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U.S. Army soldiers watch from an observation post in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan (Image via U.S. Army)

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Published

October 14, 2021

Written by

Airwars Staff and Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC)

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U.S. Army soldiers watch from an observation post in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan (Image via U.S. Army)

Last week marked twenty years since the US-led invasion of Afghanistan began, following which the UK, Netherlands and other NATO members began their own presence with the declared aim to install “security, stability and the rule of law.”

This anniversary happens after last month saw a wave of resignations by senior Ministerial staff and frank debate across Parliaments in Europe, including in relation to the sudden and chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. 

Airwars and Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) urge the new ministers to take a frank look at the mistakes of their predecessors, and understand what could have been done differently. The public and political criticism surrounding the withdrawal of the United States and its allies from Afghanistan and the devastating humanitarian crisis unfolding in Afghanistan, sends a strong message about the urgent need for stronger approaches to civilian harm mitigation, transparency and accountability policies in future military operations.

We encourage the new ministers in the Netherlands and in the UK to learn about the risks to civilians caught in armed conflict in planning phases for any military operations, so they may work towards their protection. We also call on them to commit to improving transparency and accountability for civilian harm, including by consistently tracking, investigating, publicly acknowledging, and amending harm through compensation payments, apologies, and other offerings in accordance with victims’ needs and preferences.  We extend the same call to the United States and other NATO nations. This is especially important because the risk to civilians in Afghanistan is not unique. In fact, in the 20 years since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, we have seen risks to civilians multiply and deepen in many parts of the world. War is now increasingly fought in urban environments with long-lasting and lethal effects. NATO members, increasingly hesitant to deploy “boots on the ground,” have relied instead on supporting local forces through air support – even when local partners may lack the capacity to protect civilians. And multiple countries have claimed the power to use force anywhere in the world, including outside recognized war zones and including through the use of armed drones, sometimes devastating civilian communities in the process.

As risks to civilians have increased, transparency and accountability for harm is diminishing.  In Iraq and Syria, the UK still only admits one civilian death over the course of its operation, despite declaring thousands of UK airstrikes and despite Airwars’ own assessment showing that at least 8,300 civilians have likely been killed by the US-led Coalition.

We urge all NATO nations to take heed of these past mistakes, which had devastating and continuing consequences on the lives of civilians. As Liz Truss starts as the new UK Foreign Secretary, and as the new Dutch Minister of Defence, Henk Kamp, and Foreign Minister, Ben Knapen, begin their tenure, we urge them to immediately take the following steps:

    Recognise publicly and through a revision of doctrine, the imperative of civilian harm mitigation, transparency, and accountability in all aspects of defence and foreign affairs, including in their nations’ own operations as well as “train, advise, and assist” missions. Prioritise resourcing for the monitoring and tracking of civilian harm in current and future military deployments. Commit to investigating, publicly recognizing, and amending legacy civilian harm from Afghanistan and other operations over the past 20 years, including by issuing compensation or solatia payments; and commit to applying these policies and practices in all future operations. Adopt and implement clear policies for civilian harm tracking, mitigation and response through consultation with civil society experts, which are adequately resourced at all areas of deployment. Incorporate open-source information from civil society, the media, and other external sources into civilian harm assessments and investigations. Publish the specific date; location; munition type used; and nature of target for all weapon deployments in the anti-ISIS Coalition from 2014 to the present day and in all future operations. Publish regular reports on civilian harm allegations from past and current missions. Engage with conflict-affected civilians (including civil society groups and communities) on issues pertaining to civilian protection and civilian harm mitigation, both at the capital level and in countries of deployment. This includes the establishment of a regular dialogue with civil society, as well as establishing safe channels of communication with conflict-affected civilians to discuss protection concerns. As part of all lessons learned processes around the war in Afghanistan, withdrawal, and evacuation, identify gaps in civilian harm mitigation as well as gaps in civil-military coordination that may have hampered the capacity of civil society and at-risk Afghans to access safe and secure air evacuation options.
▲ U.S. Army soldiers watch from an observation post in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan (Image via U.S. Army)

Published

October 12, 2021

Written by

Georgia Edwards

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The UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office

Open letter from Airwars calls on new UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss to work collaboratively with Ministry of Defence on the protection of civilians affected by UK military actions.

Last week marked 20 years since the US-led ‘War on Terror’ began. The conflict has been defined by a series of major military actions in which the UK has supported the US and allies in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. The recent chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan saw the reshuffle of Dominic Raab from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, amid widespread criticism for the way millions of Afghans were left in uncertain – and concerning – situations.

The UK continues to operate in Iraq and Syria with the US-led Coalition against ISIS to this day – yet refuses to hold itself truly accountable for civilians harmed by its actions in these countries, nor in historical incidents in Afghanistan.

Despite various commitments from the UK government to “investigate any credible reports that the UK actions may have caused civilian harm”, there have been insufficient efforts to work with civil society organisations; to ensure transparent cross-departmental work to make this feasible; nor to put legislation in place to truly offer change.

As Britain’s new Foreign Secretary, Rt. Hon. Liz Truss now has the opportunity to respond to the urgent need for stronger approaches to civilian harm mitigation and monitoring policies which will allow the UK to catch up with its allies, and become more accountable for its actions. 

Airwars this week sent the Foreign Secretary an open letter outlining key improvements we believe are needed now. The full text of our letter is reprinted below.

 

October, 8th  2021

Rt. Hon. Liz Truss Secretary of State for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office King Charles Street Whitehall London SW1A 2AH

cc. Rt. Hon. Ben Wallace, Secretary of State for Defence

RE: Open letter from Airwars to the new Secretary of State for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, calling for the FCDO and MoD to work together and improve protections for civilians resulting from UK military actions. 

Dear Rt. Hon. Liz Truss,

We would like to congratulate you on your promotion to Foreign Secretary. We look forward to working with you to improve UK policy to protect civilians in conflict.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the US-led so-called War on Terror. This conflict has been defined as you know by a series of major military actions in which the UK has supported the US and other allies, in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. These countries have been among those consistently most dangerous for civilians over the last two decades, with military actions involving explosive weapons increasingly taking place in urban environments.

Airwars recently found, for example, that at least 22,679 and potentially as many 48,308 civilians have likely been killed by US-led strikes over the last twenty years.

In light of the recent chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, we are concerned about the UK government’s potential shift to remote warfare in that country, noting the Defence Secretary’s comments on 7th September that “I’ll do whatever I have to do to protect citizens’ lives and our interests and our allies, when we’re called upon to do so, wherever that may be.”

We reiterate our calls for robust and transparent mechanisms to mitigate, monitor, and investigate all instances of civilian harm potentially resulting from UK actions, before these actions are considered. As it stands, the UK is systematically failing to hold itself accountable for  civilians harmed by its own actions in the War on Terror; and there have been insufficient efforts to adequately investigate historical instances flagged by monitoring organisations such as Airwars.

The most striking example of this is the UK’s insistence that there is only evidence of a single civilian casualty from the entire campaign against ISIS within the US-led Coalition in Syria and Iraq. Our own independent monitoring suggests that at least 8,300 and as many as 13,000 civilians have likely been killed so far by the US-led Coalition, including from thousands of British airstrikes. The failure of the MoD to more accurately understand and account for civilian harm on the ground from its own actions places the UK dangerously behind key allies, including the US and Netherlands.

Below we note our main concerns, and reiterate our urgent call for a more open and collaborative approach from the FCDO on civilian harm mitigation. We would very much welcome a meeting to discuss these issues at your earliest convenience.

Improving transparency and accountability

As conflicts have changed over the past two decades, the UK has focused increasingly on assisting local forces through airstrikes, rather than through large-scale deployment of ground forces. Yet such airpower-focused conflicts  are much less accountable to civilians on the ground, we and our partners believe.

UK policies to protect civilians have fallen behind other allies such as the US Department of Defense and the Dutch Ministry of Defence, which have made significant legislation-driven improvements. For example, since 2018, the US DoD has been legally obliged to report annually to Congress on all civilians it deems have been killed by US actions in the past 12 months. No such legislation exists in the UK; and key recommendations from the Chilcot report, “to make every reasonable effort to identify and understand the likely and actual effects of its military actions on civilians,” have yet to be implemented.

We are also concerned that the current MoD review methodology used to determine only one civilian casualty from its ongoing seven year campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria is in part a result of the exceptionally high ‘proof’ threshold currently applied within the Department when assessing civilian harm claims. In other words, this low estimate of civilian harm is a reflection of poor evidence gathering and analysis, not of effective strategies to protect civilians.

The FCDO leads the UK Approach to the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict. Yet despite commitments made to “investigate any credible reports that the UK actions may have caused civilian harm,” there has yet to be any published evidence of change in its approach.  There was no mention of how the MoD and FCDO intend to protect affected communities in the recent Integrated Review, nor how the “Conflict Centre” will work cross-department, or be resourced for these areas.

1. Will the MoD consider assessing its current methodology to determine civilian harm and publish the results of these assessments?

2. Will the FCDO publish its most recent assessment to show how it plans to meet commitments in the UK Approach to the Protection of Civilians?

3. Will the FCDO and MoD publish a document showing how they both intend to work together on civilian harm mitigation, including with the Conflict Centre and conflict strategy?

 

Meaningful collaboration with civil society organisations using open source data

The MoD and FCDO commitment to work with civil society organisations to better protect civilians in regions where the UK is operating has decreased to concerning levels. Airwars has been keen to offer meaningful feedback on policies and operations and to work together with MoD to investigate and re-investigate instances of potential civilian harm when it has been flagged from our monitoring and investigations. For example, the UK still admits evidence of only one civilian casualty from its actions as part of the US-led Coalition. We note with concern that recently, the Pentagon wrongly claimed responsibility to Congress for civilian harm from a series of historical strikes, that were actually carried out by its allies, including the UK.

Airwars remains the primary public reference for locally reported reported civilian harm events from international and domestic military actions tracked across Syria, Libya, and Iraq,  involving air delivered munitions – and is therefore a critical reference point for affected local communities, for media and analysts, and for both the Pentagon and US combatant commands. There has never been the same level of engagement with the UK and MoD.  We feel that this is a wasted opportunity; meaningful dialogue between the MoD and civil society organisations could contribute significant value to the planning, design, implementation and evaluation of military operations and security partnerships, while reinforcing effective governance and oversight.

As the new Foreign Secretary, we reiterate our calls to you for the UK to create and institutionalise systematic engagement with civil society organisations, where civil society can play an essential role in fostering accountability and transparency in the conduct of operations and civilian harm monitoring.

4. Will the MoD consider investigating and re-investigating where necessary specific instances of civilian harm caused by UK airstrikes with the US-led Coalition in Iraq and Syria flagged by civil society monitoring organisations, and publish the results?

5. Will you recommend MoD and FCDO officials to meet with Airwars to discuss better practise recommendations and to encourage a meaningful relationship between civil society organisations and your Departments?

Thank you for taking the time to note our concerns, and we wish you the best in your new role, while looking forward to working with you on these issues.

Yours sincerely,

Chris Woods,

Director, Airwars

▲ The UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office

Published

October 1, 2021

Written by

Megan Karlshoej-Pedersen

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A F-16 Fighting Falcon from the Belgian Air Force refuels

Open letter from Belgian and international organisations calls on the Defence Minister to increase transparency and accountability for civilian harm.

October 1st marks the anniversary of Belgium relaunching its participation in Operation Inherent Resolve – the international campaign against so-called Islamic State.

Throughout its engagement in this coalition, Belgium has been one of the least transparent – and least accountable – countries when it comes to acknowledging civilian harm. In fact, the Government has refused to publicly concede any civilian harm from its own actions. While the Parliament called for changes last year, urging the Government to introduce transparency and engage with civil society organisations, we have seen no tangible improvements. 

Together, we are publishing a joint open letter to Minister of Defence Dedonder with our Belgian and international partners. We ask the Belgian government to urgently take concrete steps to improve its transparency and accountability for civilian harm resulting from its own military actions. The full text of the letter is reprinted below.

 

Dear Minister Dedonder,

October 1st marks one year since Belgium re-joined Operation Inherent Resolve, the US-led war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. However, while Belgium has made significant contributions to this conflict for more than 7 years, conducting well over 1,000 missions, there remains a severe lack of transparency over the harm to civilians from Belgian actions; in fact, Belgium stands out among allies in its blanket refusal to acknowledge casualties. This refusal persists even when the US-led Coalition have conceded Belgian involvement in specific strikes which killed and injured civilians.

On June 25, 2020, the Belgian Parliament adopted resolution 1298. Among other things, it asked the federal government to ensure; “maximum transparency (…) with regard to the prevention, monitoring and reporting of possible civilian casualties as a result of our military deployment”. In addition, the government was asked to enter into a dialogue with its counterparts in the Netherlands about the lessons learned from the disaster of Hawija, in which dozens of civilians were killed as a result of a bombing raid carried out by the Dutch army. Finally, the resolution also called for public communication about possible civilian casualties and active cooperation with external monitoring groups and human rights organisations.

Yet it is unclear to us whether (and if so, how) these recommendations were implemented in any way during the deployment of the last year. No interim mission reports were published and the MoD continues to fail to provide data on the number of strikes and civilian casualties in a meaningful way.

Engagement with civil society

Since Belgium relaunched its participation in Operation Inherent Resolve, we have had some promising engagements with the Ministry of Defence. In May 2021, for instance, some of us were able to meet with officials and shared key lessons from the last decade of counting civilian harm. Nonetheless a more sustained approach is needed. We would encourage Belgium to draw inspiration from the processes set up by some of Belgium’s allies, in particular those in the Netherlands and the US. We stand ready to engage and share our lessons and key findings in a constructive way, to ensure that past civilian harm can lead to improvements in future protection of civilians.

We understand that recent events in Afghanistan may have delayed follow-up to our concerns. Those same events, however, should make it abundantly clear that a sustained, institutional, and consultative discussion about how to prevent civilian casualties is needed. We urge the minister to react to this, and relaunch discussions with civil society groups on this topic. We further urge the minister to do so with urgency so that experts from  civil society organisations may feed into Belgium’s update of the Strategic Vision 2030:  the need to address civilian harm and the protection of civilians in this document is crucial.

Recommendations

The undersigned organisations call upon the Belgian government to do the following, at minimum:

–      Engage in a sustained, systematised debate with civil society organisations in Belgium, who hold specialist knowledge on lessons that can be learned on how to best protect civilians and which are keen to share such knowledge;

–      Publish the exact date and near location of all Belgian air raids carried out in the fight against ISIS;

–      Launch an evaluation of claimed civilian harm that has occurred from suspected Belgian strikes in Iraq and Syria over the last year, including strikes which were IHL compliant, covering lessons which can be learned from this, and how civilians can better be protected in the future;

–      Publish the results of all investigations into civilian casualties – including the date, location, targets and number of civilian casualties of military action – even if the Ministry of Defence’s own investigation concludes that there has been no violation of international humanitarian law;

–      Draft guidelines for proactively publishing this information (in the future) as open data in a machine-readable overview that enables use by independent parties;

–      Work together with external parties, including NGOs, by drawing up standards for the minimum criteria that external claims for civilian victims must meet in order for the Ministry of Defence to be able to assess them;

–          Provide capacity at the Ministry of Defence so that officials can focus on monitoring and actively publishing data on airstrikes and civilian casualties in armed conflict, including in future military interventions, so that the consequences of military intervention are systematically monitored and published;

–      Introduce or support a mechanism where potential victims of Coalition bombardments can come forward and report issues of concern;

–      In line with the clear wishes of the Belgian Parliament, support a strong political declaration against the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas – with a clear commitment to data collection and transparent reporting.

Signed,

11.11.11

Airwars Stichting

Amnesty Belgium

Agir pour la Paix

CNAPD

Humanity & Inclusion

Pax Christi Flanders

Vredesactie

Vrede vzw

▲ A F-16 Fighting Falcon from the Belgian Air Force refuels

Published

September 30, 2021

Written by

Airwars Syria team

Airwars has tracked up to 23,000 civilian deaths from Russian military actions since 2015 - with Moscow yet to concede a single casualty.

To mark the sixth anniversary of Russia’s military intervention in Syria, Airwars is highlighting just five of the countless civilian harm events that characterise Russian involvement in the conflict.

Overall since 2015, we have identified 4,615 incidents where Russia is alleged to have caused civilian deaths or injuries. This September alone, we estimate that ten civilians have been killed by alleged Russian strikes – including five children. This brings the total estimate since 2015 to a minimum of 14,216 civilians killed only in incidents Airwars has deemed fair, confirmed or contested.

This figure is a conservative estimate. As many as 23,936 civilians overall are locally alleged to have been killed by Russian actions – among the worst tolls of any belligerent or conflict monitored by Airwars. However, many of these reported deaths are contested between Russia and the Syrian regime it supports, making clear attribution frequently challenging. Airwars is continuing to carry out deep research into events that took place between late 2019 and 2020, with the updated civilian harm data expected to be released early next year.

Our Syrian team members have selected five major incidents from our archives that show how Russia has waged war in Syria – and the ongoing cost of its operations on civilian life.

We focus on civilian harm caused by high-intensity vacuum missiles; the staggering numbers of children credibly reported harmed; the challenges of naming all victims during such a high intensity conflict; and finally, the use of targeted attacks on healthcare workers and first responders.

Focusing on the civilian harm caused by Russia alone does not reflect the full picture of large-scale death and destruction over the past ten years of conflict in Syria. Airwars continues to monitor all foreign interventions in the Syrian conflict; for example, our monitoring of US led coalition activities can be found here, while our monitoring of Turkish military engagement can be found here.

Syrian monitoring groups – such as the Syrian Network for Human Rights; the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights; and the Violations Documentation Center – also continue to track the devastating civilian harm caused by the ongoing civil war, most of it resulting from the actions of the Assad regime.

Case 1 – Vacuum missiles

Vacuum or ‘thermobaric’ missiles are a particularly deadly weapon, allegedly used by both Russian and Syrian Regime forces throughout the conflict. Russian forces were first accused of using vacuum missiles in Syria on the first day of airstrikes, on September 30th 2015, in an attack that reportedly killed 18 civilians in Talbiseh. A doctor working at the hospital receiving casualties described the impact of the missile as causing “cases of suffocation as a result of dust and smoke”, killing civilians with “enormous pressure or shrapnel that pierced their bodies and tore some of them into pieces”.

Absolute confirmation of the use of a particular weapon in Syria remains a major challenge. Of the 4,615 civilian harm events categorised by Airwars as likely being Russian (including contested events such as Russian and/or regime attacks), we identified 244 incidents where local sources mentioned that ‘vacuum missiles’ had been used in the attack. These strikes were found to have caused at least 875 deaths.

While we may not know for sure if vacuum missiles were used in each of these events, we have chosen to highlight one case that offers some insight into the level of destruction caused by high explosive weapons, and the complexity of such events.

April 17th-18th 2017: Ma’arat Hurma

This incident took place in April 2017, where nine children and their grandmother were likely killed in repeated airstrikes on Ma’arat Hurma, Idlib. The site was reportedly hit multiple times, with buildings almost completely raised to the ground and victims buried under many layers of rubble. In the final high-intensity strike, an ambulance being used to tend to the initial victims, was left burning.

Media outlet RFS observed that “the raids were highly explosive and caused extensive destruction to civilian homes. Six houses and more than 25 shops were destroyed and other material damage occurred in the places where rockets fell”.

Our assessment identifies the victims likely killed in the attack – all members of the Al Nabo family, with the youngest child just two years old. Images posted to social media show the buildings razed to the ground, while a video posted by first responders, the White Helmets, show the bodies of small children being carried through the rubble.

Read the full assessment on our website here.

The moment missiles hit Ma’arat Hurma. 

Case 2 – Children killed and injured

At least 4,831 children have been reported killed by alleged Russian airstrikes in Syria since 2015. In 2016, one of the deadliest years for civilian casualties in Syria, an average of 169 children were killed each month by alleged Russian actions.

While ceasefire agreements in 2020 saw a downturn in Russian strikes, this temporary relief for Syrians has likely now come to an end, as we’ve seen the resumption of weekly, and sometimes daily, Russian airstrikes in different parts of Syria. In September 2021 alone, children account for half of all deaths caused by alleged Russian strikes and almost half of all injuries. This includes one child reported injured earlier this week, in alleged Russian or Syrian regime strikes on the town of Majdlaya.

Taking the most conservative estimates – the minimum number of reported civilians killed – children could account for 34% of all casualties in Syria resulting from alleged Russian strikes. The indiscriminate nature of Russian airstrikes has resulted in the deaths of entire families of children, including babies just a few months old.

August 19th & 20th 2021: Balshoun and Kansafra

Two civilian casualty events took place over 48 hours in August 2021, where alleged Russian airstrikes in Idlib hit two families. At least eight children were killed and another injured.

On August 19th, four children were killed and another injured by alleged Russian or regime strikes on Balshoun. Three of the children were killed alongside their mother and their young cousin – all members of the Ajaj family.

One of the children killed was 8-year old Hamza Khaled Habib, cousin of the Ajaj family. In an event that reflects the scale of civilian harm in Syria, Hamza was being raised by his uncle, as his own father had already been killed in a previous airstrike. The Syrian Civil Defense (also known as the White Helmets) posted a video capturing Mr Mohamed Ajaj mourning for his wife, children and young nephew, all killed in this attack.

Read our full assessment of the incident here.

Only a day later at Kansafra, another Idlib town, another family was almost entirely killed, including at least four children – aged three, six, nine and twelve years old, members of the Al Omar family. A reporter with AFP saw the father crying over the bodies of three of his children in a cemetery. The reporter observed that the fourth child had to be buried in a hurry, because bombing had begun again in the area.

Only one of the Al Omar children survived the attack, the youngest, who the mother managed to rescue just moments before the strike.

Read our full assessment of the incident here.

The bottle belonging to one of the children killed in alleged Russian strikes on Kansafra town, Idlib – August 2021 (Image posted on Twitter by @thawrat111)

Case 3 – The unnamed

Of all civilians alleged harmed by Russian airstrikes – estimated by Airwars at as many as 23,936 killed and 41,452 injured – we have found full or partial names for just 8,472 individuals.

This means that 87% of all civilians reported harmed in Russian strikes cannot be identified using current available datasets. While on-going deeper research being conducted by Airwars might be able to address at least some of these events, it is highly likely that we may not know the identity of many thousands of victims until Syria’s conflict ends, and a substantial truth and reconciliation process can begin.

This is due to a number of reasons, not least that the use of high-intensity weapons by Russian and other forces in Syria cause significant destruction, and often make immediate identification of casualties impossible. Syria also houses the highest number of internally displaced people in the world, estimated by UNHCR at 6.2 million, including 2.3 million children. Local sources in many cases may not recognise victims, especially those recently arrived with little documentation.

March 22nd 2019: Kafriya and Al Fou’a

On March 22nd 2019 in Kafriya and Al Fou’a in Idlib, an incident that was referred to by several sources as a “massacre”, killed up to 28 civilians and injured as many as 30 others. A doctor named Abu Mohammed was quoted by Smart News as identifying more than 15 raids on the towns of Kufriya and al-Fuha and he noted that many civilians had moderate injuries, “mostly children and women”. The use of cluster bombs and high explosive missiles was pointed out in various sources and could be one of the reasons for the difficulty identifying victims.

Despite Airwars’ researchers finding 28 unique sources reporting on the incident, we were only able to identify one individual who was killed – Ali Wahid Qalla, a 50 year old man displaced from Eastern Ghouta. The identity of dozens of others, including children, remains unknown.

Read our assessment in full on our website.

ارتفاع حصيلة شهداء المجزرة التي ارتكبتها الطائرات الروسية في بلدة #كفريا شمال إدلب إلى 20 مدنياً بينهم 4 أطفال وأكثر من 30 جريحاً من بينهم حالات حرجة و 13 طفل.هؤلاء اصبحوا مجرد ارقام عند الاعلام المنافق pic.twitter.com/hRFOay4PvZ

— عبد الغفور الدياب (@abuhuzaifa_) March 23, 2019

‘The death toll from the massacre committed by Russian planes in the town of #كفريا North Idlib killed 20 civilians, including 4 children, and more than 30 wounded, including critical cases, and 13 children. These have become just numbers for the hypocritical media’

Case 4 – Attacks on healthcare workers and rescuers

In March 2020, WHO’s Regional Emergency Director in the Eastern Mediterranean, Richard Brennan, called out the international community for ignoring attacks on healthcare facilities in Syria: “What is troubling, is that we’ve come to a point where attacks on health — something the international community shouldn’t tolerate – are now taken for granted; something we have become accustomed to”.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) provide on-going monitoring of attacks on healthcare centres, noting that such operations are against International Humanitarian Law and constitute war crimes. According to PHR, 244 attacks on medical facilities have been carried out by either the Syria Regime or Russian forces. One such attack was investigated by the New York Times, which showed how Russian airstrikes hit four hospitals in just 12 hours in May 2019.

As PHR notes: “When these attacks on health care become as prolonged and widespread as they have in Syria, the consequences reach far beyond the individuals and facilities lost – the attacks reverberate across the civilian community, inciting fear that seeking medical treatment or going to a hospital will result in death, injury, kidnapping, torture, or imprisonment, both for the patient and the medical provider.”

One type of event Airwars researchers often report on during monitoring of Russian strikes in Syria, are so-called double-tap strikes – where first responders are hit in a second airstrike after an initial attack has caused casualties.

These first responders are most often the White Helmets, officially known as the Syrian Civil Defense, who report that 252 of their volunteers have been killed since the start of the conflict and over 500 volunteers injured. White Helmets continue to risk their lives and are often the only response teams available in remote or poorly resourced areas.

June 26th 2019, Khan Sheikoun

An event that took place in June 2019 is one such example, where an alleged Russian strike killed two White Helmets volunteers in Khan Sheikoun, Idlib, who were tending to the victims of an earlier strike. The two volunteers, Ali Al Qadour and Omar Kayyal, had been in an ambulance treating victims of an initial strike in the east of Khan Sheikhoun; another five of their colleagues were also wounded.

The Syrian Civil Defense published a statement that said “a thorough examination of the evidence, such as eyewitness accounts and the identification of munitions used in the attack on white helmets, has proved conclusively that the aircraft that committed the crime of targeting and killing our volunteers belong to the Russian Air Force, which used surveillance aircraft”.

The assessment is available in full on our website.

The burial of a White Helmets volunteer, following a reported Russian airstrike in June 2019 (Image via Idlib Media Centre)

 

▲ A street in Ariha city raised to the ground by alleged Russian aistrikes in February 2020, including the almost complete destruction of Shami Hospital. Image via Halab Today.

Published

September 24, 2021

Written by

Adam Gnych and Jessica Purkiss

Contrition over Kabul strike must prompt further review of hundreds more events in which civilians were likely killed by US actions.

The final drone strike of the US occupation of Afghanistan killed up to 10 civilians, including seven children. That is not our opinion, but the determination of the US military.

On September 17th, after separate investigations by The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN, a contrite head of CENTCOM, the part of the US military responsible for Afghanistan, admitted a “tragic” mistake. General McKenzie said the August 29th attack, initially described as a “righteous strike” against the Afghan branch of the Islamic State, had in fact killed 43-year-old aid worker Zemari Ahmadi and his family outside their home.

The apology won’t ease the suffering of those remaining family members, but it does at least open the door to the possibility of solatia payments to support them through the coming years. For the US, this incident ought to lead to some soul searching – with a fresh investigation launched into the failings of the initial probe.

Yet this contrition has been the exception rather than the rule in US operations in Afghanistan, with thousands of civilians credibly reported killed by US actions since 2001. The former head of NATO’s civilian casualty assessment team now says that “civilian casualty investigations in Afghanistan were strongly weighted against finding sufficient evidence for an allegation to be recorded as credible.”

There are many specific reasons why this final incident garnered more attention. It occurred in relatively easily accessible Kabul, at a time when many foreign journalists were visiting the city to cover the American withdrawal. Mr Ahmadi also worked for a US aid organisation that was willing to vouch for his reputation. All these factors led to intense pressure on the US military to respond quickly to the allegations it had killed civilians.

Sadly the vast majority of civilians killed by the US in Afghanistan never receive the same attention, or apologies.

A recent Airwars investigation found that overall, at least 22,000 civilians have likely been killed by US airstrikes during the ‘war on terror’ since 2001. At least 4,815 of these fatalities were in Afghanistan, though that number could be far higher. Only a fraction of these events have received official US recognition. Many families can wait months, or even years, for a reply. Most never hear back.

Major General Chris Donahue, the final US soldier in Afghanistan, leaves on August 30 (U.S. Army photo)

Amnesty International, calling for a fuller investigation into the Kabul strike, pointed out that “many similar strikes in Syria, Iraq, and Somalia have happened out of the spotlight, and the US continues to deny responsibility while devastated families suffer in silence.”

Here are just five examples of Afghan families still waiting for justice after losing family members to alleged US strikes in recent years. Many were originally investigated by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s Drone Warfare project, which ended in 2020 and whose archives are now curated by Airwars.

1. The Khans

In the early hours of March 9th 2019, Dr Nazargul Khan and his children were sleeping in their village in the Hesarak district, Nangarhar province – around 30 miles east of Kabul. Suddenly their home was ripped apart.

“The first bomb that was dropped was on my cousins who were sleeping in the next room,” Waheeda, 14, Nazargul’s oldest child, told Al Jazeera. “My father got up and went to their room but by the time they reached the room another bomb was dropped on my father, sisters, and mother.”

In total twelve members of the Khan family, including Nazargul and nine children, died that night in an alleged US strike.

Despite the testimony of Sherif and Waheeda, the US has not accepted causing the civilian harm. Instead, it designated the allegations “possible” and closed the investigation, leaving the survivors with no clear answers and no route to seek compensation or justice.

 

2. The Ishaqzai family

On November 24th 2018, the village of Loy Manda, ten miles outside of Lashkar Gah in southwestern Afghanistan, found itself on the frontline as Afghan government forces – backed up by their American allies – battled the Taliban.

As a column of Afghan and US Special Operations forces moved into the area, the Ishaqzai family huddled in their home. In an apparent attempt to hit Taliban fighters moving through the area, the US called in an airstrike, witnesses told The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. A father and son were killed and 13 members of the extended family injured, 10 of them children.

The US military later admitted that four civilians were injured in a strike in Helmand on this day in their annual report on civilian casualties. This is believed to be a significant undercount.

 

3. The Mubarez family

On the evening of September 22rd 2018, the inhabitants of the village of Mullah Hafiz, in Wardak province, were alerted to the sound of an operation in progress. Explosions ripped through the town as soldiers swept in for a raid on a Taliban prison.

Masih Ur-Rahman Mubarez was in Iran for work but his wife and all their seven children, alongside four young cousins, were killed in an airstrike. His youngest was just four years old.

“Our life was full of love,” Masih told The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ).

Image compiled by Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Clockwise from top left: Masih’s children Mohammad Elyas (8), Mohammad Wiqad (10), Fahim (5), Samina (7) and Mohammad Fayaz (4) all died in the strike, alongside their two elder sisters, Anisa (14), and Safia (12), and their mother Amina (32). (Fahim appears in both photos in the bottom row)

Initially the US repeatedly denied it had bombed Masih’s house, or even that any airstrike had taken place in the area. Later after The New York Times and researchers from TBIJ investigated further, the military admitted that it did conduct a strike in that location, saying it was “possible, although unlikely, civilians died.”

 

4. The Rais family

On the 28th of September 2016, 15 Afghans were killed in a single US drone strike in the province of Nangarhar, east of the capital of Kabul, according to the United Nations.

The US said it struck militants from the so-called Islamic State, describing it as a “counter-terrorism” strike. The UN said it had hit a gathering of residents welcoming a tribal elder returning from religious pilgrimage to Mecca. The UN did acknowledge reports that IS fighters were among the dead but said the majority were civilians including “students and a teacher, as well as members of families considered to be pro-government.” Haji Rais, the owner of the house hit, lost his son in the strike.

The day after the strike, the then-spokesman for the US military in Afghanistan, Brigadier General Charles, told The New York Times the allegations of civilian casualties were being investigated. “We continue to work with Afghan authorities to determine if there is cause for additional investigation,” he said.

 

5. Abdul Hamid Alkoazay &  Abdul Rahim

In the early hours of the morning on May 24th 2019, an alleged US airstrike struck a building in Shib Koh district, Farah province, which runs along the border with Iran in western Afghanistan.

Abdul Hamid and Abdul Rahim were colleagues and had decided to stay the night at the offices of the emergency aid NGO they worked for. At approximately 1:20 am the building was leveled, with the two men killed instantly.

Abdul Rahim was 22 and had married just a month before his death. He worked as a supervisor at the charity, which he had joined relatively recently. One colleague said of him: “He was such a softly spoken person. He was a very good man with the best manners.”

The US military ultimately deemed the allegations of civilian harm “possible”, a phrasing neither accepting nor denying responsibility.

 

‘Hand-wringing’

CENTCOM, the part of the US military responsible for Afghanistan, had not replied at publication of this article to requests from Airwars seeking updates about its investigations into these five cases.

In the years before the final American soldier left Afghanistan last month, the US had relied increasingly on airpower. In 2015 there were about 500 US strikes. By 2019 that figure was more than 7,000. That year the United Nations documented the highest number of civilian fatalities from airstrikes since they began recording in 2009, most of them by US aircraft.

However, the US military officially accepted only a fifth of the civilian deaths attributed to it by the United Nations in 2019. Allegations are frequently determined as either “not credible” or “disproved”. Often this is based on the military not having sufficient information to fully investigate.

“There has been a lot of hand wringing and convenient blaming of intelligence over the past weeks,” says Mark Goodwin-Hudson, who in 2016 as a Lieutenant Colonel headed NATO’s Civilian Casualty Investigation Team in Afghanistan. “The killing highlights how shallow and misleading the assumption is that war can be conducted successfully from over the horizon. It doesn’t matter how accurate a modern weapon system is if the intelligence that underpins the strike is flawed.”

“In my experience civilian casualty investigations in Afghanistan were strongly weighted against finding sufficient evidence for an allegation to be recorded as credible,” Goodwin-Hudson added. “In some instances, investigators were denied access to mission critical intelligence, as it was deemed too sensitive to be read by anyone who was not already in the classified compartment that had planned, authorised and implemented the strike in question.”

For the families of those left behind, the mechanisms of getting official recognition that their loved ones were innocent was complicated enough before the US withdrawal. For many it may now be all but impossible.

▲ Library image: A US Navy Super Hornet receives fuel from an Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker over Afghanistan, December 7th 2017. (US Air Force/ Jeff Parkinson)

Published

September 6, 2021

Written by

Imogen Piper and Joe Dyke

Airwars tally offers assessment of the direct civilian impact of 20 years of US strikes

You often find a similar refrain in US media reporting of the cost of two decades of the so-called ‘War on Terror.’ The trope goes something like this: “more than 7,000 US service people have died in wars since 9/11,” an article or news report will say. In the next line it will usually, though not always, try to reflect the civilian toll – but almost exclusively in generalities. Tens, or even hundreds, of thousands.

Ahead of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist atrocities, and the subsequent launch of the War on Terror, Airwars has been seeking the answer to one important question – how many civilians have US strikes likely killed in the ‘Forever Wars’?

We found that the US has declared at least 91,340 strikes across seven major conflict zones.

Our research has concluded that at least 22,679, and potentially as many as 48,308 civilians, have been likely killed by US strikes.

The gap between these two figures reflects the many unknowns when it comes to civilian harm in war. Belligerents rarely track the effects of their own actions – and even then do so poorly. It is left to local communities, civil society and international agencies to count the costs. Multiple sources can however suggest different numbers of fatalities, meaning that monitoring organisations like Airwars will record both minimum and maximum estimates.

Our key findings of civilian harm from US actions since 9/11 can be seen in this video and the full dataset is available here.

This accompanying article explains the conflicts we covered and our key findings in a little more detail, before outlining our methodology and data sources.

What are the ‘Forever Wars’?

In the days after the terrorist atrocities of September 11, 2001, in which 2,977 people were killed by Al Qaeda in New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia, US President George W. Bush announced the start of a new type of war, one without defined borders, boundaries, or timescales.

“Our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there,” he told Americans. “It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”

“Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen. It may include dramatic strikes visible on TV and covert operations secret even in success.”

“Every nation in every region now has a decision to make: either you are with us or you are with the terrorists,” he concluded.

So it came to pass. The War on Terror has been a near global endeavour. By 2017 for example, the US Department of Defense said it had around 8,000 “special operators” in 80 countries across the globe.

Dubbed the ‘Forever Wars,’ this conflict has not had clear territorial boundaries, though we have included in our dataset the seven most intensive US military campaigns. The types of conflict vary significantly but broadly fall into three categories:

    Full invasions and occupations of countries – Afghanistan 2001-2021, and Iraq 2003-2009. Major bombing campaigns against the Islamic State terror group – Iraq 2014-2021, Syria 2014-2021, and Libya 2016. More targeted US drone and airstrike campaigns against militant and terror groups – Somalia 2007-2021, Yemen 2002-2021, Pakistan 2004-2018, and Libya 2014-2019.

Key findings

Based on official US military data, we have concluded that the US has carried out a minimum of 91,340 airstrikes throughout the 20 years of the War on Terror.

Particular peaks were seen during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when the US declared 18,695 strike sorties. The campaign against the so-called Islamic State also saw a sustained peak, with more than 9,000 strikes a year from 2015-2017.

We then gathered together every reliable estimate of civilian harm as a result of US strikes.

Wherever possible we sought to measure civilian harm just from US airstrikes but in some cases, such as the first years of the Iraq invasion, it was impossible to disaggregate airstrikes from artillery fire and other heavy munitions, which were therefore included.

Likewise in some US-led Coalitions it was impossible to determine whether each individual strike was American, though US airpower has dominated all such campaigns.

Based on our comprehensive review of credible sources, we found at least 22,679 civilians were likely directly killed by US strikes since 9/11, with that number potentially as high as 48,308.

 

The deadliest year came in 2003, when a minimum of 5,529 civilians were reported to have been killed by US actions according to the monitoring organisation Iraq Body Count, almost all during the invasion of Iraq that year. The next deadliest year was 2017, when at least 4,931 civilians were likely killed, the vast majority in alleged Coalition bombing of Iraq and Syria. However, if we include maximum estimates of civilian harm then 2017 was in fact the worst year for civilian casualties, with up to 19,623 killed.

Almost all of the reported civilian deaths from US wars since 9/11 (97 percent) occurred in the two occupations (Iraq 2003-20119, and Afghanistan 2001-2021); as well as in the campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (2014-2021).

In 2011, at the peak of its 20-year occupation, the US had more than 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. That conflict came to an end last month when the final US troops left after a chaotic withdrawal. During the Iraq occupation, troops numbers peaked at 166,000 in 2007, though forces withdrew by 2011.

Just three years later and following the rise of so-called Islamic State, the US and its international partners began an aerial bombing campaign against ISIS in support of allies on the ground. Campaigns to force ISIS from the Iraqi city of Mosul and the Syrian city of Raqqa in 2016-2017 saw some of the most intense urban fighting since the Second World War. In Raqqa alone, Coalition strikes reportedly killed at least 1,600 civilians. While the Islamists lost their last territorial stronghold in April 2019, the war continues at a low intensity.

 

As part of our research, we also sought official US military estimates for the numbers of civilians killed by its own actions since 9/11. Neither CENTCOM nor the Department of Defense have published such findings.

In the Iraq and Syria campaign against ISIS, the US-led Coalition has accepted killing 1,417 civilians – far lower than Airwars’ own estimate of at least 8,300 civilian deaths for that war.

Additionally, in 2016 the US admitted killing between 64 and 116 civilians in Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen in counter terrorism operations in the years between 2009 and 2015. But it provided no further details, dates or specifics – making assessment of those claims near impossible.

More publicly, the United States has admitted to killing two civilians in Pakistan; thirteen in Yemen; and five in Somalia in recent years. At least 394 and as many as 570 civilians have in fact been killed by US actions in those countries, according to monitoring organisation New America.

Airwars approached CENTCOM, the part of the US military responsible for most of these conflicts, directly for this project. It said data on officially recognised civilian harm was not readily available. “The information you request is not immediately on hand in our office as it spans between multiple operations/campaigns within a span of between 18 and 20 years,” CENTCOM said in an email, requesting instead that we file a Freedom of Information request. Such requests can take several years to get a response, with no guarantee of the information being released.

It’s important to note that Airwars has examined only direct harm from US strikes since 9/11 – with many of our sources providing conservative casualty estimates. We are therefore looking at a fraction of the overall civilian harm in these countries.

Between 363,939 and 370,072 civilians have been killed by all parties to these conflicts since 2001, according to the well respected Brown University Cost of War programme.

Even so, we believe this research represents the most comprehensive public assessment available of minimum civilian harm by direct US strikes and actions in the 20 years of the War on Terror.

Methodology

Parts or all of the data presented here were peer reviewed by multiple experts in the field, and our full dataset has also been published, to enable scrutiny.

That said, we acknowledge that civilian harm monitoring mechanisms have varied and evolved extensively over the past 20 years, and are rarely consistent across organisations and campaigns.

Airwars itself was formed in 2014, and has collated data on many of the US’s conflicts since then, using our all-source monitoring in local languages to gather allegations of civilian harm. However, for much of the data in the years before 2014 and for the entirety of the Afghanistan campaign – which Airwars does not monitor – we are reliant upon other organisations. This section will explain where the data was gathered from.

Afghanistan

In Afghanistan the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has released civilian harm data since 2006. This includes likely civilian harm from airstrikes carried out by foreign powers. While the War on Terror was launched by the US, some allies initially joined – including European nations that sent significant contingents to Afghanistan. It was not possible to definitively conclude if all of these strikes were conducted by the US as opposed to allied nations, although the US provided the overwhelming majority of airpower throughout the war.

In the early years of the conflict, for the period 2001-05 before UNAMA was fully operational, we have relied upon an investigative dataset compiled by The Nation, which though well researched did not claim to be definitive.

Iraq 2003-11

The US and UK invaded Iraq in 2003 to overthrow President Saddam Hussein, and then maintained an occupation with the support of other nations until withdrawing all forces in 2011. In the vacuum after Hussein was unseated, multiple militant groups, including Al Qaeda in Iraq, a predecessor of the Islamic State, thrived. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed in ensuing conflict-related violence.

The NGO Iraq Body Count has been collating tolls of civilian harm since the 2003 invasion. It kindly agreed to provide Airwars with all data related to allegations of civilian harm caused by US actions between 2003 and 2013. According to IBC, in many cases such as the initial invasion, and the assaults on the city of Fallujah in 2004, it was near impossible to disaggregate civilian harm caused by airstrikes with artillery and other munitions. As such, the data from Iraq Body Count presented here relates to deaths caused by airstrikes and explosive weapons. Incidents where only small arms fire was involved have been excluded. As with Afghanistan, it is impossible to know for certain whether each strike was carried out by the US or partner nations, though the US provided the overwhelming majority of airpower throughout the war.

Iraq and Syria 2014-2021

In the years after the Arab Spring rippled through the Middle East and North Africa in 2011, the Islamic State militant group seized a swathe of territory spanning northern Iraq and Syria which was roughly the size of the United Kingdom. From 2014 onwards, the US led an international coalition in a bombing campaign against the group, eventually forcing it to cede its last area of territorial control along the Iraqi-Syrian border in April 2019.

Airwars has monitored civilian harm related to the ongoing seven-year war against the Islamic State since the beginning of the campaign, using a standardised methodology and approach for all our civilian harm monitoring projects. Our researchers conduct daily monitoring of local Arabic-language media and social media in Iraq and Syria, documenting and archiving all claims of civilian harm including those claims reported by the local communities themselves. Each event has a unique assessment online, where an archived version of all sources used is also available. Events are considered ‘live’ – constantly updated as new information is found.

Libya

Al Qaeda had a limited presence in Libya following the defeat of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, and was the target of a small number of US strikes. Then from 2014, an Islamic State affiliate emerged in the country – seizing control of several cities and towns a year later.

Airwars researchers have actively monitored all civilian harm caused by all parties in Libya for many years. Based on hyperlocal media monitoring, and reflecting the same methodology and approach as our Iraq-Syria assessments, we have aggregated the number of alleged civilian deaths related to US strikes against both Al Qaeda and so-called Islamic State in Libya since 2012.

Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen

In the years after 9/11 the United States launched an initially secret drone campaign targeting militant organisations in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. These campaigns led to often significant allegations of civilian harm.

In Pakistan, the data was originally collected by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, with those archives transferred to Airwars in 2019. There have been no reported US strikes since July 2018.

In Somalia, Airwars has published a comprehensive review of all civilian harm allegations from both suspected and declared US strikes and actions since the conflict began in 2007.

In Yemen, the data from 2002-2016 was originally collected by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Airwars has actively monitored the US counter terrorism campaign in Yemen since 2017, and all associated allegations of civilian harm.

Differing methodological approaches

In every conflict, those organisations monitoring civilian harm have applied different methodologies. Airwars, TBIJ and Iraq Body Count are for example remote monitors – meaning that they gather all information publicly available and reflect any uncertainties in their findings – for example by using high and low casualty ranges, rather than definitive figures.

UNAMA employs a different methodology for Afghanistan. Based until recently in Kabul, it deployed field researchers in each province to physically investigate where possible sites of alleged civilian harm, and to interview witnesses. While this approach can lead to more certainty about circumstances and casualty numbers in an individual event, it may also mean that some locally reported cases can be missed. UNAMA also does not provide casualty range estimates – publishing just one number of confirmed civilians killed per year.

More information on conflict casualty standards and methodologies can be found at Every Casualty Counts, which publishes global standards on casualty monitoring, based on the expert work of more than 50 specialist member organisations.

▲ Library image: A US Air Force B-52 refuels during the US campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Credit: Department of Defense)

Published

August 27, 2021

Written by

Megan Karlshoej-Pedersen

Assisted by

Georgia Edwards

As the international war against ISIS enters its eighth year, the UK must urgently improve its approach to the protection of civilians and civilian harm monitoring, reports Airwars' advocacy team.

Over the last decade, warfare has undergone significant changes. Countries such as the UK and US have increasingly done their best to avoid large-scale ground deployments of their own troops, focusing instead on supporting local forces, for instance by providing air power.

Through the monitoring of nearly 60,000 locally alleged civilian deaths caused by belligerents across multiple conflicts, Airwars has documented the risks to civilians that this form of engagement can pose in nations like Iraq and Syria, with heavy uses of explosive weapons in urban environments often leading to very significant civilian casualties and major destruction of civilian infrastructure.

Despite acknowledging the potential risks from recent actions, which saw “the most significant urban combat to take place since World War II”, the UK has failed to improve its approach to the Protection of Civilians (POC). In fact, the UK remains hesitant to openly acknowledge harm from its own actions. Leaving behind this current approach, by introducing public transparency and accountability for identification, review and admissions of casualties is vital to reduce present and future civilian casualties.

This article will assess current UK government action with regard to developing and updating its protection of civilian policies.

The Ministry of Defence

One of the most comprehensive reviews of UK military action in recent times, the 2016 Chilcot report, repeatedly emphasised that the MoD has failed to accurately estimate possible civilian harm that would arise from the 2003-2011 war in Iraq. In fact, the report states the MoD mistakenly estimated the war would ‘only’ cost civilian lives in the “low hundreds”. In reality, Iraq Body Count estimated that more than 114,000 civilians died as a result of violence in Iraq between 2003 and 2011.

The Chilcot report called for the UK to improve how it reaches pre-conflict estimates of civilian harm, declaring that a ‘government has a responsibility to make every reasonable effort to identify and understand the likely and actual effects of its military actions on civilians.’ It also said governments should make ‘greater efforts in the post-conflict period to determine the number of civilian casualties’ and to understand the broader impact of these actions.

In response, MoD officials pledged to improve the protection of civilians in the future. Nevertheless, the key challenges to effective POC identified in the Chilcot report persist to this day, including a lack of accountability; a lack of understanding of the impact of British airstrikes on the ground; and a false belief that the use of ‘smart’ guided munitions might automatically lead to fewer casualties.

This is highlighted by the MoD’s continued claim that it has evidence of only a single civilian casualty from its ongoing seven-year campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. This does not mean, as the MoD has repeatedly emphasised, that they believe their actions have only caused a single civilian death, but only that they claim to have the evidence of one casualty.

However the US-led Coalition has itself concluded that fifteen additional civilians were killed in at least three actions in Iraq and Syria which are known to have been British airstrikes.

Airwars, along with other monitoring organisations, humanitarian organisations, and news outlets, have demonstrated that their own mechanisms to capture civilian harm reports are often far more accurate than those of militaries. For the past two years for example, the majority of officially declared civilian harm reports by the US-led Coalition originated with Airwars, rather than internal military reports. The UK government must therefore reflect on why it has consistently failed to incorporate adequate civilian casualty monitoring mechanisms into all recent operations.

As Airwars’ ‘Europe’s Shame’ investigation highlights, the UK’s allies are often better able to understand and report on the harm that comes from British actions than the UK itself. This was reaffirmed by the recent publication of a Pentagon report to Congress in which they detailed civilian casualties known to have been caused by allies, including Britain.

Library picture: A RAF Typhoon lands in Cyprus hours after UK voted to extend airstrikes to Syria (UK MoD)

This is not to say that there has been no progress at the MoD since the findings of the Chilcot report. When it comes to responding to requests for information regarding specific alleged civilian harm events during the war against ISIS, the MoD has been quick and responsive – at least compared to allies. Yet a number of key changes are required within the Ministry of Defence to ensure that the UK consistently and effectively protects those on the ground when it goes to war, and is transparent when things do go wrong.

Improving the MoD approach

To improve the UK Defence Ministry’s approach to POC, the following key steps must be taken. Firstly, the UK must learn from its allies and independent organisations by establishing a permanent civilian harm tracking cell within the Ministry with strong local understanding and relevant language skills, while conducting site visits and witness interviews for assessments where possible.

The UK must also review the exceptionally high bar it sets for determining civilian harm. Senior British defence officials have confirmed to both the BBC and to Airwars that the UK presently requires what it calls ‘hard facts’ when assessing civilian harm claims – an apparently higher standard even than the ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ used by UK courts. Civilian casualty assessors within the US military instead use a ‘balance of probabilities’ approach, Airwars understands – allowing them to consider local credible reports of civilian harm in their own investigations.

Transparency must then follow. Information about incidents that may have harmed civilians should be publicly disclosed, investigated and fed into internal lessons mechanisms to inform broader approaches to civilian harm mitigation. As outlined by Mike Spagat from Every Casualty Counts: “Transparency about operations can help build positive relations with the public, improve the quality of field data and, ultimately, improve military performance.”

By better understanding the negative impact of its military actions on the ground and communicating the findings in clear ways, the UK will become more accountable both to its own citizens and to those who live where the UK’s armed forces or close partners engage overseas. This would also place the UK in line with allies like the US, which have made a conscious effort to acknowledge at least some instances of civilian harm, as seen for example in Airwars’ investigation of  “The Credibles”.

As a key step towards this, we urge the British government to follow many allies, primarily European, who are increasingly implementing presumptions against the use of explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA) in the planning and conduct of operations. As Rachel Hobley from Humanity and Inclusion emphasises: “When explosive weapons with wide area effects are used in populated areas, 90 percent of those killed or injured are civilians. This compares to just 25 percent in non-urban areas.

“These statistics, which have remained the same for the last 10 years, show the systematic humanitarian harm that arises from these practices. Not only are people killed and injured – families’ homes are also destroyed, health clinics decimated, and key services like water and electricity wiped out.”

The aftermath of a confirmed Coalition airstrike two years on. (via Amnesty)

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office

The MoD is only one actor among many within the UK government which is responsible for protecting civilians on the ground. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) is also vital, as it leads on the UK’s official Approach to the Protection of Civilians.

It is particularly concerning that commitments made in the UK’s 2020 Approach to the Protection of Civilians policy, to “investigate any credible reports that UK actions may have caused civilian harm”, have yet to lead to any tangible changes in the UK’s approach.

At the same time, there is a lack of guidance on how the UK will respond when harm does occur. This reflects a broader trend in which cornerstone policies for the UK’s engagements abroad too often fail adequately to address the importance of protecting civilians. For example, while the government’s recent Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, which was published earlier this year, is broad in its scope – covering everything from cyber warfare to terrorism – it fails to mention the protection of civilians once. This reveals a significant lack of prioritisation of POC, despite such protections being identified time and time again as a key to obtaining strategic goals in wars.

In collaboration with partner civil society organisations, Airwars has held positive discussions with Lord Ahmad, Minister of State for the Commonwealth, in attempts to better understand how the FCDO intends to improve its approach. At the same time, several statements from government officials, including Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, have promised to create a ‘conflict centre’. Yet, despite concerted efforts to gain more information, we are left with a long list of questions on what this will focus on; to what degree it will allow for engagement with civil society actors; and how much it will prioritise the protection of civilians.

Finally, in addition to changes that both the MoD and FCDO must implement to be accountable and protect civilians, we urge the Government to ensure that these departments also coordinate with each other as they are jointly responsible for delivering protections on the ground. As it stands, the two departments often do not even use the same terminology, with the MoD focusing on ‘Human Security’ and the FCDO pursuing ‘Protection of Civilians’. While the two agendas are implicitly connected, it remains unclear why the departments have chosen different approaches, and how they will work together to ensure delivery.

Making the UK’s approach to the protection of civilians more accountable and transparent is not going to be a quick or simple process. Yet it is a vital one; not only for the sake of the civilians who find themselves caught in conflict, but also to ensure that UK actions abroad contribute to stability.

▲ Ministry of Defence Main Building, Horse Guards Avenue.

Published

August 18, 2021

Written by

Joe Dyke

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.

▲ File footage: A U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker refuels a British Tornado fighter over Iraq, Dec. 22, 2015. Coalition forces fly daily missions in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Corey Hook/Released)