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Published

September 20, 2022

Written by

Imogen Piper, Joe Dyke and Sanjana Varghese

Assisted by

Julia Nueno

New Airwars/VICE documentary digs deep into January raid in Syria

An Islamic State (ISIS) prison break in northern Syria which left hundreds dead came after years of systemic failures and ignored warnings, a VICE News documentary in partnership with Airwars has found.

Mistakes made by both the United States and its Syrian partner the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) meant the Al-Sinaa prison in Hasakeh was drastically unprepared for an assault, the documentary, which aired on Showtime on September 18th, found.

The detention centre housed around 4,000 alleged ISIS members, including some of its most battle-hardened militants. It had long been identified as a prime target for ISIS attack.

On January 20th 2022, the group launched its most daring offensive in three years, with attackers storming the prison while detainees rioted. In total more than 500 people were killed, including 121 SDF-employed guards and prison staff, as well as hundreds of prisoners. The exact number of those killed who were civilians remains unclear, but around 40,000 civilians fled their homes from surrounding areas.

While many of the detainees are from Syria and Iraq, others originate from the UK, France and other countries. None of the prisoners had been convicted, with no formal courts set up to deal with the fate of ISIS members in Syria. Many are awaiting repatriation to their home countries to face justice.

Despite protests of human rights groups and non governmental organisations, around 700 teenage boys under the age of 18 were also detained in one prison block. Around 100 juvenile detainees went missing in the assault, according to UN experts.

The full documentary can be viewed here.

Images posted online showed ISIS prisoners during the escape attempt

The Airwars process

In the days during and after the January assault, the Airwars Investigations Unit sought to fully understand the event. Building on our long track record of award-winning open-source research, the team:

    Gathered and archived all available open source material, including images, videos and testimonies from Telegram, Twitter and other social media. Conducted dozens of interviews with those familiar with the prison. Constructed a 3-D model of the prison and the surrounding areas. Created a visual timeline of the events of January 20 and the days after. Examined years of reports into assistance given by the US and other members of the global coalition to fight ISIS to the Syrian Democratic Forces – which runs the prison.

Partnering with VICE News, whose investigators visited the prison and the surrounding areas, we used this forensic analysis to understand the causes and impact of the prison break, as well as what it means for the resurgence of ISIS as a terrorist organisation.

A screengrab of Airwars’ 3D model of the Al-Sinaa Prison in northern Syria.

Breakout more than a raid?

After the fall of the ISIS caliphate in 2019, tens of thousands of fighters, members and alleged supporters were sent to detention centres in north-east Syria.

Most women and children were sent to the vast al-Hol and al-Raj camps. The SDF run the detention facilities, supported by the US and other members of the anti-ISIS coalition.

The most serious ISIS members – those alleged to have fought with the group – were sent to Al-Sinaa.

The prison itself was in fact a former school building and was quickly deemed to be unsuitable and unsafe for housing large numbers of prisoners.

Multiple reports sent to the US Congress by the US-led military coalition to fight ISIS – known as Operation Inherent Resolve – also warned that prison riots and attempted breakouts were a regular occurrence. In some cases prisoners were even reported to have dug under walls and ripped doors off their hinges. One report, published in 2020, even warned that “the risk of a mass breakout cannot be discounted.”

Despite the warnings, conditions in the prison were left to deteriorate.

Since 2019, the US has provided hundreds of millions of dollars to equip and train SDF forces, but multiple requests for funding to fortify the prison went unanswered, SDF officials told VICE. Prisoners were held as many as 100 per cell, with tuberculosis becoming endemic. The United Nations and Human Rights Watch warned the prison was a breeding ground for extremism.

James Jeffrey, former US special representative for Syria under President Donald Trump, denied to VICE that the prison was ignored, but admitted fortifying it was just one of many competing priorities.

On January 20th ISIS fighters attacked the prison from multiple directions, creating diversions and driving an improvised explosive device (IED) into the main gate. In the ensuing chaos, hundreds of prisoners rioted and escaped their cells, some armed with weapons. Such was the state of internal security that some prisoners were able to smash through the thin cell walls, footage seen by Airwars shows.

Many ran into the surrounding neighbourhoods, which were densely populated, with fighting continuing until January 30.

Still of Airwars video tracking images of suicide vests

While the SDF continues to maintain that there were hundreds of attackers from outside the prison, Airwars analysed images released at the time (such as of the suicide vests used by attackers) and reviewed reports of explosions in the surrounding areas after the attack. In total the evidence suggests the number of attackers was likely only a few dozen.

The documentary is the first part of our investigative series into the prison break, with additional findings to be released in the coming months.

The full documentary can be seen here (US only).

▲ A screengrab of Airwars' 3D model of the Al-Sinaa Prison in northern Syria.

Published

August 26, 2022

Written by

Megan Karlshoej-Pedersen

New action plan contains positive steps - the focus now is on implementation and renewed efforts to ensure past cases are not forgotten.

Airwars joins our civil society partners in welcoming the publication of the much awaited Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan (CHMR-AP), released yesterday by the US Department of Defense.

The CHMR-AP reflects a years-long process of sustained pressure by individuals, civil society, journalists, activists and legislators to challenge the way the US military conducts itself in the battlefield, and force the Department of Defense to review practices that have had deadly outcomes for civilians across the globe – from the battles of Mosul and Raqqa in the war against ISIS, to the botched Kabul strike last year.

In response to this sustained pressure,  catalysed by a series of Pulitzer-winning New York Times articles exposing serious concerns with US military practices in January 2022, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III issued a memorandum calling for the creation of the CHMR-AP. Austin called for the CHMR-AP to set up a process for the establishment of a new centre of excellence, and a framework for standardising civilian harm reporting, investigation and mitigation.

The 46-page document is an unprecedented move toward transparency, and was put together following a series of key engagements with civil society actors and independent specialists. Presenting a far reaching future-looking agenda, it is applicable to the ‘full spectrum of conflict’ – from current operations, large and small, to any future situations of high-intensity conflict.

Covering 11 distinct objectives – ranging from actions to reduce confirmation bias to implementation of a new data management system; each with a proposed set of phased actions and associated resource plan, the CHMR-AP presents an ambitious set of actions that, if implemented appropriately, could present a radical departure from existing policy in some areas. It sets a strong precedent for future US military action – and, importantly, an example for allies to follow.

Read the DoD factsheet here and the full action plan here.

Why is the CHMR-AP so important?

While the action plan itself is focused on reviewing and reforming the US’ policies on civilian harm mitigation and tracking, it should also have significant implications for the partners that support the US in modern conflicts, such as the UK, France, Netherlands, Belgium, and others. As it stands, US allies have been shown to have limited oversight, transparency, or accountability for civilian harm from their own actions. The UK, for instance, admits to only a single civilian casualty from its 8 years of support to the anti-ISIS coalition in Iraq and Syria, in which the UK has been second only to the US in the number of munitions dropped in some battlefields. Airwars’ estimates of civilians killed by this coalition could be well over 8,000.

Over the last few years, Airwars and our civil society partners have advocated with several of these states to review and improve national approaches and policies to civilian harm mitigation; yet, while some states have taken on such reviews, none have been as far-reaching or ambitious as the CHMR-AP.

Beyond these national processes to improve approaches to civilian harm mitigation, the CHMR-AP also comes out in the context of a new international agreement on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, due to be signed by the US and key allies in October this year. The CHMR-AP’s introduction of the term ‘civilian environment’ presents a broad understanding of civilian harm – with reference to the need to understand population density, urban systems and the ‘the interconnected relationships between the civilian population, natural resources, infrastructure, and essential services’. This is an important move towards acknowledging the long-term consequences of military action on civilians caught in conflict.

What does this mean for civilians harmed by the US in past actions?

Perhaps the biggest gap in the CHMR-AP is that it includes no reference to reviewing past cases of alleged civilian harm; including addressing the 37 cases that are still open pending assessment for civilian harm claims made against the US-led Coalition in the war against ISIS.

According to Airwars’ archive, the likely death toll resulting from the actions of the US-led Coalition’s actions in the war against ISIS alone could be at least 8,192 and as many as 13,247 civilians. The US has conceded causing overall at least 1,417 civilian fatalities – but has rejected 2,674 harm claims. These rejected cases could account for thousands of casualties.

Total estimates for the last twenty years of US actions reach as many as 48,308 civilian deaths – with over 90,000 declared strikes across seven major conflict zones throughout the so-called ‘forever wars’.

Key questions therefore remain unanswered: will the remaining open cases be reviewed? Will they be reviewed with this new policy in mind? How might the new policy change the outcome of those investigations? And if these open cases are reviewed in line with new policies – what does that mean for the cases that have previously been rejected as ‘non-credible’ under a system that has now been widely acknowledged to have been in need of reform?

Looking back at past cases has significant implications for commitments to amends processes – a section outlined as an objective in the CHMR-AP, although with no mention of how the new action plan would affect outstanding claims or clear detail on implementation of future processes.

What should we be looking out for now?

The implementation of the CHMR-AP will be key. While the action plan outlines a comprehensive set of actions and resource plans, it is yet to be determined the extent to which the policy will be implemented effectively and with continued consultation with independent voices. This is particularly important as US actions are on-going across the globe – Airwars has recorded an uptick in strikes in Somalia since Biden announced his decision to redeploy troops in May this year, while a new set of strikes were announced in Syria on Iran-backed militants just as the CHMR-AP was released.

Additionally, as noted by Human Rights Watch Washington Director Sarah Yager in a comment to CNN, the staffing and resources required must be arranged as soon as possible in order to ensure that “the principles and values behind doing this are deeply embedded in the Pentagon”, before any significant leadership change in the US administration, which could delay or even derail current plans for improvements.

Allies of the US should also take notice – and take action. Particularly with key sections of the CHMR-AP including reference to the application of the new action plan to multinational operations, US allies will have to review their own practices.

Several crucial points in the action plan are also still lacking clarity, and it will likely be some time before the full extent of the policy has been reviewed in its entirety by experts. Airwars is coordinating closely with our civil society partners in the US to ensure a comprehensive and thorough review of the proposed action plan, in order to ensure appropriate oversight and support from civil society as the action plan enters into the next phase of implementation.

 

▲ Ruins of a family home in which 35 civilians died at Mosul on June 13th 2017 - in what is now known to have been US and Australian airstrikes (Image courtesy of the Al Saffar family. All rights reserved.)

Published

July 8, 2022

Written by

Airwars Staff

Airwars joins partners in publishing guidance to the US Department of Defense (DoD), ahead of its own civilian harm review

Recommendations published today urge the Department of Defense to revise its assessment and investigation processes, including through practical steps such as routinely engaging with civil society to ensure that civilian harm policies are informed by civilians affected by US and partnered actions, and casualties are recorded and tracked through transparent processes that are fit for purpose.

Airwars joined Amnesty International USA, CARE, Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), Human Rights Watch, Humanity & Inclusion, InterAction, Norwegian Refugee Council, Oxfam America, and PAX in preparing and publishing the recommendations.

Read the full list of recommendations here.

To date, serious concerns with US civilian harm policies undermine effective routes to accountability for affected populations. These concerns have been raised by civil society and in recent Pulitzer-prize winning investigations in the New York Times.

While the US reform process is intended to be forward-looking, significant questions still remain about civilians harmed in US and partnered operations over the past two decades – not least in the war against the Islamic State. Overall, the US-led Coalition has conceded killing at least 1,437 civilians in the war against ISIS – while Airwars believes the likely tally could be significantly higher; with between 8,192 and 13,243 civilian deaths recorded in the Airwars archive.

▲ President Joe Biden holds a meeting with military and civilian defense leadership, including Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, April 2022 (Image via DoD)

Published

June 13, 2022

Written by

Imogen Piper and Joe Dyke

Assisted by

Clive Vella, Maia Awada, Sanjana Varghese and Shihab Halep

Survivors of the assault on the Al-Shifa hospital in northern Syria still seeking answers

A year on from a devastating assault on the main hospital in the Syrian city of Afrin, a new Airwars visual investigation has pieced together key features of the attack.

At least 19 people were reportedly killed in two strikes on the Al-Shifa hospital on June 12th, 2021 in what was the single deadliest incident tracked by Airwars in Syria during 2021.

Hospital attacks in Syria are sadly common, with both the Syrian government and allied Russian forces striking dozens of them since the civil war began in 2011. The US-led Coalition against the so-called Islamic State, Turkey and Kurdish groups have also all been accused of targeting medical facilities.

But the Al-Shifa hospital strike was unusual in that the survivors didn’t all identify the same culprit. Some accused the Syrian regime, others the Russians, while others still blamed the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces or allied Kurdish militias. Some even claimed Turkey was responsible for an attack in a city under its influence.

By bringing together satellite imagery, CCTV footage, witness testimony and expert analysis, Airwars created a comprehensive visual assessment of the strike. We were seeking to understand what munition was used and where the rocket was fired from.

While the investigation was not able to definitively conclude which party was responsible, it did define a seven-kilometre wide region from where the rockets were likely launched. In that area the Syrian regime, SDF and Russians all operated.

“We hope that by publishing this investigation on the anniversary of this horrific attack, we will spark a new conversation about the brazen targeting of a hospital,” Emily Tripp, Airwars’ Director, said.

“This case is one of far too many in Syria’s long civil war where families are left seeking answers about who killed their loved ones.”

The full visual investigation is available here.

 

The context

Afrin is a geopolitically significant city – located at the forefront between multiple belligerents in the 11-year Syrian civil war.

The city is close to the Turkish border and is currently under the control of Turkish-backed groups that operate under the broad title of the Syrian National Army (SNA).

Turkey has fought significant conflicts with Kurdish groups, including the SDF – the closest ally of the United States in Syria. The SDF controls much of the territory to the east of Afrin.

At the time of the strike the Syrian government and its Russian backers also had military capabilities in the region, controlling territory to the southeast of Afrin, while also being known to operate in the east. Russian and Syrian government forces have been the most common strikers of hospitals during the civil war.

Al-Shifa hospital is located in the west of the city and is reportedly close to multiple Turkish government and SNA buildings. The hospital is partly run by the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS).

At the time of the attack Turkish president Erodogan accused the SDF, who in turn accused Syrian government forces. Allegations were also made against Russian forces and even Turkey itself.

The strikes

Most investigations of this type begin by analysing the remnants of the missiles at the scene. However, according to medical sources on the ground, Turkish-backed authorities removed all shrapnel and other physical evidence from the hospital in the hours after the attack, and also prevented activists and media from accessing the site for several hours. Without these vital clues, we drew on other forms of evidence that might give us an idea of where the projectiles might have been launched from.

Airwars compiled all available visual evidence, including drone footage, CCTV recordings provided by SAMS, social media posts, photographs and satellite imagery. We also gathered witness testimony, including speaking to survivors. Using this information we produced a 3D model of the hospital, mapping the impact locations.

The first strike hit the alleyway of the emergency department at 6.55pm – CCTV footage captured the explosion before cutting out shortly after as the electricity failed. The strike caused significant damage to buildings on both sides of the alleyway and reportedly killed, among others, a woman giving birth.

A screenshot from Airwars’ 3D model of the Afrin attack

“It was terrifying. It felt like an earthquake,” medic Mohammed al-Aghawani, who was injured in the attack, told Airwars. “At first I didn’t understand what had happened – whether I was alive or dead.”

The second strike, occurring a few seconds later, hit the main building and damaged the physiotherapy, paediatrics, ENT and surgical clinics. Photographs of the second impact location show a metal rafter broken and bent in half by the projectile as it penetrated the wall.

Image of the impact site (Via Syrian National Commission on Detainees)

From this we determined that the projectile would have arrived at an angle perpendicular to the bend of the bar. Plotting this onto a wider map, we concluded that the projectile must have come from a near due easterly direction.

The third strike

Hoping to narrow down the potential launch area further, we extended our 3D model to map a third impact location allegedly from the same volley of projectiles. Dr. Amin Qosho was at sitting at his kitchen table in his apartment home a few hundred metres away from the hospital. Around 7pm a projectile struck the building opposite his apartment. Instead of penetrating the wall, it hit the building’s reinforced elevator shaft, sending a large spread of shrapnel towards Qosho’s balcony and through his door, killing him instantly.

Using video footage and photographs of this impact location we were able to determine the relative height of the building struck and the building directly to the east. Building upon our previous determination that the projectile came from the east, we concluded that the angle of impact must have been high enough to clear the neighbouring building.

To narrow down our launch area further we investigated the munition used.

The type of weapon

While the Turkish-backed authorities removed all munitions remnants from the hospital itself, an image shared on social media that day showed a projectile found between Qosho’s home and the Al-Shifa hospital.

Images showing part of what appears to be remnants of a 122mm BM-21 rocket (spring-loaded fins) taken ~175m from the site of the Afrin hospital attack that killed over a dozen. Possibly from the first part of the double tap strike, hitting surrounding area

36.509510, 36.860433 pic.twitter.com/w8PAUvsTYU

— Alexander McKeever (@AKMcKeever) June 14, 2021

The projectile was identified as a 122mm, fired from a BM21 GRAD rocket launcher. This type of launcher was first developed by the Soviet Union in the 1960s but are now a very common – used by multiple sides in the Syrian war. Such launchers fire up to 40 projectiles in a single volley and are inherently inaccurate – designed for open battle fields not urban warfare.

While it was impossible to say with absolute certainty that the hospital and Qosho’s home were also hit by 122mm rockets, it is likely they were from the same volley of rockets.

 

Firing tables for GRAD rockets give a typical range of between 5 and 20 kilometres. However, using our model we determined that to clear the top of the building to the east, the rocket would have had to enter at a minimum of 23.4 degrees. This narrowed our potential launch area down further to between 12.3 and 20.5 kilometres.

Airwars modelling of the potential angles of impact

We shared all our visual evidence with a leading world expert in GRAD rockets, Ove Dullum. He agreed that the projectiles came from an easterly direction, adding that the fragment patterns from the impact indicated a low angle of impact, narrowly clearing the neighbouring building to the east.

Compiling his analysis with our own findings we estimate that the rockets were likely fired from the east and within the closer half of our range.

A still image of the estimated launch area, showing multiple groups operating there

Other investigations have found that the same type of rockets have been launched from the same area, including one by @obretix on a strike that hit the headquarters of a medical first responders organisation in Afrin six weeks after the attack on Al-Shifa hospital.

Conclusion

At the time of the incident, our estimated launch area was mostly under control of the SDF, America’s closest ally in Syria, along with allied militia groups. However control of this region is complicated. Reports in the weeks prior to the attack showed evidence of Russian and Syrian military forces operating within our estimated launch area.

On the 2nd of June, alleged Turkish artillery targeting SDF positions in Mara’anaz reportedly killed a Lieutenant in the Syrian militant, showing the presence and proximity of both the SDF and Regime forces in the area. Two days prior to the Al-Shifa attack, three soldiers from the Syrian military were reportedly injured by alleged Turkish bombardment on Menagh airbase, located within our potential launch area.

As such official designation of responsibility remains unclear. The SDF, Russians and Syrian Government all deny responsibility for this attack on a vital resource.

For the families of the victims and the survivors, the lack of accountability makes the suffering harder.

“I tried to check on the families of the martyrs – their psychological and financial situations are very bad,” Al-Aghawani said. “Personally, every few nights I dream of bombing.”

Airwars invites anyone with additional information to come forward.

▲ A screenshot from Airwars' 3D model of the Afrin attack. Image via Sham News Network.

Published

May 27, 2022

Written by

Airwars Staff

On the final day of Protection of Civilians Week, eleven civil society organisations request to meet the UK Secretary of State for Defence to discuss improvements on the way the UK mitigates, accounts and investigates instances of civilian harm.

As the UN Secretary General’s annual Protection of Civilians report welcomes steps by the United States to develop new civilian harm mitigation and tracking mechanisms, a coalition of civil society organisations specialised in the subject call on the United Kingdom to follow suit.

After devastating revelations published in The New York Times late last year revealed critical failures by the US-led Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) in the prevention of civilian harm in Iraq and Syria, the Biden administration has launched a review to improve policies on data collection, reporting and acknowledgement of civilian harm, improvements which aim to overhaul processes and create a Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan (CHMRAP), as well as a civilian protection ‘center of excellence’.

These revelations add to the strong evidence base of civilian harm from CJTF-OIR operations built up by researchers, humanitarian agencies, and international organisations over the years.

Developments in the US have substantial implications for the UK’s own approach to civilian harm, as the UK played an important role in CJTF-OIR. The UK must now engage with civil society on these issues and implement urgent reforms.

The use of explosive weapons, with wide area effects, in urban areas continues to be a cause of immense human suffering – with nine out of ten casualties being civilians.

“We believe that the UK for its part has an opportunity to be a global leader on civilian protection issues” – Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), Airwars, Amnesty International UK, Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights, Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), Crisis Action, Every Casualty Counts, Iraq Body Count, Reprieve, Save the Children, and War Child call for Rt. Hon. Ben Wallace MP to act urgently.

Read our full letter here and below:

Rt. Hon. Ben Wallace Secretary of State for Defence Ministry of Defence Whitehall SW1A 1HB

27th May 2022

Dear Secretary of State,

RE: Protection of Civilians Week – time to address UK policy on civilian harm mitigation, transparency, and oversight 

On the occasion of UN Protection of Civilians Week, the undersigned civil society organisations are writing to you to develop a constructive dialogue and request a meeting with you to discuss the UK’s policy on civilian harm mitigation, transparency and oversight. As some of our closest allies have begun to reform their approach to civilian harm in military operations, we believe there is an urgent need for the UK to learn from developing practice on this issue.

Revelations published in the New York Times in 2021 about critical failures by Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) to prevent, respond to, and be held accountable for civilian harm caused in Iraq and Syria add to the strong evidence base of civilian harm from CJTF-OIR operations built up by researchers, humanitarian agencies, and international organisations over the years. This public disquiet partly spurred, as you will know, the US Secretary of State of Defense to direct the Department of Defense (DoD) to improve policies on data collection, reporting and acknowledgement of civilian harm, improvements which aim to overhaul processes and create a Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan (CHMRAP), as well as a civilian protection ‘center of excellence.’

Given the important role of UK forces in combined operations as part of CJTF-OIR, these developments clearly have substantial implications for the UK’s own approach to civilian harm.

All states participating in CJTF-OIR, including the US and UK, should ensure that all instances of reported civilian harm are investigated and accounted for. We urge for constructive dialogue around the hundreds of civilian-harm claims from local communities that indicate that large-scale civilian harm occurred as a direct result of CJTF-OIR operations.

We believe that the UK for its part has an opportunity to be a global leader on civilian protection issues. We would like to discuss the following with you:

● Engagement with civil society on these issues and involvement of civil society in implementing improvements

● Implications from the reviews of US practice and the CHMRAP for the UK’s own approach to civilian harm mitigation and response

● How the UK could contribute to developing the knowledge base on civilian harm mitigation and response

● How civilian protection concerns are included in UK support for partner forces, lessons learnt from civilian harm incidents and standards set for best practice.

● How the UK can play a leading role in ensuring historic instances of civilian harm allegations resulting from CJTF-OIR actions are properly accounted for.

● How the UK can lead the strengthening of NATO’s Protection of Civilian preparedness.

Thank you for your consideration.

Yours sincerely,

Action On Armed Violence (AOAV) Airwars Amnesty International UK Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights (CIVIC) Center for Civilians in Conflict Crisis Action Every Casualty Counts Iraq Body Count Reprieve Save the Children War Child

▲ The UK Ministry of Defence, Whitehall

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 22, 2022

Written by

Megan Karlshoej-Pedersen

Civil society consortium cautiously welcomes Ministry's letter to Dutch Parliament - but also urges bolder stance.

The Dutch Ministry of Defence, Defensie, has finally outlined to Parliament the steps it expects to take in both the short and long term, to address civilian casualties from Dutch actions.

Since late 2020, Airwars has been part of a consortium of civil society and academic organisations working with the Defensie to help improve the Dutch approach to civilian harm tracking and mitigation. This process was launched in response to revelations that the Dutch MoD was responsible for an airstrike in the Iraqi town of Hawija in 2015, which killed between 70 and 85 civilians. There was then a four-year cover-up of Dutch involvement in the deadly incident.

On April 7th, Minister of Defence Kajsa Ollongren wrote to Parliament outlining the expected route forward for Defensie. According to the Minister, “These steps go further than just transparency. It also involves tightening up internal (military) procedures, decision-making processes, monitoring, evaluation and accountability.”

Ollongren said that the Ministry recognises that preventing civilian harm “is a responsibility that arises not only from international humanitarian law, but also from a moral obligation” and within her letter to Parliament, the Minister laid out ways that that Defensie must act to improve its systems.

These include five thematic short steps concerning the processes of decision-making, monitoring, evaluation, and accountability in future deployments. According to the Minister, these steps aim to ensure that Defensie improves the ways it considers risks to civilians; more clearly communicates transparency, and commits to periodically review the way this is done. Ollongren also highlighted the importance of transparency as a way to improve civilian harm accountability both for affected communities, and in providing more Parliamentary oversight in the Netherlands.

The plans also suggested that future mission evaluations will focus more on civilian casualty concerns. And Ollongren also promised in the letter that Defensie will be more involved in policy making on protection of civilians concerns, alongside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for example through follow-up training and exercises.

While there are positive developments and promising commitments in the letter, several significant gaps remain and vital opportunities were missed. the consortium believes. Below is our joint response to the policy announcement.

 

▲ Hawijah, Iraq in 2021. Six years after the Dutch airstrike, parts of the town remain destroyed (Image courtesy of Roos Boer, PAX)

Published

April 12, 2022

Written by

Imogen Piper

Assisted by

Joe Dyke

Single strike may cause 350 metre span of damage, new Airwars visual investigation finds

A single Russian cluster munition that struck a hospital and blood donation centre in Ukraine likely caused lethal damage spanning 350 metres, a new Airwars visual investigation has found.

During Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, its use of cluster munitions has been widely documented. More than 100 countries have signed a UN convention banning their use, though Russia, Ukraine and the United States are among the nations yet to sign up. Such weapons are often described as indiscriminate. However on the ground, evidence of exactly how widespread their effects are can be are often hard to document. Yet a recent strike on the snow-covered grounds of a Ukraine hospital presented strong visual documentation.

Using uniquely placed, open-source videos, Airwars created a 3D model of all recorded damage locations when a cluster bomb hit the children’s hospital and a blood donation centre in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. One civilian was reportedly killed while waiting in line with his family to give blood, while hundreds of sick children took refuge in the hospital’s bomb shelters.

The Airwars investigation documented a total of 26 impact sites spanning 350 metres. Additional impacts likely took place in unfilmed areas around the sites.

Cluster munitions can have an impact range from around 100 metres – roughly the size of a football field – to multiple times larger, depending on the height at which they detonate. Their use by Russia has been documented multiple times in Ukraine, including in-depth analysis by Armament Research.

Several munitions experts whom Airwars consulted said the wide distribution of damage at Kharkiv could suggest that Russia is detonating cluster munitions at a higher altitude than normal.

Experts said that while the video showed a wide distribution of impacts, the number of submunitions documented was consistent with potentially being a single rocket. Definitive verification would only be possible with access to the site and to munition remnants.

“It has long been known that cluster munitions are indiscriminate, but this investigation highlights the sheer scale of suffering a single strike can cause,” Emily Tripp, incoming Airwars director, said. “While more than 100 countries have banned their use, many of the world’s largest militaries still refuse to do so – despite the inevitable risk to civilians.”

How the investigation was conducted

The cluster munition strike took place on February 25th, the second day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Russian forces had advanced quickly on Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, in the northeast of the country.

In the afternoon, local reports first emerged of a devastating attack on a children’s hospital. The first video to emerge online, shot from a car dashcam, captured the moment the cluster munitions impacted on a road just outside the hospital grounds. It was timed-stamped at 16.41. Airwars was able to document and geolocate nine explosions in this video.

A second video filmed shortly after the attack meticulously documented each impact site inside the hospital grounds. Snow coverage enabled clear images of the different impact locations, again allowing them to be geolocated and mapped. In total Airwars investigator Imogen Piper was able to document a total of 25 craters.

In addition, the video showed one unexploded submunition found right outside the hospital entrance. This was a crucial clue, enabling us to identify the type of munition. Multiple weapons experts said it was a Russian made 9N235 or 9N210 cluster submunition – the two are visually identical.

Image of the submunition found outside Kharkiv hospital (Via social media)

There are two types of rocket capable of delivering these submunitions: the, 220mm 9M27K Uragan; and the 300mm 9M55K Smerch, which carry 30 and 72 submunitions respectively.

Munitions experts told Airwars that Russia is more commonly using 300mm Smerch rockets during the Ukraine conflict; and that their larger firing range of up to 70 kilometres also corresponded to Russian military positions at this time, north-east of Kharkiv.

Whilst 350 metres is a large distribution range for a single rocket, the experts said it was still within the parameters of a single 300mm rocket attack. They added that such rockets can be released at a higher altitude to increase the spread of submunitions.

As the video documents, this makes such cluster munitions relatively ineffective if trying to hit a specific military target. Instead, as Russia’s brutal assault has shown, they cause terror and devastation among civilians, with little military benefit.

▲ A still image from Airwars' visual investigation