News & Investigations

News & Investigations

Published

May 10, 2022

Written by

Imogen Piper

Number of civilians killed decreases across monitored conflicts, while focus on explosive weapons use grows

Civilian harm dropped across most of the major conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa in 2021, Airwars’ annual report has found.

The number of allegations of civilians killed by nearly all belligerents monitored by Airwars fell in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Somalia and Yemen, though there was an escalation in the Israel-Palestinian conflict which caused significant human suffering.

Read Airwars’ full annual report here

US actions decline

The United States, which has fought multiple campaigns across the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia over the past two decades, saw a significant decrease in its activities.

Across all the US campaigns Airwars monitors, including in Syria and Iraq, as well as counterterrorism campaigns in Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere, civilian harm from US actions fell in 2021, continuing a downward trend in recent years.

In Iraq there were no reports of civilian harm from US actions, while in Syria at least 15 and up to 27 civilians were likely killed by US-led Coalition actions in 20 incidents throughout the year – mostly in combined air and ground actions that appeared to target alleged remnant ISIS fighters.

In Yemen at least two civilians were reportedly killed by US strikes during the year while there were no reliable local allegations of civilians likely killed by US strikes in Libya or Pakistan, according to Airwars’ assessment of local sources.

Even taking into account hundreds of airstrikes in Afghanistan which both the Trump and Biden administrations had initially kept secret, 2021 saw the lowest numbers of declared US military strikes globally since 2006.

However, 2021 was also a year in which focus was again placed on civilian harm caused by historic US actions.

To mark the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist atrocities, Airwars conducted an investigation to estimate how many civilians were likely killed by US forces alone in the subsequent 20 years of the so-called War on Terror. The research concluded that an estimated 22,000 to 48,000 civilians had been killed directly by US actions in two decades of war according to public records –  the vast majority of fatalities were in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.  The findings were cited in the opening remarks of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing “’Targeted Killing’ and the Rule of Law: The Legal and Human Costs of 20 Years of U.S. Drone Strikes,” and were covered by more than 60 news outlets globally, in at least ten languages.

The Pentagon’s troubling management of civilian harm allegations was highlighted by another Airwars investigation during 2021, leading the Pentagon to withdraw and republish their own annual report to Congress. Airwars uncovered nine historic incidents in Iraq and Syria that the US had declared responsibility for killing civilians in, which were actually conducted by US allies including Australia, France, the United Kingdom and Belgium.

Brief but brutal Gaza conflict

In May 2021 an intense and deadly conflict lasting just eleven days erupted between Israeli and Palestinian forces. As on previous occasions, civilians paid the highest price. Airwars documented the human impact of this short but brutal conflict in both Gaza and Israel, working for the first time in three primary languages – Arabic, Hebrew and English.

The research found that Israeli strikes, continually impacting across the densely populated streets of Gaza, led to the likely deaths of between 151 and 192 civilians. Over a third of civilians killed in Gaza were children and in more than 70% of the allegations documented by Airwars, civilians – not militants – were the only documented victims. In Israel, ten civilians were directly killed by rockets fired by Hamas and Islamic Jihad from Gaza.

The report also documented civilian harm from Israeli strikes in Syria, which across eight years had led to the deaths of between 14 and 40 civilians. Comparatively this civilian harm estimate stands in stark contrast to the numbers of those killed in just eleven days. Gaza is one of the most densely populated places in the world, whilst Israeli strikes in Syria were conducted on military targets mostly in sparsely populated areas.

Airwars’ Senior Investigator Joe Dyke partnered with the Guardian on a piece interviewing the residents of a tower destroyed by Israel Defence Forces during the May 2021 conflict. Al-Jalaa Tower was home to dozens of civilians and a number of offices, including those of Associated Press and Al-Jazeera. All were given an hour’s notice to evacuate the tower and scramble together their possessions before seeing their homes destroyed in front of them. The investigation recently won an Amnesty Media Award.

Russian assault in Syria

Long before Russia’s assault on Ukraine in February 2022, Airwars had been tracking civilian harm caused by extensive Russian actions in Syria.

Whilst allegations of civilian harm fell to their lowest rate this year since 2015, after a 2020 ceasefire agreement between Russia and Turkey continued to hold, Putin’s forces continued to strike Idlib and other rebel-held areas of Syria with air and artillery strikes.

Approximately 48% of civilian harm allegations against Russia during 2021 occurred in Idlib, whilst 2% occurred in Hama, and 23% in Aleppo governorate. In total as many as 280 civilians were killed by Russian and/or Syrian regime air and artillery strikes.

This significant but comparatively lower civilian casualty count came alongside Russia’s escalation of military operations in preparation for Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, which has subsequently led to mass civilian harm.

Explosive weapons

An overarching theme throughout Airwars’ work during the year, and a key focus for our advocacy outreach, was on restricting the use of explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA).

Whether in Syria, Iraq, Gaza or any of the other conflicts Airwars monitors, when explosive weapons are used in densely populated areas, the potential for civilian harm dramatically increases.

Throughout 2021, Airwars worked with international partners to support a strongly worded UN-backed international political declaration against the use of EWIPA. The final UN-backed conference debating this declaration will be held in summer 2022, with Airwars playing a key role advocating for change.

▲ An airstrike in Gaza is the front cover image for Airwars' 2021 annual report (Credit: Hani al Shaer)

Published

April 8, 2022

Written by

Sanjana Varghese

International gathering brings nearer a protocol on restricting explosive weapon use in urban areas.

States edged closer to a political declaration on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas on April 8th, after three days of crunch talks in Geneva.

More than 65 states descended on the Swiss city for key talks on the wording of a political declaration that advocates believe would save thousands of lives by restricting the use of wide area effect explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA). Detractors, such as the United States government, argue it would unfairly limit the freedom of their own military actions and have threatened not to sign.

While no final text was agreed upon Friday, all sides struck an optimistic tone at the end of the three-day meet – saying a deal was nearer than ever. Delegates will meet again for one day in two months before an adoption ceremony expected in the summer.

“There are clearly differences of opinion but we have seen a very positive, solution oriented approach,” the chairperson, Ambassador Michael Gaffey of Ireland, said. “We are not simply working on a formula of words in a political declaration –  we want to make a real difference and impact on the ground and foster behavioural change.”

The talks were given additional urgency by the ongoing war in Ukraine, and Russia’s extensive use of explosive weapons on its cities. Moscow did not attend the talks.

Even the United States, widely viewed as one of the most hostile states to a declaration with teeth, struck a more positive tone than in previous meets. “There are still tough drafting issues and decisions ahead, and we have to get them right. The US delegation pledges our goodwill, to help to get to a positive outcome. We look forward to doing so.”

Since 2018, Ireland has chaired consultations on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. In the sessions since, the need for such a declaration – which is not legally binding and so does not create new legal obligations – has only become clearer.

“The draft declaration text holds the potential to make a meaningful contribution to the protection of civilians, and negotiations over the past few days have overall been constructive,” Laura Boillot of INEW, a network of NGOs pushing for the protocol, told Airwars.

“But decisions will now need to be made if the final text is going to have humanitarian effect. Most importantly it needs to establish a presumption against the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in towns, cities and other populated areas.”

It will be a failure to leave this room agreeing that simply restating existing laws will reduce civilian harm – a failure for all of us who came here with the intention to reduce that harm in the first place." @alma_osta in HI concluding remarks at #EWIPA negotiations today. pic.twitter.com/pTKpgfqWWU

— HI_Advocacy (@HI_Advocacy) April 8, 2022

Civil society groups and international agencies made a strong case for restricting EWIPA.

Three days of consultations

During three days of focused talks, several key fissures bubbled. While states in attendance – and civil society organisations – repeatedly emphasised the shared desire to produce a tangible and meaningful political declaration that could help save civilian lives on the ground, the practicalities of the process made clear that good intentions weren’t going to be enough.

On the first day of the informal consultations on April 6th, states made general remarks – affirming their support for the proceedings as well as their national positions – after an introductory statement from Ireland, the penholder.

In these general remarks, most states tended towards re-affirming the positions they had made clear in previous negotiations. On the hawkish side, the UK, US, Israel and Canada all emphasized that their positions as militarily active states meant that they would not sign a declaration in its current form, which included strong language about avoiding the use of explosive weapons in urban areas. Throughout the week, the delegates from these countries could often be seen meeting as a bloc outside of formal proceedings.

Many of the sticking points that emerged on the first day continued to dominate both the main floor and side conversations. The predominant line of argument was between those who argued that the declaration needed only to reaffirm the importance of international humanitarian law and provide further guidance about how to do so in this context; and those who asserted that this declaration needed to strengthen existing commitments and add new ones for states around the use of explosive weapons.

The second day of discussions took a more technical turn, with the majority of interventions focused on the wording of specific clauses and paragraphs of the text.

Clause 3.3, which attracted much attention in previous consultations, was once  again hotly debated. It is one of the first clauses in Section B, the operative section – which lays out the actions that states have to comply with if they choose to sign onto the declaration.

In the current draft, Clause 3.3 says states must: “Ensure that our armed forces adopt and implement a range of policies and practices to avoid civilian harm, including by restricting or refraining from the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas, when the effects may be expected to extend beyond a military objective.”

The bulk of the discussion around this clause was on the second sentence, as many states intervened on the use of “restricting or refraining,” with some suggesting it was strong enough while others lobbied instead for the use of “avoid”.

A split between the majority of civil society organisations and militarily-powerful states was apparent during these parts of the discussions, with NGOs and international agencies pushing for stronger language, rather than trying to place limits on what kinds of civilian harm would be protected under this new declaration.

Airwars’ incoming director and current head of research Emily Tripp also made an intervention – emphasising how crucial it was for states to actually track civilian harm.

Airwars’ incoming director Emily Tripp addresses a UN-backed conference on explosive weapons in Geneva on April 7th, 2022 (Image: Airwars)

At the end of day two INEW, one of the organisers, named nine states – Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Israel, the Republic of Korea, Sweden, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States – that it said had “worked to weaken declaration provisions.” The UK delegation, for example, agreed that tracking civilian harm was a ‘moral obligation,’ but then highlighted ways in which it claimed this was not feasible – arguing that live hostilities made it near impossible to monitor casualties properly.

But INEW also said that there had been a “shift in the collective tone set by states since the last round of negotiations, with more governments explicitly committed to strengthening the protection of civilians through the declaration.”

The statement said this was likely as a response to the bombing of Ukrainian towns and cities, and the Ukraine crisis loomed large over the conflict. Not only did the majority of states open their remarks with condemnation of the Russian aggression in Ukraine, many also emphasised the importance of a meaningful political declaration with specific reference to Ukrainian cities and towns such as Mariupol, Bucha and Khrarkiv.

There was also an emphasis on the value of protecting civilian objects and infrastructure, such as schools and hospitals, with states such as Mexico and the delegate for the Holy See (which holds observer state) urging specific language around the need to protect hospitals, blood transfusion centres, and environmental and religious sites.

Speaking at the end of the latest talks, Ambassador Gaffey said Ireland and organisers would review the submissions from all parties before a month or two of further work on the text. He said states and NGOs would then hold a final one-day consultation in a couple of months, before a political adoption ceremony where states would declare their support for the text.

As Alma Taslidžan Al-Osta, of Humanity and Inclusion, noted in her own concluding remarks to delegates: “Eleven years in Syria, seven years in Yemen and over a month in Ukraine have taught us that explosive weapons with wide area effects should not be used in towns, cities and populated areas. The status quo is no longer an option.”

Civilians increasingly bear the brunt of modern conflicts. Addressing the devastating harm to civilians from Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas is a priority for 🇮🇪. We welcome states, international organisations and civil society to consultations in Geneva this week #EWIPA pic.twitter.com/pAyglwZO9D

— Disarmament IRELAND (@DisarmamentIRL) April 6, 2022

Ireland chaired Geneva talks on restricting urban use of explosive weapons

▲ The three-day EWIPA conference in Geneva sought to reach a deal on the use of explosive weapons in urban environments (Airwars)

Incident Code

LC049

Incident date

November 14, 2016

Location

قرضة, Qaradah, Wadi al Shatii, Libya

Geolocation

27.544167, 13.629444 Note: The accuracy of this location is to Village level. Continue to map

Airwars assessment

France allegedly conducted airstrikes in Qaradah north of Sabha which killed Al Qaeda leader Abdul Muneim al-Hasnawi, also known as Abu Talha al-Libi and six other members of the organisation.

The mayor of the city, Hassen Matoug, contested the events on Facebook and claimed that up to eight civilians were killed in the attack. He named two of them as Ghaweel and Hamad al-Ghawail and mentioned a Palestinian woman and her son as being killed in the attack as well.

The local time of the incident is unknown.

The victims were named as:

Family members (2)

  • A Palestinian woman female killed
  • The son of the Palestinian woman Adult male killed
  • Ghaweel Age unknown killed
  • Hamad al-Ghawail Age unknown killed

Summary

  • Civilian harm reported
    Yes
  • Civilians reported killed
    4 – 8
  • Airwars civilian harm grading
    Fair
    Reported by two or more credible sources, with likely or confirmed near actions by a belligerent.
  • Suspected attacker
    French Military

Sources (28) [ collapse]

Media
from sources (5) [ collapse]

  • Mohammed Qureysh shows the aftermath of the airstrike
  • Qaradah municipality gives a statement on the strike
  • France 24 reports on the airstrike
  • An image shows the targeted house which suspected where Abu Talha lives (via Alwasat)
  • Translation: the initial pictures that show the result of the airstrike on the civilian house in Gorda (Source: Libya Al Ahrar TV)

Geolocation notes

Reports of the incident mention the city of Qaradah (قرضة), for which the generic coordinates are: 27.544167, 13.629444. Due to limited satellite imagery and information available to Airwars, we were unable to verify the location further.

French Military Assessment:

  • Suspected belligerent
    French Military
  • French Military position on incident
    Not yet assessed

Summary

  • Civilian harm reported
    Yes
  • Civilians reported killed
    4 – 8
  • Airwars civilian harm grading
    Fair
    Reported by two or more credible sources, with likely or confirmed near actions by a belligerent.
  • Suspected attacker
    French Military

Sources (28) [ collapse]

Incident Code

LC043

Incident date

October 4, 2016

Location

قنفودة, Ganfouda, Benghazi, Libya

Geolocation

32.028594, 20.026959 Note: The accuracy of this location is to Neighbourhood/area level. Continue to map

Airwars assessment

Two sources reported that ten civilians were killed as the result of seven LNA airstrikes on Ganfouda.

According to Arabi21, two families were killed, (including three children, their mother and father in one of the families) as well as foreign workers.

Al Jazeera reported that “10 civilians were killed and 32 others, including Arabs and Africans”, were injured in strikes orchestrated by Gen. Haftar. It also noted that “Sources of the Shura Council of Benghazi rebels said that four of its fighters were killed in the bombing while trying to save one of the families that were inside a targeted house,” suggesting a so-called ‘double-tap’ strike.
Green Thought on Facebook said that it was a French-Emirati airstrike and not LNA and posted graphic pictures of the victims.
Aareen Alasood also said it was an Emirati airstrike.

Al Jazeera added that “on Tuesday, six civilians, including three Arab citizens of Egypt and Sudan, were killed and more than 13 others were wounded by indiscriminate mortar fire in the residential district of Sidi Hussein in central Benghazi. Local sources in Benghazi confirmed that the explosion caused extensive damage to civilian buildings and properties.”

Mohammed Bousghama said on Twitter that a field hospital was hit in the attack.

The local time of the incident is unknown.

Summary

  • Civilian harm reported
    Yes
  • Civilians reported killed
    10 – 16
  • Civilians reported injured
    45
  • Airwars civilian harm grading
    Contested
    Competing claims of responsibility e.g. multiple belligerents, or casualties also attributed to ground forces.
  • Suspected attackers
    French Military, United Arab Emirates Military, Libyan National Army

Sources (9) [ collapse]

Geolocation notes (1) [ collapse]

Reports of the incident mention the neighbourhood of Ganfouda (قنفودة), for which the generic coordinates are: 32.028594, 20.026959. Due to limited satellite imagery and information available to Airwars, we were unable to verify the location further.

  • Reports of the incident mention the neighbourhood of Ganfouda (قنفودة).

    Imagery:
    Google Earth

French Military Assessment:

  • Suspected belligerent
    French Military
  • French Military position on incident
    Not yet assessed

United Arab Emirates Military Assessment:

  • Suspected belligerent
    United Arab Emirates Military
  • United Arab Emirates Military position on incident
    Not yet assessed

Libyan National Army Assessment:

  • Suspected belligerent
    Libyan National Army
  • Libyan National Army position on incident
    Not yet assessed

Summary

  • Civilian harm reported
    Yes
  • Civilians reported killed
    10 – 16
  • Civilians reported injured
    45
  • Airwars civilian harm grading
    Contested
    Competing claims of responsibility e.g. multiple belligerents, or casualties also attributed to ground forces.
  • Suspected attackers
    French Military, United Arab Emirates Military, Libyan National Army

Sources (9) [ collapse]

Incident Code

LC039

Incident date

August 12, 2016

Location

قنفودة, Ganfouda, Benghazi, Libya

Geolocation

32.028594, 20.026959 Note: The accuracy of this location is to Neighbourhood/area level. Continue to map

Airwars assessment

Various sources reported that between 20 and 31 civilians were killed and around 30 more injured as a result of airstrikes in Ganfouda. Two targets appear to have been struck – a residential home and a prison.

While some sources claimed the attack was conducted by an unknown foreign drone, others blame the LNA or France.

Radio Dabanga reported that five members of a Sudanese family were killed when an unidentified air force bombed their home during fighting between rival factions in Benghazi. The Sudanese outlet reported that the civilians were being used as human shields. The victims were named as Mohammed Aduma Mohammed (the father), his wife Safaa Mansour, and children Mohammed Aduma Mohammed, Rania Mohammed and Heba Mohammed.

The Saraya Media Center showed images of the victims on its Telegram channel and said they were killed as a result of their home collapsing after a French airstrike.

As the victims were reportedly mostly Sudanese citizens, Ambassador Qaraballah Al-Khader later condemned the use of his country’s citizens as human shields and their subsequent deaths.

Alnabaa identified the perpetrator as “French” and said the bombing was carried out by “foreign aircraft supporting [General] Haftar.”

The Libya Observer, citing the local Shura council, said 15 prisoners were killed and 30 civilians injured when a jail used to house supporters of “former regime followers” was also bombed. The Observer also blamed “foreign aircraft, in support of Khalifa Haftar.” A later report raised the death toll to 22 with 9 missing. Ewan Libya published a list of those prisoners deceased and missing.

According to Mohamed Abd Alwanis posting on Facebook, in addition, two Shura Council fighters were reported killed in the incident.

The local time of the incident is unknown.

The victims were named as:

Family members (5)

  • Bilal Mohammed Al-Taraki Age unknown
  • Ismail Hamed Al-Rubaie Age unknown
  • Ismail Boujrada Gaddafi Age unknown
  • Abdul Salam Mukhtar Al Ajili Age unknown
  • Zakaria Makhlouf the Turgian Age unknown
  • Lafi Saleh al-Ashebi Age unknown Missing
  • Ali Nasr Grill Age unknown
  • Ahmed Zaghloul Fathallah Age unknown
  • Mohammed Omar Al-Amari Age unknown
  • Abdul Rahman Mohammed Gaddafi Age unknown Missing
  • Ahmed Ali Almagri Age unknown Missing
  • Mahdi Yusuf Mohammed Age unknown
  • Hamed Alturghi Age unknown
  • Mohammed Al-Aqili Age unknown
  • Abdul Latif Ali Al-Darcy Age unknown
  • Adel Salem Nabous Age unknown Missing
  • Mustafa Othman Al-Suway Age unknown
  • Abdulaziz Abdulwahab Al-Hassi Age unknown
  • Khaled Salem Al-Shaeri Age unknown Missing
  • Ibrahim Ali Obeidi Age unknown
  • Khalifa Awad Al-Akouri Age unknown Missing
  • Mohammed Ramadan Al-Nabli Age unknown Missing

Summary

  • Civilian harm reported
    Yes
  • Civilians reported killed
    20 – 31
  • (3 women1–2 men)
  • Civilians reported injured
    30
  • Airwars civilian harm grading
    Contested
    Competing claims of responsibility e.g. multiple belligerents, or casualties also attributed to ground forces.
  • Suspected attackers
    Libyan National Army, French Military

Sources (13) [ collapse]

Media
from sources (5) [ collapse]

  • Saraya Media Center shows the impact of the airstrikes and interviews residents of Ganfouda
  • This media contains graphic content. Click to unblur.

    Saraya Media Center interviews those injured in the airstrike
  • This media contains graphic content. Click to unblur.

    A video shows the aftermath of the airstrike (Source:Al-Tanaseh TV)
  • This media contains graphic content. Click to unblur.

    Saraya Media Center shows the aftermath of the airstrike and speaks with victims
  • Saraya Media Center speaks with children injured in the airstrike

Geolocation notes

Reports of the incident mention the neighbourhood of Ganfouda (قنفودة), for which the generic coordinates are: 32.028594, 20.026959. Due to limited satellite imagery and information available to Airwars, we were unable to verify the location further.

Libyan National Army Assessment:

  • Suspected belligerent
    Libyan National Army
  • Libyan National Army position on incident
    Not yet assessed

French Military Assessment:

  • Suspected belligerent
    French Military
  • French Military position on incident
    Not yet assessed

Summary

  • Civilian harm reported
    Yes
  • Civilians reported killed
    20 – 31
  • (3 women1–2 men)
  • Civilians reported injured
    30
  • Airwars civilian harm grading
    Contested
    Competing claims of responsibility e.g. multiple belligerents, or casualties also attributed to ground forces.
  • Suspected attackers
    Libyan National Army, French Military

Sources (13) [ collapse]