January 18, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

Among the dozen nations that are officially a part of the kinetic US-led Coalition fighting ISIL in Iraq and Syria, few are more important – and none potentially more challenging for the Coalition itself – than Turkey.

A NATO member, Turkey shares a border with both Iraq and Syria, and has deployed troops in each. Yet in neither case are the Turkish soldiers there part of Inherent Resolve operations. The Coalition depends heavily for its Syria actions on Incirlik air base in southern Turkey. Yet in recent weeks, Turkey has gone so far as to call in Russian airstrikes during its fight for the key ISIL-occupied Syrian city of Al-Bab – a startling development that Ankara blames on Washington’s refusal to help.

As Airwars observed in its December 2016 audit of the anti-ISIL alliance, “Turkey remains the most ambivalent member of the US-led Coalition – with almost all of its military actions viewed as unilateral by its purported allies.” While Turkey has launched numerous air raids into both Iraq and Syria, Airwars researchers at the time observed that no more than ten had actually been in direct support of Coalition objectives.

Disparate enemies

Underlying all of Turkey’s cross-border actions is a tension between two disparate enemies. Ankara is determined to suppress a domestic Kurdish insurgency, while also reining back ascendant Kurdish forces in both Syria and Iraq. At the same time, Turkey is now directly confronting the so-called Islamic State in the Levant. When Turkey launched an invasion of northern Syria in August 2016, its troops pushed ISIL from a buffer zone along the border. But Turkey also targeted local Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), fresh from their own Coalition-backed victories against the Islamic State.

A female Kurdish soldier sits atop an armored vehicle, allegedly captured from Turkish-backed rebels in rural Aleppo. (Girê Sipî Post, posted October 13, 2016)

The Ankara government considers the YPG to be the Syrian arm of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged an insurgency inside Turkey since the 1980s – often employing terror tactics. In 2013 the Turkish government reached a ceasefire with the rebels – though that deal eroded as the Syrian war progressed. Ankara had to watch as Kurdish irregulars gained prominence and territory in northern Syria, which some said might form part of a future Kurdish state. In 2015 the ceasefire completely collapsed.

In addition to fighting the PKK – along with conducting alleged human rights violations in Kurdish areas of Turkey – the Turkish government has bombed PKK sites in Iraqi Kurdistan (the Kurdish regional government there is not itself allied to the PKK). Complicating matters further, Ankara has insinuated itself into the fight to retake Mosul, basing its troops out of an old military camp near the city since 2015. At least 800 Turkish troops remain at Bashiqa, against the wishes of the government in Baghdad.

Harking back to the Ottoman period when that area of northern Iraq was part of the former empire, Turkey’s President Erdogan insists that it is still a part of his own nation’s zone of influence. Turkish forces have shelled Mosul, reportedly killing civilians, while the US-led Coalition has suggested its presence is not sanctioned. “It is the position of the US and the coalition that anyone that is fighting terrorism in Iraq should be doing so in coordination with the government of Iraq,” Coalition spokesperson Colonel John Dorrian told Airwars in November. 

The Turkish line – that “Iraqi sovereignty is very important to us” but that its own (unwelcome) military presence is “a result of need” as Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said in January 2017 – is contradictory. Yet it is a line the Turks have stood by, as they seek to assert themselves ahead of ISIL’s expected fall in northern Iraq. The Turkish government wants to check Iranian-backed militias in the area, and, it claims, to protect local Turkmen communities with whom leaders in Ankara say they enjoy a kinship and ancestral bonds. From its occupied base at Bashiqa, Turkey has also trained both friendly Kurdish Peshmerga troops, and elements of local Sunni tribal militias who are opposed to ISIL.

“You called us to Bashiqa, and now you are telling us to leave. Excuse me, but I have kin there, I have Turkmen brothers there, Turkish brothers who ask us to come and help,” Erdogan said in October 2016. “Excuse me, but I won’t leave.”

Bogged down at Al-Bab

Advancing swiftly through northern Syria in the early days of its 2016 invasion,Turkey and its local Arab allies in Operation Euphrates Shield now risk becoming bogged down in a bitter struggle for Al-Bab –  a key city where ISIL appears willing to fight to the death. In the wake of heavy troop losses over the past month, Turkey has loudly protested a lack of Coalition air support for its operation to capture the city – an assertion backed by the Coalition’s own strike reports, which show no raids in the vicinity.

The US prefers that the Coalition keeps its Syria focus on ISIL’s self-declared capital of Raqqa, where dozens of strikes have taken place in recent weeks. The Coalition has also poured intense firepower into Mosul, stretching resources between the two fronts. There has also been irritation as the Turks push hard against Washington’s favoured (and mostly Kurdish) SDF allies. Turkey’s defense minister in turn has threatened to cut off US access to Incirlik airbase.

#Aleppo: #ISIS destroyed Turkish army Leopard 2A4 & M60T tanks with ATGM strikes at #Al_Bab. Last photo: abandoned Otokar Cobra.

— WorldOnAlert (@worldonalert) December 24, 2016

Dozens of Turkish troops have been reported killed in the bloody fight for Al-Bab

“US-Turkish relations are not good; the US primarily is trying to prevent the Syrian Kurds and Turkish troops and the Turkish-allied rebels from fighting each other, rather than the Islamic State,” says Aaron Stein, a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.  “Turkish strikes in Syria and Iraq,” he notes, “are not coordinated with the Coalition beforehand.”

As the Al-Bab campaign continued, Turkey reached a ceasefire deal along with Iran and Russia in late December involving the Syrian government and certain rebel groups. Sensing an opening, Russia began cooperating with Turkey at Al-Bab. The tentative set-up came just a year after Turkey shot down a Russian jet along the Syrian border – and just days after the assassination of Russia’s ambassador in Ankara.

Turkish defense officials have confirmed an arrangement with Russia. One military source told the Turkish daily Hurriyet that “We have got the cooperation that we couldn’t get with the [U.S.-led anti-ISIL] coalition with Russia.”

Though remarkable for a member of NATO – particularly one so at odds with Moscow since the start of the Syrian war – the recent deal with Russia could still be viewed as being in line with Turkish self-interest: defeating ISIL, while also preventing a de facto Kurdish state from emerging on the fringes of Syria, Iraq and Turkey. 

A US F-16 takes off from Incirlilk airbase in eastern Turkey. Ankara has threatened to throw the Coalition out if it continues to support Kurdish ‘terrorist’ forces in Syria.

Failed coup

Much has also changed since the failed and bloody coup attempt which sought to overthrow President Erdogan in mid 2016. Since then, Turkish nationalism has been on the rise – and old certainties are under pressure.

“Turkey is officially part of the Coalition, but really since the botched coup attempt of last July, and then the normalization with Russia, there has been so much anti-Americanism that’s been widespread in Turkey,” says Sinan Ulgen, visiting scholar at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“There is hope in Ankara that things will improve – and they can’t be much worse than today with the Obama administration. Not only that [the administration] failed in Syria. but there is widespread belief that the US had consciously moved to undermine Turkey’s position both domestically and in Syria by aligning itself with the Kurds, by arming the [YPG], and by extension the PKK.”

Ulgen estimates that Turkey could take Al-Bab within the next two months. The question then, is what comes next? “If Turkey successfully captures Al-Bab, will that be the end of the Turkish offensive in Syria? Or, as some claim, will Turkish forces then be directed to Manbij?”

Manbij, to the west of the Euphrates, was captured by the Kurds after a bloody, Coalition-backed fight in 2016. The town is now controlled by the SDF, and a Turkish assault may represent a point of no return for the US, which has thus far withstood the dissonance of nominally allying with the Turks and relying on their air bases, while actively and deeply supporting the YPG in Syria – the very force that the Coalition plans to support in taking ISIL’s proclaimed capital of Raqqa.

Major Michael Meyer, a spokesperson for US CENTCOM, told Airwars on January 10th that despite reports that the US was increasing support for Turkish military operations, “there have been no changes to existing US policy regarding support to the Turkish military in Al-Bab and we are not conducting US airstrikes in or near Al-Bab.”

However, a week later the Coalition confirmed on January 17th that the first strikes in support of Turkish forces had in fact taken place.There have been four of these strikes so far,” spokesman Colonel Dorrian told reporters. “And again, we do expect to continue doing these types of strikes in the days ahead.”

What if any deal the US-led Coalition has made with Turkey on air support remains unclear. Any decision of how to proceed with the Turkish government, in any event, will be handed off the President Donald Trump.

“The United States is kind of checked out – everyone is waiting for Trump, and I think that the major players like the Turks have in this sense essentially written off the Obama administration,” Steven Cook, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Airwars. “Putin and his people seemingly want to flip the Turks, and you have a certain amount of receptivity to that in Ankara.”

The risk of that occurring may have been furthered after CENTCOM’s official twitter account posted a statement issued by the SDF, writing underneath that “SDF confirms that it has no affiliation or ties to PKK.” Ibrahim Kalin, press secretary to President Erdogan, tweeted back, “Is this a joke or @CENTCOM has lost its senses? Do you believe anyone will buy this? The US must stop trying to legitimize a terrorist group.”

Is this a joke or @CENTCOM has lost its senses? Do you believe anyone will buy this? The US must stop trying to legitimize a terrorist group

— Ibrahim Kalin (@ikalin1) January 12, 2017

Turkey’s presidential spokesman blasts CENTCOM for its support of ‘terrorists’

Civilians at risk

Any Turkish attack on Manbij would also be ominous for civilians living there. Hundreds already likely died in the US-backed campaign to oust Islamic State from the city and its environs in 2016.  A fresh Turkish assault would inevitably lead to more casualties. The Syrian Observatory estimates that at least 280 civilians – including 100 women and children – have already been killed by Turkey and its allies since they invaded northern Syria five months ago.

On December 9th – to take a recent example – local reports indicated that at least 13 civilians died in an airstrike on Al-Bab. Citing an ISIL media affiliate, Al Jazeera said two families were among the dead and blamed multiple “Turkish airstrikes.” The Syrian Observatory also blamed the Turkish military, while the Syrian Network for Human Rights blamed the Coalition. While Airwars has classed the incident as “contested,” the Coalition did not report strikes in the area on that date – and it appears most likely that Turkey was to blame on this occasion.

“The picture is often not clear, and you often don’t know with strikes – you have some sources saying it’s Turkey, some saying it’s Russia, some saying it’s the Syrian regime,” says Kinda Haddad, chief Syria researcher at Airwars, who has tracked local reports on Aleppo governorate for two years. “That said, there was clearly a very obvious spike in allegations of civilian casualties from Turkish strikes in the second half of last year. As with the Russians and the Syrian government, they deny the civilian casualties.”

Yet without US air support, the current Turkish attempt to take Al-Bab and possibly Manbij could be even bloodier for non-combatants. As a recent Washington Institute study assessed, “Turkey will eventually take Al-Bab with or without U.S. help, likely by shelling the city and otherwise causing heavy civilian casualties.”

“Erdogan might then apply the same technique to Manbij if the SDF has not withdrawn by then, leaving Washington with the prospect of major civilian carnage, direct Turkish-Kurdish military confrontation, and further interference by the Russians, who would likely insert themselves as arbiters between Ankara and the Kurds,” the assessment concluded.

Airwars reached out to both the Turkish mission to the UN and its embassy in Washington for comment on this article. As of publication, neither had responded.

With the forthcoming inauguration of Donald Trump on January 20th, US policy remains very much in flux. The recent Obama approach – going after ISIL, while dodging tough decisions about whether Kurdish ground proxies or NATO ally Turkey are more important to US interests –  may not sustain. The potential for new, explosive violence and needless civilian casualties in both Iraq and Syria remains a serious threat.


December 16, 2016

Written by

Samuel Oakford

The US-led Coalition on December 1st released its first monthly estimates of civilian deaths from operations in Iraq and Syria, as well as investigations into several earlier incidents – including its version of the deadliest single attack attributed to the alliance over more than than two years of bombings in Iraq and Syria.

The Coalition now takes over from CENTCOM as the lead reporter of civilian casualty events, in an effort to speed up the release of civilian casualty information. Twenty two alleged civilian events are mentioned in the first release. Eight are dismissed on the grounds that no Coalition strikes took place in the vicinity that day. A further four allegations are rejected because of insufficient evidence. And three more events remain under investigation.

The Coalition also confirmed seven new casualty events which it says left  54 civilians dead between March and October 2016. Public estimates of civilian casualtes in these same events range from 125 to 277 killed.

Overall, the release brings to 173 the number of civilians so far admitted killed by the United States. None of its twelve allies have so far admitted any civilian casualties – despite more than 3,600 airstrikes between them.

Family of eight

The most recent Coalition admission relates to an October 22nd US strike at Fasitiyah [or Fadhiliya] on the outskirts of Mosul. The raid, which came five days into the official campaign to recapture the city, killed eight members of the same family. A reporter for the Guardian, Fazel Hawramy, visited the site and obtained eyewitness testimony, before notifying the Coalition.

The Coalition’s admission of Fadhiliya – just five weeks later – is the fastest turnaround yet for any investigation. However, after more than 200 reported Coalition airstrikes in support of Iraqi forces attacking Mosul, the incident remains the only official admission of civilians killed in the campaign by the Coalition – despite hundreds of alleged deaths.

The December 1st release marked the first time that the Coalition rather than US Central Command (CENTCOM) had reported on civilian casualties. It is intended to be the start of regular monthly updates (with a delay time of one month) provided by the CJTF. Until now the US military has been the only member of the Coalition to admit to civilian casualties, which it did independently. This trend continues, with American officials confirming to Airwars that the seven incidents newly admitted to by the Coalition were in fact the result of strikes carried out by US forces.

One third of Coaltion airstrikes in Iraq are carried out by the US’s allies – which all deny civilian casualties. As Airwars noted in its recent transparency audit, while the temptation might be to assume the US is responsible for all Coalition civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria, CENTCOM’s declaration of casualties may instead “indicate a greater willingness by the United States to subject its own actions to both internal and external scrutiny.”

Bodies of eight family members are removed following a US airstrike on Fadhiliya, Iraq on October 22nd 2016 (Picture courtesy of Fazel Hawramy)

Worst incident

In its December report, the Coalition has finally conceded killing 24 civilians at al Tokhar, Syria in the worst-ever reported casualty event in 28 months of war. But its admission still leaves many questions unanswered.

According to the Coalition, a night time July 18th-19th US strike on the village al Tokhar in support of local Kurdish proxies killed 100 ISIL fighters. However, “it is assessed that up to 24 civilians who had been interspersed with combatants were inadvertently killed in a known ISIL staging area where no civilians had been seen in the 24 hours prior to the attack.”

Yet local accounts have consistently put the death toll far higher, with up to 203 civilians alleged killed. Amnesty International has estimated that at least 73 civilians died that night, while the Syrian Network has now published details of 98 non-combatants killed. Other accounts put the number of dead at around 200.

According to Amnesty, “the attacks appear to have been conducted without adequate precautions taken to safeguard civilians and may have amounted to indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks.”

In the Coalition’s own version of events, “ISIL fighters were preparing for a large counterattack against partnered Syrian Arab Coalition/Syrian Democratic Forces, and unknown to Coalition planners, civilians were moving around within the military staging area, even as other civilians in the nearby village had departed over the previous day.”

It does not deny that more than 100 people were killed in al Thokar early that morning, but claims the vast majority were ISIL fighters – contrasting heavily with all other public accounts.

Yassar, Ammar and Mahmoud – the children of Suleiman al Daher – were among at least 78 civilians reported killed in a US airstrike on al Tokhar on July 18th-19th 2016

Heavily populated area

In the second-highest casualty toll admitted by the US to date, it now admits 15 civilians died in a controversial airstrike on a moving vehicle in the village of Al Ghandourra in Aleppo province, Syria on July 28th.

According to local accounts at least 22 named civilians, including children, were killed when missiles hit the main market and elementary school in the town, which at the time was occupied by ISIL. Graphic footage posted after the attack showed the lifeless bodies of children, and corpses still flaming.

The Coalition itself now says 15 civilians were killed “during a strike on a moving ISIL vehicle… when the munition struck the vehicle after it slowed in a populated area after the munition was released.”

In a follow up response, a Coalition spokesperson told Airwars that the vehicle, which allegedly contained ISIL fighters, “was targeted and [the] weapon launched to time the vehicle passing between two populated areas. After weapon was released the vehicle slowed before exiting the first populated area.”

It remains unclear why the US targeted the vehicle in a heavily populated area – regardless of whether it was moving or stopped.

Neil Sammonds, lead researcher on Amnesty’s investigations into both strikes, said despite the Coalition’s recognition of both incidents, significant questions remained.

“With al-Tukhar, Al-Ghandoura and other ‘admissions’ of civcas through Centcom/DoD investigations, one of our main underlying concerns is the lack of evidence for how their findings were reached,” Sammonds told Airwars in an email. “Research by monitoring groups found several times as much civcas for Al-Tukhar, and twice as many civilian fatalities for Al-Ghandoura. Regretfully the US authorities have not shared the evidence they have so we can not  compare it with ours.”

The Al-Ghandoura attack was one of 11 incidents – with some 300 reported civilian casualties – that Sammonds and Amnesty presented to US officials in September. Despite recent meetings with the Defense and State Departments, Sammonds added, “we have not as yet found anyone able to discuss the substance of any one of those attacks, which included Al-Ghandoura.”

Satellite image of the strike in al-Ghandoura shows it took place in a heavily populated area. Original image captured by Amnesty International from DigitalGlobe/Google Earth. Red graphic added by Amnesty International.

EXTREMELY GRAPHIC: Aftermath of al-Ghandoura strike, posted by ISIL-linked al A’amaq 

Unknown events

Of the seven civilian casualty events admitted by the Coalition in December, two were previously unknown to Airwars researchers. Their inclusion most likely resulted from American pilot and analysis accounts, and post-strike footage review.

A May 16th 2016 strike near as Shadadi had not previously been tracked by Airwars. The Coalition now reports that “during a strike on seven ISIL fighters in a moving vehicle, it was assessed that two civilians were inadvertently killed. One civilian passenger in the vehicle was killed and one civilian riding a motorcycle was killed when he came into proximity of the ISIL vehicle after the munition was released.” Airwars researchers have subsequently found three brief Arabic-language reports which corroborate the incident, though none made mention of civilian casualties at the time.

Also included among the seven confirmed cases is the first admission of civilian deaths from US artillery. That incident took place on March 31st 2016 near Sala Heya, Syria according to the December 1st release, which said operators of a counter-battery artillery killed three civilians near the site of an ISIL mortal launch targeting “friendly forces.”

Reports from the time indicated only that warplanes – some suggesting the Assad regime – had bombed the area; Locals and monitors appeared oblivious to having been targeted by US artillery that day.

An M777 A2 Howitzer is fired at night in support of Iraqi security forces (Library picture via US Army)

Though the Coalition almost always admits to a lower civilian toll than local reports indicate, some incidents do suggest multiple culprits – in particular with recent strikes said to have involved Turkey. In its latest release, the Coalition admits that “one civilian was inadvertently killed as a result of the blast following the strike” on suspected ISIL fighters near Thaltanah village in Aleppo on October 4th 2016.

Airwars monitoring suggests as many as 19 civilians were killed at Thaltanah that day including three children, along with 41 people reported injured. Multiple accounts implicated Ankarra in the attack, which has launched a unilateral action in northern Syria involving Turkish special forces, shelling and airstrikes in support of Free Syrian Army ground forces.

Monitors offered conflicting assessments at the time: the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that airstrikes on Thaltanah on October 4th were carried out “likely by Turkish warplanes” while the Syrian Network for Human Rights blamed the Coalition (as did ISIS).

Reflecting the confusion on the ground, al Jazeera cited the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, writing “it was unclear whether the strike was carried out by the US-led coalition fighting ISIL, or Turkey.” In light of the Coalition’s admission, it appears possible that both could be true.


Also included in the first Coalition civilian casualty report were twelve incidents which it has determined could not be credibly blamed on its forces. The  allegations were discarded for several reasons: because no Coalition strikes took place in the area; due to a lack of available evidence to determine credibility; or because further Coalition analysis of the strike determined that only ISIL fighters died.

Overall, the Coaltion identified eleven alleged civilian casualty events in Iraq and Syria for October 2016 – the key period covered by its first report. Airwars itself has tracked 51 alleged Coalition civilian casualty incidents and two ‘friendly fire’ events for the same period.

As Airwars noted in followup correspondence with the Coalition, “We presently assess 20 of these 51 incidents as fairly reported (that is, having likely caused civilian casualties) on top of the three events so far confirmed by the US. Overall then, last week’s press release referenced just 20 per cent of known claimed civilian casualty incidents in Iraq and Syria for October.”

▲ US soldiers fire a M777 A2 Howitzer in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, Iraq, November 2016. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Christopher Brecht)


December 9, 2016

Written by

Samuel Oakford

During his campaign for President, Donald Trump promised to “bomb the shit” out of the Islamic State, and target the families of accused terrorists – an outright violation of international law. He advocated that the US begin waterboarding detainees once more, and suggested other forms of torture be employed.

This month, after a single short meeting with retired US Marine Corps General James Mattis, Trump said he may rethink his position on waterboarding – convinced by the man he has nominated for Defense Secretary that “beer and cigarettes” may be just as effective as what American officials have termed “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

Trump’s erratic behavior has left advocates for civilians in conflict struggling to guess what White House policies they should steel themselves for over the next four years. One question in particular lingers: how will Trump approach an executive order issued this July by President Obama, which appears to be having a noticeable influence on the US approach to non-combatant deaths.

Executive order 13732 lays out the US approach to civilian casualties across multiple conflict zones including Iraq and Syria, as well as in countries like Pakistan and Yemen where the US carries out covert drone strikes.

Obama instructed “all relevant agencies” to take precautions to reduce the likelihood of civilian casualties, and to conduct assessments “that assist in the reduction of civilian casualties by identifying risks to civilians and evaluating efforts to reduce risks to civilians.” The July 1st order includes a wide range of best practice ranging from the training of Pentagon and CIA staff, to developing and acquiring greater intelligence in the field with an eye to protecting non-combatants.

The order also instructs government agencies investigating civilian casualty incidents to incorporate “credible information from all sources” including NGOs – as well as to share best practice with foreign partners, and to work with the Red Cross to “assist in efforts to distinguish between military objectives and civilians.” Government agencies are also required where relevant to acknowledge responsibility and offer condolence payments to victims or their families, in the event that civilians are killed or injured.

Bombs are loaded aboard the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower in October 2016. With more than 50,000 US munitions so far dropped on Iraq and Syria, civilian casualties are inevitable (U.S. Navy/ Petty Officer 3rd Class Andrew J. Sneeringer)

Big signal

In some respects, the order solidifies steps that the military had begun to adopt after mounting civilian deaths in 21st century conflict zones – particularly Afghanistan, where reviews led to new directives seeking to limit civilian casualties from certain military maneuvers. For those who had pressured the Bush and Obama administrations for years to reform their civilian casualty rules and offer greater transparency, the recent executive order has been significant.

“To me it’s a pretty big signal to the rest of the world that the US takes seriously civilian harm that it causes and tries to minimize that harm as much as possible,” said Sarah Holewinski, former director of the Center for Civilians in Conflict and a State Department official until last year. “Taking away the executive order would be just [the same] as creating it – it would send a message.”

The Trump transition team did not answer multiple requests from Airwars to clarify how it may approach the executive order or civilian casualties more broadly. The President-elect’s appointed national security adviser, retired Gen. Michael Flynn, also did not respond to requests for comment. Michael Ledeen, who recently co-authored a book with Flynn on how to win “the global war against radical Islam,” said in an email to Airwars that civilian casualty policy was “way outside” of his own expertise.

Flynn – whose disparaging remarks about Muslims, reported attempts to blame Iran for the Benghazi attacks while head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and conspiracy theories shared on social media have raised substantial concerns – has in the past described the US’s widespread use of drone targeted killing as wrongheaded.

“We’ve tended to say, drop another bomb via a drone and put out a headline that ‘we killed Abu Bag of Doughnuts’ and it makes us all feel good for 24 hours,” Flynn told the Intercept in an interview last year. “And you know what? It doesn’t matter. It just made them a martyr, it just created a new reason to fight us even harder.”

Laura Pitter, senior national security counsel at Human Rights Watch, says there is hope that both Mattis and even Flynn – and the military establishment at large – could serve as checks on Trump’s more volatile impulses.

“Once he [Trump] is in a position where he is actually involved in carrying out some of the policies that he’s talked about, he’s going to get contrary advice to what he’s been saying on the campaign trail,” Pitter said in an interview with Airwars. To do away with the executive order, she added, “would be very unwise.”

Wreckage of vehicles destroyed in an airstrike on Raqqa, Syria on April 1st 2016 which the US now admits killed at least three civilians (Picture courtesy of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently)

‘Humane aspect’

Earlier this year, Airwars director Chris Woods met with top officials at US Central Command in Tampa, who insisted that civilian harm mitigation is central to the strategy of the anti-ISIL Coalition currently bombing both Iraq and Syria.

“It wouldn’t make operational sense to just go into this bombing left and right you know – wiping out ISIL at the expense of the civilian population,” said a senior CENTCOM official. “So there’s a humane aspect to it but also an operational aspect to it.”

Those remarks are published in Limited Accountability, a wide-ranging Airwars audit of the US-led Coalition’s air campaign against ISIL. Among other findings, official estimates of civilian deaths per airstrike in Iraq and Syria are found to be far lower than for other recent US campaigns, including secretive drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

In Afghanistan, where the UN has tracked civilian deaths from international airstrikes since 2009, one civilian died on average every 10 to 14 airstrikes between 2010 and 2014. As the audit notes, “Similar civilian fatality ratios if applied to Iraq and Syria – a hot war involving thousands of Coalition airstrikes on urban centres – would lead to expectations of 1,500 deaths or more in the first two years of strikes. This is precisely what the public record indicates.”

Instead, the Coalition has acknowledged only 173 civilian deaths since the start of its air campaign over two years ago – all admitted to by the United States.

Yet there are signs that the recent Obama executive order is nudging the military towards a greater degree of transparency. More than 120 of those US-admitted deaths in Iraq and Syria were confirmed just in the past five weeks. And starting in December, CENTCOM handed over publication duties to the Coalition, which will now release monthly updates on reported allegations – assuming the new administration doesn’t step in the way.

Though CENTCOM has turned over responsibility for investigations to the Coalition (whose main staff are principally American), there are few signs that other members of the Coalition are intent on divulging the results of their own civilian casualty investigations. To date, non have admitted civilian victims resulting from their strikes. As the December 12th Airwars audit notes, “it is unacceptable that major democracies such as Belgium, the Netherlands, Australia and Denmark have chosen to wage semi-secret conventional wars – with affected civilians on the ground, citizens at home and monitoring agencies unable to hold these governments to account.”

During the audit – at the request of CENTCOM officials – Airwars provided detailed information on 438 publicly alleged civilian casualties tracked to that point. As the now-published report details, “a number of new incidents of potential concern were flagged [by CENTCOM] which were then sent out for assessment and possible investigation.”

These steps, halting as they are, encourage advocates. But could they withstand a President who seems capable of undoing eight years of careful Presidential policy-making with a phone call and a few tweets?

Therein lies the fragility of an executive order – an order which a successor President can reverse at will.

“The DoD has done a lot of good things, but it is our view that these are not yet enshrined in policy to the point where 20 years from now when current soldiers and officers are gone, these things will be remembered,” said Marla Keenan, Director of Programs at the Center for Civilians in Conflict.

Coalition leaflets dropped on the town of al Mayadeen in Syria on September 9th 2016 warned civilians of impending airstrikes (via Syrian Observatory for Human Rights)

‘Hard to ignore’

After the release of the latest batch of civilian casualty investigations on December 1st, Airwars spoke with Colonel John J. Thomas, the chief spokesperson for CENTCOM. Thomas, who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, said that particularly during his deployment to Kabul in 2007, officials began to see “that civilian casualties threaten an entire coalition.”

Echoing Keenan, Thomas said that in an organization as large as the US military, where soldiers rotate and officials come and go at the Pentagon, “priorities shift and people get busy with things.” Without the executive order, focus and institutional memory could wane.

“When it’s clearly put in front of you, that this is one of the things you must take the time to look at, it makes a difference,” the colonel noted.

“What the executive order does is it gives us permission in a sense to dedicate the resources,” Thomas added. “What this has given us the opportunity to do is look backwards and understand what has happened in these specific instances and also gives us a better chance of learning from them.”

“When someone like Airwars brings us info that we weren’t even aware of… we check it out against our strike list,” he said.

“It’s good to have the priorities clear,” he added, comparing the order to Freedom of Information Laws. “It’s hard to ignore an executive order on a specific issue.”

Airwars director Chris Woods, who authored the transparency audit released on December 12th, said that Obama’s executive order had a demonstrable effect over the course of the study.

“Back in May we assessed CENTCOM’s casualty monitoring process as pretty much unfit for purpose. Sixty per cent of claims weren’t being looked at, and most that were were dismissed out of hand within a day or so. More recently we’ve seen the US military reaching out to external monitors like ourselves – and adopting a more systematic approach to casualty counting. The State Department also has a formal civilian casualty monitoring role – and just unveiled a new reporting mechanism for NGOs.”

As President Obama leaves office, he will pass broad military powers to his successor. Civilian casualties will continue to occur, however President Trump approaches the issue. But for advocates on behalf of civilians affected by war, the task of engaging with the incoming administration could be difficult.

“For the human rights community, with Flynn, for Mattis, for Trump and whoever becomes Secretary of State, we have to get back to basics and get smarter about our arguments,” says Sarah Holewinski.  “We had 8 years of being invited to meetings at the Obama White House and talking over the particulars of an executive order. When it comes to the Trump administration, we have to hold our arguments in very basic terms, about why causing civilian harm is detrimental to our national security, and why addressing those things are important to American identity.”

▲ President Barack Obama looks at his watch as he walks along the Colonnade to the Oval Office, March 2, 2015. (Official White House by Chuck Kennedy)


December 6, 2016

Written by

Samuel Oakford

Hundreds of civilians have already been credibly reported killed in the ongoing battle to recapture Mosul from Islamic State fighters, according to an Airwars assessment – slain by airstrikes, mortar and artillery fire, and in street battles.

Airwars’ Iraq researcher has travelled to the frontlines regularly during the past seven weeks. He reports an increasingly dire situation, as tens of thousands of civilians flee Mosul, and ISIL shelling intensifies. Since November 20th alone, he estimates that more than 100 civilians may have been killed in fighting. The Washington Post meanwhile has reported that the number of civilian victims may be as many as 600 since mid-October, according to one of its sources.

“ISIL is using new tactics, targeting liberated areas of the city, street by street, and targeting main squares in liberated neighborhoods” said Airwars’ Iraq researcher, referring to the terror group’s use of mortars. “I think that will stop or delay Iraqi army offensives.”

In addition, airstrikes appear to have led to dozens of civilian deaths since October 17th. Through November 30th, Airwars has recorded a total of 41 alleged Coalition civilian casualty incidents in and around Mosul. Between them these claim as many as 318 civilian deaths. After reviewing and grading each incident, researchers at Airwars believe the likely civilian toll from Coalition airstrikes and artillery during the battle for Mosul presently stands at 98 to 101 killed – with 202 injured – including eight deaths so far conceded by the US.

Dr. Safwan Imad, reportedly killed in an air raid on his neighborhood in Mosul on November 16th. Courtesy of @othmanmhmmadr.

At the outset of the Mosul assault, Coalition commander Lt. Gen Stephen Townsend said the battle would likely continue for weeks. Iraqi officials now hint the campaign may take six months. On November 30th they claimed that some 19 neighborhoods – representing about 30 percent of the eastern side of Mosul  –  had been recaptured since Coalition-backed operations began on October 17th. But gains have slowed significantly during November.

Iraqi officials, for their part, say they are going slower to prevent civilian deaths. But they have also sent conflicting messages to locals caught in the crossfire, first instructing them to stay in their homes (evidently in the hope they would revolt against ISIL), only to later reconsider that advice as casualties grew and progress into the city slowed in densely populated areas. According to the UN more than 77,000 people have so far been displaced by fighting; humanitarian officials say they are still unprepared for a massive exodus of a half million or more Mosul civilians.

Litany of ISIL crimes

UN human rights monitoring seen by Airwars shows a litany of ongoing crimes committed by ISIL fighters. Doctors and elderly Moslawi killed by snipers; children shot down as they attempt to flee towards Iraqi Security Forces (ISF); car bombs claiming civilians in residential areas.

The deadliest weapon used by ISIL continues to be indiscriminate shelling, especially in areas recaptured by Iraqi Security Forces (ISF.) On November 17th, 31 civilians, including eight children were reportedly killed when ISIL shelled the government-controlled neighborhood of al-Bakir. Another attack in eastern Mosul on November 23rd, reportedly claimed the lives of 11 civilians, including 4 women and 2 children.

The US-led Coalition, which has bombed ISIL targets in Iraq for more than two years, has intensified its campaign in and around Mosul. Through November 28th, the Coalition reported 212 separate strikes in support of operations to recapture the city. A strike as defined by the Coalition ranges from a single bomb dropped by a jet to multiple planes partaking in a raid or unleashing sustained fire.

Prior to October, Mosul was already the site of more than 400 likely civilian deaths from Coalition airstrikes, according to the best estimates of Airwars researchers. This was the highest figure for any location across Iraq and Syria. In previous investigations, relatives of those inside the city described a constant barrage of rockets and bombs that rained down on the city from November 2014. That pace has only increased since October 17th. According to the Coalition, more than 4,900 munitions have been “delivered” in support of the Iraqi operation to recapture Mosul.

Airwars’ Iraq researcher reports that US attack helicopters were also being used more heavily towards the end of November, as close quarter fighting rendered airstrikes less effective and more deadly to civilians.

A 10-year old boy injured in fighting in Mosul’s Shishan neighbourhood on November 14th 2016 (Airwars photo)

“That move into an urban environment means that the tempo of our strikes is generally going to decrease,” Coalition chief spokesman Colonel John Dorrian told Airwars in a recent interview. ‘That’s because you have to be more careful and you probably will see fewer opportunities to take that shot against an enemy.”

Dorrian added that Coalition members may elect to use small munitions as the operation intensifies, moving from 2,000 pound bombs to ones weighing several hundred pounds. “Obviously as you get into the urban environment it is appropriate,” he said.

Eight deaths admitted

The Coalition has so far admitted to just eight civilian deaths from its Mosul campaign – all in a bombing that took place on October 22nd in Fadhiliya, outside Mosul, which killed an entire family. Iraq-based reporter Fazel Hawramy had obtained eyewitness testimony, published in the Guardian, which brought the attack to the attention of Coalition officials.

Bodies of a family of eight are removed from the rubble of their home in Fadhiliya, Iraq following a confirmed Coalition airstrike on the evening of October 22nd 2016 (Picture courtesy of Fazel Hawramy)

Other civilian casualty incidents, particularly those inside ISIL-controlled neighborhoods of Mosul, do not benefit from similar in-depth reporting. Accounts that do emerge may include information or video from ISIL-controlled outlets.

On November 18th, at least seven civilians were reportedly killed and 14 injured in what local accounts reported as Coalition bombings, though other accounts only referred to as “heavy shelling.” Though initial reports cited ISIL-linked sources, Airwars researchers were able to find additional reports that also blamed the Coalition.

In other cases, a single report – even if from a highly credible source – can be insufficient to determine what occurred. On November 13th, the Norwegian Refugee Council tweeted that a father told them “3 family members were killed” and a mother and 2 children badly burnt when their home in eastern Mosul was shelled. It is unclear who was responsible.  A number of other events have been also been reported by word of mouth to Airwars, either by Iraqi forces or by affected civilians.

Though the UN monitors civilian casualties, it generally does not assign blame for airstrikes – leaving it unclear if an attack is carried out by the Coalition or the Iraqi Air Force. Some incidents – like an October 21st bombing that killed 15 women in Duquq (south of Kirkuk) were originally blamed on the Coalition but later linked to the Iraqi Air Force. Recent attacks in Tal Afar – carried out as part of the Mosul campaign – have also seen blame contested between the Coalition and Iraq government.  

A father and his seven children were reportedly killed in this incident near Mosul on October 24th by an alleged Coalition strike (still from Al A’Amaq propaganda video, via Youtube)

Given reporting limitations, international monitors meanwhile have had difficulty in evaluating more than a handful of cases. Human Rights Watch recently released an investigation into an October 18th bombing south of Mosul that left eight civilians dead. The airstrike targeted ISIL, who had commandeered a medical clinic in the town of Hammam al-Alil. The precision attack also killed two ISIL fighters, as well as its transport minister. Human Rights Watch has called on both the Iraqi government and the Coalition to investigate.

Belkis Wille, Iraq researcher at Human Rights Watch, said investigations are exceedingly challenging in and around Mosul right now: “Because of the different types of attacks being carried out by ISIS, Iraqi and KRG forces, and the Coalition, it is extremely difficult for human rights workers to identify why a civilian was wounded or died during the course of the battle,” Wille told Airwars.

“In addition, even where we can, because of the dangers of working along the frontline, it is very difficult for us to identify whether there was a legitimate military target in the area, and therefore whether the attack was lawful or not.”

Difficulties in tracking casualties and those responsible could not come at a worse time for civilians in both Iraq and Syria. According to Airwars researchers, November saw record number of civilian casualty claims involving both the US-led Coalition, and Russian forces operating in Syria. 


November 29, 2016

Written by

Samuel Oakford

The US has admitted that its forces and those of three key anti-ISIL Coalition allies – the UK, Australia and Denmark – took part in bombings that mistakenly killed at least 15 Syrian regime forces on September 17th near Deir Ezzor.

In a briefing with reporters on November 29th, chief investigator Brigadier General Richard Coe said that after initially determining incorrectly that a vehicle being tracked belonged to ISIL, “confirmation bias” and other failures led Coalition analysts to assume that additional forces seen being friendly to the vehicle’s occupants also belonged to the militant group.

Drone surveillance had begun a day earlier on September 16th, and continued until the strikes commenced at 13:55 local time. One analyst viewing video of the scene remotely – noting the presence of a tank in the vicinity – wrote in a military chat room that “What we are looking at can’t possibly be ISIL.” But his assessment was ignored.

27 minutes on hold

According to an investigation conducted by CENTCOM, shortly before the raid began “a possible flag was called out” in the target area. But “the call went unacknowledged due to human factors, to include task saturation and target fixation.” In other words, Coalition personnel were too busy, and too focused on a target that they had already decided was ISIL.

The US took the unprecedented step of notifying the Russian government prior to the impending attack, but provided incorrect coordinates. This led Russian officials to believe the target was in fact several kilometers distant.

As soon as Russia learnt its Syrian allies were in trouble it used a special ‘deconfliction hotline’ manned by American personnel. But it took almost half an hour for the message to get through. According to US investigators, the Russians wanted to speak with a specific liaison officer – and when he was unavailable they reportedly hung up and called back later. When the official was still unavailable during the second call, Russia was put on hold.

A total of 27 minutes would pass before the Coalition was finally warned and was able to take steps to halt the raid. During that time, multiple additional strikes took place.

In total, Coalition planes belonging to the US, the UK, Australia and Denmark dropped 34 guided bombs and fired 380 additional rounds of 30mm munitions on the Syrian camp. F-16s, A-10s, FA/18s and Reaper drones were all involved in the raid.

Though CENTCOM did not provide breakdowns of the 37 total “strikes” or munition releases by country, Denmark has publicly stated that it dropped five bombs on four vehicles during the raid.

A spokesperson for the UK Ministry of Defense told Airwars that its remotely piloted Reaper drones also fired munitions, adding that “We would not and did not intentionally strike known Syrian Regime military units.” 

And in a statement, the Australian Department of Defence said that two of its FA/18As took part in the raid, which was supervised by the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) in Qatar. Australia stressed that the airstrikes “were conducted in full compliance with the rules of engagement and the laws of armed conflict.” 

The three US allies have made much until now of their accuracy in the war against ISIL, claiming to have killed or injured no civilians despite more than 1,800 airstrikes between them.

Part of the heavily redacted CENTCOM report into the September 17th botched raid

Previously killed

According to a brief and heavily redacted summary of the CENTCOM investigation, for those at the CAOC on September 17th it had been “unclear who had the responsibility/authority to decide between continuing deliberate target development versus conducting a dynamic strike.” Investigators warned that though the complex raid had been botched on this occasion, “it is likely that this type of targeting will become increasingly common.”

Brig. General Coe said that CENTCOM was able to substantiate 15 deaths on the ground, but believed more Syrian forces were likely killed. While US investigators claimed that the individuals targeted were not in regular military uniforms, they did accept that the troops killed were allied to President Bashir’s forces.

Others have placed the death toll far higher than 15. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that 90 died, while Russian officials said 62 were killed in the raid. Media outlets close to the regime named 47 personnel, including 12 senior officers.

However, there are indications that at least some of the named victims had in fact died in previous incidents.

As first reported by Zaman al Wasl, named officers couldn’t possibly have been in Deir Ezzor on September 17th. Airwars monitoring of press reports and social media dating back to 2014 also suggests that each officer named in pro-regime accounts had been reported as killed at other times during the war in Syria.

A June 30th, 2015 post by the Syrian Revolution Network indicated that Major General Soheil Ibrahim Oran had died that month. His death was also reported by a pro-regime Facebook account.

Major-General Yasin Abdo Maala was originally reported killed in May 2015 and a mourning notice published that summer. Colonel Talib Khair-Bik, the third officer listed by regime-allied websites, had been reported killed in Deir Ezzor in early 2015. Airwars researchers were able to find death reports or memorials (often on Facebook) for all of the nine other officers initially listed as killed in the Coalition strikes.

Zaman al Wasli also reported that several infantry soldiers listed as being killed in the September 17th raid had appeared in earlier coverage indicating their deaths in battle. Researchers at Airwars  were unable to confirm widespread patterns among the non-officers listed on regime-connected website.

Major General Yassin Abdo Maala, who actually died in May 2015 (Picture via All 4 Syria)

‘Lessons learned’

In a statement, CENTCOM identified the following “lessons learned and areas for improvement in the targeting process:”

*       A recommended review of the hybrid targeting process used in the strike – a mixture of the days- or weeks-long “deliberate targeting” process, and the accelerated process generally used for fast-emerging “dynamic targets.”  Harrigian has already ordered such a review.

*       Improved information sharing among analysts to guard against the human factors that led to the strike.

*       A more effective lessons-learned process in the CAOC to better avoid repeating mistakes.

*       Enhanced use of the U.S.-Russia safety de-confliction hotline established under the two nations’ Flight Safety Memorandum of Understanding, to ensure that critical information is communicated more quickly to available personnel.

The Deir Ezzor incident is the second ‘friendly force’ event so far confirmed by the Coalition. In December 2015, at least nine and as many as 23 Iraqi soldiers died when they were mistakenly bombed near Fallujah.

▲ Australian FA/18s were among multiple Coalition aircraft from four nations which killed at least 15 Syrian troops in error in a September 17th 2016 raid (Library picture via Australian MoD)


November 16, 2016

Written by

Samuel Oakford

On November 9th, as the world’s media scrambled to come to terms with a Donald Trump presidency in the United States, US Central Command quietly released the largest batch yet of civilian casualty reports from its anti-ISIL operations.

Controversially, among those cases admitted by the US was a strike next to a Syrian mosque which killed at least three bystanders, raising questions about how such attacks are vetted.

The latest US casualty admissions – posted online at 4pm Washington DC time on the day of the election results – list 24 civilian casualty incidents in Iraq and Syria including 64 newly conceded deaths and eight injuries. The release more than doubled the 55 civilian deaths CENTCOM had previously conceded.

The new combined tally of 119 civilian deaths – all admitted by the US – still falls far short of what researchers at Airwars estimate to be a minimum casualty figure of more than 1,800 fatalities in Iraq and Syria.

Some of the deadliest alleged recent incidents have yet to be accounted for, including a series of attacks during the Coalition-backed summer campaign to capture Manbij in Syria. While there are nine admitted deaths from four US strikes near Manbij included in this latest CENTCOM admission, that figure is still far below most public estimates.

In October, Amnesty International released its own detailed investigation into Coalition strikes in Syria which determined more than 100 civilians had died in just three attacks during the Manbij campaign, including at least 73 non-combatants in a strike on al-Tokhar on July 19th. CENTCOM says it is still investigating those allegations. But US officials have already hinted they don’t believe widespread local reporting or Amnesty’s account, telling the Washington Post’s Missy Ryan that only “about 10 civilians may have died” at al-Tokhar.

In one case CENTCOM has now conceded, it says ten civilians died in a US airstrike on Mosul on March 5th 2016. While that tally is the largest so far admitted to in a single event, the true number of those killed that day is likely to be far higher.

According to multiple reports at the time, at least 21 civilians died in the Mosul attack – all of them named. They included Ghazala Ali Fathi Zeidan, her husband and their three children. As NRN News reported on the day, “the Coalition targeted an old industrial plant in eastern Mosul, killing 10 Daesh militants… Our correspondent also said that the bombing killed and wounded more than 20 civilians from displaced families from western Sunni areas, who were living in the buildings.”

Destruction in an industrial area of Mosul following a US air raid on March 5th, 2016. The attack killed as many as 21 civilians, though CENTCOM concedes only ten deaths. (Picture courtesy of NRN News)

External sources

Departing from previous releases, CENTCOM says its latest disclosure has for the first time made use of “an exhaustive review of reports from outside sources from news media reports, non-governmental organizations and other U.S. Government departments and agencies.” Journalists were told that Airwars itself was one of those sources.

For casualty monitors this is seen as an important step – one which they have long pushed for. While the US stands alone in admitting to casualties among foreign powers bombing Syria and Iraq – including Russia and other members of the Coalition – human rights advocates say published US accounts are still missing important legal context.

“In some cases, DoD [Department of Defense] has reviewed and assessed their attacks to be lawful even while acknowledging civilians were killed. But we don’t know how they came to those conclusions, and basic details are missing from their explanations,” said Naureen Shah, Director of Amnesty International USA’s Security and Human Rights Program, in an interview with Airwars.

“They are not providing their assessments in any way that we could evaluate from an international humanitarian law perspective,” she added

An April 1st 2016 strike on Raqqa in Syria highlights such concerns. CENTCOM says a US raid targeting an “ISIL tactical unit” in the city is now assessed to have killed three civilians “after entering the target area after the aircraft released its weapon.”

That scenario – of civilians appearing shortly after a bomb has been dropped – is commonly cited by CENTCOM, and was noted in 13 of the 24 summaries issued on November 9th. However, local reports already compiled by Airwars indicate that the April 1st raid on Raqqa may have been reckless.

One account from Bas News said the strike was aimed at two cars belonging to members of ISIL, but targeted them “after Friday prayer near al Nour mosque”. While three senior terrorist leaders were reported killed, civilians also died.

Pictures posted by Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently show the attack took place on a narrow street, immediately between the mosque and other buildings, and destroyed five or more vehicles. The monitoring group named one innocent victim as Hamidi Abboud al Hamidi – with some accounts putting the civilian death toll as high as five, with 30 more injured.

Interior of the al Nour mosque covered in broken glass, shortly after a US airstrike on April 1st 2016, (Picture courtesy of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently)

Attacks on mosques and other places of worship are generally prohibited by the laws of war. According to Pentagon policy guidance, “No-Strike entities are those designated by the appropriate authority upon which kinetic or non-kinetic operations are prohibited to avoid violating international law, conventions, or agreements, or damaging relations with coalition partners and indigenous populations.” These include religious buildings, though it is unclear if the al Nour mosque in Raqqa had been specifically listed for protection by the Coalition.

CENTCOM now says that the April 1st attack was not pre-planned but instead a “dynamic strike that strictly adhered to all our civilian casualty processes and complied with the Law of Armed Conflict.”

“Unfortunately, civilians appeared in the target area after the weapon was released and we did not have an opportunity to ‘shift cold’ the weapon elsewhere,” a spokesperson told Airwars.

Given the location and timing of the attack, question marks remain about how aware US forces were of the immediate environment. This was an area where civilians were likely to be present around Friday prayers – and where multiple other vehicles with unknown occupants were less than a car’s length from the reported target, along a narrow urban street.

The exact US military calculus used to determine the basis for such controversial airstrikes remains unclear.

As locals look on at the destruction left by a US airstrike, the al Nour mosque’s distinctive windows can clearly be seen immediately behind (Picture courtesy of Raqqa is Beng Slaughtered Silently)

No hurry to declare

Airwars has now conducted an assessment of all 24 new events conceded by CENTCOM on November 9th, to track military claims against the public record.

Analysis shows the US is still in little hurry to declare civilian deaths. The average time between a non-combatant being killed and the US publicly admitting the fact remains roughly five months – a decrease of about 20 days on average compared to previously released incidents, but still significantly longer than what human rights monitors consider reasonable. The most recent event took place on September 10th in Raqqa, Syria. “During a strike against an ISIL target, it is assessed that five civilians were killed,” CENTCOM now says.

Even so, the US remains the only member of the 13-nation Coalition to have conceded any civilian casualties after 26 months of war – despite more than 3,600 airstrikes to date by the US’s allies across Iraq and Syria.

As with previous releases, around half of the events in the latest batch of US casualty admissions were never publicly reported at the time. For example CENTCOM reports that one civilian was killed in a September 7th strike near Deir Ezzor after “entering the target area after the aircraft released its weapon.” A lack of outside reporting at the time indicates this assessment was likely based entirely on video taken from the aircraft, along with any related battlefield intelligence available.

While these unreported cases show that US pilots and analysts are coming forward internally to report their concerns, they may also indicate that civilian deaths are being significantly under-reported – particularly in Iraq, where there are fewer monitors working to document civilians killed by the fighting.

In those admitted incidents which had been reported at the time, public accounts often differ wildly from US military claims. April 9th strikes on Mosul telephone exchanges and banks killed anywhere from two to 67 civilians according to locals. The US itself now admits that “during a strike against an ISIL tactical unit, it is assessed that one civilian was killed after entering the target area after the aircraft released its weapon.“

One of at least four telephone exchanges destroyed in co-ordinated airstrikes on Mosul on April 9th. Anywhere from 1 to 67 civilians died. (Photo courtesy of NRN News)

The US has also conceded that it was in fact responsible for at least eight civilian deaths in Syria, which were blamed  at the time on Russia.

A US raid led to the deaths of five civilians and the injuring of three others near Deir ez-Zor on November 20th 2015, CENTCOM now admits. A year ago that attack was widely held to be the work of Russia.

More civilians were killed by the US near Raqqa on June 21st 2016. As CENTCOM now notes, “During a strike targeting an ISIL headquarters building, it is assessed that three individuals were killed after entering the target area after the aircraft released its weapons.”

That toll is far below the 32 civilians – including 21 named by Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently – that locals said were killed.

Several media reports from the time blamed the attacks on Moscow – and it remains possible that both US and Russian airstrikes killed civilians in Raqqa that day since multiple sites were hit. The confusion underscores the challenges in monitoring airstrikes in Syria today – where the Coalition, Russia, the Syrian regime, Iran and Turkey all carry out attacks.


November 6, 2016

Written by

Samuel Oakford

The assault on Mosul by Iraqi and Kurdish forces – backed by the formidable air and artillery power of the US-led Coalition – marks the culmination of a two year campaign to oust so-called Islamic State from the country’s second city. Nowhere else in Syria or Iraq has been more bombed by the Coalition, and nowhere else has seen as many civilians likely killed by its actions. As the battle for control now enters Mosul’s suburbs, Airwars examines the price already paid by the city’s people – and at what might lay ahead.

Noora is still brought to tears at the mention of her preschool-age cousin, who was killed along with the girl’s mother during airstrikes on ISIL-controlled Mosul last year. A series of attacks appeared to target a site used by fighters from the group, but also ended up killing a number of nearby residents. Noora’s cousin was upstairs in the family home when her mother ran to retrieve her after an initial blast. They were both cut down by another explosion.  “I’ll never forget the day I found out,” Noora recalls. “I felt like the life was being sucked out of me.”

Noora, who was born in Mosul and now lives in the United Kingdom, stayed in touch by Whatsapp with her grandparents, aunt and other family members still in the city until the end of August, when the internet was largely cut off. They now stay in touch intermittently, only when those in Mosul feel safe enough to use their phones. This month, Noora found out that another relative in their twenties had been killed in the same way – an airstrike. Airwars has withheld identifying details of the strikes at the request of the family, who fear potential punishment by ISIL.

The deaths of three members of Noora’s family represent a fraction of the more than 450 civilians estimated by Airwars researchers to have been killed in US-led Coalition actions in and around Mosul since November 2014.

Intense bombing campaign

While monitoring is difficult and imprecise in Iraq, Airwars researchers have so far tracked and attempted to vet 110 separate claimed civilian casualty incidents in Mosul itself in two years of airstrikes. Those attacks are alleged to have killed up to 1,300 civilians between them. While that number is likely too high, the baseline assessment of 469 civilian deaths in Mosul to date would be the single largest toll anywhere in Iraq or Syria – and represents a quarter of all likely civilian deaths from Coalition operations across both countries.

According to Coalition officials, its forces had already carried out 1,906 airstrikes on Mosul before the operation to capture the city from ISIL began on October 17th. Those actions had seen more than 9,000 ordnance dropped on a city which by all accounts still holds a million or more civilians. A ‘strike’, however, can be anything from a single aircraft dropping a single bomb on a single target, to multiple jets attacking an array of targets. On October 21st, the Coalition’s daily report lists four airstrikes near Mosul, which actually hit a total of 90 targets.

Despite this intense bombing campaign, US officials have admitted to just five civilian deaths in the city resulting from four separate actions. Airwars has been informed by US Central Command (CENTCOM) of additional investigations that are “pending,” but there is no timetable for their release. Yet these heavy attacks on a densely populated city have taken a far heavier toll – whatever the Coalition’s public claims.

Scene of destruction in Mosul on August 15th 2016, after a reported Coalition strike targeting an ISIL-occupied office building also severely damaged surrounding areas (NRN News via Al A’Amaq propaganda)

On August 15th 2016 the Coalition reportedly launched a number of strikes in the heart of Mosul – apparently targeting an office building, but also heavily damaging nearby structures. At least seven civilians were killed according to local accounts, including a young girl named Tieba Ammar Nizar Hayali. Images taken from ISIL propaganda videos showed a gruesome scene, including injured children as as well what appear to be fighters. Local Facebook posts recorded the names of other civilian casualties. In its own published report for August 15th, the Coalition simply notes that “Near Mosul, one strike produced inconclusive results.”

The Coalition’s public narrative – and that of senior politicians in the alliance – is one of highly targeted precision strikes which only kill the enemy. The reality for the people of Mosul has often been very different.  In at least one attack – the January bombing of an ISIL-controlled bank in central Mosul – US officials had reportedly “been willing to consider up to 50 civilian casualties” due to the importance of the target: not a high value enemy commander, but millions of dollars in cash.

Professor Dhafer Ramadan Al Badrani was reported killed in an alleged Coalition strike on Mosul University on March 22nd 2016 (via Bashar al Talib)

Versions of that casualty calculus are apparent in other attacks. A series of daytime airstrikes in March of this year targeted the campus of Mosul University, which before ISIL’s takeover was Iraq’s second largest. In a statement referencing strikes on March 19th, the Pentagon said that an ISIL “headquarters” was located on the campus and that the group “has also been using the buildings as training areas, weapon manufacturing and storage facilities and communication equipment hubs… the Mosul university strike met all criteria, and was coordinated with the Government of Iraq before striking.”

According to assessments compiled by Airwars researchers, 25 or more civilians were likely killed in airstrikes at the university on March 19th and 22nd, including several professors. Dr. Dhafer Ramadan Al Badrani (pictured), a former dean, reportedly died along with his wife and daughter.

Whatsapp war

While several Syrian monitoring groups have tracked and attempted to name tens of thousands of civilians killed in that country’s civil war, there is far less comprehensive reporting in Iraq. In Mosul journalism must also be done in secret, and carries lethal risks. Last year, ISIL executed dozens of activists who had posted reports from the city on social media.

All of this makes it less likely that Western outlets will carry news of civilian deaths in Mosul, a city controlled by apocalyptic terrorists. But the daily bombings – on average slightly more than three ‘strikes’ per day – are still being documented by Moslawis themselves, through social media and messaging apps, or by posting death notices on Facebook.

For over two years, Noora has been part of Whatsapp chat groups with her family in Mosul. Late in 2015 (a few weeks after the roundup and murder of local activists) every family member in Noora’s chat group agreed to delete their messages – littered with references to airstrikes – in order to protect those still in the city who feared ISIS fighters might find the exchanges. The family has however allowed Airwars to review some of the more recent messages.

A text from late 2015 reads: “airstrikes were very powerful by our house, and next to my family’s house and the rockets passed over our heads… may God protect us.”  Another wrote, “We are used to it, but what scares me the most is the sound of the planes”

This summer, Noora’s grandmother wrote that a bomb had hit near to their home, though she assured her family it was “nothing.” When Airwars reviewed the incident, researchers determined that – based on local reports – nearly a dozen civilians had likely died, some of them possibly her grandmother’s neighbours. Noora now believes her grandmother was playing down both the toll and the danger posed to her, in an effort not to scare the family abroad and elsewhere in Iraq. “It’s crazy, they are worried about us,” Noora says.

Rasha al Aqeedi, a research fellow at Al Mesbar Studies and Research Center in Dubai and another native Moslawi, says her own family in Mosul have tolerated the strikes – as long as there weren’t civilian victims.  “The strikes have been accurate despite the complexity of the situation,” she assessed in a comment to Airwars. However, al Aqeedi added that she recently learned from Facebook that a schoolmate and her father had been killed in an airstrike this summer.

‘Human shields’

As government and Peshmerga forces push into Mosul’s suburbs, ISIL has already forced tens of thousands of villagers to retreat with them – effectively using civilians as human shields against airstrikes and artillery blasts. On November 1st, the UN’s human rights office accused ISIL of attempting to bus 25,000 more people nearer to the city. “We have grave concern for the safety of these and tens of thousands of other civilians who have reportedly been forcibly relocated by ISIL,” said spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani.

The scenarios feared most by human rights officials – massive ground fighting and airstrikes in a city jammed with tens of thousands of Iraqis who are effectively prisoners, in addition to the million residents like Noora’s family who remain in Mosul  – could be a disaster.

Already, the Coalition has massively increased its bombing campaign. After releasing 9,331 ordnance in and around Mosul over two years, the Coalition launched more than 1,400 in the span of just five days following the official start of Iraqi government and Kurdish attempts to recapture the city on October 17th.

An October 27th picture of bombs aboard the US aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower – which is supporting the ongoing Mosul operation (US Navy/ Petty Officer 3rd Class Andrew J. Sneeringer)

For those who have lived under ISIL’s brutal rule, airstrikes long ago became a daily fact of life, the roar of jets at night followed by explosions sometimes distant, sometimes close by – and sometimes the last thing people hear.

“They have been sleeping in their basement for months,” Noora said of her relatives, who are members of the city’s middle class, and are relatively secular. “I know people think strikes are just starting, but my family has been scared shitless for months.”

The UN, which attempts to track casualties in Iraq, says airstrikes are extremely difficult to qualify and assign blame for, especially in Mosul. The organization’s Iraqi mission, UNAMI, estimates that airstrikes have been responsible for around five percent of all civilian casualties in Iraq since June 2014, or slightly more than 1,000. However, the organisation does not generally attribute responsibility.

“There are many actors involved in airstrikes (Iraqi, Iranian, international coalition),” Francesco Motta, UNAMI’s human rights chief wrote in an email to Airwars. “This means that often when we get reports of airstrikes (and in those instances where we can in fact confirm through reliable sources that an airstrike has taken place – irrespective of the casualties) it is often impossible to determine who many have been responsible for it.”

Motta said most airstrikes happen at night – a fact confirmed by residents of Mosul – and by the time a bomb hits its target the plane could be long gone. “In the absence of verifiable film footage of the aircraft/strike it is often very difficult to ascertain what has happened,” he said.

Airwars obtained a recent internal UNAMI weekly human rights report which includes an entry for an airstrike on October 2nd that “allegedly killed 19 civilians, including children in Mosul.” Another airstrike in Mosul on October 8th targeting “a company that produces plant seeds in an industrial area,” is alleged to have killed 10 civilians. But the UN agency was unable to attribute responsibility in either case.

A recent strike near Kirkuk highlights the reporting problem. On October 21st, in the midst of an ISIL diversionary assault on the city, an airstrike hit a Shia mosque in the nearby town of Duquq, killing at least 15 women. Initial reports blamed the Coalition. But officials categorically denied involvement, and the Iraqi government later announced it would carry out an investigation. Some reports claim the Iraqi pilot and navigator responsible have now been detained.

مقاتلات F16 السرب التاسع يستهدفون مركز عمليات لما يسمى #ولاية_نينوى في الموصل #دولة_الخرافة_مسحولة #IQAF

— IRAQI AIR FORCE (@iqAirForce) October 21, 2016

The video shows a recent Iraqi Air Force strike on Mosul

Iraqi forces are also known to act more recklessly and, according to UNAMI, to rely heavily on dumb bombs instead of the guided munitions mainly employed by Coalition jets.  In late June, as a massive ISIL convoy fled newly recaptured Fallujah, both US and and Iraqi aircraft opened fire on the vehicles. Said by Iraqi authorities to contain the families of fighters, the Coalition reported that it avoided parts of the convoy to minimize civilian casualties. Even so its claim to have destroyed 117 vehicles was high. Yet this paled against the 798 vehicles the Iraqi government says it destroyed, releasing video of its gunships firing at the convoys. The civilian toll of those attacks remains unclear.

On the frontline

However the Iraqi air force asserts itself, the US-led Coalition has and will continue to carry out the majority of airstrikes as allied troops push into Mosul. Already, several strikes in locations outside and within the city have resulted in civilian fatalities.

Airwars’ own Iraq-based researcher recently spent a week on the frontlines, where he saw entire villages destroyed by the fighting, and spoke with witnesses to airstrkes that left civilians dead. One, a local teacher, told Airwars that airstrikes on October 22nd or 23rd in the vicinity of Bashiqa left dead among several families. The teacher, from Bashiqa, described the ordeal he endured: “He told me how they survived and spent three nights under the stairs to avoid the airstrikes – airstrikes which targeted every moving thing in the village,” recalls the researcher.

Another incident in the village of Fadhiliya left eight members of a single family dead including three children. Uncovered by the Guardian, that incident left the family’s home reduced to rubble. The Coalition says it carried out strikes in the “area described in the allegation,” and is investigating.

Bodies are removed from the scene of a reported Coalition airstrike at Fadhiliya near Mosul, which killed eight members of one family on october 22nd 2016 (Picture courtesy of Fazel Hawramy)

As the battle for Mosul pushes into the city, air and artillery strikes risk killing many more civilians. ISIL has also telegraphed its intent to use non-combatants as ‘human shields’. In recent days the group’s fighters have executed hundreds, and brought tens of thousands more civilians with them as they have retreated from Mosul’s outlying villages.

“ISIL deliberately bases itself in civilian areas and civilian infrastructure (even within private homes and other infrastructure such as schools) with the direct intention of either ensuing civilian casualties if they are attacked or to shield their fighters,” noted Francesco Motta, UNAMI’s human rights chief.

Motta says the UN is also concerned about the continued enslavement of as many as 3,000 Yezidis, captured during ISIL’s blitz through northern Iraq in 2014. “We have serious concerns as to what ISIL might do to them if it looks like their control is about to collapse,” said Motta in an email earlier this month. “We fear that ISIL might decide to kill these people rather than see them freed.”

It is unclear how many Yazidis and other imprisoned civilians remain in Mosul, though they too could be placed near military targets. The UN recently warned that ISIL were holding “captive nearly 400 women from Kurdish, Yezidi or Shi’a Muslim communities in Tal Afar” – about 60km west of Mosul, and the site of Coalition strikes.

On November 1st, Iraqi troops first reportedly breached the official city limits. Still inside Mosul, Noora’s family awaits with trepidation what will come. Noora remembers one recent Whatsapp audio message in particular, left by her grandmother:

“She started crying as she wished all of us happy Ramadan. She just broke down and started sobbing. She was saying I hope I can see you one day, that we can be together one day and see each other in person. That seemed quite impossible.”

▲ Villagers at Fadhiliya search for survivors, atfer a likely Coalition airstrike near Mosul on October 22nd 2016 killed eight members of one family (Picture courtesy of Fazel Hawramy)


October 26, 2016

Written by

Samuel Oakford

The US-led Coalition targeting so-called Islamic State has substantially underestimated the civilian toll of its airstrikes, according to analysis released by Amnesty International. The detailed report alleges that certain attacks may have violated international humanitarian law.

According to senior Amnesty Syria researcher Neil Sammonds, who authored the study, “the US military’s civilian casualty assessment system is clearly pretty close to being unfit for purpose at present, and needs an overhaul.”

Sammonds and his colleagues focused on just 11 incidents – all in Syria – and identified what they says is “compelling evidence” that 300 civilians were likely killed in reported Coalition airstrikes. The detailed case studies were submitted in late September to the Department of Defense, which has yet to officially respond. The alliance itself has admitted to just one non-combatant fatality from the events.

‘Residential neighbourhood’

Amnesty’s six-month investigation – which draws on open source data, satellite imagery, personal accounts, and existing monitoring by groups including the Syrian Network for Human Rights and Airwars – is one of the most extensive reviews of civilian casualties tied to the Coalition.

The first strike investigated took place over two years ago, at Kafr Daryan in Idlib governorate on September 23rd 2014 – the opening night of Coalition bombings in Syria. That attack was also the first that Syrian monitoring groups were able to review. Accounts compiled by several, including the Violations Documentation Center and the Syrian Network for Human Rights arrived at a toll of at least 13 civilians killed, including five women and five children.

Amnesty’s own assessment says photographic and video evidence for Kafr Daryan indicates a residential area was indeed hit: “The strike location appears to be in a residential neighbourhood, approximately 100m from a mosque, as confirmed by satellite imagery from 30 September 2014 (one week after the attack) obtained by Amnesty International. Several buildings intact in satellite imagery from August 2014 are either completely or partially destroyed in the imagery from 30 September.”

Though US Central Command (CENTCOM) has confirmed cruise missile strikes in the vicinity that night, it continues to insist that it is not in possession of “credible operational reporting through operational channels that would sustain those allegations.”

Amnesty is now calling for the Kafr Daryan case to be re-opened, noting that “At the very least, the presence of large numbers of civilians in the vicinity and the recorded civilian casualties and damage suggest that necessary precautions to minimize harm to civilians may not have been taken.”

Bodies removed from the rubble at Kafr Daryan, September 23rd 2014

Deadliest incident

CENTCOM’s response to Kafr Daryan in September 2014 helped set the tone for the US-led campaign in Syria – even as monitoring groups tallied an ever-growing list of civilian victims from Coalition bombings.

To date, the US has admitted to just 19 civilian deaths in Syria resulting from 12 investigations. By comparison, the best estimate of researchers at Airwars presently puts the Coalition toll in Syria alone at 899 civilians killed. Airwars has been informed by CENTCOM that the release of a further batch of confirmed civilian casualty cases is “pending,” though no firm timetable has been given.

The bloodiest attack reviewed by Amnesty took place in al Tukhar in Syria’s Aleppo province on July 19th 2016, during operations to retake the nearby strategic town of Manbij. At least 73 civilians were likely killed, among them 27 children. Some monitoring groups have put the civilian toll at above 100, and possibly even 200. Airwars currently lists the names of 78 reported victims – and the incident is likely the deadliest so far tied to the Coalition in more than two years of war.

While noting that Islamic State forces were reportedly present in the village, Amnesty has informed CENTCOM that “The attacks appear to have been conducted without adequate precautions taken to safeguard civilians and may have amounted to indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks.”

Shortly after the incident in al Tukhar, CENTCOM – which oversees Coalition operations in both Iraq and Syria – announced it was investigating the bombings. It has yet to release its findings.

Amnesty satellite analysis of the site of another Coalition airstrike at al Ghandoura in July 2016, which likely killed 28 or more civilians (© DigitalGlobe/Google Earth. Graphic produced by Amnesty International)

Reviewing another air raid on the village of Ayn al-Khan in al-Hasakah governote on December 7th 2015, Amnesty suggests the Coalition may have operated based on faulty intelligence, and then failed to acknowledge its failure after some 40 civilians were killed. Airwars prsently lists 24 separate sources for the incident.

“The attack appears to have been indiscriminate and may have resulted from a misidentification of a military objective,” Amnesty notes in its assessment of Ayn al-Khan. “Even if a military objective was present in the vicinity, the heavy loss of civilian life suggests a failure to take necessary precautions or a decision to proceed with an attack which was foreseeably disproportionate.”

Implications for Mosul

Amnesty’s investigation comes as tens of thousands of Iraqi and peshmerga forces attempt to retake ISIL’s de facto Iraqi capital of Mosul, buttressed by heavy air support from the Coalition.

“Failure to see the great harm it causes to civilians throws the Coalition’s Mosul campaign in particular into sharp relief,” says Amnesty’s study author Neil Sammonds. “If 250 civilians were killed in strikes on the Manbij area, how many times more might be expected to die for Mosul?”

This week, spokesperson Col John Dorrian tweeted that the Coalition had unleashed “an all time high” number of strikes between the start of the Mosul offensive on October 17th and October 22nd. “Over 1,400 munitions delivered on #Daesh,” he wrote.

.@CJTFOIR ramped up strikes supporting ISF & Pesh advances on #Mosul to an all time high–over 1400 munitions delivered on #Daesh 17-22 Oct

— OIR Spokesman (@OIRSpox) October 23, 2016

Though fighting has not yet reached built-up areas of the city, several alleged airstrkes tied to the Coalition have already claimed the lives of more than a dozen civilians according to Airwars tracking. On Monday, local reports indicated a father and his seven children were killed in a village just north of Mosul.