US-led Coalition in Iraq & Syria

Civilians in the ruins of Mosul city. (Maranie R. Staab)

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Published

May 1, 2019

Written by

Marie Forestier

Recent change in French narrative suggests its forces may have harmed civilians in the war against ISIS - but officials refuse to say more.

On May 16th 2017, Sajid Ahmed Sajid and his brother Amer Ahmad Sajid, two men in their fifties and each with a salt and pepper beard, were killed by a bomb that struck their house in the well-to-do neighbourhood of Al-Najjar in West Mosul, according to locals and local media.

The Coalition’s public account of the attack differs, insisting that “during a coalition strike against an ISIS commander, ISIS headquarters and VBIED operation which destroyed the VBIED operation, two civilians were unintentionally killed when they inadvertently walked into the blast radius of the strike.”

Yet which of the Coalition allies active during Mosul was responsible for those deaths – the US, the UK, France, Australia or Belgium – remains unclear.

Between May 8th – 23rd 2017 according to official records, while the battle for Mosul was raging seven international Coalition airstrikes on parts of the city controlled by ISIS, as well as an airstrike in Tabqa, Syria, between them killed at least six civilians and wounded one. While the Coalition has made public that tally, it has not specified which military within the international alliance was responsible for each event. According to an agreement between the allies, it falls to each individual Coalition member to announce its own responsibility for what militaries call ‘collateral damage’.

In that same time period and geographic area, the French military reported 24 strikes “carried out by French aircraft in Iraq and Syria”. It is impossible to know whether France is responsible for the deaths of the Sajid brothers – or indeed of any other civilians killed in the course of these seven strikes – because the French army doesn’t disclose the day or the precise location of its actions.

Asked in early December 2018 about potential French involvement, the spokesman for the French Military Chiefs of Staff, Colonel Patrick Steiger, didn’t answer directly and referred this reporter instead to the Coalition. “We don’t want to single ourselves out. The answer lies at the Coalition level,” he said. Yet, in March 2017 Colonel Steiger had previously said that based on “the current state of our information, we have no knowledge of collateral damage. But absolute certainty doesn’t exist.”

This subtle communication shift suggests that French air or artillery strikes may have killed civilians, whether in May 2017 or at another time. Yet the French Minister of the Army, Florence Parly, has refused to comment on the issue.

A French Rafale conducting operations in the war against ISIS (Image via Armee francaise)

Intense campaign

Starting in September 2014, the French army has been participating with ten of its Rafale aircraft and artillery batteries alongside 15 other countries in the US-led Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), to help defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Between August 2014 and April 20th 2019, the Coalition launched 34,334 air and artillery strikes, which were conducted by the US to a significant degree. “During this period, based on information available, CJTF-OIR assesses at least 1,291 civilians have been unintentionally killed by Coalition strikes,” the Coalition presently believes. Some 122 allegation reports are still under assessment.

This figure is significantly lower than the one published by Airwars, which presently estimates that between 7,743 and 12,561 civilians have been killed, based on confirmed or fair reports. The Coalition’s tally also appears low compared to previous conflict figures. According to UN estimates, in Afghanistan between 2010 and 2014, an average of one civilian was killed for every 14 international forces airstrikes. Although rules of engagement differed, these airstrikes targeted for the most part rural areas with far fewer inhabitants than Iraqi or Syrian large cities.

The US, which has conducted the majority of all Coalition airstrikes, is also statistically likely to be responsible for the majority of civilian harm in Iraq and Syria. Until April 2017, all civilian losses admitted by the Coalition (which by then amounted to 229 deaths), were caused by the US Air Force, officials confirmed at the time. Frustrated at being the only country to concede civilian casualties, the Americans stopped releasing information specifying countries’ actions, and have only published global figures at Coalition level since.

Eventually, the UK admitted in May 2018 to the death of one civilian (in the course of more than 1,800 strikes) and the Netherlands has conceded three civilian casualty events – though refuses to say how many non combatants were killed or injured. Australia admitted on February 1st that “between six and 18 civilians may have been killed” during a raid it was involved in at Mosul in 2017, and had previously conceded two additional events. France is thus the only active Coalition member not to concede any civilian harm publicly.

France was second only to the United States in its military contribution to the war against ISIS – but has not declared any civilian harm from its actions.

1,500 French strikes

After the US and the UK, France has launched the greatest number of Coalition airstrikes (it ranks second if French artillery figures are also included) – that is to say, 1,500 strikes since the beginning of the operation.

“Many strikes took place in heavily populated urban areas where significant civilian harm has been credibly reported,” Chris Woods, Airwars director, said. For instance, French aircraft launched 600 airstrikes during the battle of Mosul. In this urban environment, where civilians were used as human shields by ISIS and were sheltering in unknown locations, and where blasts rebound easily, risk of civilian harm ran high. “It’s inconceivable that France hasn’t been responsible for civilian harm in such an intense conflict,” Chris Woods said.

“When you conduct combat in an urban area, you kill civilians. You can take steps to minimize deaths, but you have to be honest about the risk,” a former high-level US defense official said when interviewed for this article.

Despite what others see as the inevitability of civilian harm from urban strikes, the French military works on the assumption that since its rules of engagement (which it refuses to reveal) are very restrictive – and that since it takes great precautions, that it is unlikely to have harmed civilians.

For example, if a civilian is standing in proximity to a target area, the French military claims that it would cancel a strike. “In summer 2017, we stopped airstrikes in the Mosul area because we couldn’t guarantee the precision and the effect of strikes,” the French military Chief of Staff spokesman said. However, due to limited information, it remains difficult to demonstrate that French rules of engagement are safer than those of other allies.

Experts say that it’s not a lack of precision that kills civilians, as weapons currently used are very precise. According to several military sources, the bombs used by Coalition members – including France – in airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, such as GDAM, AASM, or GBU, are all laser- or GPS-guided. The main issue comes from incorrect or outdated intelligence, or from not seeing civilians in the targeted area. “Precision munitions bring little benefit to trapped civilian populations in urban centres,” Chris Woods said.

The French military say that 90% of the airstrikes it has launched in Iraq and Syria have been close air support strikes (CAS), while only 10% have been planned strikes. These CAS strikes are called in and guided by allied fighters on the ground during their progression, when they need an enemy position to be destroyed.

Planned strikes are instead aimed at pre-identified targets such as operational centres or weapons factories. Militaries often have days to watch a target and identify potential patterns of civilian movement surrounding them. According to the French rationale, CAS are less risky because there is an officer on the ground who can directly see the target.

Yet experts disagree, arguing that the target is not necessarily in sight and that indications for a strike might lack precision. “Vision depends on the ground. But in close air support of troops in contact, you are not able to spend a long time observing the target and it’s difficult to minimize civilian harm,” the former high-level US defense official said.

In February 2019, and for the first time, a senior French military official publicly admitted “an excessive cost” and “significant destruction” resulting from the Coalition’s tactics against ISIS. Colonel Francois-Regis Legrier, who had been in charge of directing French artillery supporting Kurdish-led fighters in Syria since October 2018, wrote an article in the National Defence Review at the end of his mission.

“By refusing ground engagement, we unnecessarily prolonged the conflict and thus contributed to increasing the number of casualties in the population, We have massively destroyed the infrastructure and given the population a disgusting image of what may be a Western-style liberation leaving behind the seeds of an imminent resurgence of a new adversary,” Colonel Legrier wrote.

Legrier’s article was abruptly removed, and the French Minister for the Army has sought to sanction him.

French artillery crews in action against ISIS – part of Task Force Wagram (Image via Armee francaise)

A lack of accountability

Killing civilians is not necessarily considered a crime during conflict according to international law, as long as strict conditions of proportionality and distinction are respected and all feasible precautions to protect civilians are taken.

Yet when civilians have been harmed, States “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 to make public the results,” according to the former UN Special Rapporteur on Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights, Ben Emmerson.

Still, NGOs and observers have often criticised the weakness and lack of transparency of the Coalition’s investigations. After a strike, the military conducts a Battle Damage Assessment (BDA), which reviews the impact of the attack, looking mainly at whether the target was reached. It also allows an opportunity to see if civilians were harmed. The BDA is largely based on pilots’ observations immediately after a strike, and a review of battlefield surveillance footage if there is any. It is a “basic” process according to one French defence official. “We can’t see everything. There can be shrapnel and it can wound someone. This, we don’t know about it,” Colonel Steiger said.

Since the beginning of Operation Inherent Resolve, 200 allegations of civilian casualties potentially involving the French military have been investigated, this reporter has learned. Yet French army officials refuse to make the results of those assessments public.

When allegations of civilian casualties are brought up, a Coalition team in Al Oudeid base in Qatar investigates claims by reviewing all footage and images available, along with other materials, for example external media or NGO reports. When the Coalition assesses that a death is “not credible”, it doesn’t mean that it didn’t occur, but that the team was unable to gather sufficient information about the case at that time.

The team is made up of a few analysts, and the Coalition admits that it doesn’t have enough resources to investigate every case. No French officer is part of this team but the French military say that they conduct their own investigations in parallel. These consist of reviewing the same images and other information, along with the insights of a munition expert who assesses the range of the explosion.

Amnesty International has criticised this internal assessment process, which it says does not usually include information gathered at  the strike’s location, and from witnesses. The organisation stresses that aerial images have their limits. “You can’t see through roofs and walls, you miss families that don’t leave their hiding places for days. Taking drone footage after an airstrike is not a substitute for a proper investigation,” Brian Castner, Amnesty International’s weapons adviser said.

A French Rafale during the war against so-called Islamic State (Image via Armee francaise)

‘No public pressure’

Just as France’s investigations into alleged civilian harm are not comprehensive and lack transparency, so too with its communication about military operations. In the beginning of the war against ISIS, the French army used to publish daily reports on its actions, specifying the type of aircraft and munitions used, the target, and a fairly precise location. However since March 2015, France has instead released weekly reports that only give the number of missions and broad details of “neutralised targets”, as well as the general location of the attack – usually at province level.

“There is no public pressure to have all the information. We haven’t felt that we needed to say more,” claims French military Chief of Staff spokesman Colonel Patrick Steiger. This approach contrasts with other Coalition members such as the UK, which has continually published detailed reports of its own military operations. In this context, it is extremely hard for external observers to raise the alarm on allegations in which France might be involved.

Within the French political system, Members of Parliament have also failed to provide a watchdog role regarding civilian casualties. “We talked about it two or three times during sessions. But it is not an issue because we have not been notified of any incident that can be problematic,” Gilbert Roger, Seine-Saint-Denis Senator said.

This approach contrasts sharply with the US, where the National Defense Authorization Acts of 2018 and 2019 oblige the Pentagon to answer to Congress annually on civilian harm, for example.

France’s refusal to identify or concede civilian casualties from its actions – while limiting any admissions to the Coalition’s broader tally – has far reaching consequences. The International Committee of the Red Cross highlighted the risk of responsibilities being obscured in a recent report. “This can create a climate in which stakeholders, political and military alike, perceive themselves to be free from the scrutiny of accountability processes, and act beyond the parameters of their usual normative reference frameworks.”

Errors are also likely to happen again unless they are identified. “Military learn from their mistakes by looking at how civilians died. But it becomes less likely if they are acknowledged at the coalition level only,” Chris Woods said. “And with such a complete lack of transparency from the French military, Syrian and Iraqi civilians who have been caught up in French actions will forever be denied accountability and possible compensation.”

This article was originally published in French in Liberation. The English-language version here appears courtesy of Marie Forestier, and of Liberation.

▲ French artillery crews fire from Iraq into the ISIS-occupied Hajin Pocket in eastern Syria, early 2019 (Image via Armee francaise)

Published

April 25, 2019

Written by

Airwars Staff

Amnesty and Airwars investigation says civilian harm during battle for Raqqa is ten times higher than Coalition admits

A major new study by Amnesty International and Airwars has concluded that at least 1,600 civilians died in Coalition strikes on the city of Raqqa in 2017 during the battle to evict so-called Islamic State – ten times the number of fatalities so far conceded by the US-led alliance, which had admitted 159 deaths to April 24th.

The two organisations are calling on the US and its British and French allies to properly investigate all reports of civilian harm at Raqqa; to be transparent about their tactics, methods of attack, choice of targets, and precautions taken in the planning and execution of their strikes; and to create a fund to ensure that victims and their families receive full reparation and compensation.

The major project – which saw Amnesty field researchers on the ground for almost two months in Raqqa – is featured in a new interactive website, Rhetoric versus Reality: How the ‘most precise air campaign in history’ left Raqqa the most destroyed city in modern times, which is described by Amnesty as ‘the most comprehensive investigation into civilian deaths in a modern conflict.’

“Thousands of civilians were killed or injured in the US-led Coalition’s offensive to rid Raqqa of IS, whose snipers and mines had turned the city into a death trap. Many of the air bombardments were inaccurate and tens of thousands of artillery strikes were indiscriminate, so it is no surprise they killed and injured many hundreds of civilians,” says Donatella Rovera, Senior Crisis Response Adviser at Amnesty International.

“Coalition forces razed Raqqa, but they cannot erase the truth. Amnesty International and Airwars call upon the Coalition forces to end their denial about the shocking scale of civilian deaths and destruction caused by their offensive in Raqqa.”

Raqqawis walk in front of destroyed buildings in central Raqqa, January 2019 (Image courtesy of Amnesty International)

Witnesses and survivors

Almost 500 alleged Coalition harm events have so far been identified by Amnesty and Airwars researchers during the battle for Raqqa, in which more than 3,000 civilians were locally alleged killed.

On four site visits to the broken city, Amnesty researchers spent a total of around two months on the ground, carrying out site investigations at more than 200 strike locations and interviewing more than 400 witnesses and survivors.

Amnesty International’s innovative Strike Trackers project also identified when each of more than 11,000 destroyed buildings in Raqqa was hit. More than 3,000 digital activists in 124 countries took part, analysing a total of more than two million satellite image frames. The organisation’s Digital Verification Corps, based at six universities around the world, also analysed and authenticated video footage captured during the battle.

Airwars researchers had independently tracked 429 locally alleged civilian harm events during the battle for Raqqa, and this comprehensive dataset also formed a key part of the study.

Three Airwars team members were seconded to the Raqqa project, where they worked alongside Amnesty researchers to analyse open-source evidence – including thousands of social media posts and other material – and to build a database of more than 1,600 civilians credibly reported killed in Coalition strikes.

The organisations also gathered names for more than 1,000 of the victims. Amnesty International has directly verified 641 of those names on the ground in Raqqa, while there are very strong multiple source reports for the rest.

Shihab Halep from the Airwars Syria team helped build the database of victim names for Raqqa. “We were able to document at least 1,000 civilians killed by the Coalition and its proxies on the ground. The international community needs to find a way to hold Coalition forces accountable for their actions, to ensure that the same will not be committed in the future and to bring justice for these innocent victims and for their families,” he says.

Hanna Rullmann and Sophie Dyer worked with Amnesty to incorporate Airwars’ own findings into the study – along with the organisation’s engagements with the Coalition on hundreds of reported casualty events: “Bringing together Airwars’ vast remote monitoring data with Amnesty’s field investigations was a huge undertaking. Victim names became invaluable in matching the different research threads. The result is a comprehensive and undeniable picture of massive civilian loss of life throughout the battle,” says Sophie.

Men wait by the side of the road for casual labour in Raqqa. Many end up clearing partially destroyed or damaged buildings, a very risky endeavour as many building were mined by ISIS and civilians are frequently killed and injured by mines. (Image courtesy of Amnesty International)

ISIS occupation

By the time the offensive to capture Raqqa began in June 2017, ISIS had ruled the city for almost four years. Previous investigations by Amnesty and others detailed how the terror group had perpetrated war crimes and crimes against humanity, torturing or killing anyone who dared oppose it.

However as the new study reports, most of the destruction during the battle for Raqqa was caused by incoming Coalition air and artillery strikes – with at least 21,000 munitions fired into the city over a four month period. The United Nations would later declare it the most destroyed city in Syria, with an estimated 70% laid waste.

Both Amnesty and Airwars have frequently shared their findings on civilian harm at Raqqa with the US-led alliance. As a result, the Coalition has so far admitted responsibility for killing 159 civilians – around 10% of the minimum likely toll, according to the new study.

The Coalition has routinely dismissed the remainder of reported deaths as “non-credible.” Yet to date the alliance has failed to adequately probe civilian casualty reports, or to interview witnesses and survivors – admitting that it does not carry out site investigations.

“The Coalition needs to fully investigate what went wrong at Raqqa and learn from those lessons, to prevent inflicting such tremendous suffering on civilians caught in future military operations,” says Chris Woods, Director of Airwars.

Raqqa has been described by the United Nations as the most destroyed city in Syria (Image courtesy of Amnesty International)

Bringing cases to life

Rhetoric versus Reality brings to life the stories of families who lived and died by taking users on a journey through Raqqa: meeting survivors, hearing their testimonies and visiting their destroyed homes. From the bombed-out bridges spanning the Euphrates to the largely demolished old city near the central stadium, no neighbourhood was spared.

Developed with Holoscribe’s creative team, the interactive website combines photographs, videos, 360-degree immersive experiences, satellite imagery, maps and data visualisations to highlight the cases and journeys of civilians caught under the Coalition’s bombardment. Users can also explore data on civilians who were killed, many of them after having fled from place to place across the city.

One of the first neighbourhoods to be targeted was Dara’iya, a low-rise, poorer district in western Raqqa.

In a ramshackle, half-destroyed house, Fatima, nine years old at the time, described how she lost three of her siblings and her mother, Aziza, when the Coalition rained volleys of artillery shells down on their neighbourhood on the morning of June 10th 2017. They were among 16 civilians killed on that street on that day alone. Fatima lost her right leg and her left leg was badly injured. She now uses a wheelchair donated by an NGO to get around and her only wish is to go to school.

In December 2017 the Coalition dismissed the event as ‘non credible’ – claiming that “there is insufficient evidence to find that civilians were harmed in this strike.”

In another tragic incident, a Coalition air strike destroyed an entire five-storey residential building near Maari school in the central Harat al-Badu neighbourhood in the early evening of September 25th 2017. Four families were sheltering in the basement at the time. Almost all of them – at least 32 civilians, including 20 children – were killed. Again, the Coalition would later dismiss the event as ‘non credible.

“Planes were bombing and rockets were falling 24 hours a day, and there were IS snipers everywhere. You just couldn’t breathe,” one survivor of the September 25th strike, Ayat Mohammed Jasem, told a TV crew when she returned to her destroyed home more than a year later.

“I saw my son die, burnt in the rubble in front of me. I’ve lost everyone who was dear to me. My four children, my husband, my mother, my sister, my whole family. Wasn’t the goal to free the civilians? They were supposed to save us, to save our children.”

More than 11,000 buildings were destroyed or damaged during the US-led battle to capture Raqqa from ISIS, analysts from Amnesty found.

‘Time for accountability’

Many of the cases documented for the project likely amount to violations of international humanitarian law and warrant further investigation, says Amnesty. Despite their own best efforts, NGOs like Amnesty and Airwars will never have the resources to investigate the full extent of civilian deaths and injuries in Raqqa.

The organisations are therefore urging US-led Coalition members to take three key steps.

    To put in place an independent, impartial mechanism to effectively and promptly investigate reports of civilian harm, including violations of international humanitarian law, and make the findings public. That Coalition members who carried out the strikes, notably the USA, the UK and France, must be transparent about their tactics, specific means and methods of attack, choice of targets, and precautions taken in the planning and execution of their attacks. And that Coalition members must create a fund to ensure that victims and their families receive full reparation and compensation.

A spokesperson for the Coalition told Airwars that the alliance takes all allegations of civilian harm seriously: “The current number for completed investigations of civilian casualties between June-October 2017 is 180. Of note, there are still open allegations under investigation. Amnesty International provided us with 86 new allegations, 43 of which had already been assessed as credible and previously reported or were deemed not credible because the allegation did not corroborate with our strike records. We requested that Amnesty International provide us with additional information on the remaining 43 allegations if they have it so that we would be able to determine whether we could conduct an investigation.”

The spokesperson added that “We are willing to work with anyone making allegations or providing new, credible information. We continue to be open and transparent about our strikes and civilian casualty reports, which are posted and can be checked online.”

▲ Mr. Maarbalati sells items out of the back of his bicycle for work. Mr. Maarbalati’s wife, Kafa Hassen, died in an airstrike in Harat al-Badu neighborhood of Raqqa during the four month military campaign to oust the Islamic State from the city. (Andrea DiCenzo/Panos)

Published

February 5, 2019

Written by

Airwars Staff

Six month study will examine how effectively journalists reported on recent civilian harm in Iraq and Syria.

Hundreds of journalists will be canvassed for their views on recent conflict casualty reporting by the US media as part of a major new project by Airwars.

The six month study—funded by the Reva and David Logan Foundation in the US, and the J Leon Philanthropy Council in the UK—aims to help assess and improve mainstream media reporting of civilian harm issues. The study is being authored by US reporter Alexa O’Brien.

Provisional research conducted for Airwars indicates that field reporters are still critical when it comes to properly reflecting civilian harm issues. But casualty reporting can sometimes suffer when conducted remotely by journalists back home. The new project is aimed at better understanding the constraints and challenges of modern conflict reporting – and is expected to include practical suggestions for improvement to editors and reporters.

“While our research focus is US reporting on civilian harm in the war against ISIS, Airwars will we hope help lay the groundwork for better assessments and reporting of conflict casualties by media professionals in other military conflicts,” says Alexa O’Brien, Airwars project lead and author of the forthcoming report.

“Airwars not only seeks to better understand the character of US reporting, but also the underlying capabilities and constraints of those who cover conflicts. The project includes a major survey of US reporters, as well as in-depth interviews with media professionals and subject matter experts.”    

Chris Woods, the founder and director of Airwars and himself a journalist of almost 30 years’ experience, says the new study has the potential to improve future conflict reporting: “There’s an imperative to ensure civilian casualties—including from our own actions—are properly reflected amid broader media coverage of modern conflicts,” says Woods. “This new Airwars project will help not only to improve our understanding of why and when civilian harm is (or is not) reported, but also offer practical suggestions for improvements to media professionals.”

The six month study is expected to publish in June 2019. 

    If you’re a journalist who has covered the war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq for a US media outlet—whether inside or outside the conflict zone—and you want to participate in the study’s survey, please email survey@airwars.org

Alexa O’Brien

▲ A young girl passes a bomb crater in West Mosul, April 12th 2017 (Image by Kainoa Little. All rights reserved)

Published

January 10, 2019

Written by

Maike Awater

Header Image

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

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

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 5, 2018

Written by

Airwars Staff

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).

Published

June 29, 2018

Written by

Samuel Oakford

The US-led Coalition against so-called Islamic State has quietly admitted to killing at least 40 civilians in a March 2017 strike near Raqqa, finally acknowledging what a UN inquiry and human rights groups have long said was among the bloodiest incidents of the four year bombing campaign.

The overnight raid on March 20th-21st 2017 targeted a school sheltering displaced civilians in the town of al Mansoura. A Human Rights Watch (HRW) field investigation published in September 2017 said that ISIS members and their families were also present in the building, though were separate from large numbers of displaced people who had sought safety inside.

After interviewing locals, HRW researchers were able to name 40 civilians who died in the raid, a number it stressed was a minimum, and doubtless far below the true toll. Others have placed the civilian toll that night at 150 or more deaths. 

The Coalition directly cited Human Rights Watch in its admission, included in a monthly civilian casualty review released June 28th. The report stated that the incident was “reopened after the receipt of new evidence from Human Rights Watch.” The Coalition then determined that “During a strike on Daesh militant multifunctional center allegedly caused civilian casualties. Forty civilians were unintentionally killed.”

The admitted number of 40 fatalities appeared to be based on the Human Rights Watch findings, though it was unclear what additional steps the Coalition had taken which had led them to reverse repeated denials issued over the previous 16 months. The al Mansoura raid now represents the second largest death toll admitted to by the Coalition, after an attack days earlier in March 2017 in Mosul which killed over 100 civilians. 

“The updated assessment of the Mansoura allegation was based largely on a video report from Human Rights Watch,” a senior Coalition official told Airwars. “HRW visited the site and interviewed individuals present during the strike and after. Their accounts included specific details regarding the strike more likely to be known by somebody who had been present. Compelling, detailed, and accurate firsthand accounts tend to weigh heavily in favor of a finding of ‘credible.'”

“It’s positive that they are acknowledging this now, but it’s an incomplete step,” said HRW’s Nadim Houry. “We are not getting more clarity about how they are doing these investigations.”

Human Rights Watch investigation into al Mansoura

UN Commission: 150 civilians killed in attack

From the start, the Coalition had strongly pushed back against reports of civilian harm at the Al Badiya school building. A week after the attack – and before any official assessment or investigation had concluded – the then Coalition commander Lt. Gen Stephen J. Townsend told reporters there was no reason to believe civilians had perished.

“We had multiple corroborating intelligence sources from various types of intelligence that told us the enemy was using that school,” Townsend said on March 28th, 2017. “And we observed it. And we saw what we expected to see. We struck it.”

“Afterwards, we got an allegation that it wasn’t ISIS fighters in there… it was instead refugees of some sort in the school,” Townsend explained to reporters. “Yet, not seeing any corroborating evidence of that. In fact, everything we’ve seen since then suggests that it was the 30 or so ISIS fighters we expected to be there.”

Townsend would later take aim at Airwars, claiming that reports of civilian casualties due to Coalition strikes were “vastly inflated.” The al Mansoura allegation, like a growing number related to the assault on Raqqa, was later officially determined to be ‘non-credible’ by the Coalition’s civilian casualty investigative unit.

In March 2018, the UN’s Commission of Inquiry for Syria released  its own findings concerning the incident, stating that 150 civilians were in fact killed in the attack. Unlike Human Rights Watch, the Commission was unable to visit the site (it is banned from the country by the Assad government), but instead conducted a number of remote interviews from outside Syria. The Commission reported that Coalition personnel should have been aware of the large internally displaced person (IDP) presence at the site.

An Airwars survey of local reporting in the lead up to the attack – provided shortly afterwards to the Coalition – had also turned up several reports indicating a significant IDP presence in the vicinity of al Mansoura. After the Commission released its findings, the Coalition for the first time showed a willingness to re-open the case, telling Airwars it would do so “if credible or compelling additional information can be obtained.”

The al Mansoura strike proved further controversial due to the discovery of the involvement of German reconnaissance aircraft. A number of Coalition members, while not carrying out strikes on their own, nevertheless provide intelligence and logistical capabilities to assist  bombings by other nations. Whatever pre-strike surveillance the Coalition conducted at al Mansoura proved insufficient to protect civilians at the site, the alliance’s admission of 40 deaths now shows.

“It is not enough to just say we killed some civilians. No one is saying it was intentional, but that is not the point of conducting the investigation,” said HRW’s Nadim Houry. “Where did things go wrong? What steps have they taken to ensure this doesn’t happen in the future?”

Casualty reports for the al Mansoura event monitored by Airwars varied widely, from several dozen deaths to claims of as many as 400 people killed. Nadim Houry says that 40 fatalities, including 16 children, was HRW’s baseline after visiting the site twice. “40 are the ones that we were actually able to identify, but the actual number is much higher,” he said.

Human Rights Watch also investigated a nearby incident that occurred less than 48 hours later, when at least 44 civilians including 14 children were allegedly killed after bombs hit a market in Tabqa, west of Raqqa city. That March 22nd 2017 incident remains unconfirmed by the Coalition.

Concerns at Raqqa

In a further concession to international NGOs, the Coalition also acknowledges in its latest report the findings of a recent Amnesty International field investigation into civilian harm at Raqqa.

The Amnesty field study, War of Annihilation, looked at four families devastated by the recent fighting for Raqqa. “Between them, they lost 90 relatives and neighbours – 39 from a single family – almost all of them killed by Coalition air strikes,” Amnesty reported.

The Coalition initially greeted the report with hostility. However, it has now opened assessments into five cases based on Amnesty’s findings, while rejecting a sixth. “The Coalition takes these and all allegations seriously, and this month’s civilian casualty report reflects the current status of six cases pertaining to Amnesty’s recent report,” the US-led alliance now notes.

Despite @amnesty’s allegations on @CJTFOIR conduct, they never discussed the article w/us & didn’t thoroughly research things we said. They failed to check the public record & get facts straight. We are open to criticism, but they didn’t make the effort to understand what we do

— OIR Spokesman (@OIRSpox) June 5, 2018

The Coalition’s initial response to Amnesty’s field study was hostile

The fight to capture Raqqa from ISIS did not officially begin until June 6th 2017. Overall, more than 2,000 non combatants were credibly reported killed by all parties to that battle – with mass graves still being discovered. 

Airwars estimates that at least 1,400 civilians perished in Coalition air and artillery strikes before the city’s capture in mid-October. More than 21,000 munitions were fired on Raqqa in just five months – many times more than were released across all of Afghanistan by international forces for all of 2017. 

Despite this ferocious assault, the Coalition has admitted to very few deaths in Raqqa – even as its civilian casualty unit churns through and discards allegations. Only 26 fatalities have so far been conceded.

In the same monthly report that saw the al Mansoura strike acknowledged, the Coalition classed more than 120 civilian harm allegations relating to the battle of Raqqa as ‘non-credible.’ In the last two months alone, the Coalition has evaluated almost 200 civilian harm events from the battle and rated them all in this way.

Overall, the Coalition has only admitted to 4% of more than 450 locally reported civilian casualty events for the battle of Raqqa. Airwars instead rates more than 70 per cent of those cases as Fair – that is, with two or more credible local reports, and Coalition strikes confirmed in the near vicinity. 

“Since March 2018, the Coalition has not assessed a single incident of civilian harm in the Battle of Raqqa as Credible. In other words, they have dismissed all the reports we and others have submitted to them, the majority of which we had significant confidence in,” said Sophie Dyer of the Airwars advocacy team. “This disparity between the local reports we have gathered, and the Coalition’s own assessments – which are heavily reliant on post strike video analysis and observable harm – is greatly troubling.”

Asked why so few casualty claims for Raqqa are being assessed as Credible, a senior Coalition official provided Airwars with the following statement: “A number of factors go into the assessment of an allegation: the quality of the information and detail provided in the allegation, the nature of the strike and the evidence available, for example. Each allegation is assessed with fresh eyes based on the available evidence without regard to previous assessments and without any credibility percentages in mind.

“If any allegation or any grouping of allegations is assessed as ‘non-credible,’ it is because each individual allegation either didn’t correlate to any Coalition strikes, didn’t contain sufficient information to make an assessment, or that an assessment based on all reasonably available information did not corroborate the allegation.”