September 20, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

US-led Coalition forces are firing record numbers of bombs, missiles and artillery shells into besieged areas of Raqqa city – part of a bloody campaign to dislodge so-called Islamic State (ISIS) from its self proclaimed capital. The assault is also reportedly killing hundreds of trapped civilians every month – a charge the Coalition strenuously denies.

On average one Coalition bomb, missile or artillery round was fired into Raqqa every eight minutes during August, according to official data provided to Airwars. A total of 5,775 bombs, shells and missiles were launched by US-led forces into the city during the month in support of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on the ground.

By way of comparison, US-led forces fired ten times more munitions into Raqqa during August than were released by US aircraft across all of Afghanistan for the same month (503), according to recent data issued by Air Force Central Command (AFCENT).

Bloody fight

The SDF is now in the fourth month of a slow and bloody battle to seize Raqqa from ISIS. Yet even after announcing the capture of more than half of the city, Coalition data shows record numbers of munitions being fired – higher even than were loosed in any one month (5,500 in March) during the tough fight for West Mosul, an area far larger than Raqqa.

The intensity of the air and artillery bombardment on Raqqa – primarily by US forces – closely correlates with high casualty reports on the ground. In July, munition use and likely civilian casualties from Coalition strikes in Raqqa fell by 32 percent and 33 percent respectively. In August both munition use and reported casuialties rose steeply again.

Airwars monitoring indicates that at least 433 civilians likely died as a result of Coalition actions at Raqqa during August — more than double the number of estimated fatalities the previous month. In total more than 1,000 civilians have now credibly been reported killed since the assault began on June 6th, according to Airwars monitoring. The UN reports that an estimated 25,000 civilians remain trapped in Raqqa, prevented from fleeing by ISIS. Much of the city’s infrastructure, including its medical system, has also largely being reduced to rubble.

On September 19th, the Coalition told Airwars that its own estimates were that between 15,000 and 18,000 civilians still remained inside the city under ISIS control. Officials say the civilians should leave the city if possible. “If they can do so safely, the SDF has instructed civilians to flee their homes to SDF-controlled areas of Syria for relocation to IDP camps,” said Coalition spokesman Col. Thomas Veale. 

International agencies and NGOs are urging the US and its allies to do far more to protect from harm those civilians still trapped at Raqqa. “Using explosive weapons such as bombs and missiles in populated areas poses a predictable risk to civilians,” said Ole Solvang, deputy director of the emergencies division at Human Rights Watch. “The amount of munitions the coalition is firing into Raqqa raises serious concerns whether the coalition is taking all feasible precautions to minimize civilian casualties.”

Aftermath of an alleged Coalition strike on Raqqa’s Malahi neighbourhood, which was reported to have killed up to 40 civilians, August 22nd 2017 (via Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently)

‘Operational need’

Among those credibly reported by local monitors as killed in August at Raqqa were at least 74 children and 62 women — both estimates up considerably from the previous month. To date, more than 180 children have likely been killed in Coalition air and artillery strikes since June 6th, according to an Airwars assessment. 

The Coalition – which has so far conceded only four civilian deaths during the battle for Raqqa – maintains that despite the surge in munition use, the minimizing of civilian casualties is their top concern. The uptick in bombs and missiles, said a Coalition’s spokesperson, was a product of “operational need and will ebb and flow as the operation does.”

“The number of strikes and munitions also vary based on several other factors, such as the number of available targets, partner force operational tempo, enemy movement, and the weather,” said Col Veale. “The Coalition adheres to strict targeting processes and procedures aimed to minimize risks to non-combatants.”

“The avoidance of civilian casualties is our highest priority when conducting strikes against legitimate military targets with precision munitions, unlike the indiscriminate nature of ISIS tactics which result in an enormous number of avoidable civilian deaths,” Veale wrote in a statement to Airwars. “The Coalition will not abandon our commitment to our partners because of ISIS’s inhuman tactics terrorizing civilians, using human shields, and fighting from protected sites such as schools, hospitals, religious sites and civilian neighborhoods”

Read our full Coalition and Russia casualty assessment for August 2017

For its part, ISIS has been repeatedly documented as placing civilians in extreme danger. Non combatants are held against their will in areas under Coalition fire, with ISIS using them as so called ‘human shields.’ Civilians are also regularly fired on by ISIS fighters if they try to flee.

During the recent battle for Mosul, Amnesty International reported that civilians were welded into homes, or ringed with booby traps. Those attempting to escape were often killed. In a recent response to Airwars research, the outgoing Coalition commander Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend cited such tactics.

“They booby trap houses, they weld doors shut to hold civilians hostage, and they shoot civilians that attempt to flee to the safety of our partners’ lines,” he wrote.

According to Raqqa researchers at the NGO Physicians for Human Rights, civilians are afraid to leave their homes — even if it is to retrieve a wounded civilian or dead body.

“Right now, our contacts on the ground are merely begging for time between the relentless bombings to at least be able to retrieve their wounded or dead family members from the rubble,” said Racha Mouawieh, lead Syrian researcher at Physicians for Human Rights. “Because Raqqa is ISIS’ self-proclaimed capital and main stronghold, coalition forces seem to feel they can totally disregard the lives and dignity of people trapped there.”

“ISIS has turned buildings that were once hospitals, mosques, and schools into headquarters and weapons caches to take advantage of their protected status,” said Col. Veale. “In accordance with the law of armed conflict, the Coalition strikes only valid military targets, after considering the principles of military necessity, humanity, proportionality, and distinction.”

"Al-Mansor street" downtown #Raqqa. The area has been targeted by tens of airstrikes during the last three months.#ISIS #SDF @Coalition

— RaqqaPost الرقة بوست (@RaqqaPost) September 8, 2017

Coalition denials

Civilian suffering at Raqqa has been well documented by local monitors such as the Syrian Network for Human Rights and Raqqa is Being Slaugtered Silently. Recent field investigations by Amnesty International and the UN-mandated Commission of Inquiry on Syria have also raised significant concerns, as has the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights – who recently warned that civilians at Raqqa “are paying an unacceptable price and that forces involved in battling ISIL are losing sight of the ultimate goal of this battle.“

In late August, reports grew so dire that UN humanitarian advisor Jan Egeland took the rare step of asking all sides to consider a humanitarian pause in Raqqa. The Coalition pushed back, saying operations would not be slowed and arguing that the faster the campaign was concluded, the more civilians would ultimately be saved.

The Coalition has also aggressively challenged reports of high civilian casualties from its actions – with senior officials publicly attacking Amnesty International; the Commission of Inquiry for Syria; and most recently Airwars.

Yet even the Coalition’s own reporting shows civilian fatalities in conceded incidents have doubled since Donald Trump took office eight months ago. That same official data shows that an average of 5.2 civilians are being killed in each admitted event under President Trump’s leadership – compared with an average of 3.1 civilians killed per event with Barack Obama at the helm. Airwars has recorded similar trends, though at far higher levels. As of September 14th, it estimates that at least 5,300 civilians had likely been killed by Coalition actions in both Iraq and and Syria since 2014. The majority of those reported deaths occurred during Trump’s leadership of the Coalition.

The unrelenting tempo of strikes in Raqqa may reflect the so called “annihilation tactics” put in place for counter-ISIS operations by Trump’s administration. “As we lift restrictions and expand authorities in the field, we are already seeing dramatic results in the campaign to defeat ISIS,” Trump said in an August 21st speech. Recent reports suggest the SDF has captured significant portions of Raqqa in recent days.

‘If they are not liberated they will surely die’

Shortly after handing over command of the Coalition at the start of September, Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend penned an extensive response to an earlier Airwars article jointly published with Foreign Policy. Townsend took issue with Airwars’ methodology, but also explained the Coalition’s strategy in Raqqa:

“There is no doubt that civilians are at risk every day from ISIS, our partner forces’ operations to defeat ISIS, and Coalition strikes in support of them,” wrote Townsend. “As the battle intensifies in the heart of Raqqah, more civilians will be at risk as ISIS holds them hostage and refuses to let them flee. However, if they are not liberated they will also surely die, either at the hands of ISIS or from starvation.”

But that strategy – and the significant reported civilian toll in Coalition-backed operations to capture ISIS-held cities – has caught the attention of some American military experts, who say the present offensive approach to urban battles needs to be rethought.

“Because we don’t understand cities nearly as well as we could and have demonstrated that we know even less about how to optimize military actions in them, we are like medieval doctors, lobotomizing patients and letting their blood without improving their health and too often causing death or such life-long damage that the patient survives as only a dysfunctional shadow of itself,” wrote John Spencer and John Amble of West Point’s Modern War Institute, in an analysis published in September.

“We cause incredible disruption and even destruction, but without any research-based evidence that these efforts will save the city.”

As the SDF further consolidates control over Raqqa, some international journalists have recently been able to send dispatches from inside the city. They report devastation. “24 hours of coverage still wouldn’t do justice to the total destruction across Raqqa,” tweeted veteran BBC Middle East Correspondent Quentin Sommerville. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

24 hours of coverage still wouldn't do justice to the total devastation across Raqqa. I've never seen anything like it.

— Quentin Sommerville (@sommervilletv) September 17, 2017

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


September 6, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

A Commission of Inquiry for Syria appointed by UN member states has determined that American forces violated international law when they bombed a mosque earlier this year. The Commission said on September 6th that it was also “gravely concerned” about the civilian toll in Raqqa, where Coalition forces have killed hundreds in recent months.

The Commission, which conducted 339 interviews in the course of reporting, highlighted two US and Coalition raids in their findings. One was a unilateral American raid on a mosque in Aleppo governorate which the Commission determined killed 38 people, including a woman and five boys on March 16th. A Coalition strike just a few days later, which hit civilians sheltering in an abandoned school near Raqqa, remains under investigation by the Commission.

The investigatory body also documented more than two dozen instances of chemical weapons use by Syrian regime forces, including an attack in April that left more than 80 civilians dead in Khan Sheikhoun and led to American cruise missile attacks on a government military installation. Russian forces, said the Commission, continued to bomb and target hospitals and medical personnel in Syria.

From the initial hours after the March 16th strike, American officials claimed that al Qaeda members were meeting at the Omar Ibn al-Khatab mosque in al Jinah. In June, US military investigators declared that in spite of numerous errors that led to misidentification of structures in the target area, the strike was lawful. US officials said only one civilian, a “smaller in stature person” – clearly a child – was believed to have died.  

Having identified a smaller older mosque nearby, US officials also insisted that the section of the religious complex hit by F-15 jets was not a functional one — an assertion contradicted by numerous local accounts and detailed investigations and analyses carried out by Human Rights Watch, Bellingcat and Forensic Architecture.

Forensic Architecture’s video showing bombed al Jinah building was a functioning mosque.

The Commission was able to confirm the use of GBU-39 munitions – a lower yield bomb which UN investigators said “was used to destroy the target with minimal collateral damage.” However, the Commission said the mosque should not have been targeted in the first place.

Witnesses confirmed to the Commission that members of the al-Qaeda linked group Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham were present in al Jinah. Investigators said they could not rule out “that some members of the group may have attended the gathering.” But, the Commission added, “the United States targeting team lacked an understanding of the actual target, including that it was part of a mosque where worshipers gathered to pray every Thursday.”

“Moreover, although the targeting team had information on the target three days prior, it did not undertake additional verification of target activities in that period, which would be expected were it known to be a mosque,” wrote investigators. The Commission concluded that the US “failed to take all feasible precautions to avoid or minimize incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects, in violation of international law.”

The Coalition strike, which took place in al Mansoura village in the early hours of March 21st, is one of the most fraught — and by some accounts deadliest — of the entire air campaign. Initial reports varied greatly but suggested a large civilian death toll. Reports monitored by Airwars named at least dozens of civilian victims.

But a week after the raid, then-coalition commander Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend called the strike “clean.” Speaking to reporters on March 28, Townsend pronounced “my initial read is: non credible.” His remarks raised concern that the Coalition investigation – not completed for several months – would be influenced by the General’s own conclusion. Ultimately the Coalition determined no civilians had died.

In June, the Commission highlighted the strike at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, where one Commissioner said the death toll in Mansoura was 200 — however this number may been a reference to reports, and it was not reflected as a conclusive figure in the latest report.

In their new findings, the Commission said they had “credible evidence that the school had been used to house internally displaced people as far back as 2012.”

“At the time of the strike, over 200 people, mostly displaced families from Palmyra, Homs, but also from Hamah and Aleppo, were living in the former school,” reported the Commission. “Some of the victims were recent arrivals, including from Maskanah, Aleppo, while other internally displaced persons had been living there for years.”

The strike, the Coalition found, occurred at night when most were sleeping.

In a June 17th email, Coalition spokesperson Col. Joseph Scrocca said “It is our assessment that no civilians were killed in a strike on a known ISIS torture site, weapons storage facility and meeting place formerly used as a school in Mansoura, Syria, 20-21 March.” Asked then about the disparity between the Commission’s findings, Scrocca asked “are there any photos or videos of the hundreds of civilian dead?”

The Commission interviewed witnesses after both strikes, as did Human Rights Watch. American and Coalition investigators did not speak to locals.


August 29, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

The number of civilians killed by the US-led coalition assault on the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Syria is mounting – but the coalition’s commanding general has cast doubt on the toll his forces are inflicting on innocents there. Airwars currently assesses that 1,700 or more civilians have likely been killed by U.S.-led air and artillery strikes in Raqqa governorate since March. A minimum of 860 civilians, including 150 children, are credibly reported to have been killed in Raqqa since the official start of operations to capture the city on June 6th.

Despite these findings, and corroborating evidence from UN bodies and nongovernmental organizations, Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend has described reports of such claims of large scale civilian death as hyperbole. In one instance the General  prematurely called allegations not credible even before the coalition had completed its own investigation.

Citing an estimated 20,000 civilians who remain trapped in Raqqa, UN humanitarian advisor Jan Egeland asked last week for consideration of a humanitarian pause in the city, similar to the respites organized last year in eastern Aleppo, where regime forces were fighting rebels. Despite a number of major investigations into the civilian death toll in Raqqa by multiple human rights organizations in recent months, there is no sign either side is considering any sort of pause.

The aftermath of an alleged Coalition raid raqqa’s Bedo neighbourhood, Aug 21st (via RBSS)

In a report released Aug. 24, the same day Egeland made his appeal, Amnesty International described the hell facing civilians, including thousands of children, at Raqqa. Survivors who fled the city said that Islamic State fighters have “been laying landmines and booby traps along exit routes, setting up checkpoints around the city to restrict movement, and shooting at those trying to sneak out.” But the report also described a “constant barrage of artillery strikes and airstrikes” by the coalition that further restricts movement, and has injured and killed hundreds of people.

Witnesses told of how shells ripped through civilian homes, and killed those seeking to escape. “Artillery shells are hitting everywhere, entire streets,” one witness said. “It is indiscriminate shelling and kills a lot of civilians.” (Russian air raids in support of pro-regime forces have also left many civilians dead south of the city.)

Yasser Abbas Hussein al-Alo, killed in an alleged Coalition strike on Raqqa, Aug 2nd (via Ahmad Al Shbli)

Throughout operations to capture Mosul and Raqqa, the coalition has argued that defeating the terrorist group quickly would ultimately save more lives. After Egeland’s comments, the coalition quickly tamped down expectations that the tempo of fighting might slow in Raqqa or anywhere else.

“Any pause in operations will only give ISIS more time to build up their defences and thus put more civilians in harm’s way,” said coalition spokesman Col. Joseph Scrocca. “What is more, it will further reinforce ISIS’s tactic of using civilians as human shields.”

But Townsend, the coalition forces’ commander, has gone further. He has suggested on several occasions that civilian death tolls are exaggerated — no matter how well investigated they may be.

In June, after a UN commission of inquiry warned that civilian casualties around Raqqa were already “staggering,” Townsend took issue with their phrasing, calling it “hyperbolic.”

“Show me some evidence of that,” he told the BBC.

On Aug. 22, Townsend again played down civilian deaths, this time at a press conference with U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis in Baghdad.

“It’s probably logical to assume that there has been some increase in the civilian casualties, because our operations have increased in intensity there,” said Townsend, when asked by a reporter about the uptick in deaths. “I would ask someone to show me hard information that says that civilian casualties have increased in Raqqa to some significant degree.”

Such hard information is freely available from multiple sources. Large numbers of civilian casualties from coalition actions have been reported in local outlets and by Syrian monitoring organizations since well before the official start of operations inside Raqqa itself. In the three months leading up to June, Airwars researchers estimate that more than 700 civilians were likely killed by coalition strikes as the Syrian Democratic Forces surrounded the city. Airwars currently assesses that more than 5,100 civilians have likely been killed in coalition actions in both Iraq and Syria since 2014.

These estimates are only compiled from reporting rated as “fair” by Airwars researchers. This classification requires there to be two or more reliable sources indicating civilian casualties and citing the coalition as having launched the strike, no conflicting attribution (for instance, the presence of Russian or regime strikes), and acknowledgement by the coalition that it did launch strikes in the vicinity on that day. Among accounts monitored by Airwars, more than 1,900 civilian deaths in Raqqa have been blamed on the coalition since June 6, but less than 40 percent was considered “fair.”

Reports of the damage wrought by coalition strikes have been corroborated by investigators on the ground. Researchers from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have recently visited the cities, towns, and camps around Raqqa,  and interviewed survivors who all tell similar stories of terrifying air and artillery strikes, as well as Islamic State actions. The UN Commission of Inquiry for Syria has also been able to speak with survivors and witnesses to a number of strikes in the area.

One reason for the disconnect between public allegations and military understanding is the pace of official investigations. The coalition itself has so far finished examining just a fraction of civilian casualty allegations reported in Raqqa since the assault began. Since the latest coalition monthly casualty report was published this month, only three incidents in Raqqa dating to after June 6th had been assessed by the U.S.-led alliance. Another 13 allegations are pending review.  Airwars has informed the coalition of 101 individual alleged incidents at Raqqa for June alone.

Airwars monitoring shows that the civilian death toll in Raqqa is closely linked to the intensity of the assault. Put simply: When fewer coalition bombs fall, fewer civilians are killed. In July, for example, estimated civilian deaths from coalition strikes fell in Raqqa by about 33 percent compared with June. Munitions fired at the city by the coalition also fell by almost exactly the same amount – 32 percent.

Children in particular are suffering in Raqqa. Though some civilians are able to bribe their way out of the city, local monitors like the Syrian Network for Human Rights say children are often marooned with their families. According to UNICEF, thousands remain trapped.

“With no access for humanitarian agencies, the city is completely cut off from lifesaving assistance,” said Fran Equiza, the UNICEF representative in Syria. “Children and families have little or no safe water while food supplies are running out fast.”

At least 150 children have credibly been reported killed at Raqqa since June, with more casualties reported every week by groups like Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently. Many of them are named, with photographs posted on social media by surviving family members. Jana al-Hariri, a baby girl, was reportedly killed along with four family members in a raid on July 6; on Aug. 2, one-year old Saad al-Shabshol, was killed, also along with family members; And on Aug. 17, four children from the al-Sayer family were reported killed in an alleged coalition strike. Photographs showed them together in happier times — the youngest no more than a baby.

Saad al Shabshol, aged one, killed along w/ several family members in an alleged Coalition strike on Raqqa, August 2

— Samuel Oakford (@samueloakford) August 18, 2017

Four children from the Al-Sayer family, who died in an alleged Coalition airstrike in Raqqa, yesterday. @airwars

— Samuel Oakford (@samueloakford) August 18, 2017

Against this backdrop, Gen. Townsend has been dismissive of deaths he says are not as numerous as widely reported, and in any case unavoidable. In one instance, the general’s comments have preceded the conclusion of the coalition’s own investigations into reported civilian casualty incidents, raising the possibility that their outcome might be influenced. After a coalition raid hit a school building reportedly sheltering displaced families near Raqqa on March 21, Townsend said he thought “that was a clean strike.”

“My initial read is: not credible,” he told reporters on March 28, using the official coalition term for a strike determined to not have killed civilians. Investigators with the UN Commission of Inquiry for Syria later determined that the strike may in fact have been one of the deadliest of the air campaign for civilians. The coalition ultimately concluded that no civilians were killed.

In the most serious criticism of the coalition commander to date, Townsend has been accused by Amnesty International of unlawful action after he recently boasted of the coalition’s deadly firepower at Raqqa.  In early July, the general told a reporter from the New York Times that “we shoot every boat we find” on the Euphrates River.  “If you want to get out of Raqqa right now, you’ve got to build a poncho raft,” he added.

According to local reports, civilians have frequently been killed as they try to escape the city by river, or fetch water from it to drink. In early July, Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently reported the deaths of more than two dozen people who were attempting to reach the Euphrates or wells nearby. In its report, Amnesty profiled a 15-year old boy, Mohamed Nour, who attempted to flee the city with a friend in order to avoid being forcibly conscripted by the Islamic State. As they attempted to cross the Euphrates, a suspected coalition strike hit their boat, killing both children and others on board.

“Lt. General Townsend’s statement appears not to take into account the difficulties civilians face in trying to escape the city, as by then it was well known that civilians wanting to flee the city had few options but to cross the river,” Amnesty noted in its report. “Strikes on ‘every boat’ crossing the river on the assumption that every boat carries IS fighters and weapons, without verifying whether that was indeed the case on each separate occasion, are indiscriminate, and as such unlawful.”

Amnesty researcher Ben Walsby, who co-authored the group’s Raqqa report, told Airwars that virtually everyone they spoke with had fled across the Euphrates to escape Islamic State-held areas.

Gen. Townsend’s latest comments have drawn criticism from local groups monitoring the civilian toll. The Syrian Network for Human Rights, which estimates that at least 800 civilians have been killed by coalition operations since June 5, said it would provide the names of those killed to Townsend if he liked. The people behind Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, which has documented the Islamic State’s brutalities in the city for years, tweeted that Townsend’s comments “reminds me of Syrian regime lies same lies.”

U.S. officials have gone to great lengths to tout their care in avoiding civilian casualties. Now, however, those efforts threaten to be undermined by the Raqqa campaign.

“There has been no military in the world’s history that has paid more attention to limiting civilian casualties and the deaths of innocents on the battlefield than the coalition military,” Mattis said while sitting next to Townsend during the Baghdad press conference.

“We’re not the perfect guys,” he told reporters. “We can make a mistake, and in this kind of warfare, tragedy will happen. But we are the good guys, and the innocent people on the battlefield know the difference.” Many of those lucky enough to escape Raqqa told Walsby and his colleagues at Amnesty very different stories.

“For all the technology, the military tactics belong in another century,” he told Airwars. “There is no place for firing battlefield weapons into populated cities in the 21 st century, and this in the future will be looked back on as pretty barbaric.”


July 28, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

Seven weeks into US-backed operations to capture Raqqa from so-called Islamic State (ISIS), more than 100 children are among the many civilians reported killed by heavy Coalition airstrikes and artillery fire targeting the city – as well as in actions by proxy SDF forces on the ground, and from attacks by ISIS itself.

In June, Airwars estimated that at least 340 civilians in Raqqa were likely slain by Coalition strikes and artillery. That pattern has continued into July. According to a running assessment, at least 140 additional civilians perished due to Coalition strikes in the first three weeks of the month.

Since June 6th as many as 119 children are among those killed in and around Raqqa according to local reports, with most of the young victims named.

Local accounts describe street fighting and dangerous explosive fire into the city that has increased dramatically since the official start of operations on June 6th. By mid-July, the US confirmed that Syrian Democratic Forces were suffering heavy casualties – a toll so high that the Pentagon had to publicly counter reports that ground operations were paused.

Instead the US insists the joint campaign will employ new strategies, but that these are not due to the civilian toll. At least one SDF commander disagrees however – telling Syria Direct that the tempo of the assault on the eastern half of Raqqa had been reduced ‘to prevent civilian casualties and preserve historic sites.’

The Coalition says that 45% of Raqqa has so far fallen to SDF forces – though a tough fight remains.

Map of progress made by our partner forces in the operation to liberate #Raqqa as of 24.07 via @SyriacMFS

— The Global Coalition (@coalition) July 25, 2017

Intense barrage

Over the past month and a half, an already heavy barrage of airstrikes and artillery aimed at the city has turned more ferocious. According to US Central Command (CENTCOM) data supplied to Airwars, roughly 4,400 munitions were fired into Raqqa by the Coalition during June alone – a huge rise from the 1,000 unleashed in May. These numbers rival what was seen during the worst fighting in Mosul – a city many times larger in size.  

Airwars researchers monitoring events in Raqqa say that reports of strikes killing multiple family members, often children, are common. At least 30,000 civilians are believed to still remain trapped in the city, many having already fled there from other parts of Syria. ISIS is forcibly preventing these civilians from leaving.

“Although we are still seeing some incidents where one or two people are being killed there are also many incidents of entire families being wiped out by air and artillery strikes. Often they are described as internally displaced,” said Kinda Haddad, the chief Syria researcher at Airwars.

US officials maintain that Islamic State fighters are using civilians as human shields, much as they have in other cities besieged by Coalition-backed forces. In Mosul, Amnesty International recorded testimony of residents who said ISIS had set booby-traps with explosives to keep civilians penned in, and in some cases had welded them into buildings amid fighting. A representative of the monitoring group Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered (RBSS) confirmed that in Raqqa too, ISIS was putting civilians between their own fighters and the Coalition.

“Every day there is heavy shelling, whether by artillery or aircraft,” RBSS said, adding that according to the group’s estimates, 50,000 civilians are in ISIS-held areas of the city. “No one is providing guidance to civilians, the civilians are the biggest losers.”

On July 6th, a mother and her three children were reported killed and at least two other family members were injured after Coalition strikes hit the al Ferdos neighborhood of Raqqa. Several local sources named the children as Jana Nour al Hariri, Shatha Nour al Hariri and Mohammed Nour al Hariri. A picture of Jana posted by Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered showed a baby of no more than a year or two, smiling when still alive.

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)

Seven more children were reported killed on July 13th, when an airstrike reportedly hit close to a bakery near Fern al Ma’ari in Raqqa. On the same day, another girl named Bayan Awwad al Billo was reported killed in the city, according to local sources. Photos showed her limp body after an airstrike allegedly hit the house of her family.

That children have so often been the victims of such strikes was predictable, said Fadel Abdul Ghany, director of the Syrian Network for Human Rights. Of those with the means to bribe their way out of Raqqa, many were men who feared mandatory conscription by ISIS as the battle for the city approached.

“Children remained, and a huge amount of the killing is of children,” he said.

The list of slain children continues to grow. On July 16th seven members of the Salah Al-Mana family were reportedly killed in an alleged Coalition strike. A week later, local outlets reported that two children – Ro’a and Ahmad Aliji – were killed alongside their father Husam and at least three others in a strike near the Tariq Bin Ziad school in Raqqa.

And on July 25th, Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered posted graphic photographs of children it said had been killed by “Coalition airstrikes and #SDF shelling on Raqqa.”

In total, Airwars has tracked as many as 119 children alleged killed in Coalition actions since June 6th. Based on the quality of local reports, at least 87 and as many as 100 of those deaths appear likely to have resulted from US-led actions.

Those who made it out of Raqqa in recent weeks have relayed to aid officials that civilians injured by strikes are cornered, and unable to reach help.

“Patients say large numbers of sick and wounded people are trapped inside Raqqa city with little or no access to medical care and limited chance of escaping the city,” said Vanessa Cramond, medical coordinator for Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Turkey and north Syria. “MSF is extremely concerned for the wellbeing of those who can’t get out.”

Investigating civilian deaths

Even as civilians are cut down inside Raqqa, investigators are just beginning to grapple with the heavy toll from strikes that took place during the encirclement of the city earlier this year.

Since the start of 2017, Airwars has recorded more than 1,300 likely civilian deaths tied to Coalition air and artillery strikes in support of Syrian Democratic Forces in Raqqa governorate. The Kurdish-dominated SDF surrounded Islamic State’s self-proclaimed capital in the months leading up to June: more than 700 civilians were estimated killed in attacks during March, April and May.

Human Rights Watch recently visited Tabqah and al Mansoura, to the west of Raqqa. Both cities are now controlled by the SDF, but reportedly suffered major civilian casualties from airstrikes before being captured. One raid, on a school in Mansoura  on March 21st, was by some accounts the deadliest of the entire Coalition air campaign. At least several dozen civilians were likely killed – though there were claims by some that 200 or more died in the event.  

However even before an official investigation could be concluded, Coalition commander Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend told reporters on March 28th that he believed no civilians had been killed in the incident.

“We haven’t completed our assessment of that event yet,” said General Townsend. “But my initial read is: not credible. I think that was a clean strike.”

The Coalition’s civilian casualty assessors subsequently echoed the General’s conclusion, determining the incident to be Not Credible. It remains unclear to what extent Townsend’s remarks might have influenced the Coalition’s investigative process. However, Human Rights Watch, along with an independent UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, have determined that many civilians – largely internally displaced people – did die in the attack.

Airwars monitored multiple local reports at the time of the event which also suggest such a toll. Airwars also provided the Coalition with local media reports detailing an influx of IDPs to the al Mansoura area a few weeks prior to the event – something the US-led alliance appears to have been unaware of at the time of the attack.  

“Afterwards, we got an allegation that it wasn’t ISIS fighters in there; got a single allegation it wasn’t ISIS fighters in there; it was instead refugees of some sort in the school,” Townsend told reporters.  “Yet, not seeing any corroborating evidence of that.”

“What we were able to confirm is that several Coalition attacks in these two towns resulted in significant civilian casualties,” said Ole Solvang, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s emergencies division. “In some cases, the civilian casualties happened when Coalition aircraft carried out close air support attacks to support Syrian Democratic Forces who were in direct contact with ISIS fighters on the ground, striking houses where civilians were hiding.”

“In other cases, it really seems that the Coalition failed in its homework, launching attacks before properly understanding what buildings were being used for, and how many civilians were there,” he added.

Lt. Gen. Townsend has made additional comments which raise questions about the Coalition’s civilian protections. After the UN’s Commission of Inquiry rang alarm bells at significant numbers of civilians being killed in airstrikes around Raqqa, the General responded incredulously.

“Show me some evidence of that,” he said to the BBC.

On July 2nd, Townsend also told the New York Times “we shoot every boat we find” along the Euphrates River. The Euphrates and nearby riverine land has been the site of dozens of documented civilian deaths in the past month, including civilian boats attacked and sunk; and numerous residents killed as they searched for drinking water as clean supplies in Raqqa have dwindled.

Lt Gen Stephen Townsend has recently downplayed Coalition civilian casualties – despite the contrary findings of international agencies and NGOs and local monitors  (Image via US Army/ Sgt. Von Marie Donato)

Russia returns

Adding to the woes of civilians in Raqqa governorate, Airwars researchers have also monitored an increase in pro-regime strikes in the area. In recent weeks regime forces, backed by airstrikes have captured areas to the southeast of Raqqa as they move to capture Deir Ezzor – itself the site of deadly Coalition air raids in July.

Local monitors have reported that Russian planes are dropping leaflets instructing residents to evacuate towns in eastern Raqqa. The use of cluster munitions and barrel bombs has also been reported, along with civilian casualties.

On July 23rd, Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered reported upwards of 60 pro-regime airstrikes “on the villages and towns of the eastern Raqqa countryside.” Strikes on the town of Zour Shamar that day reportedly claimed the lives of six civilians and left nearly 20 injured.

The worst raid in recent weeks appears to have taken place on July 24th, when a purported Russian raid hit the Juweizat camp near Al-Sharida in the southern countryside, allegedly killing 40 civilians.

“The most startling thing to note the last few days is that a big chunk of the incidents we have picked up were contested between the Coalition and Russia and in some cases the regime,” said Airwars researcher Haddad.  

Amid the carnage, international media and NGOs are thin on the ground at Raqqa compared to their recent presence in Mosul. Without local monitors, little information about civilians being killed — including their names — would find its way out. As Coalition-backed forces and the regime race one another to capture ISIS strongholds, civilians are likely to continue to pay a significant price.

Syrian army advances against Islamic State southeast of Raqqa city in push to reach Deir e-Zor, SAA source tells us.

— Syria Direct (@SyriaDirect) July 26, 2017


July 17, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

Civilian casualties from the U.S.-led war against the so-called Islamic State are on pace to double under President Donald Trump, according to an Airwars investigation for The Daily Beast.

Airwars researchers estimate that at least 2,300 civilians likely died from Coalition strikes overseen by the Obama White House—roughly 80 each month in Iraq and Syria. As of July 13, more than 2,200 additional civilians appear to have been killed by Coalition raids since Trump was inaugurated—upwards of 360 per month, or 12 or more civilians killed for every single day of his administration.

The Coalition’s own confirmed casualty numbers—while much lower than other estimates—also show the same trend. Forty percent of the 603 civilians so far admitted killed by the alliance died in just the first four months of Trump’s presidency, the Coalition’s own data show.

The high civilian toll in part reflects the brutal final stages of the war, with the densely populated cities of Mosul and Raqqa under heavy assault by air and land. But there are also indications that under President Trump, protections for civilians on the battlefield may have been lessened—with immediate and disastrous results. Coalition officials insist they have taken great care to avoid civilian deaths, blaming the rise instead on the shifting geography of battles in both Iraq and Syria and Islamic State tactics, and not on a change in strategy.

Whatever the explanation, more civilians are dying. Airwars estimates that the minimum approximate number of civilian deaths from Coalition attacks will have doubled under Trump’s leadership within his first six months in office. Britain, France, Australia, and Belgium all remain active within the campaign, though unlike the U.S. they each deny civilian casualties.

In one well-publicized incident in Mosul, the U.S. admits it was responsible for killing more than 100 civilians in a single strike during March. But hundreds more have died from Coalition attacks in the chaos of fighting there.

“Remarkably, when I interview families at camps who have just fled the fighting, the first thing they complain about is not the three horrific years they spent under ISIS, or the last months of no food or clean water, but the American airstrikes,” said Belkis Wille, Iraq researcher for Human Rights Watch. “Many told me that they survived such hardship, and almost made it out with the families, only to lose all their loved ones in a strike before they had time to flee.”

Across the border in Raqqa, where the U.S. carries out nearly all the Coalition’s airstrikes and has deployed artillery, the civilian toll is less publicly known but even more startling. In the three months before American-backed forces breached the city’s limits in early June, Airwars tracked more than 700 likely civilian deaths in the vicinity of the self-declared ISIS capital. UN figures suggest a similar toll.

A girl passes a bomb crater in West Mosul, April 12th 2017 (Image by Kainoa Little. All rights reserved)

Annihilation Tactics

A number of factors appear responsible for the steep recent rise in civilian deaths—some policy-related, others reflecting a changing battlespace as the war enters its toughest phase.In one of his first moves as president, Trump ordered a new counter-ISIS plan be drawn up. Second on his list of requests were recommended “changes to any United States rules of engagement and other United States policy restrictions that exceed the requirements of international law regarding the use of force against ISIS.”

In short, Trump was demanding that the Pentagon take a fresh look at protections for civilians on the battlefield except those specifically required by international law. That represented a major shift from decades of U.S. military doctrine, which has generally made central the protection of civilians in war.

On Feb. 27, Secretary of Defense James Mattis delivered the new war plan to Trump.

“Two significant changes resulted from President Trump’s reviews of our findings,” Mattis later said at a May 19 meeting of the anti-ISIS Coalition. “First, he delegated authority to the right level to aggressively and in a timely manner move against enemy vulnerabilities. Second, he directed a tactical shift from shoving ISIS out of safe locations in an attrition fight to surrounding the enemy in their strongholds so we can annihilate ISIS.”

Though the U.S. military had shifted to such annihilation tactics—a change cited with glee by the Trump White House—Mattis claimed there have been no updates to U.S. rules of engagement. “There has been no change to our continued extraordinary efforts to avoid innocent civilian casualties,” he told reporters.

We are winning because @realDonaldTrump and Sec. Mattis have jettisoned a strategy of attrition for one of


— Sebastian Gorka DrG (@SebGorka) July 11, 2017

When Airwars asked the Department of Defense whether, once implemented, the new plan was expected to lead to more civilian casualties, officials did not answer the question and only pointed to Mattis’ remarks.

Yet beginning in March 2017—the month after Mattis handed over the new plan—Airwars began tracking a sharp rise in reported civilian fatalities from U.S.-led strikes against ISIS. In part this was due to the savagery of the battle for Mosul. But in Syria—where almost all strikes are American—likely civilian fatalities monitored by Airwars researchers increased five-fold even before the assault on Raqqa began.

Local monitors including the Syrian Network for Human Rights, Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights have also reported record Coalition civilian deaths in recent months.

Airwars itself tracks local Iraqi and Syrian media and social media sources for civilian casualty allegations, then makes a provisional assessment of how many were killed. The Coalition’s own casualty monitoring officials recently described Airwars as “kind of part of the team” when it comes to better understanding the civilian toll. However the US-led alliance has also contested many of the allegations tracked by Airwars, and its researchers are currently engaging with the Coalition to assess these incidents.

Reported Coalition civilian deaths jumped up steeply shortly after US Defense Secretary Mattis’ new plan to defeat ISIS was adopted in late February 2017

Despite disagreements over estimates, all parties agree that casualty numbers are steeply up. There is less agreement on why. Ned Price, spokesman for the National Security Council under the Obama administration, says recent reports strongly suggest the kind of change in rules that Mattis is denying.

“There is a tremendous disconnect between what we’ve heard from senior military officials who are saying there has been no change in the rules of engagement and clearly what we are seeing on the ground,” he said in an interview.

Nevertheless, the Obama administration had reportedly already become more tolerant of civilian casualties towards the end of the president’s second term. Authorization procedures for anti-ISIS strikes were loosened prior to Trump taking office, amid high attrition among Iraqi ground forces as they battled to capture East Mosul.

“The rise in allegations is attributable to the change in location of Iraqi operations against ISIS, not strategy,” said Coalition spokesperson Col. Joe Scrocca. “East Mosul was much less populated than west Mosul and the infrastructure is more modern and more dispersed. The month of March saw the start of ISF operations in the much more densely packed west Mosul. West Mosul has many more people, is much more densely populated, and the infrastructure is much older and more tightly packed.”

“In regard to Syria, where previous to March, the SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces] was predominantly operating in sparsely populated terrain, strikes increases is attributed to Coalition support to SDF operations to liberate Tabqah and isolate Raqqah,” he added.

In Syria, there are a number of other potential factors at play. The U.S. has deployed its own troops on the ground to advise and call in airstrikes for the SDF, and fire artillery into ISIS controlled areas. Protecting those forces will now be a priority for U.S. airstrikes—though may place any nearby civilians at greater risk of harm. Local monitors say the SDF’s own spotty track record of accuracy in their strike requests over the past several years has also been magnified by the stepped up pace of the campaign in and around Raqqa.

“I think it’s not helpful to get into an argument about whether the ROE [Rules of Engagement] have or have not been changed,” said Andrea Prasow, deputy Washington Director at Human Rights Watch. “The bottom line is more civilians are dying. Whatever the reason, that should concern the U.S. greatly.”

At the State Department, Larry Lewis—in January still its top official dedicated to civilian casualties—felt the implications of Trump’s request to the military were clear. “If we are losing opportunities to hit ISIS because we are nervous about civilian casualties, if it is not required by law—then we are saying really look at it hard,” he told Airwars in an interview, explaining the new messaging. “To me that is a striking contrast with the past administration.”

For Lewis— who was the lead analyst for the Joint Civilian Casualty Study, which inspected ways that U.S. forces could reduce civilian casualties in Afghanistan—the new administration is making a wrongheaded assumption.

“There is this misnomer that mission success is inversely proportional to reducing civilian casualties,” said Lewis. “That’s not what the data said.”

When his position was not renewed by the Trump State Department, Lewis left in late April.

“We have spent a long time advancing the idea that preventing civilian casualties is not only a moral imperative, it’s also an operational one,” said another former State Department official who recently worked on civilian casualties. “These lessons come directly from our military’s counterinsurgency experiences in Afghanistan and are endorsed by members of our military at some of the highest levels. But so far we haven’t seen or heard anything that shows President Trump understands that.”

‘I’m going to lose my sh*t’

By most accounts, the Obama administration became increasingly focused on reducing civilian casualties from U.S. actions—both on and off the conventional battlefield. In July 2016, Obama issued a new executive order, one which Lewis helped draft, that codified procedures for limiting civilian casualties in war, and put in place interagency reviews and annual reporting. (A former State Department official confirmed that interagency consultations on civilian casualty trends are no longer taking place under the Trump administration.)

Early in the campaign against ISIS, tolerance for civilian casualties outside of dynamic attacks was minimal, said Col. Scott “Dutch” Murray, who served as the Director of Intelligence for Air Forces Central Command. Murray led all deliberate targeting against ISIS in Iraq and Syria until 2015.

“The default answer was zero civilian casualties for all deliberate strikes,” he said.

Civilian casualties nevertheless grew as the campaign wore on under Obama. The U.S.-led Coalition continued to drop thousands of bombs targeting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, killing more than 2,300 civilians in airstrikes under Obama according to Airwars estimates. Still, there was a sense among some in the military that they had been shackled, and were being prevented from pursuing ISIS with heavier firepower.

“I was one of those people—some days it was like if I see another article about ISIS folks going around the Corniche in Raqqa and the U.S. does nothing, I’m going to lose my sh*t,” said a former senior counterterrorism official who served in the region under the second Bush administration and Obama. “I think Trump wanted to give the military what they wanted, and I think the military got it.”

Deaths up 400%

As conflicts intensify, it can be difficult to assign culpability for all strikes—especially in Mosul, where deaths are blamed variously on the Coalition, Iraqi forces, or ISIS.

But in March alone, Airwars could still estimate that the number of civilian deaths likely tied to the Coalition in both Iraq and Syria rose by more than 400 percent. The month after Mattis delivered the new plan, U.S.-led forces likely killed more civilians than in the first 12 months of Coalition strikes—combined.

The deadliest incident so far admitted by the Coalition in either country took place on March 17 in the al Jadida neighborhood of Mosul. According to U.S. investigators, at least 105 civilians were killed when an American jet dropped a 500-pound bomb on a building where they sheltered. The U.S. said its forces aimed for two ISIS fighters on the roof, but the entire building gave way—a clear sign, claimed investigators, that the building had been rigged with explosives by ISIS. Survivors and Mosul civil defence officials denied the U.S. narrative, insisting they had seen no evidence of ISIS explosives.

The scenario itself—a small number of gunmen darting in and out of view before drawing heavy fire from Coalition forces—was one which Airwars had repeatedly highlighted as leading to civilian deaths. In one profiled case from December, eleven members of a family were killed when the Coalition bombed a house—reportedly after a single ISIS fighter had been seen on a roof two houses down. The toll in al Jadida represents a significant portion of the 603 casualties publicly conceded by the Coalition. That tally has grown considerably in recent months, but is still many times lower than Airwars’ own estimates of at least 4,500 civilians likely killed.

Devastation in Raqqa following an alleged Coalition airstrike on May 27th 2017 (via Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently)

Better than the Russians?

On April 13 of this year, U.S. forces in Afghanistan deployed a 21,000-pound GBU-43/B “Mother of All Bombs” against ISIS forces in the Nangarhar province of eastern Afghanistan. The bomb was the largest used by the U.S. in any conflict since World War II. Explaining the decision to use the weapon, which the White House evidently hadn’t directly approved, Trump told reporters at the time he had given the military “total authorization, and that’s what they’re doing.” Later that day, a reporter from The Hill called CENTCOM’s press office, where a purported spokesperson answered.

“We mean business,” said the person who picked up. “President Trump said prior that once he gets in he’s going to kick the S-H-I-T out of the enemy. That was his promise and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

Though the response was later called unauthorized by CENTCOM leadership, a new tone had emerged—or reemerged. “If your leaders are emphasizing the high value of Raqqa and Mosul, while saying less about the strategic and moral risks of hurting civilians, it’s going to affect your judgment,” said Tom Malinowski, Assistant U.S. Secretary of State until this January.

“But I’m not sure how to disentangle that from other factors,” he added. “It was inevitable that civilian casualties would rise as the fight moved into densely populated areas, where ISIS would use civilians as a shield. By how much, I don’t know.”

Meanwhile, in Syria, the understaffed Coalition investigations team was struggling to keep pace with the number of civilian casualty reports. At Airwars, there were so many Coalition allegations that its own researchers temporarily had to pause their full vetting of Russia’s strikes in Syria to stay on top of the fast growing workload. Airwars tracking also shows that in every month of 2017, more alleged civilian casualty events have been attributed to the U.S.-led Coalition than to Russia—a remarkable reversal. “We know that the Russians target civilians and Assad drops barrel bombs,” said the former senior counterterrorism official. “DoD wants to be better than that, but it’s the fog of war—how do we know we are being better?”

#InternationalCoalition forces is the second perpetrator of massacres in #Syria after #SyrianRegime forces in the first half of 2017

— Syrian Network (@snhr) July 5, 2017

‘Critical Flaw’

With reported Coalition civilian casualties steeply rising, international agencies rang the alarm bells.

In May, the UN’s human rights chief called out the bombing campaign. Then in June a UN-appointed Commission of Inquiry for Syria, which previously wasn’t even investigating foreign airstrikes in the country, now said the U.S.-led campaign was causing a “staggering loss of life.” By the end of the month, at least 173 civilian deaths from air and ground strikes were reported by the UN, which suggested that both the SDF and Coalition could be skirting the edges of international law.

The Coalition dismissed the most serious of the Commission’s allegations—that many civilians sheltering in a school near Raqqa were killed by an airstrike on March 21st—after an investigation that did not involve interviewing locals.

U.S. officials similarly dismissed well-documented allegations that a March raid in Aleppo on al-Qaeda linked targets had left dozens of civilians dead without speaking to a single witness. Lack of interaction with sources on the ground—who readily speak with groups like Human Rights Watch — has been identified as a “critical flaw” in the U.S. government’s methodology.

Instead of addressing the issue of high reported civilian deaths, top Coalition commander Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend has gone on the offensive. He lashed out at the UN Commission, calling into question their description of civilian casualties as staggering.

“Show me some evidence of that,” he told the BBC.

On July 2nd, Townsend reported that Coalition forces were firing on anything moving on the River Euphrates, along which Raqqa lies. “We shoot every boat we find,” he told a reporter from the New York Times. Airwars has documented numerous civilians reported killed in recent weeks as they had attempted to flee Raqqa by way of the river. Shortly after Townsend’s remarks, Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered reported that at least 27 people in Raqqa had recently been killed attempting to fetch water around the Euphrates.

2) Four June cases where (mostly named) civilians reportedly bombed as they fled Raqqa by boat. Cars also being bombed as civilians flee

— Airwars (@airwars) July 3, 2017

Then, on July 11th, Townsend lashed out at Amnesty International, after it cited the Coalition in an investigation for potentially unlawful attacks that took place in Mosul.

“I would challenge the people from Amnesty International, or anyone else out there who makes these charges, to first research their facts and make sure they’re speaking from a position of authority,” Townsend told reporters.

Amnesty responded by pointing out the Pentagon never replied when the group’s investigators provided them with preliminary findings and asked for their input. With the battle in Mosul all but complete, organizations like Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) have instead called on the U.S. to be more cautious in their deployment of firepower inside Raqqa. The group wrote in a recent assessment that the Coalition should “avoid, to the extent feasible, airstrikes as a primary tactic, and consider tactical alternatives—for example, properly trained SDF conducting more door-to-door clearing operations to minimize civilian harm.”

But a massive casualty toll among Iraqi partner forces in Mosul—coupled with new demands from President Trump to speed up the war while reducing protections for civilians—could mean there is less appetite among U.S. officials on the ground to hold back approval for strikes. “I think the U.S. has to conduct a balancing test of a quick win and the accompanying high civilian casualty rate, versus a longer, more cautious victory, which might result in more civilians harmed at the hands of ISIS, or more coalition casualties,” said Jay Morse, CIVIC’s military liaison and a former Pentagon JAG. “It’s not an easy decision, and either route will prove harmful to civilians.”

Kori Schake, a former director at George W. Bush’s National Security Council and editor author of a recent book with Mattis, agreed that allowing local forces to call in U.S. airstrikes could increase the number of civilians killed. But the Obama White House was too careful, she said.

“The previous administration seemed to believe wars could be fought and won without casualties, and the professionals in this administration have the grim experience that’s not possible,” she added. “I am skeptical our military is any less careful without the White House second guessing them.”

Col. Murray says that while the current White House is clearly more permissive, it may not be fair to directly compare the conflict as it existed under successive administrations.

“Now when you bomb Raqqa there is actually potential to have success on the ground,” he said. “I think they’ve now erred more on the military advantage gained by a strike versus holding back for the sake of not killing civilians.”

But Fadel Abdul Ghany, director of the Syrian Network For Human Rights, said that what his organization and others have monitored speaks for itself. On July 1st, the Network reported that the Coalition had killed more than 1,000 civilians in the first half of 2017.

“We believe that the U.S. administration is seeking a quick victory,” said Abdul Ghany. “But the speed comes at the expense of accuracy, and therefore at the expense of the loss of more lives.”

▲ Multip[le bodies are removed June 13th by civil defence (via Mosul Ateka)


July 1, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

Additional reporting by Latif Habib, Alex Hopkins and Eline Westra

Mosul is almost completely back in the hands of Iraqi government forces, after one of the most brutal city assaults witnessed in decades. While there has so far been no formal declaration of an end to the assault, Prime Minister Haider al Abadi has already said that “We are seeing the end of the fake Daesh state, the liberation of Mosul proves that.”

Yet even as Iraqis celebrate the routing of the terror group ISIS (so-called Islamic State) from their nation’s second city, the scale of death and destruction visited upon Mosul is becoming clearer.

Thousands of Moslawis have credibly been reported killed since October 2016, with West Mosul in particular devastated. The Coalition alone says it fired 29,000 munitions into the city during the assault. Five times more civilians were reported killed in west Mosul versus the east of the city, Airwars tracking suggests – an indication of the ferocity of recent fighting.

Doctors working with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) near the last frontlines report that they have still been receiving mass civilian casualties – up to half of whom are children.

“They come with shrapnel wounds, bleeding even from their eyes, shot in the head, after being buried under the rubble, traumatized by the air strikes, the artillery, the snipers, the bombs, having lost their whole family – and too, often, dying on arrival,” said Iolanda Jaquernet, a spokeswoman for the ICRC. “They have survived with very little food or water, without any access to healthcare, in hiding, and often indeed unable to reach a health facility until it was too late.”

“We have no overall figures, but certainly our colleagues from the mobile surgery team at the hospital have seen a tremendous increase in civilian casualties over the past weeks,” she added.

According to city officials, as much as 80 per cent of West Mosul has been completely destroyed. Civilians still emerging from the battlefield are often bloodied and starving – traumatised by Iraqi and Coalition bombardments; and by atrocities commited by ISIS.

According to reporters accompanying Iraqi forces, the stench of death is everywhere in the Old City – with civil defence officials reporting that as many as 4,000 bodies still remain unrecovered in the rubble. It is likely to be many months before the full death toll is known.

Bloodied civilian survivors are escorted from the Old City – ISIL’s last stronghold in Mosul – by Iraqi federal police on June 30th

Three months longer than battle for Stalingrad

Operations to retake Iraq’s second largest city from ISIS began on October 17th 2016, and effectively lasted for 256 days – three months longer than the epic Battle of Stalingrad in World War Two.

An estimated 100,000 Iraqi security personnel, 40,000 Kurdish fighters and about 16,000 pro-government fighters took part in the battle. Military casualties have been high. Although the government refuses to release official figures, thousands of Iraqi forces have been credibly reported killed or injured.

The Coalition is declining to estimate how many ISIS fighters were killed in the battle for Mosul. Instead an official told Airwars: “Through our operations, the Coalition has degraded ISIS fighters on the front lines, but also their command and control apparatus, leaders, industrial base, financial system, communication networks, and the system that they use to bring foreign fighters in to fill their ranks in both Iraq and Syria.”

But the civilian toll too has been high. Over the course of the Mosul assault, Airwars tracked over 7,200 alleged civilian fatality allegations in the vicinity of Mosul which were blamed on the US-led Coalition. Most of these incidents remain difficult to vet, and in the majority of cases several actors in addition to the Coalition are blamed – including ISIS and Iraqi security forces.

Even so, Airwars researchers presently estimate that between 900 and 1,200 civilians were likely killed by Coalition air and artillery strikes over the course of the eight month campaign. Many hundreds or even thousands more may have died in Coalition actions – though it may be impossible in many cases ever properly to attribute responsibility. Coalition airstrikes on the city were carried out by the United States, Britain, France, Belgium and Australia – while both the US and France also conducted heavy artillery strikes in support of Iraqi forces. French forces alone have reported over 1,160 artillery actions.

In one tragic incident confirmed by the US, up to 12 civilians were killed or wounded after one of its airstrikes hit a school in Faisaliyah neighborhood in East Mosul on January 13th. In its March civilian casualty report the Coalition conceded that  “during a strike on ISIS fighters in a house it was assessed that eight civilians were unintentionally killed. During post-strike video analysis civilians were identified near the house who were not evident prior to the strike.”

Airwars was able to speak with a witness, Qusay Saad Abdulrazaq, who lost his two young children in the attack. The father said in a letter that the Coalition strike had hit the Al Marafa private school at 9am that day. His children, Abdulrahman and Aesha, did not survive. When Airwars spoke with Mr Abdulrazaq two months after the incident, he had finally been able to bury the recovered body parts of his children.

فريق بي بي سي يصل إلى مدنيين عالقين في #الموصل. روى العالقون قصصا مؤلمة وهم يشاهدون أحبائهم جثثا هامدة ولا يستطيعون دفنها. #العراق

— BBC News عربي (@BBCArabic) June 30, 2017

BBC Arabic’s Feras Kilani reports from devastated Old Mosul, June 30th 2017

Victory declared

Victory was effectively declared by Iraqi forces on June 29th after they captured what remained of the once-treasured al Nouri Mosque, where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had declared the terror group’s ‘caliphate’ in a 2014 speech. On June 23rd Iraqi and Coalition officials accused the group of rigging the structure with explosives and blowing it up as fighting closed in. By most accounts only a few Mosul city blocks now remain under ISIS control, though fears remain of terrorist sleeper cells in liberated neighbourhoods.

In addition to copious and often indiscriminate fire from Iraqi forces and ISIS, the Coalition has launched over 1,000 airstrikes in Mosul since October 17th, in addition to artillery, helicopter, rocket and mortar fire. With high civilian casualties reported, Airwars joined with international NGOs during the battle to urge Iraqi and Coalition forces to end their use of heavy and indiscriminate weapons on the city.

Belkis Wille, Iraq researcher at Human Rights Watch, says the battle has wrought devastation on civilians, their homes and the city: “With the massive spike in airstrikes and indiscriminate ground-fired munitions by Iraqi and US forces, we have seen entire city blocks obliterated, and hundreds of civilians wounded and killed in the crossfire,” she told Airwars. “ISIS has used the civilians still under its control as human shields and carried out numerous abuses including chemical weapons attacks and executions of those trying to flee.”

The deadliest incident so far admitted to by the Coalition took place on March 17th, when US planes bombed a building in the city’s al-Jadida neighborhood. The structure collapsed, leaving at least 105 civilians dead according to military investigators – though locals claimed the true toll was far higher. The Coalition also claimed the structure had been rigged with explosives by ISIS, though the city’s civil defence officials deny this. The al Jadida incident was ranked “contested” by Airwars until the Coalition admitted to it months later – suggesting that many more civilian deaths may yet be ascribed to international forces.

ISIS’s remaining strongholds in Iraq, including Hawijah, are likely to be the next target of Iraqi and Coalition actions. But for the people of Mosul many troubles remain. Almost 700,000 Moslawis are still displaced by the fighting according to the UN office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Even after liberation, some Mosul residents are still being forced to leave. On June 30th, the UN’s human rights office reported that it was alarmed by a “rise in threats, specifically of forced evictions, against those suspected of being ISIL members or whose relatives are alleged to be involved with ISIL.”

It will likely be a long time before many can return. The physical destruction in Mosul – and most of all in the more densely packed western side – is still being assessed. But footage of neighborhoods, including those around the Old City, show a catastrophic level of damage that will take years to reconstruct. According to Iraqi officials, the cost of phsyical reconstruction is likely to be tens of billions of dollars.

▲ 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)


June 9, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

As many as 100,000 civilians trapped inside the Islamic State-held city of Raqqa are being given conflicting evacuation instructions according to Coalition statements and local reports, as US-backed ground forces finally assault the city supported by air and artillery strikes.

Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) started their slow encirclement of Raqqa last November. Artillery and airstrikes have rained down since then killing hundreds of civilians in the near region according to monitors, though the final operation to take the city commenced officially only on June 6th. In a press release published that day, the Coalition stressed that “The SDF have encouraged civilians to depart Raqqah so that they do not become trapped, used as human shields or become targets for ISIS snipers.”

A Coalition spokesperson elaborated that the SDF “have communicated with the citizens of Raqqah through several means, to include leaflets dropped by Coalition aircraft, urging them to evacuate the city if it is safe to do so.”

On May 28th, the monitoring group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) uploaded to social media two such leaflets it said had been dropped over the city. One told residents to use the document as they sought refuge with SDF soldiers. Leaving ISIL-held areas is not without risk, with militants routinely documented firing upon and killing men, women and children attempting to flee.

Another leaflet reportedly dropped by the Coalition instructed civilians to hide the paper and – without telling anyone they were leaving – to approach an SDF soldier with a strip of something white. “This is your last chance,” said the leaflet, translated by an Airwars researcher. “Failing to leave might lead to death. Raqqa will fall, don’t be there at that time.”

The Coalition initially dropped leaflets telling people in Raqqa to flee the ISIL-occupied city – only to reverse its decision days later. This leaflet was reportedly dropped on the city. (Via Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently)

Reversed decision

However only a day after the Coalition’s announcement, officials informed Airwars on June 7th that ground forces had reversed tactics and no longer wanted civilians to leave. “Since transitioning to offensive in Raqqah yesterday, SDF is now encouraging civilians to stay in their homes, shelter in place, and avoid ISIS fighting positions,” said spokesperson Colonel Joseph Scrocca. Earlier efforts, he stressed, had “helped evacuate more than 200,000 civilians from Raqqah.”

“However, as the SDF enters the city, they do not want civilians placed in harm’s way by the fighting so they have asked them to remain indoors and away from ISIS positions,” said Scrocca. The SDF, he added, “are using a variety of technical and non-technical means such as leaflets, radio broadcasts and internet messages.”

Airwars reached out to local monitor Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered, which said it was unaware of the new posture and stated that residents were still under the impression that they were best off leaving.

“They dropped these papers and told the people who want to flee to take them and go to SDF areas,” said a member of the group who spoke to Airwars via the organization’s Facebook account. “If they want them to stay, then why did they drop papers and tell them to leave?”

SDF spokesperson Jesper Soder claimed that the leaflets posted by RBSS were not genuine, though he largely conceded that residents had received mixed-messages.

“We have told the ones closest to our positions to try to flee towards us,” said Soder. “And the ones that are far away to stay inside and hide inside. Also flyers have been dropped in Raqqa telling civilians to hide or seek refuge at our positions.”

It was unclear however exactly how the SDF was able to differentiate populations in the city.

“If the Coalition is going to issue directions to civilians, they should be coordinated and consistent,” said Marla Keenan, senior director of programs for the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC). “Conflicting instructions create even more confusion on the ground in an already confusing and dangerous situation for civilians.”

Airwars has been tracking high civilian casualties in Syria – predominantly around Raqqa – for some months.

It remains unclear exactly how many civilians are still inside Raqqa. Jens Laerke, spokesperson for the UN’s humanitarian agency OCHA, told Airwars that reports indicated some 95,000 people had fled the city, but that between 50,000 and 100,000 civilians remained. The Coalition estimates that roughly 2,500 fighters are lodged among them.

ISIL has systematically put civilians in danger, and the Coalition has repeatedly highlighted the terror movement’s use of non-combatants as human shields in Mosul – a tactic the alliance says could be repeated in Raqqa. Human rights officials caution that the dropping of leaflets and dissemination of other warnings does not change the legal responsibility of the Coalition and SDF to protect civilians caught up in the fighting.

“The presence of ISIS fighters among civilians does not absolve anti-ISIS forces from the obligation to target only military objectives,” said Lama Fakih, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The issuance of effective advance warnings of attack to the civilian population do not relieve attacking forces of their obligation to distinguish at all times between combatants and civilians, and to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians from harm.”

The stakes remain incredibly high in Raqqa and its environs, where the likely death toll from airstrikes in recent months surpasses anything Airwars has previously monitored – all before the start of fighting inside the city itself (see graph.)

In the three months leading up to June, researchers at Airwars estimate that over 600 civilians were killed in more than 150 Coalition or SDF attacks. That tally includes a minimum 284 civilian deaths in March, 215 in April and at least 220 in May. Already in the first eight days of June, dozens of civilians have been reported slain in air and artillery strikes.

Coalition data further illustrates the intensifying campaign. In May, the number of declared airstrikes around Raqqa more than doubled from the previous month, from 116 to 289.

According to a spokesperson, “In Syria, over 1,800 munitions were fired [in May] of which approximately 1,000 were in support of operations to isolate Raqqah.” Those Coalition figures also include artillery and rocket strikes, but do not include attacks by allied SDF ground forces.

‘Insufficient precautions’

As reports of casualties around Raqqa mount, there are concerns that the Coalition and its SDF allies are not taking enough care to protect civilians.

At the end of May, the UN’s human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein raised alarm at airstrikes in Raqqa and other parts of northeast Syria. The UN pointed to several incidents, including a May 14th strike in Al-Akershi that reportedly killed 23 farm workers, including 17 women.

“The same civilians who are suffering indiscriminate shelling and summary executions by ISIL, are also falling victim to escalating airstrikes,” said Zeid. “Unfortunately, scant attention is being paid by the outside world to the appalling predicament of civilians trapped in these areas.”

“The rising toll of civilian deaths and injuries already caused by airstrikes in Deir-ez-Zor and Al-Raqqa suggests that insufficient precautions may have been taken in the attacks,” Zeid said. “Just because ISIL holds an area does not mean less care can be taken. Civilians should always be protected, whether they are in areas controlled by ISIL or by any other party.”

According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, during May the alliance was responsible for more non-combatant deaths in Syria than the Assad regime, Russia, or so-called Islamic State.

A total of 964 civilians were killed in #Syria in May 2017

— Syrian Network (@snhr) June 2, 2017

Accounts of civilian casualties from airstrikes around Raqqa are often well sourced and, unlike contested reports in other theatres such as Mosul, generally indicate one clear culprit: the Coalition.

For instance, several dozen accounts cite the Coalition for an airstrike on May 21st in Kdeiran village, located in western Raqqa governorate. ISIL-controlled media released a graphic video of the aftermath, but many other sources, including the Syrian Network for Human Rights and the Syrian Observatory also reported the incident. The Syrian Network said that at least 15 civilians were killed, including 4 children. At least nine victims were named by local sources.

In another event, Airwars was able to gather more than three dozen reports of an attack that left at least four civilians dead in Al Suweidiya village on May 30th. A number of outlets concurred that a Coalition strike had hit a house belonging to the Al-Razaj family. Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered named four victims: Rima Al-Enezan; Abdul Rahman Hussein Al-Razaj; and Aya Hussain Al-Razaj.

On June 5th, the day before the Coalition announced the start of final operations inside Mosul, its planes allegedly fired on civilians gathered near boats along the Euphrates River, killing at least eleven. Some outlets put the death toll higher and said the civilians were attempting to flee Raqqa – as they had been instructed by the SDF.

Fresh concerns for the safety of civilians were raised June 8th after ISIL released video footage apparently showing the use of white phosphorous shells on the city by US or Coalition forces.

Isis claims US led coalition using White phosphorous in Raqqa video dated June 8 #Syria

— Fazel Hawramy (@FazelHawramy) June 9, 2017

How long the fighting in Raqqa will continue remains uncertain. Fabrice Balanche, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute, estimates that if ISIL is allowed to leave the city – as was the case in nearby Tabaqa – battles could cease in as little as two months. But US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has since warned that the Coalition plans to annihilate remaining ISIL forces.

“We have already shifted from attrition tactics, where we shove them from one position to another in Iraq and Syria, to annihilation tactics where we surround them. Our intention is that the foreign fighters do not survive the fight to return home to North Africa, to Europe, to America, to Asia, to Africa,” he recently told CBS News.

If the heavily fortified city is instead encircled, cut off and assaulted one neighbourhood at a time, the operation could last far longer, with associated risks for trapped civilians. Operations to capture Mosul in Iraq are still continuing eight months after they first began.

▲ U.S. Marines with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit fire an M777 Howitzer during a fire mission in northern Syria as part of Operation Inherent Resolve, Mar. 24, 2017. The unit provided 24/7 support in all weather conditions to allow for troop movements, to include terrain denial and the subduing of enemy forces. More than 60 regional and international nations have joined together to enable partnered forces to defeat ISIS and restore stability and security. CJTF-OIR is the global Coalition to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Zachery C. Laning)


June 7, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

US military investigators have concluded that despite a series of errors, a deadly March air raid in northern Syria was legal and may have killed just one civilian, a child – an account starkly at odds with those of human rights groups and locals.

Yet at the same time officials now concede that in a “preventable error,” targeters and pilots were unaware at the time that they were conducting air strikes on part of a mosque complex.

Speaking to reporters on June 7th, Army Brigadier General Paul Bontrager, deputy director of operations at CENTCOM, said that though US officials had failed properly to classify religious buildings that were in the strike zone, the unilateral American attack on the Sayidina Omar Ibn Al-Khattab mosque complex in Al Jinah was lawful, and had achieved its objective of disrupting a gathering of “al Qaeda leaders”.

US investigators now argue that what they targeted was a structure attached to a mosque. They identified two separate buildings that they claim were under construction, something Bontrager said meant they did not technically have to be on No Strike Lists – though he said it would be recommended that this practice be changed. Bontrager said the US believed that what it had targeted was planned eventually to be a “school or madrassa” and that the larger part of the complex – which was relatively less damaged – was a “future mosque.”

However, analysis carried out by Human Rights Watch, Bellingcat and Forensic Architecture – backed by footage of the site taken before the attack – said that the al-Khattab mosque complex was fully functional.

Locals told Human Rights Watch that the structure appeared unfinished because of insufficient funding. The northern section, reported Human Rights Watch, contained a kitchen and eating area, toilets and washing room. The upstairs held “several rooms that were sometimes used for religious classes for children and the imam’s apartment.” This section of the mosque was directed targeted, determined the three groups.

According to local reports, at least 38 people were killed in a hail of bombs and missiles that began around 7pm on March 16th.  Investigations carried out by the three NGOs established that US forces fired on the northern part of Al-Khattab mosque while it contained worshipers. Hellfire missiles then reportedly targeted many of those who fled the initial attack. Military investigators now say that F-15 jets released 10 bombs, while a single MQ-9 reaper drone subsequently fired two missiles.

“Legal Strike”

US authorities had said publicly in the aftermath of the attack that they were targeting an al Qaeda meeting place at al Jinah, and that they had purposefully avoided a mosque they knew to be in the area – which they identified as a smaller structure adjacent to Al-Khattab.

Yet remarkably, Bontrager now says that even that smaller mosque was not something the “target engagement authority” was actually aware of – meaning that approval of the strike was made without knowledge that either the older and smaller mosque, or the newer and larger al-Khattab facility, had any religious significance. That in turn indicates the pilots carrying out the attack were unlikely to have been aware that they were striking a mosque complex.

“None of the buildings were annotated on our No Strike List as Category 1 facilities, which is a register of entities that must be carefully evaluated before an approval to strike,” said Bontrager, describing the misidentification as a “preventable error.”

“This failure to identify the religious purpose of these buildings led the target engagement authority to make the final determination to strike without knowing all he should have known, and that is something we need to make sure does not happen in the future,” he said.

Had the mosque been identified as such and put on a No Strike List, it would have been subject to more rigorous vetting. Nevertheless, the strike would have been permitted due to the alleged gathering of militant leaders inside, claimed Bontrager. And even the presence of a child did not deter the attackers. 

“What we saw was a smaller in stature person accompanying an adult into the meeting site, and that alone is what we saw that made us call this individual a civilian,” said Bontrager. That likely presence of a child was known to planners of the final stages of the attack. “The target engagement authority was aware, the proportionality assessment was made and it was still deemed a legal strike.”

“The investigation found that at the time of the meeting the structure hit and the people who were targeted were valid targets because they were engaged in an al Qaeda meeting,” reporters were told in a Pentagon briefing. “It was certainly determined a proportional strike with regard to the al Qaeda meeting that was in place.”

Investigators did not divulge which al Qaeda “leaders” were present or killed during the attack, something they have done previously after unilateral American airstrikes in Syria. The outcome of the attack from a counter-terrorism perspective remains vague.

’38 civilians killed’

CENTCOM’s findings, which have not yet been released outside of a briefing for select reporters, are likely to raise further questions about the incident. Investigators did not visit the site of the attack, which is in a militant-held area. But they also did not speak with any locals who witnessed the attack. Still, Botranger said investigators were “confident” that they did not hit a gathering of civilians, instead killing “approximately two dozen men attending an al Qaeda meeting.”

By comparison, in examining the strike Human Rights Watch spoke with 14 people with close knowledge of the incident, including four people who were at the mosque, as well as first responders and local journalists. Those witnesses told HRW that a religious lecture had concluded and many attendees were lingering ahead of night prayers when the bombing began.

Syrian Civil Defense reported the recovery of 38 bodies, and published the names of 28 victims. Among the named dead were five children, the imam as well as his wife, Ghousoun Makansi.

“It is hard to understand how the Pentagon can determine with such confidence who was killed and not in the attack without having spoken to anybody on the ground,” said Ole Solvang, deputy emergencies director at Human Rights Watch.

“The absence of any details about what intelligence the attack was based on and whom the Pentagon thinks it killed in the attack only compounds questions about how it reached these conclusions. This should not be the end of this investigation, and the Pentagon should release much more detail about what it knows.”

▲ Post by Aleppo White Helmets on March 17th, 2017, depicted the aftermath of an alleged Coalition airstrike on Al Jina.