US-led Coalition in Iraq & Syria

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

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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

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

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).

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.”

Published

June 5, 2018

Written by

Samuel Oakford

The US-led Coalition appears to have committed violations of international law during the battle for Raqqa, Amnesty International says, after an extensive investigation outlining several incidents in which the Coalition used disproportionate firepower – despite what it says should have been knowledge of the presence of civilians in the city.

“The cases provide prima facie evidence that several Coalition attacks which killed and injured civilians violated international humanitarian law,” said Amnesty in its report – published on the first anniversary of the US-dominated assault on Raqqa.

The heavily Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) began their operations in the city on June 6th 2017, backed by substantial US-led strikes (95% of Coalition airstrikes and 100% of artillery actions during the battle for Raqqa were American). Five months later in mid-October, the city was retaken from so-called Islamic State. 

Estimates of the death toll in Raqqa vary, but local monitors credibly report that at least 2,000 civilians perished at the hands of all belligerents. Airwars researchers put the number likely killed by the Coalition at at least 1,400. But until now there had not been extensive ground investigation into the toll of strikes in the dense urban environment. That includes any efforts by the Coalition itself – which has discarded the great majority of civilian casualty allegations under review for Raqqa by its own investigators – all apparently without speaking to witnesses and victims. To date, the Coalition has admitted to just 26* civilian deaths during the fight for the city.

What I found in #Raqqa , in northern #Syria : Unimaginable destruction of lives, homes and livelihoods. Entire families killed when #USA -led Coalition bombed houses full of civilians. Demand investigations now. Victims deserve justice and reparation. https://t.co/ffevpCbTr4

— Donatella Rovera (@DRovera) June 5, 2018

“It’s not hard to find airstrike sites to visit in Raqqa,” said Benjamin Walsby, one of the Amnesty researchers who traveled to the city. “There’s one on virtually ever street, and often more than one. We analyzed the scene of 42 strikes, and spoke to witnesses, survivors and relatives of the dead. The Coalition has not done the same.”

“The Coalition maintains a transparent process and has demonstrated its willingness to open new cases and even reopen old cases in light of new or compelling evidence,” a spokesperson for the alliance told Airwars. “We have not been approached by Amnesty but are willing to work with them.”

According to the United Nations, as much as 80 percent of Raqqa was rendered uninhabitable by fighting, and the local reconstruction committee recently told Airwars that most damage was caused by airstrikes. Adding to the suffering, hundreds of civilians – by some local accounts more than 1,000 – have been killed by ISIS mines and other explosive remnants since the end of fighting. 

Amnesty researchers spent two weeks in Raqqa during February 2018, visiting the 42 sites and interviewing a total of 112 survivors and witnesses. Amnesty has highlighted the cases of four families who lost dozens of members, illustrating the terrible ordeal Raqqawis faced as a result of ISIS’s criminal behavior – and the disproportionate and at times seemingly indiscriminate nature of Coalition strikes meant to vanquish the militants.

In each case, “Coalition forces launched air strikes on buildings full of civilians using precision munitions with a wide-area effect, which could be expected to destroy them entirely,” wrote investigators. “The civilians killed and injured in the attacks, many of whom were women and children, had been staying in buildings for long periods prior to the strikes. Coalition forces would have been aware of their presence had they conducted rigorous surveillance prior to the strikes.”

“Witnesses reported that there were no fighters in the vicinity at the time of the attacks,” said Amnesty. “Such attacks could be either direct attacks on civilians or civilian objects or indiscriminate attacks.

‘Shocking destruction’

The Coalition was well aware of the strategies ISIS would employ in Raqqa to purposefully endanger civilians, Amnesty investigators contend – including fighting in residential areas, and the use of non-combatants as human shields. The Coalition however did not modulate operations, instead escalating munition use and even turning down out of hand UN calls for a humanitarian pause. 

“The scale of destruction and loss of civilian lives I found in Raqqa is shocking,” Donatella Rovera, Senior Crisis Response Adviser, told Airwars. “It is imperative that the Coalition stop being in denial and carry out proper investigations to establish why so many civilians were killed as a result of its strikes, and that it make available information that is crucial to this endeavour. There is no security rationale for not doing so.”

The first Amnesty case involved the Aswad family. Eight members were, it says, killed in a Coalition strike on June 28th that hit a building owned by four brothers in the family – Jamal, Ammar, Mohammed and Khaled. In the days prior to the attack, neighbors had joined the family in the building’s cellar, attempting to shield themselves from fighting above ground between ISIS and the SDF. Amnesty found that while “IS fighters were in the area at the time” they were “not in the immediate vicinity of the Aswad building.”

Witnesses said that because the building hadn’t yet been finished, people would move across the road to the family’s existing home to “cook and use the toilet.” 

“We were sure that the warplanes would have photographed our street and would know our movements, as we went to and fro between the building and the old house across the street, and would have known that we were civilians, families with children,” Mohammed later told Amnesty. Nevertheless, on June 28th, the building was hit, pancaking upper floors and destroying the structure.

“Fragment of the motor of a US-made AGM-114 Hellfire missile recovered among the ruins of the Aswad family building, destroyed in a Coalition strike which killed eight civilians on 28 June 2017.” via Amnesty report.

Mohammed survived. But his brother Jamal died, along with a neighbour named Mohammed Othman, his wife Fatima and five of their children, aged 8-17. Another brother, Ammar, later also died – reportedly due to a land mine planted by ISIS.

Amnesty investigators visited the site and found remnants of a US-made AGM-114 Hellfire missile, and a US-designed Joint Direct Attack Munition. Both the United States and the UK declared strikes in Raqqa on June 28th.

‘War of Annihilation’

The Hashish family meanwhile lost eight members from an IED explosion at Raqqa, before losing nine more people in a July airstrike. The remaining family members had been staying in a smaller home with five rooms. One morning the area experienced shelling, forcing the family to take shelter. “The strike occurred straight after we re-entered the house,” said Munira, a survivor. “My brothers Hussein and Mohammed and their kids and the neighbors were all killed.” Munira was also injured, along with her children. “My seven-year-old son, Ahmad, was the worst; he suffered severe wounds to his abdomen.”

Munira also described ISIS’s patterns of movement in the city, which put residents in danger. “It was impossible to know which house IS would be in from day-to-day as they used to move around. We heard that they had made openings in the walls of people’s houses so they could move without being seen on the street. Any house was their house if they so wished.”

But she said it was unclear why the house her family was in was targeted. “They [ISIS] did not come to our house; it was an Arabic house [one story], not a tall building, so it wasn’t useful for them.”

Unlike operations in Mosul, which took place over the course of two US administrations, the battle for Raqqa was overseen wholly by the Trump White House and US Defense Secretary James Mattis. Just over a week before fighting reached inside Raqqa, Mattis remarked that the fighting against ISIS was now a “war of annihilation.” By the summer of 2017 – after just six months of the Trump administration – likely Coalition civilian casualties monitored by Airwars had doubled. In Raqqa, the gloves were off, including for US Marine Corps artillery units which fired thousands – or possibly tens of thousands – of rounds into the city.

The worst case documented by Amnesty – almost unfathomably distressing – was that of the Badran family, which lost 39 members alongside 10 neighbours in a number of airstrikes during  the Raqqa assault.

“Members of the Badran family killed in three separate Coalition air strike on 18 July and 20 August 2017 in Raqqa”. via Amnesty report.

First, five family members were killed on July 18th in a reported airstrike on a house in Nazlet al-Shehade – an area to which ISIS had forced that family to move. Two other neighbors were killed, then four other family members died when a strike hit a car in which they were fleeing from Nazlet al-Shehade.

A month later, after moving through the city in search of medical care and fleeing ISIS fire, the extended family returned to a home in the Harat al-Sakhani area. One of the surviving family members, Rasha, explained what happened around August 18th:

“Two days later, we were bombed, both houses where we were staying got bombed. Almost everybody was killed. Only I, my husband and his brother and cousin survived…. We hid in the rubble until morning because the planes were circling overhead. In the morning we found Tulip’s body [her infant daughter]; our baby was dead. We buried her near there, by a tree.”

In total, 28 members of the extended family were killed in the strike, along with five people in a house across the street. “Nothing was left standing, there was only rubble,” said Rasha. “These were simple Arab houses, they were not sturdy. I don’t understand why they bombed us. Didn’t the surveillance planes see that we were civilian families?”

‘Undercounting civilian casualties’

The final case reported by Amnesty involved the Fayad family. Sixteen family members and neighbours were killed in reported airstrikes on October 12, 2017 in the Harat al-Badu area of Raqqa, where many civilians had become trapped in the final days of fighting. Though fighting had briefly paused earlier in the week as part of a truce, the Coalition and SDF then struck ISIS’s remaining strongholds on the night of October 11th and 12th. Among those who perished were multiple victims in the Fayad family. 

According to the Coalition’s own strike reports, its aircraft carried out aerial attacks in Raqqa on each date referenced in the four Amnesty cases.To date, the Coalition has admitted to only 21 civilian fatalities in Raqqa between June and October 2017. Of 225 allegations reviewed, the Coalition has only found 15 cases to be credible. Over 90 per cent of all cases reviewed during the battle have been found to be ‘non-credible’.  In its most recent report, the Coalition rejected 72 reported civilian harm events at Raqqa – while finding none to be credible.

“The low credibility count suggests that some, possibly many, allegations may be dismissed before all necessary efforts are deployed to investigate them,” wrote the Amnesty researchers. “Undercounting civilian casualties could result in underestimating potential harm to civilians in future Coalition operations, as civilian harm mitigation procedures require military units to learn from their civilian casualty assessments, and incorporate that learning into planning future operations.”

None of the more than 100 residents who Amnesty spoke with during their research said they had been approached by the Coalition. As Airwars reported in March, there were ample opportunities for such interaction, including at processing centers run by the SDF.

“Unexploded MK 82 bomb, dropped by the Coalition, in a street in the centre of Raqqa. Months after the recapture of Raqqa unexploded munitions still littered Raqqa, in places where they posed a threat to civilians and where they could have easily been removed.” Via Amnesty Report.

Bodies in Raqqa are still being dug out, seven months after the end of hostilities. In a May interview, a member of the Raqqa Reconstruction Committee told Airwars that remains hastily buried in mass graves during fighting are often too decomposed to be identified. Other bodies are still entombed in the rubble that litters the city. Recovering the dead risks encountering one of thousands of IEDs that ISIS left rigged in Raqqa’s homes and public areas.

“Many of these, as well as unexploded bombs dropped by Coalition forces, continue to contaminate the city, with the cleaning process set to continue for months, if not years,” wrote Amnesty in its report. Desperate for money, children are working as labourers to clear rubble for as little as $4 per day – a job that can prove deadly.

“Why were those who spent so much on a costly military campaign which destroyed the city not providing the relief so desperately needed,” asked one resident of the city.

“Amnesty’s detailed field investigation once again highlights the significant death and destruction visited upon Raqqa last year, primarily by US forces as they ousted so-called Islamic State,” said Airwars director Chris Woods. “There is little doubt that several thousand civilians were killed in the fighting – yet almost no interest from the US and its allies in understanding how and where they died.”

Airwars’ own monitoring has shown a clear correlation between the level of Coalition firepower deployed in Raqqa and likely civilian deaths. As its own report recently noted, “Before the assault on Raqqa had begun in June 2017, the US-led Coalition had been made aware of the high reported civilian toll at Mosul – with Airwars for example publicly highlighting rises and falls in reported civilian harm which were closely tracking munition use. Not only were these lessons not subsequently applied by the alliance – but the intensity of bombardment at Raqqa (given its relatively smaller size, and the shorter duration of the battle) actually worsened.”

Airwars graphic depicting the close correlation between intensity of Coalition bombardment and civilian deaths at Raqqa

*An earlier version of this article stated that the Coalition had admitted to 21 civilian deaths which took lace d the Battle for Raqqa (June-October 2017). As of the Coalition’s latest monthly civilian casualty report that figure is now 26.

Published

May 30, 2018

Written by

Samual Oakford and Abdulwahab Tahhan

Three months after the capture of Raqqa from so-called Islamic State, the Raqqa Reconstruction Committee (RCC) began the hard job of helping to resurrect the largely destroyed city, while recovering the remains of thousands killed in heavy fighting. RCC’s work is often dangerous. Since the end of hostilities in October 2017, hundreds of civilians have been wounded or killed by mines and IEDS left behind by ISIS. Still, the committee works daily to uncover the dead, seeking out mass graves and informal burial sites across the city. The mental and physical challenges faced by recovery crews are extraordinary. There is still little reprieve from death in this city.

In late May, Airwars spoke at length with a key member of the Raqqa Reconstruction Committee. For security reasons, they have asked to remain anonymous. The interview was originally conducted in Arabic and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Looking for his brother's body, daily and tirelessly ..never losing hope Alaa's sad story is one of hundreds the surfaced after the recent discovery of a mass grave in the center of Al Raqqa#Reconstruction_Committee#Raqqa_civil_Council#Initial_Response_team #RaqqaRC pic.twitter.com/59MVcC4qqx

— Raqqa Reconstruction Committee (@RaqqaRc) May 2, 2018

Airwars: Please tell us about the Raqqa Reconstruction Committee?

Raqqa Reconstruction Council: The reconstruction committee receives a lot of help through the Civil Council. We’re not sure where the money originates, but it’s all through the Council.

We started with the most important things to do after liberating the city. The civil defense duties were the most important. There were so many dead people – whether civilian or militant – so we made a team and called it the First Responding Team. It included Civil Defence duties such as the fire department and first aid.

We worked on getting people with relevant experience in these fields. Since we did not have forensic doctors, we had to bring [them in] from outside to supervise the process of collecting bodies. At first the team was made up of volunteers, and then we got financial support. We were asked by families – at the beginning we used unsophisticated tools and when we got funding we were able to buy better tools to dig, and a bulldozer, all the cars and bags and everything else we needed. And now we are expanding.

After attending to individual requests, we were faced with mass graves. We developed teams that would roam the city and make initial assessments. We had an initial evaluation of gardens, parks and empty lots and other related areas. We then made estimates about where there might be bodies. We started this on January 8th 2018.  

Airwars: You’ve said that there are thousands of open reports of bodies in Raqqa. How many bodies have been recovered and how many people do you think died in the city? RRC: Since we began working, we have recovered almost 700 bodies, but we don’t have an overall estimate of the number of people who died in the city. There are estimates on social media about Raqqa which put it at two, three or four thousand, but as a team we can’t tell how many civilians were killed overall. I can refer you to the UN, which mentioned that 80 percent of the city was destroyed as of April 1st. As a personal estimation, when I entered the city – I was among the first people to enter on October 21st, 2017 – I made the same assessment.

From the northern side it’s even worse, and could be 90 or 100 percent, but [the level of destruction] goes down when you move south and east, to 40 percent or 10 percent. But in the city generally, it’s 80 percent.

Airwars: Have you found mass graves?

RRC: There were buildings where we recovered 10 bodies and other buildings were we got 20 and 30, but we wouldn’t call it a mass grave. Mass graves are bodies buried by people, not under the rubble.

Some people came and told us they have someone buried in a specific park and asked if we could remove the body and rebury them. Then we asked why they were buried in the park, and they would tell us: during the final stages [of fighting] when there was heavy bombardment of cars, people couldn’t move the bodies in a normal fashion. They would gather all the bodies together and in the evening ISIS would bury them in the closest place.

Bodies would be put in bags and the ground was already dug so they would bring the bodies – they would put two, three, four bodies together and bury them in this ground. So it was due to initial assessments in the city and people’s testimonies and from working in the city. Once we started working on day one we started uncovering other places.

Airwars: The bodies in the mass graves, are they women, men, children, civilians, or fighters? How many are there?

RRC: The bodies belonged to women, children and men – for the latter we can’t tell if they were civilians or fighters. Some of them were militants but very few. The rest of the men, we can’t tell who’s a militant and who is a civilian.  It’s written on the bags [by whoever buried them] ‘a man, a woman, a child, a civilian.” Very, very few had written that this was a militant. But this does not mean that the rest are not militants.

We don’t have a final death toll of the number of women, men and children but we have so far recovered 150 bodies from Al-Rashid Stadium, and 27 bodies from  Hadika Baiyda [“White Garden” – a residential garden area of the city] where the second mass grave is.

Workers dig out bodies in a mass grave at the al-Rashid Stadium (Image courtesy of Raqqa Reconstruction Committee)

Airwars: Are bodies still being recovered from under the rubble?

RCC: We are still recovering them. Lately we’ve been busy with mass graves. We have more than one team – most of the team members are directed to the mass graves specifically, because it’s summer and the way they were buried was not 100% proper so sometimes there’s a smell. We try to allocate most of our efforts towards the mass graves but there is another team working on people under the rubble.

Airwars: How do you think people died in Raqqa? From airstrikes, artillery, from being shot?

RRC: Most likely, the majority died from aerial bombardment. Of course there were those who died from artillery but we could tell the difference with artillery. If there is partial destruction in the building then it’s artillery, but when it’s completely destroyed it is an airstrike. 

Airwars: Do you know how much artillery and how much airstrike destruction there was?

RRC: Probably 35% by artillery and the rest is airstrikes. It’s just an estimation.

Airwars: You told us that it’s summer, and that you want to recover the bodies. Could you please tell us more about the possible diseases you face from the heat and the decomposition of the bodies?

RRC: On the ground, until now we haven’t seen signs of diseases. But from initial assessments in the streets, there are areas where there’s a smell and other places there isn’t a smell but one thing that’s common is that the city is full of flies.

Airwars: What is the process when you recover bodies? When you have recovered 150 bodies from the stadium, what do you do to document those you have recovered?

RRC: When we recover multiple bodies [usually in bags], we put them near where they were recovered. With the presence of the forensic doctor, we open the body bag, and we try to identify the body. Then we write down what is written on the bag – whether it’s a number or a name. We identify the body if we can, as belonging to a woman, a child, a militant or a civilian; if the body is wrapped [in a Kafan] or wearing clothes.

We write the description of the clothes or the Kafan. Of course we haven’t seen a full body recovered. By that I mean that bodies have started to decompose even though they are in bags, but decomposed so you wouldn’t be able to tell what kind of injury the body had, whether it’s a head wound, or shrapnels or a cut. We write the condition of what we’ve seen. We place the remains in another bag which does not leak smells, and then transfer it to the cemetery and bury it properly.

To stop water wastingThe Water Sector in the reconstruction committee is on a mission to close all the open ends of the water pipes in abandoned buildings#Reconstruction_Committee #Raqqa_Civil_Council #RaqqaRC pic.twitter.com/oTR6gCBZgs

— Raqqa Reconstruction Committee (@RaqqaRc) May 8, 2018

Airwars: How much of a problem are unexploded munitions in Raqqa?

RRC: This is a very important point. The war has ended but a new one has just started. If you follow what ISIS releases [electronically], ISIS sent a message to the SDF and the civilians in general – people in this area – that we have left this land but will fight you for years. This was a remark alluding to the explosives which were intentionally planted, and other unexploded munitions.

For example, a few days ago, a guy was driving a bulldozer to help build a new house. There was an explosion while he was on the bulldozer, and in a 300 meter perimeter — or even half the perimeter was 300 meters — we couldn’t find him.

The danger is huge. Civilians have suffered badly, especially in the beginning when they entered the city in the first two months, when people returned to their homes. Explosives and mines were left in ways you wouldn’t imagine. Like if you opened the fridge, or the house door, or a window, and sometimes even if you opened the water tap or turned the switch or the water meters in the buildings – these are places that wouldn’t occur to you.

They even put explosives wired to a loofah. There was a woman with her children. They left Ain Essa camp and went back to her house in the city. After almost a week, she needed to use the loofah, so she moved it and it exploded and she died with her children. This danger is there from the beginning and it’s still present in the city and even the countryside. We have plenty of water stations that we have to rebuild and make work again, also power cables, government and public buildings, streets and even barriers. We assume that mines are everywhere.

Airwars: What about unexploded bombs and missiles?

RRC: There’s not a lot, only a few. ISIS’s strategy was to leave ammunition which would explode. We have discovered more than one ammunition factory. There is also some unexploded ammunition still in some parks, though not as many as the mines. They could be from SDF or anyone. We can’t tell whose ammunition it is. 

Airwars: When you recover the bodies and bury them again, do people know the location of the new graves? Or if people want to know if you have recovered a body, can they find out? Is there anything online or names in the new cemetery?

RRC: They are buried in a part of the city’s cemetery designated for these new bodies. It’s east of the city in a place called Tal Al-Bai’ya. We bury them individually. We leave marks here; if we have names [from the bags] we write them down. If not, we write numbers and we have in our files that body number X was found in such and such an area, and buried in this new area. If someone gives us information about a specific person, we would check and see if we have a match.

Airwars: Has anyone been able to identify or claim bodies? For example has anybody come to you and told you about a family member, and then it was possibly to identify them subsequently?

RRC: People can sometimes identify bodies while we are retrieving them, particularly where we recover the dead after receiving a family request. So we’d give people an appointment, for example a Saturday, so they would come and we then recover the bodies.

[Conversely] the bodies we recover from the rubble, nobody can identify even family members. The bodies have been exposed to the air and have decomposed, with only a few pieces left which cannot be identified. Not even their parents can identify them.

As for the mass grave, if someone had left a mark — some families for example left a mark in front of a hole, saying that a person related to me died in this hole —  then they can guess which person it is from the exact spot. When we find documents then some people recognize the victims – or from their clothes or the personal items they have on them. But these situations are very rare and only for those under the rubble, not the mass graves. Nobody was able to identify any body [in the mass graves].

Recovery crews handle a previously buried body at the Al-Rashid Stadium (via RRC).

Airwars: You have recovered 150 bodies from the stadium and 27 from Hadika Baiyda. Were you able to identify anyone?

RRC: No, not at all. We ourselves couldn’t identify them but there were some individual cases, I mean, for example Al-Rashid Stadium is different from Hadika Baiyda (White Garden).

Al-Rashid Stadium burials were done by ISIS members, because it is very close to the National Hospital in Raqqa. but  Hadika Baiyda was among many residential buildings. This area was besieged and bombarded especially in the last phase [of the battle for Raqqa.] People here were buried individually but there were also mass burials as well. Due to the bombardment, people weren’t able to take them to the cemetery, but buried them in the garden temporarily and left a mark.

Those buried individually, most people know who they belong to. Some people came back and were able to recover the body of their family because they were buried individually by their families, so these graves are known. But the bodies which weren’t recovered, we think their families left Raqqa and left Syria and never came back. If they went back, they would have recovered these bodies and reburied them properly.  

However, Hadika Bayda burials were carried out by the families. Due to the bombardment, they couldn’t go to the cemetery, which is almost 3km from the city center. People couldn’t transport the dead bodies in cars, because the cars were targeted by aircraft thinking they belonged to ISIS.

So people started digging in the garden to bury their families, and the same applies for other gardens and parks. Many of these people who buried their family members and and left the city, or who managed to flee, later came back and recovered the body even before we had started our project, and sometimes they ask us to recover them and rebury them in the city cemetery.

However for those who went to Turkey or Lebanon or any other country and couldn’t come back, they couldn’t recover the body. While they of course know where they buried their relatives, that knowledge is lost to us in Raqqa.

Despite the High temperature during #Ramadan.. The initial response team is never reluctant to help people identifying their loved ones, the bodies exhuming process continues in (Al Rasheed) field mass grave #Reconstruction_Committee#Raqqa_Civil_council#Initial_Response_Team pic.twitter.com/uxHG7BPnVP

— Raqqa Reconstruction Committee (@RaqqaRc) May 29, 2018

Airwars: Family members who come to ask you to recover their loved one’s bodies, do they tell you how they were killed?

RRC: Of the people coming to us, we don’t have statistics about how their loved ones died. But some have told us they were killed by ISIS snipers, when civilians tried to leave in the last days before the city was given to the SDF. Some said their relatives were killed by [air] bombardment, some by artillery. It seems to me the majority were killed by either air or artillery attacks. There are so many killed and under the buildings.

These graves – people used parks and stadiums due to air strikes. The bodies there definitely were not killed by ISIS because ISIS when they killed people, they had no manners. If you remember what they did in Shehaytat, in Deir Ezzor, they killed 750 people in cold blood, ISIS would show them in videos and on their media. But these people [in Raqqa] were killed in bombardments.

Airwars: You mentioned that the bodies in the stadium are not identified?

RRC: Yes, and I will tell you a story, A mother came looking for her son. He left the city when the SDF created a safe passage for civilians to leave. This guy took one of those passages, but he was shot by a sniper, that’s what his mother told us, so his friends who were with him took him to the National Hospital, but he died in the hospital and was buried at night in Al-Rashid Stadium.

His mother came to ask about him and gave us his name, but we didn’t have names. We showed her the documentations and marks of the bodies we found, a woman here, a child there, a man there, but there are no features, so she couldn’t tell where he was buried and even if she sees all the bodies, she wouldn’t be able to identify her son [due to the state of the remains]. If the body was not left with a mark from the person who was burying it, it is impossible to identify it at all. This was for Al-Rashid Stadium.

Airwars: You work with dead bodies on a daily basis. This must be very difficult for you due to the number of those killed, and the families who come to ask about their loved ones. How do you cope with this kind of work?

RRC: It’s such suffering. Working with dead bodies is still dangerous because you’re recovering bodies and you don’t know what’s buried inside. The mine removal teams are active in the city, but small things might put people in danger. We have recovered militants’ bodies and the explosive belts were still on them, and this puts the whole team in danger. Thank God, it still hasn’t happened [an explosion].

This job is difficult and dangerous. We’re still doing it and adapting, but working in the mass graves is highly dangerous both physically and mentally for team members. We have given days off to members of the team. We transfer them to another team to search for bodies under the rubble, and step away from the mass graves.

Working in mass graves creates a shock and leaves you in a state where you don’t want to eat or drink or even have a healthy life. So in order to adapt, we rotate the team members, some of them work in the mass graves, some search for bodies in the city, others recover bodies from under the rubble, and that allow us to keep a minimum effect mentally and physically on team members.

Published

May 3, 2018

Written by

Samuel Oakford

After nearly four years of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, the United Kingdom has admitted for the first time that its forces caused civilian harm during anti-ISIS operations, when a missile fired from a Reaper drone this March also killed one non-combatant in eastern Syria.

The May 2nd admission came just a day after an exclusive BBC report quoted a Coalition source who said the British had likely caused civilian casualties “on several occasions.” That source cited a January 9th 2017 strike in Mosul that they said “almost certainly” killed two civilians. The British MoD countered what appears to be its partners’ own findings, contending the dead were probably ISIS fighters.

However in a written statement to Parliament, the British Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson MP, conceded a separate and much more recent incident – far removed from the large-scale battles of Mosul and Raqqa. This occured on March 26th 2018, in an area of eastern Syria where ISIS fighters had yet to be defeated.

“During a strike to engage three Daesh fighters a civilian motorbike crossed into the strike area at the last moment and it is assessed that one civilian was unintentionally killed,” said Williamson, using an Arabic term for the terror group. “We reached this conclusion after undertaking routine and detailed post-strike analysis of all available evidence.”

Failure to investigate on the ground

The question of non-US partner culpability has proved vexing. In May 2017, Airwars revealed that US officials had determined that partner nations had caused at least 80 civilian deaths. No Coalition member will publicly accept responsibility for any of the incidents, which were released in bulk without any identifying information.

Since then, Australia and the Netherlands have joined the United States in admitting to involvement in incidents where civilians were killed or injured. Far larger military contributors the UK and France had remained silent.

In the BBC investigation – for which defence correspondent Jonathan Beale again traveled to Mosul to see the damage wrought on the city by airstrikes – he reported that Britain’s Coalition partners have “highlighted or ‘flagged’, several incidents when UK airstrikes may have caused civilian harm” but “on each occasion the MoD says it saw no evidence it caused civilian casualties.”

The newly conceded British casualty incident was observable thanks to Coalition video taken from the air, according to the Defence Secretary’s statement. From the first Coalition admissions, investigators have shown a bias towards cases: out in the open, and where follow-up investigations – either involving travel to the location or interviews with locals – are not required.

The Coalition and partner allies do not as a matter of policy speak with locals, or visit allegation sites. Yet most civilian casualty incidents monitored by Airwars likely would be impossible to confirm solely based on aerial reconnaissance, occurring as they often do in dense urban environments such as those in Raqqa and Mosul. As former deputy RAF commander Air Marshal Greg Bagwell has recently noted, “you can’t see through rubble.”

Urban strikes

According to the former UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, Royal Air Force planes carried out strikes on more than 750 targets during the campaign to liberate Mosul – “second only the US.” As Airwars has previously reported, Coalition strikes in Mosul were more often carried out with little or no knowledge of who remained inside buildings – an issue that extends to any post-strike analysis.

There is no official civilian death count for the battle of Mosul, but an investigation by the Associated Press has placed the toll at between 9,000 and 11,000 killed by all parties from October 2016 to June 2017. In total, Airwars tracked between 6,000 and 9,000 non combatant deaths variously attributed to the Coalition by local sources, and estimated that a minimum of between 1,066 and 1,579 likely died due to Coalition air and artillery strikes. This almost certainly represents a significant undercount, due to confused reporting at the time. It is telling that Britain’s first civilian casualty admission came not from Mosul – where it launched more attacks than anywhere else in Iraq or Syria – but from the deserts of eastern Syria.

“While the UK’s concession of a civilian fatality from one of its airstrikes against ISIS is a welcome step towards greater accountability, we’re concerned that it has taken the MoD almost four years and 1,600 strikes before making any such admission,” said Airwars director Chris Woods.

“Thousands of civilians have credibly been reported killed in Coalition actions to defeat so-called Islamic State – and airstrikes remain the primary cause of death. We hope the UK will now properly investigate the hundreds of additional potential civilian harm events its aircraft have recently been implicated in.”

▲ RAF Tornado GR4's over Iraq on an armed reconnaissance mission in support of OP SHADER. Royal Air Force Tornado GR4 aircraft have been in action over Iraq as part of the international coalition’s operations to support the democratic Iraqi Government in the fight against ISIL.