In a previously unknown event, the UK for the first time admitted that its forces caused civilian harm during an airstrike against so-called Islamic State.
In a written statement to Parliament on May 2nd, UK Secretary of State for Defence Gavin Williamson MP stated that “one civilian was unintentionally killed,” when a UK Reaper drone struck three ISIS fighters in rural Syria a few weeks earlier.
The UK MoD had stated at the time in its weekly update that a “Reaper tracked a group of terrorists in a vehicle in the Syrian Euphrates valley on Monday 26 March, and successfully destroyed it and its occupants with a precision Hellfire missile attack.”
According to the statement made to Parliament, a civilian had accidentally driven a motorbike into the strike area, and had died in the attack on Daesh. “We reached this conclusion after undertaking routine and detailed post-strike analysis of all available evidence”, said Williamson.
Airwars researchers were unable to identify any public reports of civilian harm relating to the UK drone strike. However there were reports of Coalition airstrikes on the day which allegedly targeted regime forces. Abdul Jabbar noted “Continued escalation between US forces and Kurdish militias on the one hand and the forces of the Syrian regime on the other and US aircraft [sic] bombed regime positions in the area of Mohsin east of Deir al-Zour.” And Euphrates Post published a video of what it said was the strike.
The US-led Coalition does not include this event in its own tally of credible civilian deaths – noting to Airwars that it has never been notified of this event. The Ministry of Defence has also refused to supply Airwars with the grid coordinates – despite almost all such credible incidents now being disclosed.
In March 2020, Airwars and the BBC revealed that the MoD was refusing to concede 15 further civilian deaths from its actions in 2017 and 2018, despite the US-led Coalition itself determining that civilian harm reports for three more UK strikes were in fact credible.
Airwars and the Guardian released an investigation into this civilian harm admission in April 2023 in which it detailed the steps taken to track down additional information on the civilian who was said to have been killed. Airwars’ investigation unit contacted every rights organisation that tracks civilian harm in Syria. None had any record of a civilian killed that day in circumstances that matched the MoD’s description. The Ministry of Defence released to Airwars, via Freedom of Information requests, details of every RAF strike in which a militant was killed. Despite initially saying 3 militants were killed in the March 26 strike, it did not appear in the data. The article also pointed out that the conflict in the part of Syria where the strike allegedly occurred was tapering off in early 2018 – Airwars recorded six civilian harm allegations in that region that month, compared with hundreds during intense periods of fighting in cities such as Mosul and Raqqa.
The Ministry of Defence declined to comment directly on discrepancies in the UK public record, with coalition public statements or with data from Syrian groups. “A highly trained and professional team of UK military personnel assessed a civilian fatality had been caused,” a spokesperson said. “We remain confident in the transparency of our reporting and data published by the department can be considered as authoritative on UK military operations as possible.” Williamson did not respond to requests for comment on his statement.
The local time of the incident is unknown.
Sources (16) [ collapse]
UK Military Assessment:
Civilian casualty statements
Original strike reports
For March 26th, the Coalition originally reported “On March 26 in Syria, Coalition military forces conducted one strike consisting of one engagement against Daesh targets. Near Abu Kamal, one strike engaged a Daesh tactical unit."
Monday 26 March – a Reaper destroyed a terrorist vehicle in eastern Syria…A Reaper tracked a group of terrorists in a vehicle in the Syrian Euphrates valley on Monday 26 March, and successfully destroyed it and its occupants with a precision Hellfire missile attack. Following an detailed investigation, it is assessed that one civilian was unintentionally killed in the strike. [The final line was later added as an amendment to the report.]