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All Dutch military personnel are now safely home following a final tour of duty in the war against ISIS (Image via Dutch Ministry of Defence)

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Published

January 10, 2019

Written by

Maike Awater

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All Dutch military personnel are now safely home following a final tour of duty in the war against ISIS (Image via Dutch Ministry of Defence)

The Netherlands claims that operational security concerns led it to being the least transparent member of the US-led Coalition against ISIS. That must now change, argues Airwars.

On December 31st 2018, the participation of Netherlands F-16s in the international fight against so-called Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria came to an agreed end, after almost four years of airstrikes.

Despite conducting precision airstrikes, the Coalition has not always been successful in preventing civilian casualties – with the alliance overall admitting at least 1,139 civilian deaths from its actions to date. Yet it is nearly impossible to find out when or even whether Dutch F-16s have been responsible for civilian casualties, making them the least transparent member of the international alliance.

Now that the F-16s and their pilots have safely returned home, Airwars is arguing that it is time for the Netherlands to take proper responsibility, and follow the good practice examples of other Coalition countries in demonstrating genuine public transparency.

Unclear figures

The Coalition conducts its own assessments into civilian harm, for example publishing monthly casualty reports. However their findings differ significantly from those of independent research initiatives such as Airwars. There is for example a sharp contrast between the 1,139 civilian death conceded by the Coalition to date, and the 7,316 or more civilian deaths assessed as likely according to the most conservative estimate of Airwars investigations.

This can partly be explained by the methods used by the Coalition to assess claims of civilian harm. The Coalition estimates the number of civilian casualties primarily based upon aerial observations, while Airwars estimates the numbers based on local reports from the ground. A New York Times investigation also made clear that the Coalition’s civilian casualty monitoring team applies a locational assessment radius of just 50m and often does not record the locations of delivered munitions. Claims of civilian harm are therefore  dismissed too easily.

Even so, the US-dominated civilian casualty cell based within the Coalition has striven to identify civilian harm where it can – and to make public those findings. The same cannot be said of Dutch officials at the national level.

The Netherlands Ministry of Defence claims to be transparent because all allegations of civilian harm are referred to the Public Prosecution Service for assessment, even though these investigations are conducted behind closed doors. While the Defence Ministry admits responsibility for killing or injuring civilians in up to three airstrikes in Iraq investigated by the Public Prosecution Service,  it continues to refuse to identify the dates and locations of these same events, or even the number of civilians harmed, citing operational security reasons.

The reluctance of the Netherlands to publish strike details of the assessed incidents sits at odds with greater civilian harm transparency from all other Coalition allies – and with recent broader improvements in levels of Dutch public accountability. Since the renewal of the air campaign in January 2018, the Netherlands has started including the location of the nearest large settlement to a strike in its weekly updates, making it easier for Dutch actions to be cross referenced against public claims over a time period.

However, officials are still refusing to make this same information public for historical Dutch actions between 2014-2016 – including those incidents investigated by the Public Prosecution Service.

The Ministry of Defence had long denied during the war against ISIS that its F-16s were causing civilian harm. That’s what makes it so important for the Ministry of Defence to provide information that enables external scrutiny.

Public transparency by other Coalition allies

The refusal of the Netherlands to disclose the dates and locations of the three events in which its aircraft are known to have harmed civilians runs counter to the public transparency evidenced by many other Coalition allies in recent years. The Netherlands was the fourth country (in addition to the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom) that publicly admitted to having caused civilian harm as a result of their actions against ISIS.

However, all three other countries have explicitly identified incidents in which their aircraft were involved – with no discernible impact of this disclosure either on operational or national security. In addition, there was no attempt by domestic media or others in those countries to single out pilots for blame. Over the duration of the war against ISIS, specific civilian harm allegations have been investigated and publicly commented upon by the United Kingdom; France; Belgium; Denmark; Canada; the United States; and Jordan. In each case, these close allies felt able to engage publicly on civilian harm issues without apparent fear of operational or national security blowback. The Netherlands should follow these examples of good practice, Airwars believes.

Public transparency on civilian harm issues is important for several reasons. First, Dutch citizens have a right to know what kind of war is fought in their name and at what cost. Second, the government is obstructing the natural process of justice for Iraqis and Syrians affected by Dutch airstrikes. According to the Coalition, each member of the alliance remains individually responsible for the civilians it kills or injures – and this includes making any compensation or solatia payments. Presently, the Defence Ministry chooses to withhold crucial information on the location and dates of four investigated strikes – where civilian harm appears likely in most events. This makes it impossible for the relatives of those Iraqis who fell victim to bombardments by the Netherlands to know in which events Dutch aircraft have been implicated.

Back in 2015, the UN’s Human Rights Council emphasized that all states conducting strikes in Iraq and Syria “are under an obligation to conduct prompt, independent and impartial fact-finding inquiries in any case where there is a plausible indication that civilian casualties have been sustained” and crucially, “to make public the results.” Let 2019 be the year that the Netherlands takes proper public responsibility for its military actions.

    Maike Awater is Airwars’ Utrecht-based advocacy and research officer. The original Dutch-language version of this article was published by NRC on January 9th 2019.
▲ All Dutch military personnel are now safely home following a final tour of duty in the war against ISIS (Image via Dutch Ministry of Defence)

Published

December 5, 2018

Written by

Oliver Imhof and Osama Mansour

Incident marks biggest single allegation of civilian harm against US in Libya since 2011.

Local reports indicate that up to eleven civilians have been killed in a US precision strike near Al Uwaynat, in the extreme south of Libya close to the Algerian border on November 29th.

The United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) has confirmed conducting the strike, originally stating that it had targeted fighters from a regional Al Qaeda faction. Responding to allegations of civilian harm, an AFRICOM spokesperson told Airwars that “we are aware of reports alleging civilian casualties resulting from the Nov. 29 airstrike near Al Uwaynat.” However the official added that “At this time, we still assess that no civilians were injured or killed.”

Local sources first reported the airstrike on November 29th, in an area mostly populated and controlled by Tuareg tribespeople. Initial claims were that only suspected militants were killed.

AFRICOM officially confirmed the strike the following day, claiming to have killed “eleven (11) al-Qa’ ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) terrorists and destroying three (3) vehicles.” It further stated that “at this time, we assess no civilians were injured or killed in this strike.”

U.S. Conducts Precision Airstrike in Libya — https://t.co/mbirKvlIwp pic.twitter.com/e3OvHxD6WJ

— US AFRICOM (@USAfricaCommand) November 30, 2018

Local demonstrations

Both locals and Al Qaeda itself quickly rejected AFRICOM’s claim of no civilian harm – insisting that the victims did not belong to any terror organisation. Members of a local Tuareg tribe issued a statement during a demonstration in Ubari against the American strike demanding justice for those killed. They further requested an investigation by the Libyan government, and the names of those killed by AFRICOM.

While the combatant status of all victims was not entirely clear, locals denied that any of the victims had belonged to Al Qaeda. At least some of those killed were said to be militiamen aligned with a US-supported faction in Libya which in 2016 had successfully ousted so-called Islamic State from the city of Sirte.

According to the Tuareg statement “the victims included civilians and military personnel. Among them was a field commander in Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous, who fought terrorism in Sirte to offer his country security and stability.” Two of the alleged victims who fought ISIS have been named as Moses Tony and Issa Mousi Ahmed Malik Taraki.

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إن العين تدمع والقلب يحزن ولا نقول إلا ما يرضى ربنا وإنا بفراقك لحزينونهذا الفديو لشاب البطل #موسى_توني في #حرب_سرت_ضدالتنظيمالإرهابي_داعشعندما ترك كل شيء ورائه أسرته و أبنائه لنصرة الوطن وشارك في حرب تحرير المدينة من قبضة داعشوالآن نتفاجئ بضربات الأفريكوم الظالمة والغير مبررة لي هؤلاء الشباب في العوينات بتهمة الإرهاب وبدون أي دليل يذكر تحت صمت الحكومات وذكر موقفها من هذه الخروقات الواضحة وحملة التشويه التي تطال مناطق الطوارقوفي ظل هذه الأحداث الكارثية تطالنا الحسرة والخيبة في بعض وسائل الإعلام والنشطاء والاعلاميين لمنح هذا الموضوع حقه في تبيان الحقيقة وما مدى الظلم الذي تعرض له هؤلاء الشبابقد يكون أحدنا الضحية في المرة القادمة بتهمة الإرهاب لو أستمر الصمت والتجاهل بخصوص هذه الخروقات والجرائم ضد الإنسانية التي يمارسها الأفريكوم الإرهابي .

Geplaatst door ‎ربوع ليبيا‎ op Vrijdag 30 november 2018

Video of Moses Tony allegedly fighting ISIS

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#اوباري ..خاص – الاسم ( عيسي موسي أحمد مالك التارقي ) الشهير #تقيست_التارقي والمكني #الاقدالي ومن مواليد 1993 ومن سكان…

Geplaatst door ‎لا للإخوان و المتطرفين في ليبيا‎ op Zondag 2 december 2018

Issa Mousi Ahmed Malik Taraki

In their statement, the Tuareg further claimed that the “motorcade that was bombed was on its way to rescue a group of Tuareg, near the Algerian border, who were encountering a smuggling gang attempting to smuggle heavy machinery to Algeria.”

Sign during the demonstration in Ubari saying: “AFRICOM killing our sons in the so-called War on Terror” (via Libya’s Channel)

The incident created an abundance of online sources showing both the scorched cars following the strike in the middle of the desert, as well as a demonstration condemning the violence.

Last week’s incident may mark the biggest known loss of civilian life from a US action in Libya since 2011. Acknowledging that AFRICOM was aware of the claims of civilian harm, an official outlined the next steps: “As with any allegation of civilian casualties we receive, U.S. Africa Command will review any information it has about the incident, including any relevant information provided by third parties. If the information supporting the allegation is determined to be credible, USAFRICOM will then determine the next appropriate step.

USAFRICOM complies with the law of armed conflict and takes all feasible precautions during the targeting process to minimize civilian casualties and other collateral damage.”

▲ A truck reportedly destroyed in the US strike near Al Uwaynat on November 30, 2018 (via Riyadh Burshan)

Published

September 24, 2018

Written by

Oliver Imhof

A major new Airwars report submitted to the British Parliament is challenging UK claims to have harmed no civilians during the battles of Mosul and Raqqa, despite almost 1,000 targets having been struck by the RAF. The UK’s involvement represented one of its biggest military actions since the Korean War in the 1950s.

The 43 page report, Credibility Gap – United Kingdom civilian harm assessments for the battles of Mosul and Raqqa, was submitted by Airwars in response to an inquiry by the UK Parliament’s Defence Select Committee – which has also published a shorter version of the report. As well as taking oral evidence from senior British military commanders, the Committee has received written submissions from the Ministry of Defence and NGOs including Amnesty International, Save the Children and Article 36.

Front page of the Airwars report

Airwars is blunt in its own submission. While welcoming overall UK transparency, it challenges the MoD’s narrative of an antiseptic airwar in Iraq in Syria: “It is the view of Airwars that the Ministry of Defence’s claim of zero civilian harm from its actions at Mosul and Raqqa represents a statistical impossibility given the intensity of fighting, the extensive use of explosive weapons, and the significant civilian populations known to have been trapped in both cities,” the report notes.

In both battles Airwars has in total identified 413 alleged civilian harm events where British involvement is in theory possible based on public reporting of strikes: 176 of these were in Raqqa and 237 in Mosul. For the majority of these cases the UK’s position is still unestablished. Some 40 events have however been directly referred to the Ministry of Defence for assessment. In 39 of these cases the MoD rejected any involvement, while one case remains open.

Monthly breakdown of potential UK tagged alleged fatalities in the Battles of Raqqa and Mosul

Looking at the bigger picture, the Coalition has conceded civilian harm in 36 out of the 413 known alleged events for the battles of Mosul and Raqqa. While the US was responsible for around two thirds of Coalition strikes in Mosul, and an estimated 95 per cent of strikes in Raqqa,  as the second most active belligerent, UK involvement in civilian harm events is feasible.

The high number of reported civilian casualties is not the only reason the UK’s claim of zero urban harm is implausible. The battles of Raqqa and Mosul made clear that the benefits of precision weaponry are greatly overstated when it comes to urban warfare. As the report notes: “The greater the intensity of explosive weapons use – predominantly in urban areas – the higher the civilian toll.”

Read our new report, Credibility Gap, in full

During the campaigns, much of the Old City of Mosul and almost 70% of Raqqa’s entirety were destroyed or rendered uninhabitable, according to the United Nations. Much of the damage was caused by Coalition actions with at least 50,000 munitions fired, along with significant destruction that came from ISIS actions and either government forces or proxies. All parties combined reportedly killed at least 9,000 civilians in Mosul and 2,400 or more in Raqqa, according to current best estimates.

For the UK, the 500lb Paveway IV bomb has generally been the weapon of choice, accounting for two out of three weapons released during military operations in Iraq and Syria. The Paveway IV, a wide area effect munition with a large explosion radius, is poorly suited to urban warfare according to Airwars. As the report states, its use “would over the course of hundreds of strikes, have caused potentially significant additional unintended harm to civilians and infrastructure when released on dense urban areas.”

In combination with the intensity of bombardment – the Coalition released an average of 3,200 munitions per month in Mosul between October 2016 and July 2017, for example – there are many other reasons to doubt UK claims that civilians were not harmed by its actions. ISIS deliberately placed civilians in areas where air-dropped munition might harm them. Nonetheless, “a key finding of Airwars is that the Coalition did not significantly modulate its use of explosive weapons once operations focused on Raqqa,” where an average of 4,000 munitions per month was dropped on a much smaller area.

Choropleth of Airwars estimated maximum number of fatalities in Fair and Confirmed graded incidents during the Battle of Mosul (excluding incidents for which coordinates are missing or geo-accuracy is at city- or town-level).

‘A fool’s errand’

British claims to have harmed no civilians during the battles for Mosul and Raqqa stand in direct contrast to the views of the most senior UK commander in the Coalition, who helped devise the strategy to capture both cities from ISIS.

“War is brutal, and if you want to fight in cities, everything is more extreme,” Major General Rupert Jones, who served as deputy commander of the Coalition, told the Defence Select Committee inquiry in May 2018.

“Everything is heightened in a city – the number of troops you need, the amount of munitions you drop, and the amount of suffering… The idea that you can liberate a city like Mosul or Raqqa without – tragically – civilian casualties is a fool’s errand,” concluded Jones.

Despite such statements, and similar ones by other officials, “British defense officials, at least while still serving, have often appeared unable or unwilling to take the logical step of concluding that Britain, as the most active Coalition member after the United States, would have a proportionally significant share of such casualties.” It took the UK 44 months to acknowledge any civilian harm during its mission in Iraq and Syria, raising doubt about its willingness to concede such events.

The Airwars report also puts the process of examining cases and quality of assessment under scrutiny, as the UK mostly relies on the Coalition’s own civilian harm cell. Most commonly, the Coalition relies on what is observable during events, meaning what can be seen from footage taken from above.

This process is problematic, since most civilian harm in urban fighting occurs in unobservable spaces. Families and individuals were killed in significant numbers in both Mosul and Raqqa when buildings collapsed on top of them – an outcome which military surveillance rarely captures. Airwars also found that a significant proportion of UK strikes targeted buildings. According to MoD reports released at the time, during the Battle for Raqqa 63% of UK strikes targeted buildings, while 31% of strikes hit such structures during the Battle for East Mosul.

Map showing how Credible civilian harm incidents in the Battle of Raqqa (for which Airwars has received Military Grid Reference Coordinates to an accuracy of 1 m or 100 m) are located in High Density Urban areas.

Recommendations for improvement

As a result of concerns about the implausibility of UK claims of no civilian harm during the battles of Mosul and Raqqa – and the MoD’s internal review process – Airwars makes several key recommendations to help improve British monitoring and reporting of civilian harm:

    That the Ministry of Defence establishes a dedicated civilian harm assessment cell for future conflicts, to which personnel with key skills are assigned. That the MoD enhances its assessment and investigative capacities in order to properly evaluate allegations of civilian harm. Where possible this should include a proper review of local claims and external field studies; communication with victims and witnesses; and on site investigations. In light of most local, credibly reported civilian harm at Mosul and Raqqa occurring within unobservable spaces, that the MoD reviews whether it is over-reliant upon ISR when determining non combatant harm; and assesses whether the statistical modelling used in its own Collateral Damage Estimates for urban actions might undercount civilian casualties. The extensive use of larger explosive weapons at Mosul and Raqqa contributed to civilian harm, despite advances in precision guidance. Airwars calls on the MoD to review its present munitions suite in relation to urban warfare. That the MoD provides, as a matter of course, compensation or solatia payments for those affected by UK military actions in which civilian harm is conceded. That the MoD provides as much locational detail as possible in its public strike logs. This will assist external agencies in evaluating potential harm from British strikes – while preventing the UK from being unnecessarily implicated in events. Following due consideration of the above concerns, that the MoD undertakes a full and proper assessment of more than 400 civilian harm allegations during the battles of Mosul and Raqqa in which UK forces might have been involved.

As the Airwars report notes, despite significant improvements in overall civilian harm assessment – especially at a Coalition level – there is still much room for improvement by the UK in how it deals with the consequences of its military actions.

As the Airwars report concludes, “for affected local civilians in Iraq and Syria, accountability is the issue.” After many years of war, belligerents taking proper responsibility for their actions could offer some relief for Iraqi and Syrian families. Without such accountability, there is a risk that these communities might once again believe themselves abandoned – and become a future target for extremism.

    The Airwars report was authored by inhouse investigator Samuel Oakford with key assistance from other team members including Eirini Christodoulaki, Sophie Dyer, Salim Habib, Kinda Haddad, Shihab Halep, Alex Hopkins. Koen Kluessien, Santiago Ruiz, Hanna Rullmann, Eeva Sarlin, Abdulwahab Tahhan and Elin Espmark Wibe.
▲ Raqqa during the battle in January 2018 (via Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently)

Published

September 10, 2018

Written by

Samuel Oakford

The government of Bashar al Assad stands poised to recapture the last part of Syria held by rebels, with millions of civilians also under threat. Yet just three years ago the capital Damascus appeared likely to fall, and with it Assad himself. That dynamic changed with the aggressive intervention of Russia in Syria’s turbid civil war. Airwars reports on Moscow’s most ambitious foreign military intervention in decades, A version of this feature is also published by Foreign Policy. 

When the Assad government moved on rebel-held areas of southwest Syria in late June, events followed a troublingly familiar route. As with the Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta and Aleppo city before it, pro-government forces turned to Russia for blistering and deadly aerial support. Moscow ordered attacks in and around the provincial capital of Dara’a, unleashing a barrage of strikes over a matter of days. In the last week of June alone, Russian forces were implicated in at least 150 alleged civilian deaths, according to Airwars tracking.

Just as in Ghouta and Aleppo, Airwars also monitored multiple reports claiming the consistent targeting of civilian infrastructure, including clinics and other medical facilities in Dara’a, as well as residential areas and shelters where fleeing civilians had sought refuge. On June 28th, at least 20 civilians were killed after alleged Russian strikes reportedly hit several shelters in Al-Massifra. Photographs also showed a hospital in the town in ruins from the bombing.

Compared to other urban campaigns in Syria, the Russian onslaught on Dara’a was short lived. Airstrikes were overwhelming, and by the second week of July the government flag was already being hoisted.

While US Coalition strikes against ISIS remnants are now largely relegated to narrow parts of eastern Syria, the Russian campaign is gearing up again for what may be the deadliest – and effectively final – battle of the war. On September 4th, local monitors began reporting heavy Russian and regime strikes in the northern province of Idlib, the last substantial redoubt of opposition forces including dominant jihadist factions.

The UN has warned that some three million civilians, many displaced from elsewhere in the country, are penned inside Idlib – trapped between encroaching regime forces and the closed Turkish border. Already facing humanitarian catastrophe,this all makes them more vulnerable to airstrikes, which have already claimed thousands of lives in the province.

From verge of collapse to near victory

When Russia began bombing Syria in support of the government three years ago, large swathes of the country had been lost by the regime. ISIS controlled much of Raqqa, Deir Ezzor and Hassaka governorates – while rebel and extremist islamist groups such as Al Qaeda affiliate the al Nusra Front had seized territory across much of northern and southern Syria – and even parts of the capital. As Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov asserted in a September 5th interview, “If you remember, we started assisting Bashar al-Assad in September 2015, when ISIS militants had almost reached Damascus, and the al-Assad Government was on the verge of collapse.”

Since then the regime – backed by intense and deadly Russian airpower, and Iranian and other proxies – has captured large urban centers in the center and north of the country, and eventually pushed opposition groups from the outskirts of the capital itself. Advances by US-backed SDF forces meanwhile droves ISIS from nearly all of northeast Syria. Tens of thousands have been reported killed during these parallel air campaigns.

Yet there have been significant differences between these two campaigns. Although Russia recently declared conducting 39,000 airstrikes in Syria since 2015, those strikes have stopped and started – undulating with political developments. Victory for the US-led alliance has always been focused on the military defeat of ISIS, a goal that the campaign has bulldozed towards at all times. Yet Russia’s goals in Syria have always been wider, with airstrikes and other military support focused primarily on helping the Assad government to secure control over all of Syria.

“The military strategy here depends entirely on the political,” said Yury Barmin, a Moscow-based Middle East analyst. “They don’t carry out airstrikes because they need to eliminate this or that group, but they carry out airstrikes because they need to implement political goals.”

In Idlib, those dynamics still hold out some hope for a political solution. For the last year, the province has been under a partial ceasefire involving Turkey, Iran and Russia. These same powers, pulling at the myriad anti-government forces on the ground, could still reach some sort of agreement, though given the finality of any Idlib offensive for the war, it would likely be far more complicated than anything previously brokered.

Russia has at times halted strikes following local and national ceasefires.  It has ignored other cessations entirely, or observed them only to later escalate ferociously to bring about desired results. Moscow has shown little regard, either in its actions or words, for civilian life – so much so that civilian harm has appeared not just unpreventable but calculated.  Russian strikes in this way can be extremely punitive, said Matti Suomenaro, a researcher at the Institute for the Study of War, a conservative think tank in Washington DC that tracks the Russian campaign.

“A good example of this is after mid-September of last year, when there was an opposition offensive launched in Idlib province,” said Suomenaro. “Russia specifically increased its targeting of almost all medical facilities in southern Idlib, almost as punishment.”

Diplomatically, Russia has also maneuvered cannily with power-players in the region. In southwest Quinetra, Moscow recently refrained from bombing, apparently due to the area’s proximity to Israel. When Turkey shot down a Russian plane and Russia’s ambassador was later assassinated in Istanbul, it led only to more productive relations between the two increasingly illiberal nations.

While the US-led Coalition’s sole aim has been the military defeat of ISIS, Moscow’s campaign has broader aims – with strikes modulating to reflect broader political issues.

‘A counter terror operation’

Though Syrians are by now familiar with Russia’s bombings in their own country, clues to what remains in store for civilians trapped in Idlib, the last rebel stronghold – can be found in both Russia and the Soviet Union’s military past.

Officially, Moscow’s campaign in Syria has been explained as a counterterror operation, key to the national security interests of Russia and carried out at the express invitation of a despotic but technically recognized government. “All of this military activity is a manifestation and kind of support of the concept of sovereignty,” said Timur Makhmutov, deputy program director at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), a think tank based in Moscow.

“We certainly are not going to plunge head-on into this conflict,” said President Vladimir Putin in a televised address announcing the campaign in September 2015. “We will be supporting the Syrian army purely in its legitimate fight with terrorist groups.” In Syria, Russia would provide airpower in support of regime and other ground forces including the Lebanese group Hezbollah and Iranian troops.

An early example of Russia’s approach came halfway through the first year of the Russian campaign. From 99 alleged Russian-linked civilian casualty incidents tracked by Airwars in Syria during October 2015, reports rose steadily, hitting an early peak of 182 in February 2016. Then, after a ceasefire was agreed, allegations fell dramatically, to 39 claimed events by May.

“I think there are some failures and these failures should be recognized on the ground but Russia is trying to make ceasefires to let people who are under the attacks and [in] these crisis situations out,” said Ruslan Mamedov, a colleague of Makhmutov’s at RIAC in Moscow. Russia, he noted, engaged Turkey, which he said helped bring about effective surrenders and evacuations among groups over which they held influence . “These kinds of approaches helped to save lives,” said Mamedov.

Ceasefires in Syria have rarely held. In November 2016, Airwars tracked 215 separate events that included allegations of over 1,000 civilian deaths at the hands of Russia – about two-thirds of which were in Aleppo, which was now under direct attack. By December, all hospitals in eastern Aleppo were reportedly wrecked from regime and Russian bombings – attacks that the UN Commission of Inquiry found to “strongly suggest the deliberate and systematic targeting of medical infrastructure as part of a strategy to compel surrender.” That tactic was a war crime, said the Commission.

“We see that now when the Russians wanted to have a softer approach with the opposition they would stop bombing for a while, introduce short periods of calm,” said analyst Yuri Barmin. “When they see that the opposition isn’t cooperative, then they ramp up the bombing.”

This brutal strategy worked – at enormous cost. Russia, the Assad government and those opposition fighters that remained did reach a deal in mid December that saw at least 34,000 people evacuated from Aleppo to neighboring Idlib governorate. Thereafter, Airwars monitored a significant drop in civilian casualty events tied to Russia in Syria.

Targeting ISIS

When it first militarily intervened in Syria, Moscow claimed to be doing so in order to fight the so-called Islamic State. That assertion has been controversial ever since. Well into 2017, Russia and the regime stood accused by Western adversaries of bombing ISIS lightly, or not at all. It was certainly the case that in the early days of its campaign Russia primarily focused on rebel and extremist groups in the west of Syria, rather than on ISIS.

Yet Russia did later shift its firepower eastward – towards Palmyra and then beyond – in what was viewed in part as a counter to US influence in the area. Soon pro-government forces were racing against the US’s proxy fighters in Syria, the SDF, to reach the Euphrates River Valley area along the border with Iraq. Beginning in September 2017, monitors began reporting significant death tolls from suspected pro-government strikes in eastern Deir Ezzor governorate.

On February 24, 2018, amid the carnage in Eastern Ghouta, UN Security Council diplomats passed a nationwide cessation of hostilities (leaving out ISIS and al Qaeda-linked groups) that was immediately ignored. In the lead up, Amnesty International insisted that Russian and Syrian government forces “deliberately and systematically targeted hospitals and other medical facilities.” Those attacks amounted to war crimes, said the group.

Air strikes, shelling and ground incursions all increased after the resolution. In the month that followed, the UN monitored some 1,700 deaths in Eastern Ghouta, caused in particular by airstrikes. UN investigators recorded 29 separate attacks on health facilities in the enclave.

According to Airwars monitoring, in one seven day period Russia faced allegations of responsibility for over 300 deaths. Doctors Without Borders separately reported a death toll of 1,000 in just two weeks.” Russian officials called the reports “disinformation.” The Siege of Eastern Ghouta was over by April, with much of it in ruin. (By comparison, more than two-thirds of Raqqa was rendered uninhabitable by the US-led campaign there.)

Despite tens of thousands of Russian airstrikes and three years of war, Moscow has yet to concede a single civilian fatality from its Syria campaign. Nor is Airwars aware of any Russian civilian harm monitoring process comparable with that of the US-led Coalition – which by contrast has admitted to more than 1,000 civilian deaths across Iraq and Syria.

“I’m not aware of any serious discussions within the military about who is a civilian and who is a legitimate target,” said Katya Sokirianskaia, director at the Conflict Analysis and Prevention Centre, and a former analyst with the International Crisis Group. “I don’t think for them this is generally a point of concern.”

Both the Russian Ministry of Defense and the Russian Mission to the UN in New York did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

A suspected Russian airstrike on a Daraa suburb on June 30th killed seven civilians according to local reports (Image via White Helmets)

Urban destruction

Recent figures released by Russia’s Ministry of Defense show the staggering scale of Moscow’s deployment in support of the Assad regime. Along with 39,000 airstrikes with more than 86,000 “militants” claimed killed, a total of 63,000 Russian personnel have so far been deployed to Syria.

Deaths among Russian personnel have nevertheless been relatively light – not unexpected given that Russia, just like the US-led Coalition, is primarily focused on remote airstrikes. Most aircrew have died as a result of crashes, though a small number of aircraft have been shot down.

Yet these official combat deaths in Syria appear to be significantly outweighed by those of Russian contractors. In February 2018, at least dozens and possibly hundreds of Russian mercenaries were killed when pro-regime fighters reportedly attacked an SDF base in eastern Syria where American troops were also based.

The roots of Moscow’s intent to minimize official casualties (which can also be seen in the current Ukraine conflict) may be found in another intervention more than three decades ago: the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. By the time they were driven out nearly a decade later, some 15,000 Soviet soldiers had been killed, and the communist bloc was close to collapsing.

“What we call Afghan syndrome – the memories of the Afghan war – are still very strong in this society,” said Katya Sokirianskaia, the director at the Conflict Analysis and Prevention Centre. “The Afghan war in public consciousness is associated with a very protracted war with many casualties among the Russian conscripts which was inconclusive and damaging for the Soviet Union.”

If the approach to keeping its own forces out of harm’s way came from Afghanistan, Sokirianskaia looks to Chechnya for insight into how Russia fights in urban settings. During two wars in the Muslim-majority region in 1990s and early 2000s, urban areas – specifically the capital of Grozny – were levelled.

“I’ve been working on armed conflicts involving Russia for the last 17 years and what we’ve seen is these campaigns have often been indiscriminate,” she said. “Chechnya is a good example – Syria on a smaller scale. In Grozny, with a half million civilians inside, hardly a single building was spared.”

Images of the destruction in Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta drew comparisons to infamous pictures showing Grozny’s shattered skyline. (Russia gleefully trolled those on social media, making the comparison itself.) Thousands of Russian soldiers – and countless more civilians – were killed in fighting for the Chechen city. “The Russian lesson from Grozny was don’t do urban warfare with your own people,” said Michael Kofman, a senior research scientist at CNA.

Yet the wars in Chechnya were not viewed as failures, despite the intense civilian harm they caused.. “Chechnya works fine as far as Russia is concerned because it is [now] peaceful, it is subdued, it has arrived at a method of government which resolves the problem,” said Keir Giles, a senior consulting fellow at Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia Programme. “For Russia, civilian suffering is a tool to be exploited to win the war.”

Syrian civil society and and monitors have made extensive years-long efforts to track the civilian toll of the war in Syria, including from Russian strikes. But do these reports make it back to Russia? How many Russians are even aware of the thousands of civilians killed by their military? The answer – as with most citizens of Coalition member nations like the US – is that very few likely are.

“An average Russian who doesn’t have independent information on Foreign Policy and relies on the state media for their knowledge of international relations trusts the official narrative on who is committing violations,” said Sokirianskaia, the director at the Conflict Analysis and Prevention Centre. “In the end both the media and the Russian citizens prefer to not to really focus on the humanitarian disaster, just to distance themselves from this issue. Everyone knows it is a bloodbath in Syria, but we working to restore peace and are fighting terrorists.”

In response to questions stating that Russian and government forces have killed untold thousands, Vladimir Putin told Fox News in July 2018 that recent US actions also carried a heavy price: “A huge proportion of the civilian population of Raqqa died. It was erased from the face of the earth. It reminds me of Stalingrad from World War II, and there is nothing good about it.”

The Russian president’s point appeared to be that such destruction and mass civilian casualties is an inevitability of urban warfare – whoever the belligerent.

The final blow?

After weeks of protracted and apparently failed negotiations, Syrians are poised once more for the regime – and the Russian Air Force – to turn their firepower upon Idlib. Civilians there have reason to be terrified. According to the United Nations more than three million people are at risk. Most have nowhere left to run.

There is still hope that diplomacy may prevail: after all, Russia’s airstrikes act as a means to an end. Airstrikes in Idlib fell considerably during August, as hope still held that a diplomatic solution from talks in Astana might perhaps peel off some less hardline groups in the province. During the final full week of the month, Airwars monitors didn’t track a single casualty event in Syria that was blamed Russia. That ended on September 4th when reports began trickling in of civilian deaths from Russian airstrikes — all in Idlib.

“We have seen a pattern where the number of airstrikes usually drops before big battles,” said Airwars’ Syria researcher Abdulwahab Tahhan. “If or when this campaign on Idlib starts, the consequences on civilians would be catastrophic. The Syria-Turkish borders are closed and there does not seem any other place they can go to in order to be safe from the airstrikes.”

Any casualties at Idlib will join a lengthy list. In the three years since Moscow entered the war in September 30th 2015, Airwars has monitored over 18,485 alleged civilian deaths tied to Russian actions in Syria. At least 5,917 of those reported killed have been named in local outlets, on social media or by casualty recorders. Though Airwars is still working to vet all the nearly 18,000 deaths alleged against Russia, other casualty recorders such as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, have put the figure at more than 7,800 civilians killed through the end of June 2018.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently implied that some measures will be taken to protect “compliant” civilians in Idlib – just as he claims occurred at Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta: “We always set up humanitarian corridors and always did our best to sign a local ceasefire agreement with the compliant opposition. They were pardoned by the Syrian government, laid down their weapons and rejoined peaceful life in Syria.”

Yet for military planners, any concerns over the safety of civilians will take a back seat to Moscow’s ultimate goal: the complete triumph of Bashar al Assad’s regime.

Published

September 6, 2018

Written by

Oliver Imhof and Osama Mansour

The fresh crisis was triggered after the Libyan capital was attacked by the 7th Brigade – a militia previously confined to the nearby city of of Tarhuna, and which is led by a 33 year old field commander.

The UN, the EU and the P3+1 group for Libya consisting of France, Italy, the UK and the US have all condemned recent events in and around Tripoli. According to OCHA, the United Nations agency, a total of 61 people were killed with another 159 injured and over 2,000 families forced to flee their homes in the first week of fighting.

According to a UN statement UN Secretary General António Guterres reminded “all parties that the indiscriminate use of force is a violation of international humanitarian and human rights law. He urges all parties to grant humanitarian relief for those in need, particularly those who are trapped by the fighting.”

A UN-brokered ceasefire appears to be holding for the moment.

Facts and numbers on the clashes provided by OCHA

New armed actor

The fresh wave of violence in Tripoli began on August 27th, and was triggered by the 7th Brigade, a militia which had previously been based at Tarhuna, 50 km south of Tripoli. It consists of 5,000 members and is fronted by Major General al-Said al-Jedi al-Tarhuni. Also known as the Kaniyat or Kani Brigade, the name was derived from the Kani family which established the Brigade in 2013.

Five Kani brothers still dominate the brigade today: Abdul Khaliq Khalifa Al Kani, who is currently a political and tribal leader, and Mohammed Khalifa Ali Kani, head of the military council of Tarhuna, reportedly come from a Salafist background. Muammar Khalifa al-Kani is responsible for the ‘Ministry of Finance’, banks and municipalities in the city, and Abdulrahim Khalifa Al-Kani, a merchant, supervises security in Tarhuna. The fifth brother is Muhsin Khalifa al-Kani, 33, who is in effective command of the 7th Brigade at Tripoli.

After seizing heavy weaponry in 2013, the 7th Brigade managed to take control of Tarhuna in the following years, providing some sort of stability in the city by reducing crime and kidnappings.

For its operation in Tripoli the 7th Brigade teamed up with other militias from Zintan, Tajoura and Misurata and remnants of groups that were ousted from Tripoli upon the arrival of the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in early 2016.

According to a spokesperson for the 7th Brigade, the aim of the present operation is to ‘cleanse’ the capital of the corruption that the Tripoli militias are constantly being accused of. It has denied any affiliation with the rebel Libyan National Army (LNA) controlling other areas of the country, or with any other major actors in Libya.

Prior to the assault by the 7th Brigade and its allies, Tripoli was controlled by five separate militias:

–  The Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade (TRB) was first established in Benghazi in 2011 and is presently led by Haitham al-Taj Tajuri. It is now known as the First Security Division of the Central General Security Administration.

–  The Special Deterrence Force (SDF) is led by Abd al-Raouf Kara, a Salafist from Tripoli, who runs a detention centre in Mitiga airport, (where up to 500 suspected ISIS members are held.) In 2013 the General National Congress (GNC) legitimized the force by bringing it under nominal Ministry of Interior authority.

–  The Ghanewa Brigade – also known as the Central Security Authority in Abu Sleem – is led by Abd al-Ghani al-Kikli from Kikla in the western mountains.

–  The Central Security Force for North Tripoli, also known as the Nawasi Brigade, has a Salafist background and is led by Mustafa Kaddour.

–  The 301 Brigade is made up of Misrata forces which are based in southern Tripoli and which was established by a decree from former prime minister Khalifa al Ghwell.

These militias initially appeared to provide some stability in Tripoli, which experienced upheaval at the beginning of the second Libyan civil war in 2014. They were also supposed to protect the GNA during its early days in 2016 – but then became its only foothold in the city after the supposed national government failed to establish a proper military presence in Tripoli, or to exercise effective governance outside or inside the capital.

The resulting power vacuum resulted in reported major political influence by the militias over the GNA, with the five armed groups awarded further legitimacy when they were fully acknowledged under the umbrella of the Government of National Accord (GNA).

Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Al Sarraj said in a statement that he had already dissolved the 7th Brigade in April and condemned it for still keeping its weapons arsenal. He further said: “We will not allow the repetition of the destruction and burning of state installations, and we will bear the responsibility of all the Libyans.”

Ceasefire talks

Initial efforts to de-escalate the clashes and reach a ceasefire failed due to the intensity of fighting, which included the use of tanks, artillery and continued random shelling which have so far killed up to 19 civilians.

Airwars has so far tracked five events in which civilians were harmed as a result of artillery shelling, resulting in up to ten deaths and 21 injuries. More information can be found on the Airwars Libya microsite.

On August 29th there were two claimed airstrikes targeting the 7th Brigade and its allied forces. One was reportedly in South Tripoli and the other a claimed strike inside a 7th Brigade military camp in Tarhuna city which killed three members of the brigade. The militia accused both the GNA and Italy of conducting that attack.

The escalation of violence also led to the closure of Tripoli Mitiga airport on August 31st, and as many as 400 inmates escaped from Ain Zara prison in the chaos. There were also reports of hijacking and looting of government institutions in both the south and west of Tripoli.

On September 4th all parties involved in the fighting agreed on a ceasefire brokered by UNSMIL. However, past events have shown that such agreements between militias in Libya can be highly unstable and the coming days will show if the situation around the capital remains peaceful.

UNSMIL Statement on the Facilitation of a Ceasefire Agreement to end Fighting in #Tripoli

Agreement: https://t.co/Nu4fvd9pSPPhotos: https://t.co/v0AyvqdNXX pic.twitter.com/ZhfFxsVTXp

— UNSMIL (@UNSMILibya) September 4, 2018

▲ Destruction following an airtstrike on a Tawergha refugee camp in Tripoli (via Afrigate News)

Published

August 8, 2018

Written by

Oliver Imhof

The fourth anniversary of the international war against so-called Islamic State sees the terror group nearly ousted as a territorial entity from both Iraq and Syria, according to US-led Coalition forces and local monitors. The removal of the group has helped lead to significant recovery in some areas, particularly in Iraq. However the cost for civilians of ISIS’s defeat has also been high.

The conflict – which has drawn 14 international powers into a major fighting alliance since August 8th 2014 – has seen almost 30,000 Coalition air and artillery strikes and more than 108,000 munitions dropped from the air on ISIS forces. Those combat partners known to be still active are the United States, the UK, France and the Netherlands.

International airpower has played a huge role in defeating ISIS. The first US airstrike took place near Erbil in Iraq, on August 8th 2014. Exactly 1,462 days of war later, and Washington’s intervention has now lasted longer than the American Civil War, and the US’s participation in both the First and Second World Wars.

The present best estimate by Airwars is that between 6,500 and 10,000 civilians have likely been killed in Coalition actions in four years of fighting – with the alliance itself presently conceding more than 1,000 non-combatants deaths from its air and artillery strikes.

The last public costings for the war, published 13 months ago, declared that the US had already spent $14bn in its fight against ISIS. More than 70,000 ISIS fighters have been alleged killed by the US-led campaign according to anonymous officials – though recently the Coalition has been more tight lipped in estimating the number of enemy fighters killed.

At its height, ISIS had held much of northern and central Iraq, and swathes of Syria. Yet today, only a hard core of about 1,500 ISIS fighters is thought to remain around Hajin in the Euphrates Valley near the Syrian-Iraqi border, among them senior figures possibly including leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. Other fighters have been driven into more remote desert areas on both the Syrian and Iraqi sides of the border.

In Iraq itself ISIS is now defeated as a territorial entity – with only a limited number of Coalition airstrikes since the capture of Mosul in July 2017. However there are troubling signs of an emerging insurgency, with police and army units recently targeted.

“The coalition of 77 nations and international organizations remains committed to achieving the lasting defeat of #ISIS and its pervasive and negative ideology” – GEN Votel @CJTFOIR #Syria #Iraqhttps://t.co/8aRKJ40mMe

— U.S. Central Command (@CENTCOM) July 21, 2018

The civilian toll

While ISIS has paid a high price in the war, civilians in Iraq and Syria have also suffered. The terror group murdered many thousands – for example committing acts of genocide against the Yazidis of Northern Iraq – and also held captive the populations of major urban areas including Mosul, Ramallah, and Raqqa. Many cities and towns in Iraq and Syria have been almost entirely destroyed in the fighting, with millions forced to flee.

The war has routinely been dubbed “the most precise war in history” by the Coalition due to its heavy use of GPS- and laser-guided bombs and missiles: munitions that were meant to save civilian lives despite the heavy fighting. It took the Coalition nine months and over 4,000 munitions dropped to admit civilian harm for the first time, in May 2015. By July 2018  when the Coalition published its latest civilian casualty report, the alliance had conceded at least 1,059 deaths from its actions.

Yet according to Airwars estimates, a minimum of between 6,500 and 10,000 civilians have likely lost their lives in Coalition bombings since 2014. Overall, more than 26,000 civilian fatalities have been alleged locally from Coalition actions, in more than 2,650 alleged events. Thousands more civilians have died as a result of anti-ISIS actions by Iraqi and Syrian government forces; and in interventions by Russia, Iran and Turkey against the terror group.

A war of parts

The beginnings of Operation Inherent Resolve, as it quickly became known, saw relatively low numbers of reported civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria. These early stages of the war were mainly defensive – ensuring that ISIS did not expand its territory further. The Coalition also needed to buy time to help train up local armies and proxy forces.

Between August and December 2014, a minimum of 148 civilians were likely killed in Coalition airstrikes according to Airwars monitoring of local sources. That number rose to at least 692 likely civilian deaths killed in 2015. Despite shattering the military narrative of zero civilian harm, these relatively low numbers indicated that significant caution was being taken to reduce harm to civilians, given the intense nature of the conflict.

In 2016, the war against ISIS shifted to offensive mode – while front lines increasingly shifted to more densely populated areas. Between 1,261 and 1,923 civilians were reported killed that year according to Airwars – an 82% increase on 2015. Civilian casualties were significantly up in Iraq for example, with the Anbar offensive in May and June, as well as the beginning of the Battle for Mosul in late 2016.

The tough fights for Raqqa and Mosul – the respective strongholds of ISIS in Syria and Iraq – also marked the beginning of the deadliest period for civilians. In 2017 the number of likely civilian casualties spiked significantly, to at least 4,008 to 6,269 killed. This can be explained by intensified warfare – with the Battle for Mosul taking longer than that for Stalingrad in the Second World War, for example – and less caution appearing to be taken to preserve civilian life.

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The Trump Effect

Prior to his election, Donald Trump had lambasted Barack Obama for what he viewed as an overcautious approach to the war. Once in office, President Trump boasted that he had changed US rules of engagement to make it easier to bomb ISIS – while his officials began publicly referring to a War of Annihilation.

The intensification of fighting under Trump led to significant civilian harm and levels of destruction in urban areas, comparable at times to the Second World War. What is less clear is whether similar levels of destruction would have occurred anyway under a Hillary Clinton presidency, given the war’s focus on urban areas in 2017.

Even today Raqqa is considered “unfit for human habitation” by the UN, having been 70% destroyed. West Mosul experienced similar devastation with 80% of the Old City now in ruins. Reportedly more civilians than combatants lost their lives during the Battle for Mosul because of Iraqi, Coalition and ISIS actions. To this day, bodies are still being pulled from the rubble, while in Raqqa recovery teams are even now still discovering mass graves.

So intense were US-led military actions in 2017 that Coalition-linked civilian casualties far outnumbering those attributed to Russia over the year. Two of the worst military failures of the war happened during this period due to American actions. On March 17th 2017 in the Jadida neighbourhood of Mosul, between 105 and 141 civilians were confirmed killed in an American airstrike on a house. The event is the biggest confirmed incident of civilian casualties in the entire war so far.

Just days later at Al Mansoura near Raqqa, a former school was hit by an American airstrike, killing between 40 and 150 internally displaced people who were seeking refuge in the building. Faulty intelligence for the strike reportedly came in part from Germany, which helps provide reconnaissance for the alliance.

.@CJTFOIR dismissed @amnesty's report re civilians killed by #USA-led Coalition's bombardments in #Raqqa ; said we are naive & misinformed, but now admits responsibility for the cases we reported. But there are many more victims. Coalition must come clean https://t.co/dU6WM1EHUj pic.twitter.com/oKzPZH5Grr

— Donatella Rovera (@DRovera) August 7, 2018

Airwars impact

Founded in 2014 as a voluntary project to track Coalition airstrikes and civilian harm, Airwars has grown to become the primary monitor of civilian harm from international military actions in both Iraq and Syria. A significant part of its work is now focused on engaging with militaries to help them better understand civilian harm on the modern battlefield, in an effort to reduce casualties and seek accountability.

The Coalition itself has also evolved, having assessed more than 2,000 alleged civilian harm events in recent years, and so far admitting to more than 240 incidents. Even so, only 9% of alleged civilian casualty cases tracked by Airwars have so far been confirmed. Only the US, the UK, Australia and the Netherlands have individually admitted civilian harm from their actions to date – while all ten other belligerents (France, Denmark, Belgium, Canada, Iraq, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, UAE and Bahrain) still claim that their bombings are flawless, just as Russia asserts in Syria.

While 27 out of the 245 cases confirmed by the Coalition to July 2018 were referrals by Airwars, the US-led alliance mostly relies on self-reporting – with 112 incidents coming from their own reports. Media field investigations such as those by Buzzfeed and the New York Times have led to at least 19 events being conceded. Recently, investigations from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have led to a rise in NGO reports leading to civilian harm admissions.

Sources of reporting for Coalition-declared Credible incidents Incidents Proportion of incidents
Self-report 112 46%
Airwars 27 11%
Social media 11 4%
Other 1 0%
Web report 1 0%
Media 19 8%
NGO report 7 3%
Unknown 67 27%
All sources 245 100%

So why is there still such a large disparity between local, on the ground reports of civilian harm and the Coalition’s own admissions? In the absence of any ground investigations by the Coalition – and a bias towards self-reported events – military assessments remain heavily reliant on what is observable from the air when determining civilian harm below. Yet as the recently retired RAF Air Marshall Greg Bagwell said when challenging official UK claims at the time to have caused no civilian harm, “you can’t see through rubble”.

There is also a political dimension. Much of the initial impetus to improve US civilian harm reporting in the war against ISIS came as a result of President Obama’s 2016 executive order which in part sought to mitigate civilian harm on the battlefield. That order remains in effect under President Trump. Other nations such as France, Jordan and Turkey have shown no public interest in tackling the issue of civilian casualty mitigation on the modern battlefield.

“Over the course of four years of war against so-called Islamic State, Airwars has seen significant improvements in the US-led Coalition’s assessment of civilian harm claims,” says Airwars director Chris Woods. “Even so a major gulf remains between public and military estimates of civilian harm – with most individual Coalition allies still claiming that their strikes have only killed ISIS fighters. The reality for ordinary Iraqis and Syrians has been very different – with many thousands killed and injured in the battles to free them from ISIS. Proper public transparency and accountability from the Coalition allies is a vital step in helping heal the wounds of this brutal conflict.”

Reconstruction continues in Old Mosul. People of Mosul are tirelessly trying to restore the city.Thanks to @undpiniraq @IOMIraq and all the international supporters who try to help us to restore our city. pic.twitter.com/x1kfo9jfo6

— Mosul Eye عين الموصل (@MosulEye) August 7, 2018

Published

July 27, 2018

Written by

Oliver Imhof and Osama Mansour

So-called Islamic State was ousted from the Libyan city of Sirte in late 2016 by joint US and Government of National Accord forces. Using materials uncovered as part of a major new project tracking airstrikes and civilian harm in Libya, Airwars recounts the rise and fall of the terror organization through the eyes of local citizens, journalists and fighters. A version of this feature also appeared in the Daily Beast.

During its short occupation of Sirte, ISIS was often keen to film and then propagandise its actions.

In one video released on the terror group’s Telegram channel, heavily armed Al Hisbah ‘enforcers’ stalk through a Sirte marketplace, demanding that local people stop trading after the call to prayer. The ISIS police then check vendors for banned items – on the lookout for books about the devil, sex and desire.

In the next scene, ISIS fighters can be seen gleefully destroying their discoveries – smashing shisha pipes with hammers; and destroying cigarette cartons, and even a drum kit. All were forbidden at Sirte in this extreme interpretation of Islam – one in which Al Hisbah actively persecuted the local population.

ISIS members destroying shisha pipes in Sirte, Libya

Sirte had been the hometown of Libya’s former dictator Muammar Gadhafi, the once-feared leader ousted and slain in a bloody 2011 uprising. The power vacuum left by Gadhafi’s death – later described by Barack Obama as the greatest foreign policy mistake of his presidency – proved ripe territory for an expansive Islamic State, which by 2015 already controlled great swathes of Iraq and Syria.

Videos like those from 2015 and 2016, when ISIS ruled Sirte, depict how it established totalitarian rule in the city within a short period of time. Before then, a loose alliance between the rebel Libyan National Army (LNA), the militant group Libya Dawn and the Al Qaeda affiliated Ansar Al-Sharia had controlled the city between them. Yet their forces were quickly overrun by ISIS – in part due to the political turmoil which engulfed Libya following the collapse of the provisional government in late 2014.

“We forced the hijab on women and we caught the smugglers,” ISIS officials can be seen explaining to a small crowd of people. “We’re providing courses about Islam for prisoners and the people”. Religious education became mandatory in Sirte under ISIS rule.

Foreign fighters

Radical Islamism did not have a particularly strong tradition in Libya prior to NATO’s intervention, with the country deciding on a secular government in 2012. That meant ISIS had to supplement its local support by recruiting members from other countries, in order to consolidate Sirte as its Libyan stronghold. People from Tunisia, Chad, Mali, Sudan, Egypt, Algeria or Syria were offered what they believed to be the ideal environment to practice an extreme version of Islam.

ISIS members parading Sirte’s streets after successly capturing the city (Source: propaganda video)

Once it had seized the city, ISIS quickly established its own police force – introducing gender segregation at schools; banning alcohol; and introducing Draconian punishments such as cutting off limbs and beheading people. In its propaganda videos, the terror group proudly depicts crucifixions and the beheading of Christians. These savage punishments were usually followed by interviews with young ISIS members who described their motivations.

“This is a message to fight to all the Muslims in Libya – to fight the Jews and Crusaders. ISIS scares them by controlling more and more cities, and applying Sharia law”, a masked fighter brags in one video. His call to extremism is followed by footage of a tribunal against an alleged thief, which ends with the accused having his hand cut off.

Sometimes it appears no detail is too small to warrant the attention of ISIS’s thought police. Videos posted to the terror group’s Telegram account show Al Hisbah patrols obsessing over Western-made products in a local supermarket, including a bottle of Head and Shoulders shampoo.

Al Hisbah checking for Western-made products in a supermarket

Libya stronghold

ISIS had for a while had also established footholds in the Libyan cities of Sabratha and Derna. But airstrikes – and ground assaults from the more moderate Derna Shura Mujahideen Council – soon saw the terror group concentrated in just one city: Sirte.

At their peak, between 3,000 and 5,000 ISIS members reportedly controlled the city. Similar to its big brother in the Levant, ISIS’s presence in Libya sparked both local and international fear – this time of the jihadists spreading throughout Libya and then across North Africa. The internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) of Libya reacted in May 2016 with the formation of the Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous operation (in Arabic, ‘Impenetrable Wall’), which immediately advanced on the city.

However after some initial success in gaining control over outer neighbourhoods of Sirte (reportedly with British special forces support), Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous struggled to break through ISIS’s inner line of defence – which heavily employed snipers and suicide attacks. This in turn prompted the GNA to request air support from the United States, which officially joined the battle on August 1st 2016.

With US air support the GNA was now able to advance more quickly, launching its Macmadas operation on August 12th. By the end of that month the troops had captured additionally neighbourhoods from ISIS – though the operation was briefly halted because of reported concerns for civilian lives.

ISIS suffered heavy losses in the attacks, including senior figures. Waleed al-Farjani, a senior judge of the Islamic court in Sirte was killed together with the Egyptian Abu Omar al-Muhajir on August 15th, for example.

Waleed al-Farjani in 2015 – killed a year later in a likely US airstrike (Image: Amaq via Al Marsad)

ISIS continued to lose its senior members in Sirte right up to the end. Fayez Al-Bidi, an imam from Benghazi, was reportedly killed in an airstrike around December 4th. Al-Bidi, a former leader of the Al Qaeda-affiliated Ansar al-Sharia, had fled from military operations against his previous organisation to Sirte – where he became a senior ISIS figure and was reportedly in charge of the terror group’s main prison.

Fayez Al-Bidi (Image: alzoberalzober on Twitter)

Civilians at risk

While there is no doubt that much of Sirte was destroyed in the subsequent fighting – and that trapped civilians were harmed – there are still no reliable numbers on how many died.

Reporting on the military operation and on civilian harm was difficult for locals and journalists for various reasons. The Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous forces cut off communication channels, so that people trapped in the city could not reach the outside world. And only a small number of journalists had access to the battleground, which made critical reporting almost impossible.

Nonetheless, some people on both sides sides were able to capture aspects of the battle for Sirte – in doing so creating accounts of life in a city which would be almost completely destroyed in the expanding fight against ISIS.

The first known report of likely civilian harm from US strikes was published on August 12th 2016. Various sources claimed that a teenager named Mohammed al-Qadhafi [a variant spelling of Gaddafi] died as a result of an airstrike on his family home, near the Gulf Challenge School.

With the battle for the city now fully underway, Alsharq Al-Awsat reported on September 8th 2016 that civilians had become trapped in Sirte’s ‘600’ neighbourhood – and that ISIS was using them as human shields. The GNA’s forces brought a temporary halt to their operation – though the Libya Herald claimed that the interruption was due not to the risk of civilian harm, but because ISIS fighters had managed to get behind the GNA frontline.

Video of an airstrike on Sirte posted by Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous forces

ISIS desperately tried to fight off the advancing enemy during the campaign. It even reportedly used female snipers – a highly unusual move for the otherwise ultra- conservative terror group. Later Al Jazeera reported that the group was employing female suicide bombers as well.

Another credible report of possible civilian harm from the US-backed GNA assault came from Twitter on October 12th 2016. Majdi Alshrif and Hameda MK posted images of dead and injured children, which they claimed had been taken in the rubble of a collapsed house. On that same day the US self-reported ten airstrikes in Sirte, while local sources also described artillery shelling by Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous in the 600 neighbourhood.

A child reportedly injured in airstrikes in Sirte (Image: Amaq via Hamida mk)

Throughout the month of October there were repeated reports of civilians being trapped in besieged areas due to the lack of a safe passage. On October 21st, Ahmed El Sharkawy claimed on Facebook that women and children were trapped under rubble in the city. A week later, the assault had to be halted again, as ISIS was once more said to be using civilians as human shields according to GNA spokesperson Rida Issa.

In November, the fight for the remaining neighbourhoods of Sirte still under ISIS control intensified further – with the jihadists refusing to give up despite now being fully encircled by GNA troops. The besiegers in turn not only faced continued suicide attacks, booby traps and mines; but also had to avoid civilian casualties – including ISIS hostages and human shields. Asharq Al-Awsat quoted Rida Issa as saying that “[…] GNA troops could hear ‘the cries of civilians every time a strike is carried out’ but he did not know their number, only that ISIS had entrapped them.”

Women and children were among the victims – many of them family members of ISIS fighters. Al Aan TV interviewed Tasnim Alkhudry, a radicalised woman detained in a Sirte prison who gave a frank account of events in the besieged areas: “I was convinced by their ideology, so I moved to this city as my sister was living there. After living among them and losing our husbands, we discovered that ISIS members have engaged in hugely unacceptable behaviour.

“Apparently the Islamic State was not a genuine Islamic state that can protect vulnerable people like kids and women. The State was crossing the boundaries of fair behaviour. Therefore, when the war started in Sirte we were able to observe breaches of the rules of Islam – and the use of children and women as human shields.”

Al Aan TV interview with Tasnim Alkhudry

ISIS defeated

By December 6th 2016, ISIS was finally defeated at Sirte. It now became easier for journalists and investigators to gain access – with the significant damage to the city aloso now visible to all.

During the final days of the campaign and its immediate aftermath, the Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous forces reported saving hundreds of people from the rubble, including many children. Libya’s Channel published troubling footage of a small child wandering slowly out of a destroyed home, for example. Al Jazeera also showed powerful images of injured children receiving medical aid, and the many destroyed neighbourhoods of Sirte.

On December 16th, Elkul reported that the Misurata Central Hospital had received 47 injured children and 16 injured women during the whole campaign. And a few days later MC Doualiya published an article saying that “dozens of bodies are still under the rubble, the smell is very foul and it is feared that it will cause diseases such as plague,”. They quote a local citizen talking about unrecovered bodies: “There are terrorists, but also women and children who died of hunger and thirst under the rubble.”

Even so, there is still no official casualty count for those innocents caught up in the fighting at Sirte. AFRICOM ran the US air campaign which resulted in almost 500 strikes in 2016. When questioned about specific alleged civilian harm events during the battle, a spokesman told Airwars that “With regards to the specific incidents you highlighted and asked our team to review, they are not assessed as credible with the information currently available.”

Privately however, one senior US military official indicated to Airwars that civilian casualties from US actions may indeed have occurred at Sirte – but that no estimates could presently be reached based on the available evidence.

Libya’s Channel shows Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous forces rescuing families

The battle for Sirte again makes clear why tracking harm from the perspective of affected civilians themselves is so important. Local reporting clearly suggests that non-combatants weren’t just trapped in the city, but were actively held hostage in besieged neighbourhoods by ISIS. Even so, the US still conducted 495 airstrikes at Sirte, while its ground allies the GNA also conducted airstrikes as well as intense artillery shelling during the siege.

By Airwars estimates at least 37 civilians were killed and 69 more injured as a result of airstrikes during the campaign. To date, none of the belligerents have been willing to concede any civilian harm from any of their actions.

Media sources also reported around 2,500 ISIS fighters slain. Around 700 GNA fighters were also reported killed, and between 3,200 and 4,000 injured.

More than 18 months after the end of the Sirte campaign, some unclaimed bodies are still kept in refrigerated containers near Misurata. Families are often reluctant to be associated with relatives who fought with ISIS. Al Aan TV filmed the containers and said there were still hundreds of unidentified corpses within – some of them women and children.

Additionally, many children were reportedly left orphaned by the battle, with their parents said to have fought and died with ISIS. The scars left by ISIS’s brief occupation of Sirte – and the brutal assault to free the city – may be borne for generations to come.

Children orphaned by the fighting at Sirte were the subjects of an Al Jazeera report

▲ ISIS religious enforcers smash a drum kit during their brief occupation of the Libyan city of Sirte (Screen grab via propaganda video)

Published

July 5, 2018

Written by

Koen Kluessien

Despite concerns raised by MPs, the Netherlands Defence Minister confirmed during a recent parliamentary debate that the government still has no plans to disclose where or when in Iraq or Syria its airstrikes might have harmed civilians.

While the renewed Dutch air campaign against so-called Islamic State has seen improved transparency, all requests for information on the mission have so far been refused. On April 18th 2018, the Supreme Court of the Netherlands turned down a Freedom of Information request from RTL News for Internal Memoranda, which contained the locations and dates of Dutch strikes in Iraq. According to the Court, publishing this information could present a “danger to the security of the state” and might, in an ongoing mission, “harm the relations with other states and international organizations”.

This refusal to publish information on Dutch airstrikes was reiterated by Minister of Defence Ank Bijleveld during a June 27th debate in the Netherlands Parliament. Political interest has grown in civilian harm issues after The Netherlands officially conceded for the first time in April that its aircraft had caused civilian casualties in up to three incidents in Iraq. 

The Defence Ministry has however refused to say where or when these events took place – or how many civilians were harmed. On June 27th, the issue was discussed in a general debate on current Dutch military missions. Despite the efforts of several MPs to push for more details of civilian harm events, the Ministry of Defence stuck to its initial decision not to disclose further information.

21 written questions on civilian harm

Prior to the debate, elected representatives posed 72 written questions on the general progress the Dutch anti-ISIS mission has made over the past year. Of these, 21 were questions specifically focused on civilian harm issues, and the lack of public transparency and accountability for Dutch strikes. Some of those questions drew on a recent parliamentary briefing provided by Airwars to MPs. 

Specifically, MPs requested that Minister of Defence Ank Bijleveld make available more information about investigated incidents in which civilian casualties may have occurred, so that “independent investigation is possible”. One question specifically asked whether or not the Defence Ministry could rule out responsibility for a major civilian harm incident at Hawija in 2015 – a civilian casualty event which has already attracted private speculation among Dutch journalists as to whether Netherlands aircraft might have been responsible.

Although the Cabinet has stated that it “attaches importance to communicating as openly as possible,” it was it said not prepared to respond to requests for more information on any of the four cases assessed by the Public Prosecution Service, citing national and operational security.

Prepared for this often-repeated argument, MPs requested further explanations as to how more transparency about civilian casualties in Dutch operations might endanger Dutch troops or civilians domestically, as the government has claimed. Without going into further detail, the Defence Minister responded that the guiding principle of releasing information would always be “the safety of the individual pilot and the unit, but also the safety of their home front and of Dutch society and the Coalition as a whole.”

Following up on this lack of transparency – the worst among all 14 Coalition allies – Socialist Party MP Sadet Karabulut noted during the debate that “if that were the case, the United Kingdom and Australia would also not publish the locations. This information is made public because it is also in the interest of our military.” The Minister in turn answered that “Each country of the Coalition makes its own decisions.”

“That’s just how we do it”

Salima Belhaj, MP for the social-liberal D66 which is a part of the governing coalition, reminded the minister of her own party’s successful cross-party motion which calls for more detailed reporting on Dutch weapon deployments. “Wouldn’t you find it interesting if the Cabinet would publish the locations and dates?” she asked the Minister. Karabulut added that her party wholeheartedly supported this request for more transparency, stating that “SP and D66 have throughout the years always jointly pushed for this.” 

“We cannot report more than we do at the moment”, Minister Bijleveld responded. “You stated that our weekly updates on Wednesday are a step in the right direction. They are. But we will not do more than that because in the end the safety of the state always stands at first place.”

Karabulut in turn stressed that there is in fact a direct strategic incentive for the disclosure of airstrike data. “Because specific information on three incidents is not made public, the Netherlands can possibly be connected to hundreds of possible civilian casualty incidents.”

When Karabulut asked if the Minister did not want to rule out possible responsibility for these incidents, she replied that the Public Prosecution Service had concluded that there was no question of criminal offences in the four assessed Dutch strikes. “Because that is what it really is about”, she stated. “That is the method we use in the Netherlands and it is different from other countries, but that’s just how we do it”.

However, according to Airwars director Chris Woods, such a narrow legalistic approach to civilian harm is insufficient: “With most reported battlefield casualties in the Coalition’s war against ISIS likely occurring within the framework of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), we urge the Defence Ministry to tackle the broader issue of mitigating civilian harm from all actions. That means properly understanding where and when casualties occur – including those strikes which do not breach IHL.”

▲ Library image: Dutch F-16 takes off (via Netherlands Defence Ministry).