of the case of Basim Razzo, who lost his wife and daughter, and his brother and nephew next door, when their homes were misidentified and bombed by the Coalition on September 20th, 2015. Basim barely survived the strikes, but set off on a long quest to have the US government admit its error.

The Coalition’s pre-targeting of Basim’s home – surveyed extensively, filmed by drones —  was what Khan and Gopal call “the best case scenario.” And yet even in this case – most strikes are given nowhere near the attention – the Coalition failed utterly to identify the structures as civilian in nature, and as having no connection whatsoever to ISIS.

In fact, the Coalition was so assured of the strike’s success that it uploaded a video of the attack online. Initially identified in the video as a car bomb factory, Khan and Gopal later learned the Coalition had internally identified it as an ISIS headquarters. It was none of these things.

Cousins Najib and Tuqa, both killed in a Coalition airstrike on September 20th-21st 2015 (Picture courtesy of the Altalib family)

Airwars: I want to talk about Basim. Why did you feel you had to tell this story through his own?

Khan: Basim’s case actually represented so many of our findings. It was important to us that we also use a character and a story that we could follow very closely through the process, and obviously a large part of that was that Basim was exceptional at documenting his own case very early on.

One of the biggest reasons is that he is the “best case” scenario. This is a man who has Western contacts, who speaks fluent English. There had been a [Coalition] video uploaded, so if anything should result in some kind of accountability, this is the best case scenario. This is a deliberate airstrike, not a dynamic one. It was an “ISIS headquarters,” which we were told, when I was at the CAOC (Combined Air Operations Center), a very senior intelligence officer told me that a target with one of the highest thresholds to meet is usually an ISIS headquarters… In so many ways Basim’s case was the ultimate, highest most deliberative process.

Airwars: When you say the best case scenario, you mean the best case on the Coalition side in terms of what intelligence they could have, and they still screwed up in such a fundamental way?

Gopal: if there was ever a strike they could get right, this would be the one. They have weeks to plan it, they have it as an ISIS headquarters. And so you know, if it’s an ISIS headquarters, the threshold for actionable intelligence has to be much higher. It can’t just be drone footage that doesn’t see women and children.

Airwars: They identified it as a headquarters and what was the genesis of that? In the story you talk about – it’s infuriating to read – that they didn’t see women and children.

Khan: One of the things I asked at the CAOC in Qatar was how do you identify local patterns of behavior. For example, I said, under ISIS a lot of women are not leaving their homes. So when you are looking at these pattern of life videos, are you taking these variable local dynamics into account? How do you distinguish for example when you are bombing in Iraq and one of these areas, how do you distinguish between patterns of behavior that are specific to Iraq vs. bombing in Afghanistan. What are the differences?

I was told that they could not get into a great deal of detail about ISIS’ “TTPs” — tactics, techniques, and procedures — their understanding of how ISIS generally operates.  They told me that these are developed through the intelligence community, in coordination with a cultural expert, but that they could not offer more detail about it.

Gopal: At the end of the day, it appears there are no consequences for getting it wrong, so there are no incentives to try to get it right.

Another piece of this is there were a number of strikes and incidents that appear to have violated principles of proportionality. Where you bomb an entire house and kill a bunch of civilians for one or two snipers. None of that ended up in the story, because we were, again, trying to interrogate the best case scenario.

Airwars: There’s a fighter on the roof, and they blow up the entire building. You’ve documented that as well?

Gopal: We have plenty of cases like that, but they were after the rule change in December 2016, (and not in the sample of 103 strikes), so a number of cases in late December early January in east Mosul where this was happening. We have a little sidebar in the story that mentions one instance very briefly —  for example, three civilians in one house were killed after at least one ISIS sniper broke into their house and used their roof.

Changing the rules

Note: After civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria began noticeably increasing during 2017, journalists began asking whether the rules of engagement in anti-ISIS operations had changed. Top US officials at first claimed they hadn’t, but later noted that a December rule change had made it easier for lower ranks to call in airstrikes at Mosul.

Airwars: You mentioned these rule changes. There was a lot of talk about what Rules of Engagement mean, and whether that changed in Iraq or Syria, or whether it’s a semantic conversation. What did you understand as having changed, and what did you see on the ground as a result?

Gopal: We didn’t use the term rule of engagement for this reason because it is a contentious term. Personally, and I’m speaking in a personal capacity, I do think that [the December authorization change] qualified as a rules of engagement change…

What we know is in December the number of people who had the authority to call in airstrikes was broadened. Commanders closer to the ground were able to call in airstrikes and both of us know from tracking this very closely on the ground that there was a marked difference.

We have to separate other differences, because there is a phase of battle change, they went from East Mosul to West Mosul which means you have a skyrocketing of civilian casualties. That’s going to happen because you are going there. There are questions of tempo and the number of strikes you are conducting. But from December 20th, from then immediately began to see a change. 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.

Airwars: There were other variables, as you mentioned. From afar it’s not easy to splice out what is responsible for what.

Gopal: Right. The Battle for West Mosul didn’t start until the end of January, early February. But we saw this change in the casualties in December.

It is very clear after December 20th – the best actual experiment you can have is just look at the strikes in East Mosul. The neighborhoods before and after December 20th on either side of it are both in East Mosul. You look at the rate before and after and it’s countable. One can look at that and make an estimation. You can look at the Airwars archives before and after these dates, but just in east Mosul.

Airwars: The Coalition repeated over and over how precise the campaign was. What was your sense of this? Did you feel they were deluded? Did you feel they were obscuring the truth, did you feel that they just didn’t get it? Did you feel they were just trying their best?

Khan: Clearly, we have people who care a lot about this issue; they are not unfeeling. And one of the first things that they will often point out is, “We are not doing what the Syrian and Russian air force is doing.”

Mohannad Rezzo, who died in a 2015 Coalition airstrike (via Mosul Ateka)

Sam: Do you feel it’s almost as if because this Russian campaign is happening at the same time they don’t have to be as careful because anything is better than what the Russians are doing?

Gopal: Of course Russian strikes deflect attention from what they are doing. The big difference is of course whatever the Russian air force is doing – which is horrible, undoubtable – they haven’t come out with a particular claim that they’ve killed some 400 civilians in 14,000 airstrikes— but the fact that the Coalition is making this claim means that it—it forces all of us journalists and researchers and academics to hold them to account to that.

More broadly I would say I think it’s in a way unfair almost to compare the two cases—the Syrian/Russian case and the Coalition case—because they are really the result of totally different histories and norms. What I mean is it used to be the case that – it was once accepted for the US to say target civilians. This is World War II in Dresden and firebombing Tokyo, the Korean War. Trump said the US wants to completely destroy North Korea; it would have been the second time they’ve done that. They would target civilians, they would target civilian infrastructure.

That shifted in Vietnam. Even though the laws of war had changed much before after Geneva, it shifted in Vietnam because of a really powerful antiwar movement that forced certain types of norms to be instituted within the military itself. That is the same paradigm we are living in now. The Coalition shouldn’t pat itself on the back that it’s not killing as many civilians as Russia. It’s the result of a process in which millions of people basically demanded and fought for that, against the wishes of the US military for generations.

‘Not a word from the Coalition’

Airwars: Have you had any official response since you’ve published this piece?

Khan: We had been in contact for about a year with questions, which they had been providing responses to. We had been checking coordinates from our sample in their logs. And more than a month before publication, we provided detailed information about all of the civilian casualty allegations that fell within 360 meters of logged Coalition coordinates: the names of dead of injured, photo evidence, contact information of survivors or witnesses or others they could reach on the ground,, before and after satellite imagery, and other evidence, and asked for any response or comment on any of them.

Although they answered other questions, we did not get a response about any of those allegations, and followed up a few times, including asking whether new investigations would be opened as a result of those allegations. And since the piece has been published, we still have not received a comment on that.

Gopal: We didn’t get a denial, we got nothing.

Khan: About the civilian casualty incidents not a word.

Anand: Not a word.

▲ Four members of the Rezzo family died in September 2015 when the Coalition confused their home with an 'ISIS headquarters.' Officials have finally admitted they got it wrong (Picture courtesy of the Altalib family. All rights reserved.)


October 19, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces have announced the capture of Raqqa from so called Islamic State (ISIS) fighters — and while Coalition officials say small pockets of resistance remain, it is now possible to assess the significant civilian toll of the four month battle.

Some 200,000 civilians by some estimates were in the city when operations to dislodge ISIS began on June 6th. Though the SDF and Coalition appeared at times to give conflicting instructions to civilians, most were able to flee – including several thousand during the last week of fighting, following an agreement that also saw the surrender and evacuation of around 275 ISIS fighters. 

But among those who were trapped at various points since June, Airwars estimates that at least 1,300 civilians likely died as a result of Coalition strikes (more than 3.200 such deaths have been alleged in total.). At least 700 victims have so far been locally named. Some were hit in their homes, some as they fled or reportedly tried to retrieve bodies. Throughout the battle, as in Mosul, ISIS put civilians in incredible danger, employing them as human shields to ward off fire — or worse, ensure their deaths. 

Overall, local monitors say at least 1,800 civilians were killed in the fighting. Fadel Abdul Ghany, Director of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, said his researchers estimated a civilian death toll in Raqqa since June of 1,854, of which 1,058 were the responsibility of Coalition forces. According to the Network’s estimates, ISIS was responsible for 311 deaths, and SDF ground forces for 191 civilian fatalities.

Other monitoring groups arrived at similar tolls: Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently reported that at least 1,873 civilians were killed overall.

Statistics of #Raqqa’s battlessince the declaration till the end of the battle 09.06.2017 to 15.10.2017#Raqqa #Syria #ISIS #YPG #USA .

— الرقة تذبح بصمت (@Raqqa_SL) October 16, 2017

To date, Coalition investigators have conceded just five likely deaths tied to their attacks in Raqqa between June 6th and mid-July, according to monthly reports. Asked about what it viewed as a more realistic total for the number of civilians killed by Coalition actions, the Public Affairs Office directed Airwars to those monthly reports, and said another covering September would be released shortly.

In Mosul, the Coalition and American authorities have said the job of counting dead civilians — killed in any manner — fell to the government of Iraq. In Raqqa, the city is occupied by a Coalition-backed militia and not a national entity. No one appears to be tracking the total civilian toll — no one, except monitoring groups. “We have no reliable statistics on the overall number of civilians killed in Raqqah since June,” said a Coalition spokesperson.

The battery of Raqqa was so ferocious that on average during the entire month of August, one bomb, missile or shell was fired into the city every eight minutes. In September, the last full month of fighting and when ISIS-held territory never made up more than a quarter of the city’s area, some 4,570 munitions were fired by the Coalition. Since June, an estimated 20,000 munitions were fired in support of Coalition operations at Raqqa. Images captured by journalists in the final days of the assault show show a city in ruins.

Historic pictures by @Kilicbil today in Al-Naim square — once infamous for IS atrocities, now dotted with yellow flags of SDF

— Maya Gebeily (@GebeilyM) October 17, 2017

‘Raqqa is 80 per cent uninhabitable’

“There is barely a building that has been left unscathed, some of them have been pulverized by artillery and by fighting, others have been flattened by US airstrikes,” Holly Williams, a journalist in Raqqa, told the BBC World Service on an October 17th broadcast. “It is a terrible irony that in order to retake Raqqa, they’ve had to destroy the city.”

UN officials have been cited as saying that as much as 80 per cent of Raqqa city is now uninhabitable.

The civilian toll in Raqqa from airstrikes extends back through years of Coalition, Russian and regime airstrikes. US and allied aircraft first bombed ISIS positions in the city on September 23rd 2014, with a steady trickle of casualties reported in the following months. The numbers of civilians killed then escalated in March 2017, as SDF fighters sought to besiege the city before eventually fighting inside its confines.

From the start of March through June 6th, an additional 767 or more civilians in Raqqa governorate are assessed by Airwars as likely killed by Coalition strikes — bringing the estimated toll from the campaign to above 2,000. This is higher than the number of civilian deaths considered likely the responsibility of Coalition strikes during the campaign to capture Mosul, a city several times larger. It must be noted that in Mosul reports were often contradictory and attribution difficult, and therefore “likely” Coalition incidents were proportionally fewer. In Raqqa, when a bomb or artillery shell fell it almost certainly originated with the Coalition. 

There were several particularly deadly incidents in the lead up to operations inside the city itself. In a recent report, investigators at Human Rights Watch profiled two such events: the bombing of an abandoned school used to house displaced Syrians on March 20th, and an attack that hit a market and baker two days later on March 22nd. Both incidents took place at Tabqa, to the west of Raqqa and near where a Coalition friendly fire incident would soon after claim the lives of 18 SDF members, raising questions about the accuracy of air and artillery strikes, and the intelligence used to plan them.

Between the two March attacks, Human Rights Watch recorded the names of 84 civilians identified by locals and relatives as killed. Among them were 30 children. After the Coalition’s commander initially brushed aside the school bombing, calling it a “clean strike”,  internal investigators determined that no civilians were killed — an assessment the Coalition has stuck by even in the face of subsequent findings. A separate investigation undertaken by a UN commission of inquiry has cited the school incident as one of the war’s deadliest, and said it took place at night, while most were sleeping.

Those deadly strikes set the tone for a dramatic increase in civilian casualties over the next half year. They also coincided with a new anti-ISIS plan, delivered by US Defense Secretary Mattis at the end of February to President Trump. Mattis would later describe the new US approach as one of “annihilation” — surrounding ISIS areas and not allowing any foreign fighters to escape. (Across Iraq and Syria, reported civilian deaths rose six-fold in the month after the plan was delivered). Yet Raqqa was ultimately taken after an agreement between the SDF, local tribal leaders and ISIS that allowed several hundred fighters to surrender in exchange for the release of thousands of trapped civilians. 

“After destroying most of the city, the Coalition has shown no interest in helping locals save what’s left of civilians,” wrote analyst Hassan Hassan on October 14th, lamenting that evacuation arrangements for Raqqa weren’t considered much earlier.

As noted before, after destroying most of the city, the Coalition has shown no interest in helping locals save what’s left of civilians. A missed opportunity to *actively* demonstrate interest beyond dropping precision bombs.

— Hassan Hassan (@hxhassan) October 14, 2017

‘Civilians have paid the highest cost’

In March alone, Airwars recorded at least 275 civilian deaths likely attributable to Coalition airstrikes or artillery — more than six times as many as were tracked in February. This occurred in spite of a drop in the number of targets hit, suggesting more civilian deaths with each US-led raid. In April, Airwars researchers estimated that at least 215 civilians were killed by Coalition strikes in Raqqa governorate. In May, that figure was 283.

In June, when the offensive inside the city began, civilian deaths due to Coalition activities in Syria hit a new record, rising by nearly 50%. In Raqqa itself during the month, Airwars estimated that at least 335 civilians had been killed by the alliance’s bombs or artillery.

“In the many months that forces have participated in the battle for Raqqa, it is the civilians who have paid the highest cost,” a member of the monitoring group Raqqa of Being Slaughtered Silently told Airwars shortly before SDF fighters declared the city captured.

On June 6th – the first day of the assault – three children, including a baby named Jana Nour al Hariri were reported killed by a Coalition strike in the al Ferdos neighborhood of Raqqa. This marked a new and grim metric for measuring the toll in Raqqa: the number of children reportedly dying in air and artillery strikes. After seven weeks of fighting inside the city, the deaths of more than 119 children had been tied by Airwars researchers to likely Coalition actions.

According to Airwars estimates, that number rose to at least 250 child fatalities by the time the SDF declared victory in October. 

Jana Al Hariri, killed – along with four members of her family – in an alleged Coalition raid on Al Ferdous, July 6th 2017 (via Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently)

On August 24th, the UN’s humanitarian adviser for Syria, Jan Egeland, urged the Coalition to consider a humanitarian pause. The Coalition refused, and suggested it would not consider any steps allowing ISIS to regroup inside the city. “The only way to save the people of Raqqa is to liberate them from the Islamic State,” wrote Lt. Gen. Stephen J Townsend, in an article responding to Airwars research.

That same month, Airwars monitored at least 433 civilian deaths it considered the likely responsibility of the Coalition. In one of the worst reported incidents, at least 23 civilians were reported killed in an attack on Raqqa’s Bedo neighborhood on August 20th. More massacres followed in the coming days: On August 21st, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported the death of 19 children and 12 women in the same neighborhood. Dozens more were killed in strikes that week. 

The aftermath of an alleged Coalition strike on Raqqa’s Bedo neighbourhood, Aug 20th (via Euphrates Post)

The annihilation of ISIS

The US-led effort in Raqqa served two functions — to free local populations from ISIS rule, but also to prevent any fighters from getting away and, possibly, plan attacks against the West. These two stated goals — the protection of civilians, and the annihilation of ISIS in the context of a wider global war on terror — were not always in tune. 

In Mosul, noted Hassan, an escape route was initially left open towards the west, if only briefly. But by the time the siege of Raqqa began, “annihilation” tactics where being fully employed.

“In Raqqa, the US followed a different approach,” said Hassan. “That approach has been a disaster for the city, and especially so since such a strategy would be more catastrophic given that the Syrian Democratic Forces are not as professional as the Iraqi counterterrorism forces that the US trained and supervised for a decade.”

The Coalition, for its part, has praised the SDF for protecting civilians while operating in an unforgiving urban environment.

“In Raqqa and elsewhere across Syria, our focus remains on reducing risk to civilians, while continuing to pursue and defeat ISIS terrorists at every opportunity,” Coalition spokesperson Ryan Dillon told reporters on October 17th. “Over the past 96 hours, we have seen about 1,300 civilians assisted to safety by the SDF, and just about 3,000 civilians rescued in the last week. “

Amazing moments when a group of Raqqa civilians finally rescued from ISIS by YPG-led SDF fighters @MAturkce @CENTCOM @brett_mcgurk

— Mutlu Civiroglu (@mutludc) October 13, 2017

As the battle for Raqqa wound down in October, American officials boasted of the firepower still being unleashed on ISIS-held parts of the city. On October 9th, US special envoy Brett McGurk tweeted that 75 airstrikes had taken place over the preceding 72 hours (a “strike” can include many bombs and multiple targets). During that time period several civilian casualty incidents were reported. In one, at least nine civilians were reported killed in Raqqa when a Coalition strike allegedly hit a residential building. According to local accounts the dead had been displaced from Palmyra, only to be cut down in Raqqa a week before the fighting ended.

“Why resort to a scorched earth strategy with a city housing the most vulnerable people in all of Syria?” one member of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently noted to Airwars. “Do they not know that, in a way, their actions have caused the people of Raqqa to completely loose faith in the international community?”

The challenge for the Coalition and its local allies in the months ahead will be restoring hope to this shattered city.


September 23, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

A race to capture the key eastern city of Deir Ezzor along with ISIS-held Syrian territory along the border with Iraq has led to a sharp escalation of deadly airstrikes in the area which are being blamed locally on Russia, the regime and the Coalition – and allegedly leaving hundreds of civilian casualties between them.

Airwars researchers have monitored a major uptick in allegations since mid September in Deir Ezzor governorate. Local Syrian monitors are reporting the same trend: the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has indicated that 191 civilians were killed by Russian and/or regime raids in Deir Ezzor between September 10th and 18th. Though Airwars has not fully vetted Russian strikes during this period, such a toll would be higher than all the allegations against Moscow in Syria which Airwars tracked during August.

“The Russian bombing campaign was relatively quiet until September 10th, when we saw a marked intensification of raids on Deir Ezzor province. Then in just over a week more than 200 civilians were reported to have been killed,” said Kinda Haddad, chief Syria researcher at Airwars. In many of those incidents, she noted, conflicting attribution has made assessments difficult.

In other cases, the evidence points more directly to Russia. On September 10th, numerous sources reported that several dozen civilians were killed when Russian aircraft bombed the al Hawayj river crossing, hit boats and areas where they were launched from. A report in Smart News said that “most of the bodies are still floating on the surface of the Euphrates River.” Some outlets blamed the regime, though cockpit video released days later suggested the attack was likely Russian.

Unusually, the US-led Coalition has proactively been making clear that its forces are not responsibile for many of the claimed incidents. A senior official told Airwars on September 15th, for example, that the Coalition was not conducting any strikes within Deir Ezzor city – the location for many reported strikes.

Destruction in Al Mayadin following a strike on Sept 10th (via Sound and Picture). Sources variably blamed the Coalition, Russia and the Syrian regime — reflecting the state of confusion on the ground.

Divided battlefield

The battlefields of eastern Syria remain chaotic, though are at present effectively split by the Euphrates River, which in that part of the country runs diagonally southeast through Raqqa to Deir Ezzor, and on to oil-rich areas near the border with Iraq.

On September 9th, the Coalition announced the start of “Operation Jazeera Storm,” supporting Syrian Democratic Forces fighting ISIS in the Khabur River Valley. The Khabur river runs south and meets the Euphrates between Deir Ezzor and Mayadin. Contingents from the SDF, which has also captured much of Raqqa from ISIS, are now moving to areas just north of Deir Ezzor city.

At the same time, regime troops backed by Russian airstrikes and Special Forces have moved quickly from the south and east, entering the outskirts of Deir Ezzor city earlier this month and linking with besieged government troops at a garrison there. On both sides of the river, ISIS has lost swaths of territory to the advancing forces.

There remains a risk of conflict between the assaulting forces. On September 16th, the Coalition accused Russian warplanes of bombing SDF positions on the eastern side of the Euphrates, injuring several. Coalition soldiers – likely American – who were nearby according to a press statement. On September 21st, after what it said was SDF shelling of regime positions, the Russian military warned the Pentagon that “any attempts to open fire from areas where SDF fighters are located would be quickly shut down.”

Though significant media attention has been paid to the potential for clashes between Coalition- and Russian-backed forces, there has been little focus on those civilians – many of them already displaced from elsewhere in Syria – who are dying despite ongoing “deconfliction” efforts involving Coalition and Russian officials. Should those measures break down, civilians may be at further risk.

Deconfliction line

Speaking from Baghdad, Coalition spokesman Colonel Ryan Dillon told Airwars that a deconfliction line between the SDF and regime-Russian forces – tentatively drawn a few miles off the right bank of the Euphrates – had run from Tabqa (a city west of Raqqa) to Deir Ezzor. However areas beyond that in the Euphrates Valley such as Mayadin and Abu Kamal – locations believed to harbour senior ISIS leaders – are in territory with unclear deconfliction status, the colonel suggested. Coalition officials expect the fighting in the Valley to be fierce – whichever foe ISIS faces.

Adding to the volatile situation, Iraqi government air raids have recently been documented just inside Syrian territory, as well as in adjacent Iraqi territory still controlled by ISIS. 

Col. Dillon said that the Coalition had bombed inside Deir Ezzor city only until regime forces had reached their garrison on September 5th. Coalition aircraft continue to strike areas northwest of the Euphrates in support of the SDF, along with targets towards the Iraqi border. For instance, published Coalition strike reports indicate that aircraft bombed “near Abu Kamal” on nine of the first 20 days of September.

The Russian military has recently been documented bombing on both sides of the Euphrates. On September 18th, Moscow announced that regime forces had crossed the river south of Deir Ezzor city – potentially jeopardising the line of deconfliction that Col. Dillon described. The move was also the culmination of a particularly deadly period for civilians in Deir Ezzor governorate.

“The [Russian and regime] move significantly discredits the argument that the Euphrates can serve as a viable deconfliction line while IS implodes,” assessed Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute, in a recent report.

UN ‘deeply concerned’

With reports of high casualties, the UN has issued an urgent call for the protection of civilians in eastern Deir Ezzor, saying it is “deeply concerned.”

On September 10th for example, an airstrike hit a border crossing in Elbuleil, with the UN noting the event as “reportedly killing and injuring tens of civilians.”

On September 14th, Airwars monitored 11 separate alleged civilian casualty events from airstrikes in Deir Ezzor governorate — all of which are currently evaluated as contested by researchers. The worst may have taken place in an area on the eastern side of the Euphrates — possibly a camp for internally displaced people. Some reports suggested a death toll upwards of 100. ISIS-affiliated accounts posted horrific video footage, showing dead and wounded children, and initially blamed the Coalition. A number of subsequent reports claimed Russia was responsible, while at least one called into question whether the incident took place at the camp.

The camp near the village of Jadid Akeidat (via Al Yaqeen news agency)

“Reports for the majority of these allegations were highly confused, with sources reporting them as being perpetrated by the coalition, others saying it was Russia and others still reporting them as regime strikes,” said Kinda Haddad. “Some of the villages mentioned were later reported to have fallen into regime hands, so it is reasonable to assume that those particular ones were either regime or Russian strikes.”

“The UN is deeply concerned for the safety and protection of civilians – men, women and children – who are the victims of continued fighting, airstrikes and military operations in Deir-ez-Zor,” said Ramesh Rajasingham, the acting interim Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria in a statement. “I call on all parties to do their utmost to ensure the safety and well being of civilians in the conduct of military operations and strictly adhere to the international humanitarian law principles of distinction, proportionality, and precautions in and from the effects of attack.”

Not all incidents appear to be the responsibility of Russia or the regime. Airwars currently assesses an event in Abu Kamal on September 17th-18th as having likely been perpetrated by the Coalition. At least seven named civilians were killed from the same family, including four children.

Despite the continuing high toll at Raqqa and escalating casualties around Deir Ezzor, once again no Pentagon reporters asked questions about civilian casualties – in either Iraq or Syria – at the Coalition’s weekly press briefing on September 21st.

‘The children Samir, Amir, and Munir Badr Attallah al Haj Kardoush, killed with their parents in International Coalition warplanes missiles fired on al Sena’a neighborhood in al Boukamal city in Deir Ez-Zour governorate eastern suburbs, September 17, 2017.’ via SN4HR

▲ Suspected Russian air raids on al Mayadeen near Deir Ezzor on September 16th led to a number of civilian casualties (Image via Euphrates Post)