Focus will now turn to whether UK, France and Belgium will finally admit culpability
When the Department of Defense withdrew a key part of its annual report on civilian harm earlier this month, it all but confirmed something long suspected – that France, Britain and Belgium know they likely killed civilians in Iraq and Syria in specific events, but refuse publicly to accept it.
The original Pentagon report to Congress, released on May 28th, initially claimed responsibility for the deaths of 50 civilians in eleven airstrikes against the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria in 2017 and 2018.
After Airwars pointed out significant errors, the DoD withdrew and reissued the report along with an addendum, removing nine of the eleven incidents in which civilians died. This amounted to the Pentagon’s effective confirmation that those strikes were carried out by its allies, including the UK, France and Belgium.
Of these nine incidents, two were in fact the same event – seemingly a clerical error. Two more have been publicly claimed already by Australia, which has accepted responsibility for the deaths.
That leaves six events in which the Coalition’s own investigators concluded that 18 civilians had died.
What are the six strikes?
Three of them were British airstrikes. We knew this before due to in-depth reporting by Airwars and the BBC but the Pentagon’s withdrawal of the data all but confirms it.
In the most deadly individual case, on August 13th 2017, 12 civilians were killed, including a young girl, in an airstrike targeting an ISIS mortar system. A further six were injured. In February 2019 the US-led Coalition accepted that civilians were killed and the UK later confirmed it was a British strike – yet without accepting anyone died.
In a second case, the Coalition publicly confirmed the deaths of two civilians in a strike near the Iraqi city of Mosul on January 9th 2017. Again the UK confirmed it was a British strike but without accepting that civilians were killed. This contradicted a Coalition whistleblower, who earlier told the BBC that civilians had likely died in the British attack.
The third British incident occurred in Bahrah in eastern Syria on January 20th 2018. The Coalition’s military assessors admitted the death of one civilian. The BBC and Airwars published an investigation showing it was a British strike and the UK accepted this, but again refused to accept responsibility for any civilian harm.
The reason for the gap between the Coalition and British statements is that London applies a different – and critics would say unrealistic – standard for assessing civilian harm. Whereas the Coalition and the US assess whether they caused civilian harm on the ‘balance of probabilities’, the UK demands overwhelming evidence – described as ‘hard facts.’ In the context of an airstrike from thousands of feet and with no Coalition civilian casualty investigation forces on the ground, such overwhelming proof is near impossible to come by.
To date, the UK has accepted just one civilian death in Iraq and Syria, despite 8,000 declared flight sorties over seven years.
Gavin Crowden, Executive Director of Every Casualty Counts, said that when it came to civilian harm, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) was pretending the “absence of evidence is evidence of absence.”
“The Pentagon has shattered the MoD’s already implausible claim that British forces have caused only one civilian death across Iraq and Syria. This is statistically almost impossible.”
“The [Chilcot] Report of the Iraq Inquiry made clear that the MoD had failed to account for civilian casualties following the invasion in 2003. Almost twenty years on, the MoD is still failing to take even basic steps to identify and record harm caused to civilians.”
French and Belgian strikes
The other three incidents the Pentagon insists were not US actions are believed to be either Belgian or French strikes.
On February 27th 2017 a Coalition strike on an ISIS vehicle near the Iraqi-Syrian border killed at least one civilian and injured another. Local sources said the death toll could have been as high as three. The Coalition accepted causing the harm, and a senior Belgian government official unofficially informed Airwars that the strike was Belgian, though the government has never publicly confirmed this.
On March 21st 2017 a civilian was killed in a Coalition strike in the Iraqi city of Mosul. Again a senior government official unofficially informed Airwars that the strike was Belgian, though the government has never publicly confirmed this.
The final incident, which took place on February 8th 2018, killed one civilian near Al-Bahrah village in Syria. Airwars identified it as a likely French strike, though Paris has always publicly refused to comment.
To date, neither France nor Belgium has publicly accepted killing any civilians in years of bombing Iraq and Syria.
Marc Garlasco, a military advisor for PAX and a former US senior Department of Defense intelligence analyst, said the Pentagon errors would increase pressure on European militaries to stop hiding behind the anonymity of the Coalition.
In 2015 a devastating strike in the town of Hawijah in Iraq led to the deaths of more than 70 civilians. The Coalition eventually accepted responsibility, but no member state did. It was only in 2019, after investigative reporting, that the Dutch government finally admitted responsibility.
“It is time for European MoDs to stop hiding behind American statistics and take responsibility for the harm they cause and provide appropriate amends,” Garlasco said.
“One central issue for civilians is the problem coalition warfare causes for strike attribution, and therefore amends. Too often we have seen war victims unable to make claims or even get answers for why they were targeted because they just don’t know who dropped the bombs. It is unreasonable to put the onus of proof on the victim.”
He pointed out that in the wake of the Hawijah massacre the Dutch Ministry of Defence has opened a review of its civilian harm mitigation policies, working alongside organisations like PAX and Airwars.
“We see a real opportunity in the wake of the lessons we have learned by working with the Dutch MoD. There are now positive examples to follow if Belgium, France, the UK, and any other military intends to take civilian harm seriously.”
Every Casualty Count’s Gavin Crowden said the US civilian casualty monitoring process, though far from perfect, was a clear example for other countries to follow. So far the US has admitted killing more than 1,300 civilians in the war against ISIS.
“If European militaries claim they can fire smart missiles straight into the bedroom of a specific target, they should surely be able to compile basic data about where and when they have conducted operations that may have harmed civilians.”
“The US has shown that this is both logistically, militarily and politically possible. Therefore, we have to conclude that the obstacle among European militaries is simply a lack of will.”
Airwars asked the British, French and Belgian militaries for comment on the Pentagon’s report. None said they intended to review their earlier assessments of no civilian harm, in light of the DoD revelations.