March 17, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

Following an unprecedented increase in claims, researchers at Airwars have tracked their 1,000th alleged civilian casualty event tied to reported Coalition strikes in Iraq and Syria. Recent evidence indicates that in both countries, civilian casualties rose during the last months of the Obama administration and are now accelerating further under the presidency of Donald Trump – suggesting possible key changes in US rules of engagement which are placing civilians at greater risk.

The 1,000th alleged incident monitored by Airwars researchers took place in Raqqa governorate, where intense Coalition airstrikes have seen more than 600 munitions dropped in the first two months of the year alone.

On the night of March 11th-12th, at least 17 civilians in Kasrat Al Faraj were reportedly killed by a Coalition attack. Several local reports said that those killed were sheltering inside a building after being displaced by recent fighting, and that many were women and children. On March 14th, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the death toll had risen to “22 at least, including 6 children under the age of eighteen and 7 women citizens.” Another report from Syria News Desk indicated there were two raids – one on two schools “hosting displaced people” and another near the “the scientific research area southeast of Raqqa city.”

The 1,000th alleged incident coincides with a recent spike in civilian casualty allegations. Airwars best estimates suggest the US-led air campaign against so-called Islamic State has so far killed at least 2,590 civilians in Iraq and Syria since 2014. That year, Airwars tracked 62 reported civilian casualty incidents. In 2015, the first full year of attacks, researchers monitored 261 allegations. By 2016 that figure had risen to 454 cases.

The intensity of strikes in 2017 – notably around Raqqa and Mosul – has no precedent. To March 15th, a record 245 alleged Coalition civilian casualty events have been monitored by Airwars – roughly three events a day. At this pace, the number of alleged Coalition incidents this year could surpass 800.

if("undefined"==typeof window.datawrapper)window.datawrapper={};window.datawrapper["vjyH9"]={},window.datawrapper["vjyH9"].embedDeltas={"100":789,"200":686,"300":643,"400":600,"500":600,"600":600,"700":583,"800":583,"900":583,"1000":583},window.datawrapper["vjyH9"].iframe=document.getElementById("datawrapper-chart-vjyH9"),window.datawrapper["vjyH9"]["vjyH9"].embedDeltas[Math.min(1e3,Math.max(100*Math.floor(window.datawrapper["vjyH9"].iframe.offsetWidth/100),100))]+"px",window.addEventListener("message",function(a){if("undefined"!=typeof["datawrapper-height"])for(var b in["datawrapper-height"])if("vjyH9"==b)window.datawrapper["vjyH9"]["datawrapper-height"][b]+"px"});

Intense fighting

Much of the recent casualty reporting is linked to parallel campaigns against ISIL at both Mosul and Raqqa. In Iraq’s second city, hundreds of civilians have been reported killed in just the first few weeks of March, as Iraqi Security Forces backed by Coalition air and artillery strikes attempt to dislodge ISIL fighters from the densely-packed western half of the city. Media reports have described the battle to oust ISIL as “reducing western Mosul to rubble.” Since the start of operations in the western half of the city on February 19th, almost 100,000 people have fled Mosul according to the International Organization for Migration.

Around Raqqa – where almost unreported the Coalition has bombed every day during 2017 – researchers at Airwars have so far graded as credible 43 of 99 reported civilian casualty incidents this year. Those 43 events are estimated to have claimed the lives of between 147 and 207 civilians. All but eleven of these 43 credible reported incidents around Raqqa have taken place during Donald Trump’s presidency.

Overall, as many as 9,200 civilian deaths have been alleged from 19,000 Coalition airstrikes. Airwars employs a strict grading system when evaluating these allegations. Only those incidents that have at least two credible sources and are accompanied by reported Coalition strikes in the near vicinity are assessed as “fair” – such as the 43 Raqqa incidents. Around 47% of the over 1,000 alleged civilian casualty incidents since 2014 meet this threshold, or have instead been confirmed by the Coalition as having killed or injured civilians. Other allegations contain conflicting reporting; are single sourced; or have been discounted, for example because reported civilians turned out to be combatants.

While the Coalition’s estimate of the civilians it has killed – 220 – is less than ten percent of Airwars’ baseline estimates, it has over the past year significantly increased the number of incidents under investigation.

Yet as of January 31st 2017 according to a senior official, the Coalition had only provisionally assessed or investigated 319 alleged civilian casualty events in total – just 36% of the total claimed incidents tracked by Airwars to that date. Though the Coalition has devoted more resources to its investigations – and engaged with outside monitoring – the torrent of casualty reports over recent months appears likely to further overwhelm military investigators. Additionally, there is the question of accountability for the US’s 12 Coalition allies, none of which have admitted to involvement in a single civilian death.

“Both the Coalition and CENTCOM have stepped up their investigations into civilian casualty allegations over the past year,” says Airwars director Chris Woods. “Unfortunately, these efforts have not kept pace with the rising tide of civilian casualty allegations being leveled against the Coalition. With two thirds of all claims not even assessed yet, any Coalition claims of low civilian casualties need to be treated with significant caution.”

#MOSUL_ALERT: 16,229 families (97,374 individuals), displaced from #West_Mosul in last 19days btw Feb 25 & March 15, as tracked by @DTM_IOM.

— IOM Iraq (@IOMIraq) March 15, 2017

Around 100,000 civilians have so far fled the fighting in West Mosul

Looser rules of engagement

In late January President Trump requested a new plan from the US military to tackle ISIL, in which he called for “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.”

During his campaign for the presidency, Trump went further, explicitly threatening to target the families of ISIL fighters. “They are using them as shields,” he said in November 2015. “But we are fighting a very politically correct war. And the other thing is with the terrorists, you have to take out their families.”

In short, Trump has been demanding that the US military consider dropping many of the restrictions which help protect civilian lives on the battlefield. His January request could open the door for US military planners to prepare attacks that may be expected to – and indeed do – kill more civilians.

When discussing civilian deaths, many in the US military highlight recent developments in Afghanistan, where generals concluded after almost a decade of conflict that rising civilian casualties were undermining the NATO mission there, and proving an effective recruiting tool for the Taliban. Reforms were introduced via directives including the creation of a civilian tracking cell; more stringent targeting rules; and a top down emphasis on civilian protection as a mission critical concern. The measures by no means ended civilian casualties, but casualties caused by international airstrikes dropped steeply between 2008 and 2013.

In that context, Trump’s request “flies in the face of everything that was done in Afghanistan,” one former senior military intelligence officer who served in the country told Airwars.

In Afghanistan “IHL [International humanitarian law] was your lowest standard and then you are going up from there, and this is like IHL is your highest standard and the goal is how close to the chalk line can you get,” said the officer. “That’s really fucked up.”

“The question that’s out there is to what extent has any relaxation of rules of engagement or restrictions based on civcas been put in place by the new administration,” they added. “I don’t know – clearly we have reporting on an increase in civcas [in Iraq and Syria]. To some extent that’s going to be driven by high-op tempo in urban areas – but the US also has a very long history of doing that kind of stuff very well in Afghanistan with minimal civilian casualties – so it begs the question, what is different?”

There are signs elsewhere – in the US’s unilateral campaign against alleged al Qaeda linked targets in Syria – that a higher tolerance for civilian casualties may be emerging. As Airwars first reported on March 16th, US aircraft bombed what was described as an al Qaeda “meeting place” – adjacent to what officials knew to be a mosque in rural western Aleppo. At least 42 people, mostly civilians, were killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Parts of the mosque were also destroyed.

Exclusive: US Says it Carried Out Deadly Strike that Hit an Aleppo Mosque

— Airwars (@airwars) March 17, 2017

Should the US further loosen its rules of engagement in Coalition activities, the civilian toll from strikes in Raqqa and other parts of Syria and Iraq may worsen. Though it remains unclear if and when restrictions on civilian casualties may be lifted, an executive order signed by former President Obama in July 2016 setting out civilian protections could be in Trump’s crosshairs. Noting the recent rise in allegations, advocacy groups are steeling for the worst – but say it it isn’t clear yet what has been decided.

Higher casualties could result from a number of changes. Pentagon commanders might set the overall permissive risk for civilians far higher than has been seen so far in the 30-month war. Lower-ranking commanders may also be given authority to approve strikes where there is a risk of civilian casualties.

Since January, alleged Coalition civilian casualty events have been outpacing those of Russia. Initial data for March provides further evidence that civilian casualty allegations are both becoming more common under President Trump, and are likely to outrun Coalition efforts to track and investigate them.

Airwars recorded 59 separate civilian casualty allegations in Iraq and Syria during the first 15 days of March, for which researchers assessed that at least 117 civilians were likely killed.  At least 36 civilians – and likely more – are estimated to have died in just the first 8 days of the month in Raqqa governorate.

The worst of these occurred on March 8th, in the east of Raqqa governorate. At least 14 civilians – including at least six children – were allegedly killed outside Al Blu Rashed village when a coalition strike reportedly hit a vehicle carrying them. The death toll was one of the few in recent months to garner wire reports – Associated Press, citing monitoring groups Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered, reported at least 20 civilian deaths. A day earlier, several local outlets, including Smart News, reported that five civilians were killed and at least 10 injured by another Coalition airstrike in al Salhabiya village.

A man searches through the rubble following an alleged Coalition airstrike on Omar Al Mukhtar school in Al Tabaqa, February 16th (RBSS)

‘Strategically beneficial’

In a letter dated March 10th more than 30 former US officials wrote to US Defense Secretary Mattis, encouraging him to ensure continued civilian protections similar to those set out by the Obama administration.

“The United States has always put a strong premium on minimizing civilian harm in armed conflicts, both because it is the right thing to do and because doing so is strategically beneficial.,” the letter stated.

“You could certainly loosen the standards for civilian casualties such that the commanders have more authority to take certain actions and take greater risk, and go after targets that are particularly high value, but where there is a greater possibility of civilian casualties,” says Luke Hartig, a fellow at the New America and former Senior Director for Counterterrorism at the National Security Council. “But our military commanders also understand the ways civilian casualties can set back our overall efforts and I have full confidence they will continue to operate with the utmost professionalism and discrimination in the use of force.”

“From what we’ve seen publicly, this administration is still finding its footing, and we don’t yet know exactly how it will respond to incidents of civilian harm,” Marla Keenan, senior director of programs at the Center for Civilians in Conflict told Airwars. Keenan added that it may be difficult to know if and when policy guidelines are officially changed. But President Trump – who during the campaign promised to “bomb the shit” out of ISIL – has indicated a willingness to escalate US airstrikes around the world, including most recently in Yemen, where the US launched more than 40 attacks in a five day period.

“We’ll have to wait and see—watching closely but not jumping to conclusions,” said Keenan, referring to civilian casualty policy in Syria.

The bulk of Coalition civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria occurred during Obama’s presidency. As Airwars noted at the time, hundreds of civilians were likely killed across Iraq and Syria in the short period from October 17th 2016 (the start of Mosul operations) until Obama left office. However between January 20th when Donald Trump became president and March 15th, Airwars has tracked 173 new alleged Coalition civilian casualty events – with 1,214  to 1,859 claimed non-combatant fatalities between them. While many of these allegations have yet to be properly assessed, the tempo of reported civilian fatalites is clearly accelerating.

Rescuers retrieve victims from an alleged Coalition strike in al Tabaqa, Raqqa governorate on February 28th. Image courtesy of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently.


March 16, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

This article was updated on March 17th to reference new reports in Step News and the Washington Post. 

Military officials have confirmed to Airwars that a strike in rural Aleppo which reportedly left dozens dead in and around a mosque was carried out by US aircraft.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitor, said that at least 42 people, mostly civilians, were killed in a strike that “targeted a mosque in al-Jinah village” in the western countryside of Aleppo on March 16th. “The death toll is expected to rise,” said the monitor.

Video posted by the White Helmets showed men being dug out from rubble at the site. Local activists told al Jazeera that the attack took place during evening prayer, when the mosque was full of “up to 300 people.” Other accounts put the death toll far higher.

Initial reporting was conflicting, including assertions that Russian forces or the Assad regime were to blame. Photographs reportedly from the site and posted on social media also appeared to depict weapons fragments similar to those found at previous US drone strikes in Syria.

Photo shows the remnants of a bomb used in the airstrike on the ‘Umar ibn Al-Khaṭṭāb mosque in the rebel-held village of al-Jinā, w-Aleppo.

— Sakir Khader (@sakirkhader) March 16, 2017

@bellingcat @Arn_Del @green_lemonnn @chrisjwoods @airwars @samueloakford

— Syrian Lense (@SyrianLense) March 16, 2017

Airwars was initially told by US Central Command (CENTCOM) that a strike was carried out late on March 16th, but in Idlib governorate. That is where the bulk of US strikes against alleged al Qaeda-linked targets have taken place since 2014. The unilateral American campaign exists in parallel to operations conducted by the anti-ISIS Coalition. Strikes and reported civilian casualties from both have risen significantly since last fall.

However, a US official later clarified that the US raid in fact took place in the vicnity of al-Jinah village, which is located in western Aleppo governorate, just a few kilometers from the border with Idlib. CENTCOM spokesperson Maj. Josh Jacques said the target was  “assessed to be a meeting place for al Qaeda, and we took the strike.”

“It happened to be across the street from where there is a mosque,” said Jacques. He said the mosque was not the target, and that it wasn’t hit directly. Both CENTCOM and the Pentagon told Airwars that they were further investigating the attack.

Videos identified by researchers at the citizen journalism outlet Bellingcat appeared to show parts of the mosque destroyed, while others remained upright. 

Northern side of mosque has collapsed due to American airstrike, but largest part still standing. h/t @CT_operative

— Christiaan Triebert (@trbrtc) March 17, 2017

Citing local sources, the outlet Step News said the strikes hit a gathering known as a Dawah. A local group, reported Step “holds a meeting in one of their centres every Thursday which is attended by dozens of students of religious studies, sheikhs, sharia experts and fighters in the Islamic factions and civilians from the region.”

On March 17th, the Washington Post, citing a U.S. official, said that the attack “involved two Reaper drones, which fired four Hellfire missiles and dropped at least one 500-pound GPS-guided bomb.”

The death toll, which could not immediately be confirmed, appears to be at least the second largest ever from US strikes aimed at alleged al-Qaeda targets in Syria. On January 19th, more than 100 fighters gathered at a training camp in Idlib were reportedly killed in a raid that involved a B-52 bomber. Most of those killed were said to belong to the militant group Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al Nusra, officially claimed to split with the terror group in July 2016, renaming itself Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Since January 2017 it operates under the umbrella group Tahrir al-Sham. The US military carries out attacks against alleged al Qaeda targets under the same 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) that Congress passed several days after the 9/11 attacks. The strikes employ an expansive definition of “associated forces” – a phrase not used in the AUMF, but which has been adopted by the Pentagon and successive US administrations. It could now apply to thousands of fighters in Syria.



March 7, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

Hundreds of civilians have allegedly been killed in western Mosul during the first week of March during battles to capture the city, according to reports monitored by Airwars.

Airwars has reviewed eleven separate incidents that occured over the first six days of the month, each of which was blamed – in part or wholly – on the Coalition by at least one source. Local reports allege that between 250 and 370 civilians were killed in these attacks. Four of these incidents have thus far been graded by researchers as fairly attributed, meaning there were two or more credible reports blaming the US-led alliance, and with Coalition airstrikes confirmed in the area. Those four incidents alone indicate between 71-79 civilian deaths.

Our reporting from inside Mosul strongly suggests a big uptick in civilian casualties from airstrikes & shelling

— Patrick Osgood (@PatrickOsgood) March 7, 2017

News agencies and local monitors have also reported significant civilian casualties in west Mosul in recent days

The other events feature contesting reports that also blamed Iraqi forces or so-called Islamic State. Whoever the perpetrator, the reported upswing in civilian casualties in the first days of March serves as a bloody harbinger of the civilian toll in western Mosul. The right bank of the Tigres River was left by Iraqi forces for last, as it contains the bulk of Mosul’s civilian population and is far more densely settled than neighborhoods in the city’s east, which Iraqi security forces declared liberated in late January.

Iraq launched operations to capture western Mosul on February 19th – four months after it entered the eastern side. The UN estimated at the time that some 750,000 people remained in west Mosul, a figure that has only marginally diminished since then.

Thanon Alaa Younis, reported killed in Coalition airstrikes in the Farouk neighborhood on March 1st. Image courtesy of Mosul Ateka.

Civilian casualty incidents from airstrikes in western Mosul were already being reported during the campaign to liberate the east of the city, and continued into the last weeks of February. However the reported death toll appear to have escalated in March. (For reference, an analysis of civilian deaths in January can be read here).

One of the deadliest recent incidents occurred on March 1st, when a mosque used for shelter by displaced family was hit by several airstrikes. Ninevah Media Center reported more than 80 civilians were killed or wounded, while Mosul Eye put the number killed at “more than 50.” The outlet MNN attributed the attack to the Coalition, while Reuters cited three local eyewitnesses who blamed unidentified aircraft. One victim, identified as Thanon Alaa Younis, was listed by Mosul Ateka as among the dead.

On the same day, Airwars researchers monitored reports of at least four more civilians killed and 14 injured after airstrikes in the vicinity of Sha’aren Market. Reports did not attribute the strike.

On March 2nd several outlets – at least one of which cited ISIL affiliated media – reported that 20 civilians were killed and 18 wounded in a Coalition bombardment of west Mosul’s Shifa neighbourhood. Some reports said a strike hit a residential building. Also in west Mosul – this time in the Nabi Sheet neighbourhood – 14 civilians from three families were alleged killed by a Coalition airstrike that targeted what may have been a car bomb. FaceIraq identified one of the families as that of Nazim Abdul Rahman.

Though reports do conflict and are not always entirely clear, there are confirmed signs that the civilian toll in western Mosul has been massive. According to the UN’s humanitarian agency, more than 500 people escaping the city have been treated at “trauma stabilization points” for conflict-related injuries. The number of displaced also indicates a clear trend: In the week between February 27th and March 4th, the UN estimated that some 42,000 people were displaced fromn Mosul, including 13,350 on March 3rd alone.

The following day, March 4th, saw fresh attacks on west Mosul – centered this time in the Al Mahatta neighborhood – that allegedly left at least 36 civilians dead, including five children. Those estimates and associated images appeared to originate with ISIL-controlled media, though the incident was picked up by more than a half-dozen outlets. Iraqi Spring Media Center published extremely distressing photos, apparently taken from a video, that showed several dead toddlers lying in what appeared to be a hospital or morgue. Both the Coalition and Iraqi forces were blamed for the attack.

Children reportedly killed in a March 4th strike in western Mosul. Photo is a screenshot of a likely ISIL propaganda video that was archived by Iraqi Spring Media Group.

What may have been the deadliest incident in western Mosul to date occurred on March 5th, when local sources indicated that as many as 130 civilians were killed during an assault on a government compound in the Dawassa neighborhood. Both Coalition and Iraqi forces were cited for attacks, and several outlets reported that US Apache helicopters were involved. Images reportedly of the neighborhood that were posted to social media showed the area in ruins.

Sigtnificant damage is being reported locally in some west Mosul neighbourhoods

On March 6th, new reports indicated that between 25 and 33 imprisoned Iraqi police and security forces were killed by Coalition strikes near the central railway station. There were reports that the site of the attack had been used as a detention facility, and a number of ISIL fighters was also reported killed.

As Reuters also reported on March 6th, Iraqi officials now believe the fight in Mosul “will enter a more complicated phase in the densely populate old city.” The Iraqi military estimates that “several thousand” militants remain. Unless measures are taken to reduce civilian harm, death tolls similar to those seen in the first six days of March may well continue for weeks to come.

▲ A March 2017 airstrike during the battle for Mosul against Islamic State. While the US-led Coalition has admitted almost 1,400 civilian deaths during the war, European allies have remained almost silent about their own responsibility. (Via Reuters/ Alaa Al-Marjani)


February 24, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

After more than three months of fighting, Turkish-backed Syrian rebels have captured central al-Bab from so-called Islamic State according to local reports.

Yet civilian deaths from airstrikes, artillery and ground combat in and around the town reportedly stretched into the hundreds, according to the United Nations. Considering al-Bab’s small size, this high toll raises concerns about further Turkish-led actions in northern Syria – where the US has supported Kurdish forces that Turkey now says it will next target.

As the administration of US President Donald Trump weighs whether to revamp American mlitary policy in Syria, and possible lower thresholds for civilian casualties, the threat of prolonged and bloodier confrontations grows.

A Smart News video depicts Turkish-backed FSA rebels following their February 23rd capture of al-Bab

Following heavy criticism from NATO ally Turkey, since mid-January the US-led Coalition launched nearly 50 strikes in support of Turkish forces fighting to capture al-Bab. The raids represented a distinct third front of Coalition activity after operations at Raqqa and Mosul – and added a volatile element to an already convoluted situation in the town.

By entering the fray, the Coalition also became the third international force bombing al-Bab, in addition to Turkey and Russia. On the ground, Turkish forces and allied opposition units battled ISIL.

Following news of ISIL’s withdrawal from al-Bab on February 23rd, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Ankara’s Euphrates Shield operation would now continue towards Kurdish-held Manbij. That city lies to the east of Al-Bab and was captured in the summer of 2016 by Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) backed by deadly Coalition air support. The presence of the predominantly Kurdish SDF in Manbij has been a point of tension for Turkey ever since. A January assessment conducted by the Washington Institute predicted that Turkey may apply the same ruthless techniques used in al-Bab at Manbij, “leaving Washington with the prospect of major civilian carnage.”

Turkish State TV enters Al-Bab following the FSA's seizure of the town

— Ragıp Soylu (@ragipsoylu) February 23, 2017

North Syria increasingly chaotic

In late December, after the US initially balked at supporting Turkey’s unilateral move on al-Bab – preferring attention be paid to Raqqa instead – Ankara began cooperating with Russia to coordinate strikes around al-Bab. Whatever the level of cooperation, this was an unprecedented move for a NATO member, and increased pressure on the US to provide its own superior airpower.

The Obama administration had tried to maintain a delicate balance – and forestall an extended confrontation – between its treaty ally Turkey and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) that fight under the SDF banner. Turkey accuses the YPG of being the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a militant group waging a renewed campaign inside Turkey.

Abd al Jawwad Yassin (left), Mohammad the son of Abd al Sattar and a child, the daughter of Abd al Sattar (top), and Abd al Sattar Yassin. Reported killed killed in Beza’a city, east of al Bab. (picture courtesy of Al Bab al Hadath)

Both Turkey and the US consider the PKK a terrorist organization. The US, however has embedded special operation forces with the SDF, and has relied on the group to capture northern Syrian cities including Manbij. The Coalition has also backed SDF with hundreds of airstrikes in recent months around ISIL’s self-declared capital of Raqqa. In this climate, US CENTCOM told told Airwars as late as January 10th that there had been “no changes to existing US policy regarding support to the Turkish military in al-Bab,” and that American forces were not “conducting US airstrikes in or near Al-Bab.”

That stance changed just one week later, when the Coalition said that it had carried out its first strikes in the area on January 17th – just three days before US President Barack Obama left office.  Since then, the Coalition launched at least 47 raids, according to daily strike reports. Those bombings supported an existing mix of Turkish air and artillery strikes, as well as regular Russian raids and a collage of ground forces – making the tracking and attributing of civilian casualties difficult. While it appears that Turkish airstrikes were primarily focused on the western part of the city – where its forces made slow progress – Coalition and Russian strikes were harder to pinpoint, and neither belligerent provides exact locations for where their weapons are released.

Airwars has monitored dozens of reported civilian casualty incidents in al-Bab since November 2016. Tellingly, reports often conflated Turkish and Coalition actions well before the US-led alliance was officially involved. Through January, the Coalition insisted that Ankara’s offensive was unilateral.

On December 9th, to take one example, reports indicated that at least 13 civilians were killed in al-Bab. Local accounts cited both the Coalition and Turkey, though most blamed Ankara. One local report described how all-Bab “came under aerial bombardment and heavy artillery… [by the] Turkish army,” leaving more than 20 dead from a single family. Three days later, on December 12th, 12 civilians including 6 children were reported killed, and local accounts blamed both Turkey and the Coalition.

Given Turkey’s official membership in the Coalition, it is not always clear if local reports mean to distinguish between the two entities. Since the official start of Coalition strikes in Janaury, that task has become even harder. Extending Euphrates Shield will likely create further contested reporting.

Airwars asked the Coalition how it split targets with Turkey. A spokesperson provided the following statement:

“The Coalition uses a variety of intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance to provide accurate information to intelligence centers, strike cells, pilots, and commanders. These information sources provide the Coalition with situational awareness and allow for research and target development on the enemy’s functional use of locations and structures.”

Fadel Abdul Ghany, director of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, says his organisation does attempt to separate Turkish and Coalition attacks based on certain clues.

“We do distinguish between them, and we do not consider them as one side – as if Turkey was a member of the coalition,” Abdul Ghany told Airwars. “It is hard,” he added, “but the international coalition strikes are more precise and more powerful.”

UN: more than 300 civilians slain in battle for al-Bab

The UN’s human rights office (OHCHR) has also been tracking events in al-Bab, and provided Airwars with data from December 2016 through February 17th 2017, just before the town fell. Matthias Behnke, head of OHCHR’s Syria Team said the team “received reports that about 300 civilians have been killed so far as a result of the offensive to retake al-Bab, primarily due to airstrikes but also from improvised explosive devises (IEDs).” The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the toll slightly higher, reporting that 353 civilians, including 87 children and 55 women had been killed between November 13th 2016 and February 20th, 2017. It blamed those deaths on Turkish airstrikes and artillery.

Alarmingly, Behnke said that their monitoring suggested that “at least 100 civilians have been killed in and around al-Bab town since February 1st.” A strike on February 8th, he noted, “allegedly killed at least 27 civilians and injured at least 30 others, many of them from the same family.”

According to the daily Coalition strike report for February 8th, “Near Al Bab, three strikes engaged two ISIL tactical units; destroyed two mortar systems, a VBIED, vehicle, and a tunnel entrance.” However, local reports monitored by Airwars blamed Turkey. Al Bab 24, for instance, blamed “Turkish air and artillery shelling” and provided an extensive list of civilians from several families. “The number of victims under the rubble is large and it hasn’t been possible to pull them all out due to heavy shelling,” the report added.

ISIL proaganda video February 12th 2017 showing heavy damage to al Bab

On February 13th – when the Coalition reported no strikes – at least 15 civilians were allegedly killed in al-Bab. The Al Bab Coordination Committee provided the names of 17 people, including 5 women, which it said had perished. Syrian outlet Shaam News cited ISIL news reports which referred to “Turkish aircraft and aircraft of the international coalition” – reflecting the confusion over who exactly is bombing al-Bab. For locals caught up in the violence, there is often little difference. Worsening the plight of civilians, says the UN, are reports that militants have shot at residents of the city to prevent them from fleeing. “UN Human Rights Office received a number of reports of ISIL fighters shooting civilians trying to leave towards areas controlled by armed opposition groups,” said Behnke. But the UN has also received reports that Turkish-backed rebels have “shot civilians who are mistaken for ISIL elements, and a few reports of Government forces positioned south of al-Bab firing on civilians who are trying to leave towards al Raqqa.”

Given the complicated politics of the al-Bab operation and its high civilian toll from Turkish attacks, it is also unclear the extent to which non-US Coalition members took part in bombings there.  The Coalition would not provide a breakdown of what countries have bombed al-Bab, but the UK told Airwars it carried out one attack during 2017, on January 18th. The UK Ministry of Defense declined to comment on whether it planned to launch any further military actions in the vicinity of al-Bab. While the Coalition’s task is more straightforward in Iraq where it cooperates with the government, the complexities of Syria may make it more difficult for Coalition members to see eye to eye.

The latest civilian casualty incident in al-Bab monitored by the UN took place on February 20th; Behnke said it initially appeared that “tens” of people had been killed. Airwars researchers tracked reports of civilian casualties on this day, when both the Coalition and Turkey reported strikes. The Turkish military said it had bombed or shelled more than 250 targets in al-Bab between February 19th and 21st. The Coalition meanwhile reported that “Near Al Bab, three strikes engaged two ISIS tactical units, destroyed four ISIS-held buildings, and damaged an ISIS-held building.”

Disproportionate toll

If 300 civilians or more were killed in al-Bab since December, it would represent a major toll proportionate to Raqqa and Mosul, where hundreds of thousands more civilians continue to reside, and where the Coalition is now releasing thousands of bombs each month. Al-Bab is much smaller than both cities, and is defended by at most several hundred ISIL fighters – possibly fewer than the number of civilians killed. The Coalition was but one actor in al-Bab – but it was unclear to what extent they are communication with the Turks with an eye to protecting civilians.

Reports in the days before al-Bab’s fall indicate the Trump administration may be willing to lessen support to the SDF, favoring long-term stability with Turkey. According to Aaron Stein, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, that decision to appease the Turks could prolong the campaign to take Raqqa. Indeed, Turkey has made clear it intends to move not towards Raqqa, but Manbij.

The flash points, however, would be al-Bab, Manbij, and Tabqah. In this scenario,” Stein wrote in a recent assessment of US-Turkish interests in northern Syria. “Washington would have to assume the risk of Kurdish-Turkish escalation in favor of the broader effort to appease Ankara while also ousting the Islamic State from Raqqa with a Turkish-backed force.”

Choosing Turkey over the better-poised SDF could stretch the fight for Raqqa into 2018 – ample time for hundreds more airstrikes. 

▲ Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis meets with Turkish Minister of National Defense Fikri Isik at the NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, Feb. 15, 2017. (DOD photo by U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Brigitte N. Brantley)


February 14, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

Officials have confirmed that the US military – despite vowing not to use controversial Depleted Uranium (DU) weapons on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria – fired thousands of rounds of such munitions during two high-profile raids on oil trucks in Islamic State-controlled Syria in late 2015. The air assaults mark the first confirmed use of this armament since the 2003 Iraq invasion, when hundreds of thousands of rounds were fired, leading to outrage among local communities which alleged that toxic remnants caused both cancer and birth defects.

US Central Command (CENTCOM) spokesman Major Josh Jacques told Airwars and Foreign Policy that 5,265 armor-piercing 30mm rounds containing depleted uranium (DU) were shot from Air Force A-10 fixed-wing aircraft on November 16th and 22nd 2015, destroying about 350 vehicles in the country’s eastern desert.

30mm fire hits targets on November 16th in Syria. Image captured from CJTF video release.

Earlier in the campaign, both Coalition and US officials said the ammunition had not and would not be used in anti-Islamic State operations. In March 2015, Coalition spokesman John Moore said, “US and Coalition aircraft have not been and will not be using depleted uranium munitions in Iraq or Syria during Operation Inherent Resolve.” Later that month, a Pentagon representative told War is Boring that A-10s deployed in the region would not have access to armor-piercing ammunition containing DU because the Islamic State didn’t possess the tanks it is designed to penetrate.

It remains unclear if the November 2015 strikes occurred near populated areas. In 2003, hundreds of thousands of rounds were shot in densely settled areas during the American invasion, leading to deep resentment and fear among Iraqi civilians and – later – anger at the highest levels of government in Baghdad. In 2014, in a UN report on DU, the Iraqi government expressed “its deep concern over the harmful effects” of the material. DU weapons, it said, “constitute a danger to human beings and the environment” and urged the United Nations to conduct in-depth studies on their effects. Such studies of DU have not yet been completed, and most scientists and doctors say as a result there is still very limited credible “direct epidemiological evidence” connecting DU to negative health effects.

The potential popular blowback from using DU, however, is very real. While the United States insists it has the right to use the weapon, experts have called the decision to use the munition in such quantities against targets it wasn’t designed for — such as tanks — peculiar at best.

The US raids in 2015 were part of “Tidal Wave II” — an operation aimed at crippling infrastructure that the Islamic State relied on to sell millions of dollars’ worth of oil. The Pentagon said the November 16th attacks happened in the early morning near Al-Bukamal, a city in the governorate of Deir Ezzor near the border with Iraq, and destroyed 116 tanker trucks. Though the Coalition said the strikes occurred entirely in Syrian territory, both sides of the frontier were completely under the control of the militant group at the time. Any firing of DU in Iraqi territory would have had far greater political repercussions, given the anger over its previous use there. The November 16th video below shows tankers hit first by larger ordnances, before others are engulfed in sparks and are ripped apart by fire from 30mm cannons.

Video of the second DU run on November 22nd destroyed what is described as 283 “Daesh Oil trucks” in the desert between Al-Hasakeh and Deir Ezzor — both capitals of governorates of the same names.

The use of DU in Syria was first reported by this author in IRIN News last October. CENTCOM and the US Air Force at first denied it was fired, then offered differing accounts of what happened, including an admission in October that the weapon had been used. However, the dates confirmed by CENTCOM at that point were off by several days. It is now clear that the munitions were used in the most publicized of the Tidal Wave II attacks.

Armoured targets

Depleted uranium is left over from the enrichment of uranium 235. It is exceptionally hard, and has been employed by militaries both to penetrate armoured targets and to reinforce potential targets like tanks against enemy fire. Though less radioactive than the original uranium, DU is toxic and is considered by the US Environmental Protection Agency to be a “radiation health hazard when inside the body.”

The most likely way for such intake to occur is through the inhalation of small particles near where a munition is used. But doctors and anti-nuclear activists alike say there hasn’t been enough research done to prove the precise health effects and exposure thresholds for humans. This lack of comprehensive research on illnesses and health outcomes in post-conflict areas where DU was used has led to a proliferation of assumptions and theories about DU’s potential to cause birth defects and cancer. Firing rounds near civilian populations also has a powerful psychological effect, causing distress and severe anxiety, as the International Atomic Energy Agency noted in 2014.

Internationally, DU exists in a legal gray area. It is not explicitly banned by UN conventions like those that restrict land mines or chemical weapons. And although the United States applies restrictions on the weapon’s handling domestically, it does not regulate its use overseas in civilian areas with nearly the same caution.

“I think this is an area of international humanitarian law that needs a lot more attention,” says Cymie Payne, a legal scholar and professor of ecology at Rutgers University who has researched DU. “As we’ve been focusing more in recent years on the post-conflict period and thinking about peace building… we need a clean environment so people can use the environment.”

Major Jacques, the CENTCOM spokesman, says the ammunition was fired that November because of a “higher probability of destruction for targets.” Shortly after both attacks, the US-led Coalition released the videos showing multiple vehicles lit up by bombs, missiles, and prolonged fire from the 30 mm cannons of Air Force A-10s — but did not specify that the flight crews had loaded those cannons with DU. Those videos — along with dozens of other strike recordings — have been removed from official Coalition channels in recent months.

When DU rounds are loaded in A-10s, they are combined with a lesser amount of non-DU high-explosive incendiary (HEI) rounds, amounting to a “combat mix.” In November 2015, a total of 6,320 rounds of the mix were used in Syria: According to CENTCOM, 1,790 30 mm rounds — including 1,490 with DU — were fired on November 16; on November 22, 4,530 rounds of combat mix were fired containing 3,775 DU armor-piercing munitions. Though DU rounds have been fired in other theaters — including the Balkans — much of the attention centers on Iraq, where an estimated 1 million rounds were shot during the first Gulf War and the 2003 invasion.

A recent analysis of previously undisclosed firing data from the 2003 US invasion of Iraq showed that most DU rounds were fired at so-called soft targets, such as vehicles or troop positions, instead of targeting the tanks and armoured vehicles according to Pentagon guidelines that date back at least to a 1975 review by the US Air Force. The Pentagon’s current Law of War Manual states, “Depleted uranium (DU) is used in some munitions because its density and physical properties create a particularly effective penetrating combination to defeat enemy armored vehicles, including tanks.”

A line of tanker trucks in the Syrian desert on November 22nd, 2015. Image taken from CJTF video release of Coalition attacks on that day.

‘At risk of exposure’

The oil trucks hit in November 2015 were also unarmoured and would qualify as soft targets, the researchers who performed the analysis of the 2003 targeting cache contend. The trucks, in fact, were most likely manned by civilians rather than Islamic State members, according to US officials. A Pentagon representative said the United States had dropped leaflets warning of an imminent attack before the November 16th strike, in an effort to minimize casualties.

“The use of DU ammunition against oil tankers seems difficult to justify militarily on the basis of the arguments used by the US to support its use — that it is for destroying armoured targets,” says Doug Weir, head of the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons. “Tankers are clearly not armoured, and the alternative non-DU HEI [high-explosive incendiary] rounds would likely have been sufficient for the task.”

The spent ammunition littering eastern Syria after the attack, along with the wreckage of the trucks, was almost surely not handled appropriately by the occupying authority — that is, the Islamic State. Even if civilians driving the trucks were not initially exposed to the toxic remnants of DU, scavengers and other local residents will likely be placed at risk for years to come.

“What will happen with the destroyed vehicles? Usually they end up in scrapyards, are stripped of valuable parts and components, and dumped,” says Wim Zwijnenburg, senior researcher at the Dutch research NGO Pax. “This puts scrap-metal workers, most likely local civilians, at risk of exposure.”

If there are few ideas for what post-Islamic State governance will resemble in eastern Syria, there are none at all about how to safely handle the depleted uranium that the US-led Coalition has placed into the environment.

Published in conjunction with Foreign Policy


February 10, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

New Airwars research shows that for the first time since Moscow intervened in Syria’s civil war in September 2015,  airstrikes  by the  US-led Coalition are now claiming the lives of more civilians than Russia’s brutal aerial campaign

To date, Airwars researchers have identified 95 separate reported civilian casualty events in January across Iraq and Syria allegedly involving the Coalition. For the same period, 57 alleged Russian incidents took place.  

Likely civilian deaths as a result of Coalition actions are also higher for January. Airwars presently estimates that at least 254 non-combatants were likely killed in 47 strikes evaluated as “fair” – where there are multiple local reports of civilian casualties, and confirmed Coalition airstrikes in the near vicinity on the same date. January’s civilian toll is by far the highest to have been assessed by Airwars in more than two and a half years of Coalition airstrikes.

Monitoring groups have put non-combatant deaths in Syria from Russian strikes in January far lower. The Syrian Network for Human Rights, for instance, has reported that 48 civilians were killed by Moscow’s actions – against a minimum of 91 civilians killed by Coalition strikes in Syria for the same month – a figure somewhat higher than Airwars’ own estimated minimum of 65 civilians killed in Syria only by the Coalition.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights puts the figure for January for those killed by both Syrian government and Russian raids and shelling at 180.

One year ago, in January 2016, Russia killed at least 713 civilians according to Airwars estimates.  That was 14 times more deaths than were attributed to the Coalition for the same month.  But now roles may be shifting.

For full data and interactive charts, visit

An inflection point for Russia and the US

Russian and Coalition casualty figures for the first month of 2017 appear to represent an inflection point in the two campaigns, which together have likely left thousands of civilians dead.

Well into December 2016, Russia was still targeting civilian-populated areas of eastern Aleppo with bombs and missiles,  as regime forces retook the city’s last rebel-held neighbourhoods. A ceasefire deal was reached with the involvement of diplomats from Iran, Turkey and Russia followed shortly after. And the pace of Moscow’s airstrikes – along with their threat to civilians – has since slowed.

In parallel, the Coalition has ramped up its own operations – with civilians now at more risk. In Mosul, heavy Coalition air and artillery strikes in support of Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) have targeted fighters of so-called Islamic State (ISIL) for more than three months. And in Syria – barely reported by international media – the Coalition has been backing an aggressive ground campaign by Kurdish proxies to encircle  ISIL’s self-declared capital of Raqqa.

“The regime’s Russian-backed military gains of the last year, of which the seizure of Aleppo and Russia’s subsequent rapprochement with Turkey have been key, mean that the breadth and intensity of combat has been significantly diminished,” Julien Barnes-Dacey, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations told Airwars, referring to the level of fighting and bombings in Syria.

“The Russian-led shift,” added Barnes-Dacey, “comes just as the fight for Mosul and towards Raqqa has picked up new intensity, resulting in increased casualty numbers – a trend that could accelerate further if President Trump relaxes the rules of US engagement as some are anticipating.”

New US President Donald Trump has given Pentagon commanders 30 days to come up with a more aggressive plan to defeat ISIL. According to reports this may include further relaxing restrictions aimed at limiting harm to civilians on the battlefield.

Yet as Airwars reported on January 20th, the civilian toll from US airstrikes was already escalating steeply  in the final months of the Obama administration. From the start of operations to capture Mosul on October 17th through Obama’s last day in office on January 20th, Airwars researchers assessed that at least 294 civilians were likely killed in that city alone. Unlike the siege of rebel-held areas in Aleppo, these strikes – if not the ground fighting itself – have received relatively little media coverage. In Raqqa governorate, 62 civilians were judged as likely killed in the same period.

For full data and interactive charts, visit

These trends have continued into Trump’s presidency. On his second day, as many as 15 civilians, including women and children, were reportedly killed in strikes on the Al-Rashidiyah neighborhood of Mosul. Local residents blamed the attack on the Coalition, which they say targeted  a car bomb but which also destroyed a civilian house.

Airwars was able to reach a family member inside Mosul whose relatives were killed in the strike. “The house was targeted by Coalition airstrikes at 12:22PM on Saturday [January 20th],” the relative says. “Four family members were killed as well as seven others who had come to the house as guests. The guests were employees of a medicine factory in the same area.”

The source named his four relatives as Zahra Ibarehem Ali Jumah; Jasim Mohammed Hassan Ali; Shamsah Jasim Hassan Ali; and Rania Raed Maohammed Hassan. Four members of a second family also killed in the event have also been named by others.

Airwars has also been provided with a picture from the scene that appears to depict the remnants of an American-manufactured ammunition in the rubble. Two weapons experts, including Human Rights Watch’s senior arms researcher Mark Hiznay indentified the remnants as belonging to an American-produced Hellfire air-to-surface missile. The US, UK and Iraqi militaries all possess Hellfires.

Remnant of Hellfire missile fired in Mosul on January 21st. (Image courtesy of Fathil Jasim)

“January was the deadliest month yet for civilians in Mosul,” says Airwars’ Iraq researcher. “More than 50 airstrikes reportedly targeted them, killing in their homes women, children, professors, engineers and physicians.” In total, at least 133 strikes took place in Mosul during January, according to daily Coalition strike reports.

Shamsah Jasim Hassan Ali, one of those killed in the January 21st strike. (Image courtesy of Fatihil Jasim).

“It is true that the left (eastern) side of Mosul has been liberated, but civilians paid a very high price,” he added.

Raqqa in crisis

Meanwhile, having reportedly discarded plans drawn up by the Obama administration to take Raqqa from ISIL with the assistance of Syrian-Kurdish forces, it remains unclear what President Trump’s plan are in Syria. For the last several months, the Coalition has launched numerous daily strikes – up to 22 in a 24-hour period – in the vicinity of the city, primarily in surrounding towns and villages that are held by ISIL.  

During January, Coalition forces launched at least 336 strikes “near” Raqqa – a massive tally – according to daily strike reports. Without a clear strategy to take the city with ground forces, airstrikes are likely to endure for an extended period of time, and continue to claim the lives of civilians – potentially without matching gains in territory.

Syrian monitoring groups reported large death tolls in Raqqa from Coalition strikes just days into the New Year. On January 6th, airstrikes northeast of Tabaqa were said to have killed at least eight  civilians. Other strikes in the area have claimed dozens of lives. Those trends have continued during the opening weeks of the Trump administration. On January 27th, four civilians including up to three children were reportedly killed in Shanina village in Raqqa governorate. On January 30th, al Tabaqa was hit again, killing up to three civilians – this time reportedly by a raid which struck a school. Local sources said one of the casualties was a person with special needs.

Fadel Abdul Ghany, director of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, said the contrast with Russian strikes – which for months targeted medical facilities and other protected sites in clear violation of international law – was changing.

While Russia continues to bomb opposition controlled areas, elsewhere “the level of strikes has dropped and in some areas stopped completely, which has had a very positive impact on the lives of people living in those areas,” said Ghany. “We are starting to see an increase in the movement of civilians between villages and cities, in markets and various workshops. Children are back playing out in the street and out in the farms.”

The point, he said, was not that Russia had discovered human rights norms, but that the Coalition risked alienating more Syrians as its bombing campaign against ISIL heads towards its third anniversary.

“The big and fundamental difference is that international coalition countries are leading countries in the defense of human rights,” he added. “Unfortunately, this huge number of victims [caused by the Coalition] hasn’t led these countries to change their combat strategy.”

▲ Man stands in front of destroyed homes in Mosul on January 12th. (Image courtesy of Iraqyoon)


January 31, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

The Executive Order signed by President Donald J. Trump on January 27th has sent shock waves through refugee communities, citizens of the seven Muslim-majority countries banned from travel to the US, and the wider international community. But one inclusion appears to have taken even the Pentagon and military planners by surprise.

Key US ally Iraq – in the midst of a bloody campaign to capture Mosul from so called Islamic State (ISIL) – finds itself on the list of banned nations, placing in limbo the visas of many Iraqis who have helped the US. Also at risk: extensive cooperation between thousands of American soldiers and their Iraqi counterparts, painstakingly built up since August 2014.

In an angry response to the Trump ban, Iraqi MPs on January 30th supported a “reciprocity measure” that would similarly prevent Americans from entering the country. Though the measure is so far non-binding, it illustrates how quickly relations have been souring in the days following Trump’s action. In a report from the front lines in Mosul, a member of Iraqi special forces told Associated Press: “When he [Trump] made this decision he destroyed us.”

Perhaps in response to such tensions, in recent days the Coalition has been heavily stressing the vital and deadly role being played by Iraqi forces in the war against ISIL. Daily strike releases now note that Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) “are willing to take the brunt of fighting to liberate their country.” Some Iraqi officials estimate that in addition to 5,000 civilian casualties, some 1,600 Iraqi troops have already been killed or injured in the ongoing battle for Mosul.

‘The Coalition was not consulted’

Trump’s controversial executive order has frozen the US’s refugee program for 120 days – and also blocks all citizens from Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Iran from entering the United States for at least 90 days. Widely  criticized as a ‘Muslim Ban’ – in part due to language of the text, and claims by Trump that the US would privilege some religious minorities – the order has led to major protests across the United States including at airports, where over 100 people had reportedly been detained. The first well-publicized incident, at New York’s JFK Airport, saw the detention of an Iraqi man, Hameed Darweesh, who had previously worked as a translator for the US military.

The signing of the controversial order took place at the Pentagon, following the ceremonial swearing-in of former US Marine Corps general James Mattis as US Defense Secretary. Mattis, who stood next to Trump as he signed the order, is seen by some critics of the president as a voice of reason within his Cabinet.

It has since been reported that the Pentagon may not have had a chance to provide input ahead of the signing. According to the New York Times Mattis “did not see a final version of the order until Friday morning, only hours before Mr. Trump arrived to sign it at the Pentagon.”

Airwars reached out to the Pentagon to confirm whether Department of Defense officials had been able to offer advice on the order. The Pentagon referred the question to the White House, which did not respond.

The US-led Coalition did however respond. Chief spokesman Colonel John Dorrian said on January 30th that “The Coalition was not consulted, to my knowledge.”

US forces have invested heavily in rebuilding the Iraqi military since 2014. Trust between the two allies remains vital in the fight against ISIL, both on and off the battlefield  (US Army/ Spc. Christopher Brecht)

Mosul Campaign

Iraqi forces are presently in the middle of the biggest military assault since World War 2, as they seek to recapture the country’s second largest city from ISIL forces.  On January 25th – two days before Trump’s executive order was signed – US Army Maj. Gen. Joseph M. Martin declared that the eastern half of Mosul had been completely taken after 100 days of fighting.

“It’s the hardest door-to-door fighting the world has seen in recent history,” Martin told reporters. “There is still a difficult fight ahead in western Mosul, but the ISF has proven that they are both a professional and formidable fighting force.”

There are at least 5,000 American soldiers on the ground in Iraq, in addition to civilian contractors. The US provides direct support through Coalition airstrikes, Apache helicopter firepower and artillery. On the ground, US forces have also been advising their Iraqi partners on the front lines. As Airwars recently reported, by mid January the Coalition had already launched 419 airstrikes in support of Iraqi forces at Mosul – while also firing more than 4,500 artillery shells and rockets. All of these actions require close coordination between the Coalition and Iraqi forces.

The US-backed campaign to rid Iraq of ISIL has in turn displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians, and laid entire cities and towns to waste. At the outset of the Mosul assault, some 1.2 million Iraqis remained trapped in the city. Today, the UN estimates that the majority – some 750,000 – are still within occupied eastern Mosul, which Iraqi forces have yet to penetrate.

That the US would now cut off access to refugees from a country it invaded 14 years ago is a particularly bitter irony for many Iraqis. Baghdad’s former ambassador to the United States Lukman Faily – himself now banned – is one of many high ranking officials voicing their anger: “To be treated like this… to say it’s a betrayal (is) an understatement,” he told Yahoo News.

Members of President Trump’s own party have also pointed to potential blowback from the executive order – which could put civilian lives in even greater danger. “At this very moment, American troops are fighting side-by-side with our Iraqi partners to defeat ISIL. But this executive order bans Iraqi pilots from coming to military bases in Arizona to fight our common enemies,” said Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham in a joint statement.

“Our most important allies in the fight against ISIL are the vast majority of Muslims who reject its apocalyptic ideology of hatred. This executive order sends a signal, intended or not, that America does not want Muslims coming into our country. That is why we fear this executive order may do more to help terrorist recruitment than improve our security.”

In New York, Hameed Khalif Darweesh, the Iraqi whose detention helped lead to a first wave of US street protests, was eventually released. He remains positive. “America is the land of freedom, the land of life,” he told reporters. “America is the greatest nation.”

Pentagon officials may struggle to placate others still working with the US military. On January 30th, a spokesperson said the DoD was now working on a list of Iraqis who had assisted US troops, and who might be exempted from Trump’s order – evidently something that hadn’t been done before the new president put pen to paper.

▲ U.S. Navy corpsmen assigned to Team 40, Task Force Al-Taqaddum and Iraqi security forces soldiers celebrate following a graduation ceremony near Camp Manion, Iraq, Jan 11, 2017. ISF soldiers graduated from a three-day combat lifesaver course taught by Navy corpsmen in support of Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve, the global Coalition to defeat ISIL in Iraq and Syria. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Christopher Brecht)


January 20, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

In the last weeks of the Obama presidency, the US-led air war against so-called Islamic State intensified dramatically – leading to hundreds of likely civilian deaths. Yet in contrast to recent events at Aleppo, international press coverage has been largely absent.

Since the official start of operations to capture Mosul on October 17th, Airwars researchers have tracked 91 allegations of civilian casualties from Coalition airstrikes in and around the city. Of those, 35 claimed events are from just the first 17 days of 2017, as Iraqi forces sought to capture all of eastern Mosul.

So far four Coalition incidents in the battle for Iraq’s second city have been confirmed, taking the lives of at least 20 civilians. A further 35 incidents have been graded as “fair” by Airwars researchers – meaning there are two or more credible local reports and Coalition airstrikes reported in the near vicinity. Based on Airwars assessments, those additional alleged strikes likely claimed the lives of between 294 and 350 civilians in Mosul. 

In the same period – from October 17th onward – Airwars researchers have recorded 62 alleged civilian casualty incidents stemming from Coalition operations supporting US proxy ground forces in Raqqa governorate.  Two of those incidents have been confirmed by the Coalition, while a further 43 were rated “fair” by Airwars researchers. Based on Airwars monitoring, those incidents appear likely to have claimed the lives of another 154 to 229 civilians.

Reports from Mosul in January have seen daily allegations of civilian deaths. Airwars has learned of at least one incident – which reportedly claimed the lives of 11 civilians from one family – a full month after it occurred. It is likely that additional cases will be uncovered as journalists gain access to the liberated east of the city. And in Raqqa, several alleged Coalition strikes over the last month have claimed dozens of lives. 

Both cities are being hit heavily by foreign airpower, leaving many civilians dead amid siege-like conditions. But in the waning days of the Obama administration – and just after the much-covered fall of rebel-held Aleppo – media interest shifted. In total, 450 or more civilians appear to have been killed in intense Coalition actions across Iraq and Syria since October – yet their deaths have largely been ignored. 

“With reported fatalities from Coalition strikes at record levels we would have expected significant media engagement,” says Airwars Director Chris Woods. “Instead, anything beyond local reporting has been almost non-existent.”

Erbil, Iraq: US troops prepare AH-64E Apache attack helicopters for operations on January 10 2017 (Photo via US Army video.)

Heavy firepower

According to the United Nations, the assault on Mosul is the largest such military operation since World War Two. Despite an estimated 1.2 million civilians being trapped in the city at the start of the siege, the firepower unleashed has been formidable.

According to military officials, the Coalition has already released more than 9,500 munitions during 419 airstrikes in support of operations to capture Mosul. According to a spokesperson, those strikes have “destroyed 145 VBIEDs, [vehicle borne improvised explosive devices] 349 buildings/facilities, 845 craters/bridges, 132 tunnels, 335 vehicles, 377 bunkers, 23 AAA [anti-aircraft artillery], and 300 artillery/mortar systems.”

American Apache helicopters are also used regularly by the Coalition, and have fired more than 150 munitions according to officials. Airwars can also report that as of January 12th, more than 4,500 artillery shells and rockets had been fired by Coalition ground forces in the vicinity of Mosul since October 17th.

None of these totals count heavy weapons used by Iraqi Security Forces, or missiles and bombs dropped by the Iraqi Air Force. Though the UN recently claimed Iraqi forces have avoided artillery strikes inside Mosul in order to avoid civilian casualties, monitoring of social media accounts used by Iraqi forces show artillery and other ground-based munitions regularly being fired into the city. Iraq’s own air force of F-16s, armed Chinese drones and attack helicopters is also heavily engaged, and has reportedly been responsible for civilian deaths. 

Amazing #pictures from #Reuters! #Iraqi #Soldiers continue to bring the fight to #Daesh in #mosul @USAFAS @CJTFOIR @CENTCOM @DogFaceSoldier

— Danger 6 (@Danger6_1ID) January 19, 2017

Coalition commander Major General Martin tweets in support of Iraqi forces using rockets and artillery in the assault on Mosul, January 19th 2017

Counting the dead

Public estimates vary of civilians killed since the start of operations on October 17th to capture Mosul. The United Nations, which was recently pressured into no longer publishing tallies of Iraqi security forces killed in the battle, does not have an official estimate of civilian deaths – though one UN official has suggested it could be nearly half of all combat fatalities in Mosul. In a “normal conflict this would be around 15 to 20 percent,” another UN source told Airwars. “Here it is surely higher.”

For the first two months of the Mosul campaign, signs pointed to ISIL being responsible for the majority of civilian deaths. The militant group indiscriminately mortared captured neighbourhoods, and fired on non-combatants attempting to escape ISIL territory – claiming the lives of many civilians.

But there are also ominous signs, especially of late, that civilians are dying in increasing numbers as a result of intensified ground operations supported by Coalition air power. It is not always clear who is responsible for civilian deaths, but casualty numbers are moving upwards.

On January 12th for example, as many as 30 civilians were reportedly killed on the left (Western) side of the Tigris River, which has yet to see ground assaults by Iraqi security forces. According to The Guardian, witnesses described at least three missiles striking the al-Jadida district. The target may have been a senior ISIL leader named Harbi Abdel Qader. “He was not in the building at the time, but several members of his family died,” wrote the paper, citing a local resident. It was unclear whether the strike had been carried out by the Coalition or the Iraqi Air Force.

Airwars spoke to one Western journalist who has been covering operations in Mosul since October. He described significant early access to the battle, then far less as the fighting pushed into the city. Today, he is able to venture once more into liberated areas. But reporting has not kept pace with the civilian toll.

“By early December our access was basically completely cut off,” he said. “There hasn’t been a lot of reporting [on civilian casualties] in Mosul. I don’t think there is enough – the amount of reporting doesn’t reflect the reality.”

Airwars’ Iraq researcher has closely monitored civilian casualty claims in Mosul for the past two years. He says the firepower reportedly unleashed by Iraqi forces and the Coalition has increased since the end of December, as they pressed towards the Tigris from the east – capturing important districts and landmarks like the city’s University.

In many cases, ISIL fighters may be present in an area, darting in and out of buildings or firing sniper rounds from a roof. But they may also have gone by the time strikes are called in.

“According to locals, twenty minutes later American jets come and destroy those locations even if there is no ISIS,” says the researcher.

A family slain

Salam al Sultan, a Moslawi who now lives in Canada, told Airwars how eleven members of his family were killed in the early afternoon of December 13th by one such incident in east Mosul – after airstrikes tried to take out an ISIL sniper a few houses down. Their bodies could only be recovered from the rubble a month later.

Salam’s uncle, Ahmed Nather Mahmood, lived with his wife and two sons, Sehab and Amear and their families in al Sukur, a Mosul neighbourhood which has recently seen heavy fighting.  

Sometime around 1pm, a neighbour who had planned to flee the fighting arrived to see if the Mahmood family would leave with him. Fearful of the violence around them, Salam’s family had already packed to escape, but told the neighbour to linger just a bit longer.

“He came to them and said let us leave. They said let us finish our lunch, and we will leave together,” said Salam, speaking to Airwars by phone from Canada. “The neighbour said no I’m leaving.”

Minutes later, an airstrike obliterated the home. Salam, who had already lost one brother to an ISIS execution in 2015 and another to unknown assailants during violence in Mosul in 2008, now lost eleven more members of his family.

“They were going to leave… Hanan said ‘even my luggage was ready, my bag was ready,’” he said, referring to a female cousin who survived the attack, but whose whereabouts are now unclear. “They were just going to finish their lunch.”

For a month the bodies of Salam’s uncle, aunt, his brothers and their dead children lay under the shattered remnants of their home. Only on January 14th were other family members and neighbours able to start retrieving their corpses. The stench was overpowering.

Salam says his family was fearful of airstrikes, but considered them “more accurate” prior to the operation to retake the city, and especially of late. The Iraqi government, he said, was behind schedule – and now moved quickly with “massive firepower.”

Only after the attack did those who survived learn why the area may have been targeted: an ISIS sniper had apparently been spotted on a roof two houses down.“If there is a sniper how come they don’t use a small machine gun from a plane, how come they have to use a big rocket to destroy three or four houses?”

The house of Ahmed Nather Mahmood, where eleven family members died. Photograph courtesy of family.

‘Fear has me paralyzed’

In November Airwars spoke with Noora, a Moslawi now living in the United Kingdom. She described then how her young cousin and the girl’s mother were killed in airstrikes on Mosul during 2015. A year later, another relative was cut down by an airdropped munition.

Noora’s grandparents and aunt have remained in Mosul, communicating intermittently as they waited for security forces to reach their neighbourhood. In the summer of 2016, her grandmother had referred offhand to an airstrike as “nothing.” After reviewing the incident with Airwars, Noora learned that the attack likely left nearly a dozen civilians dead, and was extremely close to where her grandmother lived. It was certainly not “nothing.”

On January 10th 2017, Airwars spoke to Noora again. “They’re getting close to my family’s neighbourhood,” she wrote. “Fear has me paralyzed.” Days earlier, on January 6th, her aunt had been near to a deadly strike that killed several members of a family with which hers was close. Local reports indicated that some 20 civilians were killed when alleged Coalition planes bombed near the entrance of a mosque in the Ziraei district of eastern Mosul. Those local reports and social media posts included the names of Noora’s family’s friends.

During the bombing Noora’s aunt called her family, distraught. “There were so many strikes that day,” she said. Footage posted by an ISIL-linked outlet showed the destruction. An internal UN human rights assessment obtained by Airwars included the following account of the incident:

Airstrike reportedly kills 17 civilians and wounds 11 others in Mosul: During the morning of 6 January, sources alleged that airstrikes targeting an ISIL gathering in Ziraie neighbourhood of central Mosul killed 17 civilians, including seven women and four children, and wounded 11 others, including four women and two children.

On January 18th, Iraq’s government said it had gained complete control of eastern Mosul. Some 450,000 residents are now free of ISIL. But nearly double that number – around 750,000 people – remain to the west of the Tigris River according to UN figures. Already behind its stated schedule to retake the entire city, Iraqi armed forces will now turn their attention to the left bank. Numerous additional civilian casualties are likely.

Raqqa: the invisible campaign

While the assault on Mosul has been reasonably well reported, almost no international media coverage has been given to Coalition-supported actions to recapture Raqqa city from so-called islamic State.

In some of his final comments, outgoing US Defense Secretary Ash Carter noted that “our local partners continue to converge down on Raqqa and I’m also confident that they will soon have ISIL’s so-called capital isolated.” Yet Airwars tracking suggests the cost to civilians has been high – with at least 154 non-combatants recently alleged killed around the city.

The US’s preferred ground proxies the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – comprising mostly Kurdish irregulars – have captured a string of villages and towns in heavy fighting in recent weeks, supported by intense Coalition (mainly US) airstrikes. But the reported civilian death toll has been very high, with almost daily allegations of ‘massacres’ from key local monitors.

“In November we saw almost daily allegations and sometimes several a day – so that in that one month alone there were 35 incidents with more than 150 civilians claimed killed,” says Airwars’ senior Syria researcher Kinda Haddad. “This pattern continued into December – albeit somewhat reduced – with 14 alleged incidents causing over 90 civilian casualties.”

“This has been a consistent pattern we have seen over the course of the war,” adds Haddad. “Every time strikes are stepped up we see a notable rise in allegations of civilian casualties. As ever, this is because ISIL is based in civilian centres and not on an imaginary front line. They live among civilians and their offices are located on main streets and in residential and office buildings. So while individually they may be legitimate military targets, their location means they are in effect also civilian targets.”

Widah Abdallah, a victim of a Nov 19th attack on Bia’as village. Te Coalition says the incident is now under investigation (via Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently)

Among the incidents tracked by Haddad and her colleagues was a series of attacks on Al Heisha village in Raqqa governorate on November 8th, which reportedly left as many as 24 civilians dead. In that case, both the Coalition and the SDF – were blamed. In daily reporting for November 7th-8th and November 8th-9th, the Coalition reported two strikes near “Ar Raqqah.”

On the same day – November 8th – between two and five civilians, possibly including two children, were reportedly killed in Al Kalta village.

On November 19th, between 8 and 11 civilians were killed in Bia’as village in an incident that the Coalition has confirmed to Airwars is now under investigation. Width Abdullah (pictured) was among the dead. A similar pattern of heavy casualties from reported airstrikes continued into the next month.

Fadel Abdul Ghani, director of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, points to an incident on December 9th, at a time when SDF forces were able to reach Ja’bar Castle near the city of al Tabaqa. “International forces launched raids to support the progress of the Syrian Democratic Forces and caused dozens of civilian casualties,” Mr Abdul Ghani told Airwars. “The most prominent incident was the bombing of the village of Ma’yezila in northern Raqqa, which is under the control of Daesh – killing 22 civilians, including six children and six women.”

Asked why he thought there was such a lack of international media coverage of the toll inflicted by the anti-ISIL campaign at Raqqa, Mr Abdul Ghani said: “The justification is always there – Daesh.”

The girl Reham Al Haj Saleh, age 13, died in #IntlCoalition warplanes missiles fired on Al Tabaqa city in #Raqqa, Dec 20#Syria

— Syrian Network (@snhr) December 21, 2016

In 2017, heavy Coalition strikes have continued. On January 6th, another raid northeast of Tabaqa reportedly claimed the lives of at least eight civilians. The Syrian Observatory for Human rights reported that “the death toll is expected to rise because there are some people in a critical situation.”

“The Al-Swidiyyeh massacre is considered the first massacre against civilians carried out by warplanes of the coalition during the year 2017,” said the Observatory.

Donald Trump, inaugurated as US President on January 20th, has promised to “bomb the hell out of ISIS” – making defeat of the terror group a key goal. If the Trump campaign is to match or increase the intensity of the last months of the Obama administration, the civilian toll will only grow.