News & Investigations

News & Investigations

Published

September 30, 2020

Written by

Airwars Syria team and Shihab Halep

At least 17 nations have intervened militarily in Syria in recent years. In their own words, Syrians describe the often devastating consequences for civilians.

In 1996, the US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was asked by reporter Lesley Stahl about sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq: “We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?” Stahl asked. The Secretary of State responded: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it.”

Airwars data collected from local sources indicates that since 2014, at least 15,000 civilians were likely killed as a result of airstrikes and shelling from at least 17 foreign powers fighting within Syria, including members of the US-led Coalition; Russia; Iran; Turkey; and Israel. Thousands more have been injured. Here the Airwars Syria team asks: has the price paid by civilians been worth it?

For some Syrians, the intervention of so many foreign powers in Syria has its origins in the Assad government’s mishandling of mass demonstrations in the early days of a national uprising. Jala, a Syrian woman now living in London, told Airwars “Had the crisis been managed correctly by the Syrian regime back in 2011, and had the regime focused on a political solution and refrained from using power against its own people and from deploying the army in Dara’a, the intervening powers wouldn’t have found a pretext, and we wouldn’t be talking about the intervention now.”

Reasons for the intervention of so many foreign powers in Syria vary widely. For Russia, assistance to the Assad government has helped deliver long dreamt of access to a Mediterranean port. For Iran, its costly efforts to ensure the survival of the Syrian regime while seeking to promote a regional anti-Israel axis have been paramount. For the United States and its Coalition allies, a desire to defeat the terrorist group Islamic State has more recently been supplemented by a desire to counter Iranian and Russian plans for Syria. President Erdogan of Turkey has used the chaos of Syria’s wars to impose a buffer zone in northern Syria and disrupt Kurdish efforts to carve out a new state. And Israel, although not involved in the ground conflict, has nevertheless conducted hundreds of airstrikes against both Iranian and Hezbollah forces within Syria in recent years.

With so many foreign powers and their proxy actors fighting within Syria, this chart by analyst Charles Lister from 2016 indicates the sheer complexity of the situation.

This *simple* chart shows all states of hostility currently being played out on #Syria’s territory#IntractableWar pic.twitter.com/1inprNB6U0

— Charles Lister (@Charles_Lister) February 13, 2016

The US-led Coalition and civilian harm

Without the intervention of so many foreign powers in Syria, the recent history of the nation would have looked very different. Starved of Russian and Iranian support, the Assad government would most likely have been overrun by rebel forces. ISIS would also likely have surged, using the vast arsenal of weapons it had captured in Iraq during 2014 to occupy more and more Syrian territory.

So did the international intervention save the Syrian peoples? Or instead has it elongated and exacerbated the conflict, and consequently the suffering of civilians?

Following an earlier military intervention in Syria by Iran in support of the Assad government, six years ago this week the US-led Coalition launched its first airstrikes in Syria on September 23rd 2014, targeting both the so-called Islamic State that now controlled vast swathes of Syria; and also al-Qaeda’s local Syrian faction. Dozens of strikes by US, Saudi, Emirati and Jordanian aircraft that day – as well as Tomahawk missiles fired from US warships – led to the Coalition’s first reported massacre of civilians in Syria in Kafar Dryan. The Coalition still denies civilian casualties in that attack.

According to Airwars data gathered from local sources on the ground since 2014, the long running Coalition campaign against ISIS in Syria has so far likely killed at least 5,658 civilians, a high proportion of whom were women and children. Almost four thousand more civilians have reportedly been injured. The alliance itself presently concedes 671 non combatants killed by its actions.

Hasan Al-Kassab is an activist from Raqqa, who worked in the research unit of the Euphrates Project which funds many reconstruction and body retrieval projects in Raqqa. Hasan told Airwars that he lost two of his uncles during the Coalition’s Raqqa campaign in 2017. One uncle, Abdul Latif Hasan Al-kassab, was taking water from the Euphrates river when a Coalition airstrike targeted the area on June 25th 2017. His uncle was immediately killed along with two other civilians. His other uncle died when another Coalition airstrike targeted a building in Raqqa days before the city was liberated. “There is no mechanism to contact the Coalition who I believe is responsible for the death of my two uncles to investigate their death,” says Hasan today.

Additionally, Hasan told Airwars that the Initial Response Team in Raqqa has so far found 28 mass graves in Raqqa, containing more than 6,000 bodies, with two thirds of them believed to be civilians.

Destruction in Raqqa city in 2017, following the Coalition’s successful campaign to oust ISIS (Picture via Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently)

Zain Al-Abidin Al-A’kedi, an activist from Deir Ezzor living in northern Syria, told Airwars that he believes that the Coalition’s intervention against ISIS in Syria was necessary, but had come too late. “The wasted time led to an increase in the number of deaths and casualties by ISIS and the US-led Coalition airstrikes, in addition to huge damage in the cities and towns,” Zain said.

Firas Hanosh, an activist from Raqqa and a former doctor with Medecins Sans Frontières in one of Raqqa’s field hospitals, also believes that the US-led Coalition intervention in Syria was necessary, because local forces were unable to defeat ISIS. However, he argues that the Coalition’s choice of the mainly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces as its ground proxy was a mistake. “The US-led Coalition didn’t choose the right partner on the ground (SDF) , which is racist against the Arab civilians.” Firas told Airwars that it is unsafe for him to return to his ravaged home city. He says he is also worried about being arrested by the SDF, because of his work as an activist monitoring the situation in Raqqa.

Wary of intervening on the ground in Syria or getting involved in the civil war, the US still needed to combat ISIS. It therefore turned to the Kurds – initially helping the newly formed SDF to drive out ISIS from its own areas. “Without the Coalition’s intervention forces, we would have lost Kobane, Qamishli and other Kurdish areas.” Dlshad, a Syrian cyber security engineer now living in Washington DC ,said. However, as the SDF then advanced against ISIS in primarily Arabic-population territory, tensions rose.

Other Syrians believe the US and its allies had hidden motives. Jala, a Syrian woman now living in London, believes that the US intervention in Syria, though declared to be against ISIS, was in fact aimed at controlling the oil fields of North East Syria. President Trump has done little to dispel this view, and US troops today occupy many of Syria’s oil fields.

Assad’s allies: Russia and Iran in Syria

Even as the US-led Coalition was ramping up its attacks against ISIS in Syria, the regime was losing badly on the ground to rebel forces. Reports estimated that despite Iranian and Hezbollah support, Bashar al-Assad held only 25% of Syria by late 2015. Assad asked for support from his Russian allies – leading to Moscow’s largest foreign intervention since its disastrous Afghanistan campaign of 1979-1989. The outcome in Syria would prove to be very different.

The first Russian airstrikes in Syria took place on September 30th 2015, targeting the towns of Za`faranah, Talbisah and Ar-Rastan in Homs; and Al Makrmeya and Jisr al Shughour in Idlib. From the first day, the effects on civilians were devastating. At least 43 civilians reportedly died in Russia’s initial airstrikes – with more than 150 more injured.

A BBC map from 2015 indicates how little territory the Assad government still held before Russia’s armed intervention.

Accused of indifference to civilian harm from its actions in Syria – and even the deliberate targeting of communities – Moscow has yet to admit to a single civilian death in five years of war. Airwars monitoring has so far recorded 4,487 locally reported problem airstrikes by Russia in partnership with the Assad government from 2015 to 2020 – which between them reportedly led to the deaths of as many as 22,000 non combatants, and the injuring of up to 40,000 more.

“The Russian intervention in Syria is not new,” argues Dlshad, a cyber security engineer now living in Washington DC: “I come from Rmeilan city which is rich with oil, and the Russians have been in the city for a long time.” That said, Dlshad believes the Russian intervention both extended the life of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime – and in some cases curbed his actions. He argues for example that Assad would have been more brutal against his own people without Russian control.

“The Russian military involvement changed the military equation,” argues Abdulkarim Ekzayez, a Research Associate at the Department of War Studies at King’s College, University of London and himself a Syrian: “Large-scale aerial attacks on vital infrastructure such as hospitals, schools and bakeries have weakened the resilience of the targeted communities in opposition held areas. Consequently the regime was able to take control over most of the opposition pockets in central and southern Syria, pushing all opposition factions into the north west with clearly defined contact lines between the two warring parties.”

Mohammed Al Fares, the nom de plume of a humanitarian worker living in Idlib, believes that the Russians have followed a systematic plan to target civilians in Syria – something the US-led Coalition tried to avoid, he says. However, Jala believes that none of the actors in the Syrian conflict cared deeply about civilians, including Syrian fighters on the ground because they focused only on achieving military gains and not on civilians.

The other key ally of the Assad government, Iran, has taken a different approach. Years of sanctions have left it with a poorly equipped air force. Instead Tehran’s efforts in Syria focused on its domestic rocket and drone programmes, in turn channelling them to both Hezbollah and to the Syrian regime.

In addition, Iranian ground forces have played a key role in the fighting. The Quds Brigade is known to be involved at a senior level in the Syrian conflict and even in changing the structure of the Syrian army. The Syrian 4th Brigade is close to Iran for example, while the 5th Brigade has closer links to Russian forces.

Qassem Soleimani, the former head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, pictured near Aleppo’s historic castle after the city’s capture from rebels (Image via Zaman al Wasl)

Unilateral interventions in Syria

With a weak government in Damascus, multiple foreign powers have for years conducted unilateral actions in Syria in support of their own national interests. The United States has long targeted al Qaeda-linked fighters in western Syria for example; while the British conducted a controversial targeted killing of a UK citizen in 2015. Two nations in particular have fought lengthy unilateral campaigns.

Turkey has launched several massive operations in North East Syria, alongside its earlier targeting of ISIS in Idlib. In January 2018, Ankara launched Operation Olive Branch in Afrin, and later Operation Peace Spring in October 2019.

Overall, hundreds of Syrian civilians have been locally reported killed by Turkish actions – both against Kurdish forces, and ISIS-occupied areas such as al Bab.

Syrians interviewed for this article were strongly opposed to Turkey’s interventions. “There was no threat against Turkey. Why did Turkey intervene? Turkey is racist against the Kurds and that’s it,” claimed Dlshad.

H.J, a female architect from Damascus who asked not to be fully named for safety reasons, argued: “Syrians thought that Erdogan was helping the Syrian cause, but he eventually used it as a bargaining chip with Europe; causing destruction and division between Arabs and Kurds, and turning Syrian youth into mercenaries”.

Israel’s own unilateral aerial campaign in Syria has proved devastating against both Iranian and Hezbollah forces. In early 2019, a senior Israeli commander declared that the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) had dropped more than 2,000 bombs on Syria during the previous year, while Prime Minister Binyamin Netenyahu said that “the IDF has attacked hundreds of times Iranian and Hezbollah targets.”

Despite the significant scale of Israel’s intervention, international attention has been limited. This may in part be due to the low levels of reported civilian harm from Israeli strikes in Syria compared with other foreign powers. Since 2019, Airwars monitoring indicates that between 13 and 22 civilians were killed and over 40 injured in nine Israeli airstrikes of concern. With its focus in Syria almost exclusively on military targets, Israel appears to have limited the widescale civilian harm seen in the actions of others.

According to Mohammed Al Fares, a Syrian spoken to for this article, “It is good that Israel is destroying the regime’s military installations. However, they are doing it because they don’t want Iran to get an upper hand in Syria, not for the sake of the Syrian people.”

The reverberating effects of foreign intervention

Years of conflict in Syria, combined with external intervention by at least 17 foreign powers, have changed the face of the country for ever. According to the UNHCR, there are 6.2 million people, including 2.5 million children, currently internally displaced within Syria, the largest such population in the world. Beyond Syria’s borders, the total number of registered Syrian refugees has so far reached 5.5 million.

The direct links between external interventions and the displacement of civilians can be challenging to unpack.

In North East Syria for example actions by rebels; by ISIS; and later by Turkish forces, saw more than 215,000 people driven from their homes. While many have returned, an estimated 100,000 remain displaced.

Similarly, Syrian Arab Army operations supported from the air by Russia have proved highly disruptive. During the last major campaign between December 2019 and March 2020 in North West Syria, the UN reported a new displacement of more than 960,000 people, including more than 575,000 children.

Humanitarian worker Mohammed Al Fares, himself an IDP, told Airwars about his own experience. “When you are forced outside your residence, you die slowly. You lose everything, your home, your land, your job and your money. You try to start over and build a new life, but it is difficult.”

A Syrian woman pictured in an IDP camp in north east Syria (Picture courtesy of Refugees International)

The destruction of Syria’s infrastructure over the past nine years has also been extreme – much of it the result of foreign actions. Among the most brutal examples have been Aleppo and Raqqa – the first significantly at the hands of Russian forces; the latter mostly as a result of  the US-led Coalition’s targeting of ISIS. According to ReliefWeb: “About a third of homes in Syria were thought to have been damaged or destroyed by 2017. In 2018, the UN estimated the cost of material destruction in Syria at $120 billion.”

Hasan Al-Kassab told Airwars that eleven bridges in Raqqa were destroyed including Raqqa’s New Bridge during the Coalition’s 2017 campaign, and that civilians are only slowly starting to return because of a lack of basic services. For example, 60% of Raqqa is still without electricity.

East Aleppo, which witnessed brutal bombing by the Assad government supported by its Russian ally, experienced a similar fate. Battles which began in  2012 reached their climax in November 2016, when SAA troops began a decisive campaign that ended a month later with the retaking of the city. This caused very significant damage to Aleppo.

H.J, the architect from Damascus, believes that the destruction in Syria has been systemic and not just ‘collateral damage’ as militaries claim. “The destruction caused by all different actors is called many things, of which: Urbicide/ Identicide. That is, to commit a massacre against the urban environment; to target relationships that connect people and places, erasing their identities. Nowadays, one third of Syria is destroyed, and about 80% of Syria’s Night lights are gone.”

Significant opposition remains from many countries to the reconstruction process in Syria while Bashar al-Assad remains in power. However, the US is implementing small scale rebuilding activities in areas under SDF control, focusing on basic services like water, electricity and rubble removal that don’t reach the level of reconstruction. At the same time, with Russia and Iran unable significantly to support the regime financially as it seeks to rebuild Syria, limited scale investments risk lining the pockets of warlords, profiteers and cronies.

A price worth paying?

Mohammed Al Fares believes that overall, external intervention by so many foreign powers has had a negative impact on the course of the Syrian revolution, and on the general situation in the country. “Syrians had been in a state of solidarity with each other when the revolution started and [they eventually] controlled about 70% of Syria. External intervention including money channelling, divided the Syrians and brought into the decision making people who were not fit to lead. This in turn made the revolution very political until it lost its momentum. However, the revolution continues with its youth, women, elders and children despite all the obstacles it faces”

However others see more subtlety. According to Hasan Al-Kassab from Raqqa: “We can’t put all the interventions in the same basket. The Coalition intervened to eliminate ISIS, Russia intervened to oppress the people and legitimise the regime against the civilians, while Turkey intervened to fight the PKK and secure its borders. However every intervention is still an occupation, because there is no mechanism to give oversight to the people. They built military bases and disturbed the fabric of the Syrian people.”

From her side, H.J, the female architect from Damascus, argues that after the regime started killing civilians in 2012, the Syrian people tolerated even ‘allying with the devil’ to oust Bashar Al-Assad. ‘’I didn’t personally support this opinion, but we needed any offerings, we naively thought that the world would help us without anything in return. We were wrong, and all interventions were bad. The country was divided, and military bases were established.”

With peace still nowhere in sight in Syria – and fighting likely to resume as the Covid pandemic recedes – there is little sign of foreign powers withdrawing any time soon. While their interventions have radically changed conflict dynamics, they have done little to support the Syrian peoples in their aspirations for freedom and justice. Yet if the same kind of resource spent by foreign powers on bombs and missiles could one day be diverted to Syria’s infrastructure development, to education, and to the fostering of civil society, another future remains possible.

▲ Syria's Bashar al-Assad in the cockpit of a Russian Su-35 fighter at Hmeimim air base, Latakia in December 2017 (Image via Syrian regime Facebook page)

Incident Code

ISSY013

Incident date

August 31, 2020

Location

الهيجانة, Al Hayjana, Rural Damascus, Syria

Geolocation

33.357582, 36.245826 Note: The accuracy of this location is to Village level. Continue to map

Geolocation accuracy

Village

Airwars assessment

Up to three civilians, including at least one woman, were reportedly killed in alleged Israeli air or artillery strikes or the shrapnel of Syrian regime defence missiles in Al Hayjana in rural Damascus, Syria on August 31st, 2020. At least one other civilian was injured.

Several sources reported multiple alleged Israeli strikes in southern Syria. Baladi News reported that military sites of regime forces and Iranian militias were targeted. The regime-controlled Syrian Arab News Agency stated that the “Israeli aggression targeted the southern region with bursts of rockets, and our air defence system responded to them.” According to SANA, the shelling took place from the the Jabal al-Sheikh area towards the occupied Syrian Golan.

According to a military source, SANA reported two deaths, seven wounded and material damage, without specifying the number of civilian casualties.

Step News Agency also reported that ” Israeli warplanes targeted, with several air strikes, the sites of the Syrian regime and Iranian militias in the hills surrounding the Al-Kiswah area in the countryside.” Step also wrote that “thee residents of the capital Damascus circulated a video clip documenting the departure of an air defence missile from one of the military barracks of the Syrian regime south of Damascus, and its fall on the ground in the vicinity of Al Kiswa, south of the capital,”

According to a @HalebTV correspondent, one of the regime’s air defence missiles fell on the house of a civilian in Hayjana, killing a woman and injuring three people, as well as destroying the house completely.

@khalediskef, among other sources, identified the killed woman as Mutla Al Sarhan and one of the injured civilians as her husband.

Hasakah Eye concluded that “Israeli shelling killed 11 people, seven Hezbullah tracking elements, three Syrian regime elements, and three civilians after Israeli bombing on the vicinity of Damascus airport”, writing that the strikes targeted Hezbollah elements.

Instead of reporting airstrikes, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported Israeli rocket attacks coming from the occupied Golan Heights.

The local time of the incident is unknown.

The victims were named as:

Family members (2)

Summary

  • Strike status
    Contested strike
  • Strike type
    Airstrike and/or Artillery
  • Civilian harm reported
    Yes
  • Civilians reported killed
    1 – 3
  • (1 woman)
  • Civilians reported injured
    3–7
  • Airwars civilian harm grading
    Fair
    Reported by two or more credible sources, with likely or confirmed near actions by a belligerent.
  • Suspected attackers
    Israeli Armed Forces, Unknown, Syrian Regime Armed Forces
  • Suspected targets
    Assad regime, Iranian military
  • Belligerents reported killed
    11

Sources (19) [ collapse]

Geolocation notes

Reports of the incident mention the village of Al Kiswa (الكسوة), for which the generic coordinates are: 33.357582, 36.245826. Due to limited satellite imagery and information available to Airwars, we were unable to verify the location further.

Israeli Armed Forces Assessment:

  • Suspected belligerent
    Israeli Armed Forces
  • Israeli Armed Forces position on incident
    Not yet assessed

Unknown Assessment:

  • Suspected belligerent
    Unknown
  • Unknown position on incident
    Not yet assessed

Syrian Regime Armed Forces Assessment:

  • Suspected belligerent
    Syrian Regime Armed Forces
  • Syrian Regime Armed Forces position on incident
    Not yet assessed

Summary

  • Strike status
    Contested strike
  • Strike type
    Airstrike and/or Artillery
  • Civilian harm reported
    Yes
  • Civilians reported killed
    1 – 3
  • (1 woman)
  • Civilians reported injured
    3–7
  • Airwars civilian harm grading
    Fair
    Reported by two or more credible sources, with likely or confirmed near actions by a belligerent.
  • Suspected attackers
    Israeli Armed Forces, Unknown, Syrian Regime Armed Forces
  • Suspected targets
    Assad regime, Iranian military
  • Belligerents reported killed
    11

Sources (19) [ collapse]

Published

July 9, 2020

Written by

Airwars Staff

Killing of Iranian commander by US drone strike represents 'not just a slippery slope. It is a cliff', warns Special Rapporteur

The US assassination of Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), in Baghdad in January 2020, was unlawful on several counts, according to a new report submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council by its expert on extrajudicial killings.

Dr Agnes Callamard, the current UN Special Rapporteur on Extra-Judicial Executions, asserts in her latest report that Soleimani’s controversial assassination by a US drone strike on Baghdad International Airport on January 3rd 2020 had violated international law in several ways.

Noting that the US drone strike had also killed several Iraqi military personnel, Dr Callamard notes that “By killing General Soleimani on Iraqi soil without first obtaining Iraq’s consent, the US violated the territorial integrity of Iraq.”

The Special Rapporteur also argues that by failing to demonstrate that Soleimani represented an imminent threat to the United States – and instead focusing on his past actions dating back to 2006 – that his killing “would be unlawful under jus ad bellum“, the criteria by which a state may engage in war.

In the bluntest condemnation yet of the Trump Administration’s killing of Iran’s leading military commander, Dr Callamard argues that “the targeted killing of General Soleimani, coming in the wake of 20 years of distortions of international law, and repeated massive violations of humanitarian law, is not just a slippery slope. It is a cliff.”

She also warns that the killing of Iran’s top general may see other nations exploit the US’s justification for the assassination: “The international community must now confront the very real prospect that States may opt to ‘strategically’ eliminate high ranking military officials outside the context of a ‘known’ war, and seek to justify the killing on the grounds of the target’s classification as a ‘terrorist’ who posed a potential future threat.”

Speaking to Airwars from Geneva ahead of her presentation to the UNHRC, Dr Callamard described the US killing of General Soleimani as “a significant escalation in the use of armed drones, and in the use of extraterritorial force. Until now, drones have focused on terrorism and on counterterrorism responses. Here we’re seeing the displacement of a counterterrorism strategy onto State officials.” She described the Trump administration’s justification of the assassination of a senior Iranian government official as “a distortion of self defence.”

Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s highest ranked military commander, was assassinated in a US drone strike near Baghdad on January 3rd 2020 (via @IRaqiRev).

‘The second drone age’

Dr Callamard’s denouncement of the US’s killing of Qasem Soleimani marks the latest in almost 20 years of concerns raised by United Nations experts on the use of armed drones for targeted assassinations. In 2002, following the killing of five al Qaeda suspects in Yemen by the CIA, then-rapporteur Asma Jahangir warned for example that the attack constituted “a clear case of extrajudicial killing”.

UN reports since then have tended to focus on controversial drone campaigns outside the hot battlefield, in countries including Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Palestine’s West Bank and Gaza Strip.

With her new report, delivered to the UNHRC on July 9th, Dr Callamard seeks to bring the discussion on armed drone use up to date, noting that “the world has entered what has been called the ‘second drone age’ with a now vast array of State and non-State actors deploying ever more advanced drone technologies, making their use a major and fast becoming international security issue.” The term ‘second drone age’ was originally coined by Airwars director Chris Woods, to reflect a growing wave of armed drone proliferation among state and non-state actors.

My latest report to the UN #HRC44 focus on targeted killings by armed drones: https://t.co/qLsqubaMpA The world has entered a “second drone age”, in which State and non-State actors are deploying ever more advanced drone technologies, a major international, security issue.

— Agnes Callamard (@AgnesCallamard) July 8, 2020

 

As Dr Callamard and her team write: “The present report seeks to update previous findings. It interrogates the reasons for drones’ proliferation and the legal implications of their promises; questions the legal bases upon which their use is founded and legitimized; and identifies the mechanisms and institutions (or lack thereof) to regulate drones’ use and respond to targeted killings. The report shows that drones are a lightning rod for key questions about protection of the right to life in conflicts, asymmetrical warfare, counter-terrorism operations, and so-called peace situations.”

Many of the conflicts monitored by Airwars are referenced by Dr Callamard.

    In Iraq, she notes that non state actors including ISIS deployed armed drones, sometimes to devastating effect. “In 2017 in Mosul, Iraq, for example, within a 24-hour period ‘there were no less than 82 drones of all shapes and sizes’ striking at Iraqi, Kurdish, US, and French forces.” In Libya, the Special Rapporteur asserts that “The Haftar Armed Forces carried out over 600 drone strikes against opposition targets resulting allegedly in massive civilian casualties, including, in August 2019, against a migrant detention center.” Callamard notes that a ‘nations unwilling or unable to act’ defence – first used by George W Bush’s administration to justify drone strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere – had been employed by several nations, including Turkey and Israel, to justify attacks in Syria. The UN Special Rapporteur also cautions that as more States acquire armed drones, their use domestically has increased: “Turkey has reportedly used drones domestically against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), while Nigeria first confirmed attack was carried out against a Boko Haram logistics base in 2016. In 2015 Pakistan allegedly used its armed drones for the very first time in an operation to kill three ‘high profile terrorists.’ Iraq has similarly purchased drones to carry out strikes against ISIS in Anbar province in 2016.” Finally, Dr Callamard warns that non-State actors including terrorist groups increasingly have access to remotely piloted technologies – noting that “At least 20 armed non-State actors have reportedly obtained armed and unarmed drone systems.”

“Drones are now the weapon of choice for many countries. They are claimed to be both surgical and to save lives – though we have insufficient evidence to conclude either,” Dr Callamard told Airwars. “Drones may save the lives of ‘our’ soldiers – but on the ground is another matter.”

Civilian harm concerns

The UN Special Rapporteur’s latest report highlights concerns about ongoing risks to civilians from armed drone use. Citing multiple studies, she writes that “even when a drone (eventually) strikes its intended target, accurately and ‘successfully’, the evidence shows that frequently many more people die, sometimes because of multiple strikes.”

Callamard also cautions that “Civilian harm caused by armed drone strikes extends far beyond killings, with many more wounded. While the consequences of both armed and non-combat drones remain to be systematically studied, evidence shows that the populations living under ‘drones’ persistent stare and noise experience generalized threat and daily terror’.”

The UN’s expert on extrajudicial killings additionally notes the key role drones play in helping militaries to determine likely civilian harm: “Without on-the-ground, post-strike assessment, authorities rely on pre- and post-strike drone-video feeds to detect civilian casualties leaving potentially significant numbers of civilian casualties, including of those misidentified as ‘enemies’, undiscovered. Studies showed that in Syria and Iraq the initial military estimates missed 57% of casualties.”

The Special Rapporteur does however point out that civilian harm can be reduced by militaries, “through stronger coordination, improved data analysis, better training of drones’ operators, and systematic evaluation of strikes.”

▲ Aftermath of US drone strike on Baghdad International Airport in January 2020 which assassinated Iranian General Qasem Soleimani (via Arab48).

Incident Code

ISSY011

Incident date

June 24, 2020

Location

الصبوره, Al Saboura, Hama, Syria

Geolocation

35.155474, 37.209342 Note: The accuracy of this location is to Village level. Continue to map

Geolocation accuracy

Village

Airwars assessment

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a civilian was killed and others injured in alleged Israeli airstrikes on Saboura village in Hama countryside on June 24th, 2020 after midnight.

The Observatory said “A civilian was killed and three others were wounded, as a result of the Israeli bombing of the village of Saboura in the eastern Hama countryside on June 24th.”

Around the same time a reported weapons factory was also targeted at nearby Salamiya, although there were no reports of civilian harm: “The Syrian Observatory learned from reliable sources that Russian forces had informed the director of the onion plant near Salamieh for evacuation before the Israeli bombing. And Israeli air strikes destroyed two of the buildings that were weapons depots, while the third one, which is used to manufacture crisps, remained.”

@SanaAjel tweeted that “SANA – Military source: At 00:45 pm, the Israeli enemy carried out a new air aggression targeting several locations of ours in Salamiya and Saburah in the countryside of Hama.”

The incident occured after midnight.

Summary

  • Strike status
    Likely strike
  • Strike type
    Airstrike
  • Civilian harm reported
    Yes
  • Civilians reported killed
    1
  • Civilians reported injured
    3
  • Airwars civilian harm grading
    Weak
    Single source claim, though sometimes featuring significant information.
  • Suspected attacker
    Israeli Armed Forces

Sources (3) [ collapse]

Geolocation notes

Reports of the incident mention the village of Al Sabourah (الصبوره), for which the generic coordinates are: 35.155474, 37.209342. Due to limited satellite imagery and information available to Airwars, we were unable to verify the location further.

Israeli Armed Forces Assessment:

  • Suspected belligerent
    Israeli Armed Forces
  • Israeli Armed Forces position on incident
    Not yet assessed

Summary

  • Strike status
    Likely strike
  • Strike type
    Airstrike
  • Civilian harm reported
    Yes
  • Civilians reported killed
    1
  • Civilians reported injured
    3
  • Airwars civilian harm grading
    Weak
    Single source claim, though sometimes featuring significant information.
  • Suspected attacker
    Israeli Armed Forces

Sources (3) [ collapse]

Incident Code

ISSY012

Incident date

June 24, 2020

Location

السلمية, Al Salamiya, Hama, Syria

Airwars assessment

Up to three civilians were injured in alleged Israeli strikes on an onion factory, reportedly used by Iranian militias as a weapon and ammunitions depot, in Al Salamiya on June 24th, 2020, according to local sources.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported that Israeli strikes targeted an onion factory, which was partially turned into a weapon and ammunitions depot by Iranian forces. According to the SOHR, “their destruction led to huge explosions that lasted for several hours, which caused panic and terror to the people and the flying shrapnel injured civilians.”

Based on what they identified as reliable sources, the SOHR wrote that the Russian forces had informed the director of the onion factory so that it could be evacuated before the Israeli strikes. According to the SOHR, “the Israeli airstrikes destroyed two of the hangars that were weapons depots, while the third remained, which was rented by a person to manufacture ‘chips’.”

@jamlyyyyy reported that three injured people that were hit by shrapnel were brought to the National Hospital in Salamiya, but the source did not specify whether the victims were civilians. Baladi News also reported three injured but stated that the victims were not identified.

The regime-controlled Syrian Arab News Agency stated that, according to a military source, Israel targeted several locations in Salamiya and Saboura in Hama governorate at exactly 00:45 AM. The source stated: “As soon as the enemy missiles were discovered, our air defences dealt with them and worked to pursue them and targeted them and shot down a large number of them before [they could] reach their targets, damages were limited to materials.”

@thawraa_syrv posted photos of the cultural centre in the city of Salamiya, writing that it “was which was used by the Iranian militias as their headquarters, the images show its complete destruction as a result of the Israeli raids last night.”

Orient News reported that “activists from Al Salamiya stated that the aerial bombardment of the city was the first of its kind, and affected both the onion factory in the city, a military centre run by Iranian militias in Al Saboura (east of the city), and a military site on an archaeological road, indicating that these places may [have] contained large quantities of arms and ammunition, due to the massive explosions caused by the bombing.”

Orient added: “Although Assad’s media did not report any casualties in the Salamiyah area, activists confirmed that the Salamiyah hospital contained an unknown number of casualties due to the bombing.”

Baladi News wrote that a field source had told Russian press agency Sputnik that it was likely that the shelling came from the Al Tanf area, which is controlled by American forces. Earlier reports indicated that Israeli forces had started to use to base for strikes on the Syrian regime and Iranian militias.

The local time of the incident is unknown.

Summary

  • Strike status
    Likely strike
  • Strike type
    Airstrike
  • Civilian harm reported
    Yes
  • Civilians reported killed
    Unknown
  • Civilians reported injured
    3
  • Airwars civilian harm grading
    Fair
    Reported by two or more credible sources, with likely or confirmed near actions by a belligerent.
  • Suspected target
    Iranian military

Sources (11) [ collapse]

Media
from sources (16) [ collapse]

  • Translation: “Pictures of the cultural center in the city of Salamiyah, east of Hama, which was used by the Iranian militias as their headquarters, the images show its complete destruction as a result of the Israeli raids last night” (via @thawraa_syrv).
  • Damaged cultural centre in Al Salamiya, which was reportedly used by Iranian militias as a weapon depot, after alleged Israeli airstrikes on June 24, 2020 (via @thawraa_syrv).
  • Damaged cultural centre in Al Salamiya, which was reportedly used by Iranian militias as a weapon depot, after alleged Israeli airstrikes on June 24, 2020 (via @thawraa_syrv).
  • Translation: “This is what Israeli planes did to the "onion factory" camp of the Iranian militia in the city of Salamiyah, Hama” (via @baladinetwork).
  • Aftermath of alleged Israeli strikes on Al Salamiya on June 24, 2020 (via @thawraa_syrv).
  • Translation: “The effects of the Israeli aggression on the city of Salamiyah in the countryside of Hama” (via @jouhinanewssy).
  • Damaged onion factory in Al Salamiya, which was reportedly used by Iranian militias as a weapon depot, after alleged Israeli airstrikes on June 24, 2020 (via @jouhinanewssy).
  • Damaged onion factory in Al Salamiya, which was reportedly used by Iranian militias as a weapon depot, after alleged Israeli airstrikes on June 24, 2020 (via @jouhinanewssy).
  • Rubble in Al Salamiya after alleged Israeli airstrikes on June 24, 2020 (via @jouhinanewssy).
  • Aftermath of alleged Israeli airstrikes on Al Salamiya on June 24, 2020 (via @jouhinanewssy).
  • Translation: “Targeting a factory where Iranian forces are present, peaceful Syria tonight” (via @doghlas_m).
  • Translation: “Hama – pictures of the destruction due to the Israeli air strikes that targeted Iranian militia sites in the onion plant in the city of Al Salamiyah in the eastern countryside of Hama yesterday” (via @Ahmad_1alshble).
  • Damaged onion factory in Al Salamiya after alleged Israeli airstrikes on June 24th, 2020 (via @Ahmad_1alshble).
  • Damaged onion factory in Al Salamiya after alleged Israeli airstrikes on June 24th, 2020 (via @Ahmad_1alshble).
  • Aftermath of alleged Israeli airstrikes on Al Salamiya, June 24th, 2020 (via @Ahmad_1alshble).
  • Damaged onion factory in Al Salamiya after alleged Israeli airstrikes on June 24th, 2020 (via @Ahmad_1alshble).

Summary

  • Strike status
    Likely strike
  • Strike type
    Airstrike
  • Civilian harm reported
    Yes
  • Civilians reported killed
    Unknown
  • Civilians reported injured
    3
  • Airwars civilian harm grading
    Fair
    Reported by two or more credible sources, with likely or confirmed near actions by a belligerent.
  • Suspected target
    Iranian military

Sources (11) [ collapse]

Incident Code

ISSY010

Incident date

May 1, 2020

Location

معسكر الحسن بن الهيثم للتدريب الجامعي, Al Hassan Bin Al Haitham Military Training Camp, Homs, Syria

Geolocation

34.685734, 36.734848 Note: The accuracy of this location is to Nearby landmark level. Continue to map

Geolocation accuracy

Nearby landmark

Airwars assessment

Up to 10 civilians were wounded and taken to hospitals in Homs, Syria after being hit by shrapnel from an explosion, allegedly as a result either of Israeli airstrikes or an accident, on an ammunition warehouse of Hezbollah within the camp of Hassan Bin Al Haitham on the road connecting Homs to Palmyra, Homs governorate, on May 1st, 2020.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said they received information that the explosion “was caused by a new Israeli missile strike, which targeted a warehouse of ammunition and missiles belonging to the Lebanese Hezbollah in the camp of Hassan bin Al-Haytham located on the road of Homs – Palmyra. The sources of the Syrian Observatory confirmed that the camp “is for university training, but the Lebanese Hezbollah took it as headquarters a few years ago.”

However, there were different stories about the explosions that were heard in Homs. The Syrian regime said the explosion was a result of human error while moving ammunition there, which had then led to the explosion and the injury of a number of civilians who were passing at that time.

Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) quoted a regime military source as saying “At 9:25 am on Friday, May 1st, 2020, successive explosions were heard at a military position in the city of Homs, and investigations revealed that these explosions occurred due to human error during the transportation of some ammunition”, the source said. He added that the explosions caused material and human losses due the shrapnel which scattered outside the military position.

But, the governor of Homs Talal Barazi said that  “the sounds heard in Homs were caused by explosions in an ammunition depot as a result of an attack on the site. He stressed that the attack included a military site and its nature was not known yet, which led to explosions. Smoke columns emerged from the site, shells fell in its vicinity, and a number of passing civilians were wounded.”

Dr Hassan Al Jundi, Homs Health Director, told SANA that “10 injuries had arrived in public and private hospitals in the city as a result of falling flying missiles from the explosion that occurred at a military site, and the necessary aid was provided to them.”

Baladi News reported that a number of Hezbollah members were killed and injured as a result of the event. They said that nine militants including officers were killed.

Some of the injured civilians were locally named as Muhammad Ahmad Al Ahmad (amputated right leg), Muhammad Ali Ibrahim (two limbs amputated), Muhammad Yusef Milhem, (right hand and back injuries) and Muhammad Omar Hussein Askari who was said to have been in a stable condition.

The incident occured at approximately 9:25 am local time.

Summary

  • Strike status
    Contested strike
  • Strike type
    Airstrike
  • Civilian harm reported
    Yes
  • Civilians reported killed
    Unknown
  • Civilians reported injured
    4–10
  • Airwars civilian harm grading
    Fair
    Reported by two or more credible sources, with likely or confirmed near actions by a belligerent.
  • Suspected attackers
    Israeli Armed Forces, Syrian Regime Armed Forces
  • Suspected target
    Hezbollah
  • Belligerents reported killed
    9
  • Belligerents reported injured
    2

Sources (8) [ collapse]

Media
from sources (6) [ collapse]

  • Damage after alleged Israeli strikes on the road connecting Homs to Palmyra, Homs governorate, on May 1st, 2020 (via HNC Homs).
  • Damage after alleged Israeli strikes on the road connecting Homs to Palmyra, Homs governorate, on May 1st, 2020 (via HNC Homs).
  • Rubble on the street after alleged Israeli strikes on the road connecting Homs to Palmyra, Homs governorate, on May 1st, 2020 (via HNC Homs).
  • Damaged vehicle after alleged Israeli strikes on the road connecting Homs to Palmyra, Homs governorate, on May 1st, 2020 (via SANA).
  • Damaged vehicle after alleged Israeli strikes on the road connecting Homs to Palmyra, Homs governorate, on May 1st, 2020 (via SANA).
  • Aftermath of alleged Israeli strikes on the road connecting Homs to Palmyra, Homs governorate, on May 1st, 2020 (via SANA).

Geolocation notes

Reports of the incident mention the Hassan Bin Al Haitham (الحسن بن الهيثم) training camp, in the vicinity of the road connecting Homs (حمص) to Palmyra (تدمر). Due to limited satellite imagery and information available to Airwars, we were unable to verify the location further. The generic coordinates for this camp are: 34.685734, 36.734848.

Israeli Armed Forces Assessment:

  • Suspected belligerent
    Israeli Armed Forces
  • Israeli Armed Forces position on incident
    Not yet assessed

Syrian Regime Armed Forces Assessment:

  • Suspected belligerent
    Syrian Regime Armed Forces
  • Syrian Regime Armed Forces position on incident
    Not yet assessed

Summary

  • Strike status
    Contested strike
  • Strike type
    Airstrike
  • Civilian harm reported
    Yes
  • Civilians reported killed
    Unknown
  • Civilians reported injured
    4–10
  • Airwars civilian harm grading
    Fair
    Reported by two or more credible sources, with likely or confirmed near actions by a belligerent.
  • Suspected attackers
    Israeli Armed Forces, Syrian Regime Armed Forces
  • Suspected target
    Hezbollah
  • Belligerents reported killed
    9
  • Belligerents reported injured
    2

Sources (8) [ collapse]

Incident Code

ISSY009

Incident date

April 27, 2020

Location

العادلية, Al Adliya, Damascus, Syria

Airwars assessment

A woman was killed in alleged Israeli airstrikes on the town of Al Adliya, Damascus countryside, on April 27th, 2020, according to local sources. Other sources stated that civilians died due to remnants of anti-aircraft missiles fired by the Syrian regime.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that “three civilians were martyred and others were wounded, as a result of shrapnel of missile fragments on their homes in the Al Adliya and Al Hujayra regions of the southern countryside of Damascus.” The source, however, stated it was not known “whether the shrapnel was caused by Israeli missiles, or by the air defence missiles of the Syrian regime”.

While several sources reported three killed and three injured civilians in both Al Huyajra and Al Adliya, others specified how many casualties fell in each town. Several sources stated that two civilians were killed and three others, including a six-year-old, were injured in a similar incident in the town of Al Huyajra, approximately seven kilometres away from Al Adliya, while a woman was killed in Al Adliya.

The regime-controlled Syrian Arab News Agency, for example, wrote that “a woman died in the Al Adliya area as a result of the aggression.”

Shaam News Network, however, reported that the civilians in Al Adliya and Al Hujayra were killed and injured “by shrapnel from remnants of anti-aircraft missiles from the regime’s militias, coinciding with the Israeli warplanes carrying out airstrikes on Iranian militia positions at dawn today, April 27, according to the expectations of identical local sources.”

Shaam furthermore reported, according to local courses, that “eight Israeli airstrikes were carried out by Israeli planes targeting the sites of the regime and Iranian militias in the Syrian capital, Damascus, and its surroundings, at dawn today, without revealing the size of the human and material losses inflicted on the locations of the targeted militias”.

The incident occured around dawn.

Summary

  • Strike status
    Contested strike
  • Strike type
    Airstrike
  • Civilian harm reported
    Yes
  • Civilians reported killed
    1
  • (1 woman)
  • Airwars civilian harm grading
    Fair
    Reported by two or more credible sources, with likely or confirmed near actions by a belligerent.
  • Suspected attackers
    Israeli Armed Forces, Syrian Regime Armed Forces
  • Suspected target
    Other

Sources (8) [ collapse]

Media
from sources (2) [ collapse]

  • Damaged building after alleged Israeli airstrikes on Al Hujayra or Al Adliya on April 27th, 2020 (via SANA).
  • Translation: “Three civilians were killed and three others were wounded in the towns of Al Hujayra and Adliya, as a result of the Israeli aggression” (via SANA).

Israeli Armed Forces Assessment:

  • Suspected belligerent
    Israeli Armed Forces
  • Israeli Armed Forces position on incident
    Not yet assessed

Syrian Regime Armed Forces Assessment:

  • Suspected belligerent
    Syrian Regime Armed Forces
  • Syrian Regime Armed Forces position on incident
    Not yet assessed

Summary

  • Strike status
    Contested strike
  • Strike type
    Airstrike
  • Civilian harm reported
    Yes
  • Civilians reported killed
    1
  • (1 woman)
  • Airwars civilian harm grading
    Fair
    Reported by two or more credible sources, with likely or confirmed near actions by a belligerent.
  • Suspected attackers
    Israeli Armed Forces, Syrian Regime Armed Forces
  • Suspected target
    Other

Sources (8) [ collapse]

Incident Code

ISSY008

Incident date

April 27, 2020

Location

الحجيرة , Al Hujayra, Damascus, Syria

Airwars assessment

At least two civilians, including a woman, were killed and three others, among which a 6-year-old child, were injured in alleged Israeli airstrikes on the town of Al Hujayra, Damascus countryside, on April 27th, 2020, according to local sources. Other sources stated that the civilians died due to remnants of anti-aircraft missiles fired by the Syrian regime.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that “three civilians were martyred and others were wounded, as a result of shrapnel of missile fragments on their homes in the Adliya and Al Hujayra regions of the southern countryside of Damascus.” The source, however, stated it was not known “whether the shrapnel was caused by Israeli missiles, or by the air defence missiles of the Syrian regime”.

The regime-controlled Syrian Arab News Agency reported that “enemy missile fragments landed in the populated towns of “Al Hujayra” and “Al Adliya”, which caused the death of three civilians, and the injury of three others, including a six-year-old child.”

In an article, SANA quoted the governor of Quneitra, Hammam Dabiyat, who stated that Israeli forces had targeted civilians homes in the town, killing a man and his wife, and wounding three others, including a child.

SANA also quoted the governor of Damascus countryside, Alaa Ibrahim, who further specified that the house of a displaced family from the city of Quneitra was targeted, “which led to the death of the husband and his wife, and the injury of their child and another person and the wife’s mother. The injured were treated at Al Mujtahid Hospital, while a woman died in the Al Adliya area as a result of the aggression.”

Dr Salah Ismail, head of the ambulance department at the Al Mujtahid hospital, stated that ” three cases of people from one family with injuries and wounds arrived at the hospital this morning from the Hujayraarea.” Two of the victims were lightly injured, while the third case, a child, remained under medical observation.

Shaam News Network, however, reported that the civilians were killed and injured “by shrapnel from remnants of anti-aircraft missiles from the regime’s militias, coinciding with the Israeli warplanes carrying out airstrikes on Iranian militia positions at dawn today, April 27, according to the expectations of identical local sources.”

Shaam furthermore reported, according to local courses, that “eight Israeli airstrikes were carried out by Israeli planes targeting the sites of the regime and Iranian militias in the Syrian capital, Damascus, and its surroundings, at dawn today, without revealing the size of the human and material losses inflicted on the locations of the targeted militias”.

The incident occured around dawn.

Summary

  • Strike status
    Contested strike
  • Strike type
    Airstrike
  • Civilian harm reported
    Yes
  • Civilians reported killed
    2 – 3
  • (1 woman1 man)
  • Civilians reported injured
    3
  • Airwars civilian harm grading
    Fair
    Reported by two or more credible sources, with likely or confirmed near actions by a belligerent.
  • Suspected attackers
    Israeli Armed Forces, Syrian Regime Armed Forces
  • Suspected target
    Other

Sources (8) [ collapse]

Media
from sources (2) [ collapse]

  • Damaged building after alleged Israeli airstrikes on Al Hujayra or Al Adliya on April 27th, 2020 (via SANA).
  • Translation: “Three civilians were killed and three others were wounded in the towns of Al Hujayra and Adliya, as a result of the Israeli aggression” (via SANA).

Israeli Armed Forces Assessment:

  • Suspected belligerent
    Israeli Armed Forces
  • Israeli Armed Forces position on incident
    Not yet assessed

Syrian Regime Armed Forces Assessment:

  • Suspected belligerent
    Syrian Regime Armed Forces
  • Syrian Regime Armed Forces position on incident
    Not yet assessed

Summary

  • Strike status
    Contested strike
  • Strike type
    Airstrike
  • Civilian harm reported
    Yes
  • Civilians reported killed
    2 – 3
  • (1 woman1 man)
  • Civilians reported injured
    3
  • Airwars civilian harm grading
    Fair
    Reported by two or more credible sources, with likely or confirmed near actions by a belligerent.
  • Suspected attackers
    Israeli Armed Forces, Syrian Regime Armed Forces
  • Suspected target
    Other

Sources (8) [ collapse]