Israeli Military in Syria & the Gaza Strip

A child uses his mobile device in the ruins of a building in Beit Lahia, Gaza Strip on May 26th 2021. © Mohamed Zaanoun

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Published

December 10, 2021

Written by

Joe Dyke and Sanjana Varghese

Assisted by

Edward Millett

Airwars has found that 10 times more civilians were killed in 11 days of Israel’s bombing of Gaza than in the entirety of its 8-year campaign in Syria

This article was originally published by Newlines on December 9th 2021 and written by Airwars’ Investigations Team.

 

On Jan. 13, 2021, the Israeli military launched some of its most intensive strikes to date in Syria. Over several hours, perhaps two dozen sites of Iranian-linked armed groups were hit over a vast territory in the Deir ez-Zor region near the Iraqi border. At least 57 militants were reportedly killed. Local communities did not report a single civilian casualty.

Four months later, the might of the Israeli military targeted a very different location.

On the night of May 15, a series of airstrikes hit the Al-Rimal neighborhood of central Gaza City. At least 44 civilians reportedly died. Multiple families were nearly wiped out after taking shelter in a neighborhood previously thought to be safe. Some Hamas militants may also have been killed in underground tunnels, the announced target of the strikes by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), though this remains unclear.

The death tolls on those nights were not an anomaly — they form part of a clear trend. The Israeli military has fought two largely aerial campaigns in recent years. One is a yearslong campaign to prevent the Iranian military and its allies from entrenchment in Syria, the other a brief but fierce war with Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza in May. The effect on civilians could hardly be more stark.

New research by Airwars has found that up to 10 times more civilians were killed in 11 days of bombing in Gaza than in the entirety of Israel’s eight-year campaign in Syria.

In Syria, several hundred secretive Israeli strikes since 2013 have likely killed as many as 40 civilians. Rough tallies suggest hundreds — and likely thousands — of Iranian and Syrian military personnel and militants of other nations were killed in these strikes. Civilian casualties from the Israeli campaign appear to be dramatically lower than those resulting from other foreign powers operating in Syria — including Russia, Turkey and the U.S.-led coalition.

In Gaza the civilian-militant ratio is reversed. Between May 10 and 21, from 151 to 192 civilians were likely killed by Israeli airstrikes, according to a comprehensive review of local community reporting by Airwars. While this research didn’t estimate the number of militants killed, Israeli rights group B’Tselem put it at 90.

The Israeli actions in Gaza and Syria are usually thought of separately — with comparisons between the two rare. But how did a military that runs such a careful campaign in one theater end up killing so many civilians in just a few days in another? Our research pointed to three main reasons for the discrepancies.

The first is the type of targets chosen by the IDF in the two contexts. Israel’s targeting system bears many similarities to that of its closest ally, the United States. In fact, Israeli military lawyers pioneered the legal justifications for the targeted assassinations that later became a hallmark of the war on terror.

Until 2000, Israel legally considered Palestinian opposition a matter of law enforcement, said Daniel Reisner, then head of the Israeli military’s International Law Department. But following the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising, or intifada, the Israeli military effectively invented a “hybrid” model to apply the laws of armed conflict — normally meant to apply only between states at war — to the West Bank and Gaza.

Craig Jones, a lecturer at Newcastle University and author of a recent book on Israeli and U.S. military lawyers, said by expanding the concept of “direct participation in hostilities,” Israel effectively invented a new category of potential target between civilian and combatant — allowing it to justify a widespread campaign of targeted assassinations.

“Essentially, once a Palestinian ‘participates’ by the broad Israeli standards, he or she cannot put down arms and remains targetable even when resting at home,” Jones said.

Reisner recalled that U.S. officials initially criticized the policy but after 9/11 “started calling for advice.” Later U.S. official justifications for drone strikes included lines lifted almost directly from Israeli policy, he said.

This legal justification allowed for more freedom in targeting Palestinian militants in their homes. While potential civilian harm still needed to be considered and precautions taken, it was accepted by the Israeli system that hitting a militant at home was potentially justified.

When the Gaza conflict started on May 10, the IDF would have had dozens of targets that had been preapproved — meaning they had already been through legal and military review.

“The IDF would have taken out of its drawers plans that were pre-prepared and reviewed legally,” said Liron Libman, former head of the International Law Department at the IDF. “But then every plan is just the basis for an order. To turn it into an operational order, you still need to assess the information again.”

It seems likely that many of those preapproved targets were the homes of militants.

Airwars tracked 17 locally reported incidents in which militants were explicitly targeted in residential buildings and civilians were killed or injured. Most took place in the first four days of the conflict, suggesting that they were in a preapproved target bank.

 

Airwars mapping of all civilian harm and strike locations (in light green according to UN data), mapped onto population density in the Strip

 

In those 17 incidents, local reports found that from nine to 11 militants were killed but also from 27 to 33 civilians, with more than 100 injured.

In one incident on May 13, four civilians were killed and 15 more, including seven children, were injured. The target was a three-story house in the Al Jeniya neighborhood, where four families lived. One of the dead, Raed Ibrahim al-Rantisi, was identified by the al-Qassam Brigades as one of their fighters. The family had gathered for Eid dinner.

In Syria, such incidents are rare, though not unheard of — such as when a Palestinian official and his family were killed in a strike in central Damascus in November 2019. But in general, strikes in Syria seem to target militants at exclusively military targets such as weapons warehouses close to land borders. Some of the civilian harm associated with Israeli strikes may even have been a result of Syrian air defense missiles missing their targets and hitting civilian homes.

The IDF’s practice of striking homes in Gaza also contributed to the high percentage of children killed, with more than one-third of all civilians killed there reported to be children. In Syria the figure is around 10%.

Likewise, when Israeli forces killed a civilian in Syria, more than 70% of the time they also harmed a militant, whereas in Gaza that ratio was in the 30% range.

“In Syria we bomb military targets, while in Gaza we strike civilian areas, so we end up bombing families,” said Yehuda Shaul, of the Israeli human rights organization Breaking the Silence, which is made up of former IDF military personnel.

Population density

A second key factor that helps explain these very different outcomes for civilians in Syria and Gaza is population density. Gaza is among the most heavily populated territories in the world, which dramatically increases the likelihood of civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure for every strike carried out.

We mapped every reported civilian harm incident in Gaza and every recorded strike location tracked by the United Nations, against population density.

Even within Gaza, civilian casualty incidents were clustered around areas of relatively high population density, such as in Gaza City to the north.

“Unlike in past wars, in May the Israeli military started its bombardment by hitting heavily populated areas and high-rise buildings,” said Yamen Al Madhoun, fieldwork director at the Gaza-based Palestinian rights organization Al Mezan. “Normally, people flee the perimeter areas where Israeli troops are stationed [and go] to schools and relatives’ homes in cities. But if civilian areas are the primary target, where can people go?”

Population density may also have provided some victims with a false sense of security. On May 12, airstrikes on the Tel al-Hawa neighborhood apparently targeting Hamas’ military wing destroyed two residential buildings. Reema Saad, who was four months pregnant, was killed alongside her two children and husband. The family had decided to stay in their apartment because they believed the densely populated neighborhood would be immune from strikes, Reema’s mother Samia told Middle East Eye.

Samir Zaqout, Al Mezan’s deputy director, said civilians had no idea how best to stay safe. “Fear, panic and confusion spread among the population. There were no taxis or transportation, so people were carrying their possessions and sometimes other family members while fleeing on foot.”

The Israeli military frequently notes that Hamas has placed military infrastructure in civilian neighborhoods in Gaza City, pointing to alleged tunnel networks as violations of the laws of war. Israeli officials also argue many of the more than 4,000 rockets fired by Hamas and Islamic Jihad from Gaza came from heavily populated neighborhoods.

But critics point out that hitting such neighborhoods overwhelmingly leads to civilian harm.

“Israeli authorities have shown an utter disregard for civilian life,” Omar Shakir of Human Rights Watch said. “They have a quite loose definition of what is a ‘military target,’ and they have consistently bombed in heavily populated neighborhoods without considering the civilian ramifications.”

“The rules and principles found in customary international humanitarian law to protect civilians should be followed,” Zaqout said. “Israel’s high-level military technology enables its forces to do so — to ensure the lawfulness of a target prior to attack. If circumstances are unclear, the Israeli military should presume people and objects normally dedicated to civilian purposes to be civilian.”

Even in Syria, the trend is noticeable. While the scale of civilian harm from IDF strikes is far lower than in Gaza, it is still overwhelmingly located in heavily populated areas, particularly the capital of Damascus — where around 45% of the estimated civilian harm occurred. In rural Deir ez-Zor Israel has carried out extensive strikes for more than five years, killing hundreds of militants and Iranian and Syrian military personnel along the way, without a single credible local allegation of civilian harm.

By contrast, both the U.S.-led coalition and Russian forces have caused often devastating numbers of civilian casualties during their own campaigns in Syria — primarily driven by extensive strikes on urban centers.

Such concerns chime with widespread calls for limits on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. A U.N.-backed campaign now involving more than 120 nations — to forge a political statement that could help limit explosive weapons use in urban areas — is being led by Ireland, though so far no major military powers have fully thrown their weight behind it.

Rules of Engagement

A third possible factor helping explain why outcomes for civilians differ so radically between Israeli campaigns is one that is harder to prove — that the Israeli military has different, and more expansive, rules of engagement (RoE) for strikes in Gaza compared with Syria. Such RoEs govern when militaries are allowed to use force and, in the event that a strike is likely to kill civilians, determine how many casualties are deemed “acceptable.”

There are no internationally agreed-upon rules of how many civilians can be killed in a strike — international law requires only that it be “proportional” to the military advantage gained. At one point during the presidency of Barack Obama, U.S. generals in Iraq were allowed to carry out strikes they expected might kill up to 10 civilians, whereas the same figure in Afghanistan was at times set at just one, given the political sensitivities of civilian harm.

Multiple sources said the Israeli military does not internally quantify these “acceptable” tolls quite so explicitly, preferring instead to be “very context specific,” as Libman, now research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, said. The country has never released its RoEs for Syria or Gaza, and it is unlikely to do so.

A recent study found that Israeli military officers in general were significantly more conservative in their view of acceptable levels of civilian harm in discussions on proportionality as compared with their U.S. counterparts. The study, by universities in Israel, the U.S. and the U.K., found that in an imagined case of targeting an enemy headquarters, the median number of civilian deaths that U.S. officers were willing to tolerate in order to achieve military gains was 175, while Israeli officers were willing to accept 30 such casualties.

The IDF also likes to highlight its policy of warning civilians in Gaza before some airstrikes, a practice not widely adopted by other military actors. Yet these are the exception rather than the rule — in the 136 civilian harm incidents Airwars researchers tracked, the vast majority of targets had reportedly received no warnings.

According to Breaking the Silence, when there is imminent threat to populations, Israeli militaries are willing to carry out strikes that threaten civilian lives. “When there is even the slightest threat to Israeli lives, concern for Palestinian civilians all but goes out the window,” Shaul said.

Reisner didn’t dispute that the calculations were different in Gaza. “If I see an enemy about to fire a rocket at an Israeli city, the proportionality calculation would be different than if I saw the same individual at home knowing he is planning an attack in three days,” he said.

“I can legitimately kill many more civilians — it is a horrible sentence, but [it is the reality].”

Hamas and Islamic Jihad also posed a far more imminent threat than Iranian groups in Syria, said Amos Guiora, a professor at S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah and another former senior Israeli military lawyer. “With the Iranians you can afford to wait for the right time,” he said.

Politics may also play into it. Guiora said that the potential for a political fallout from a strike in Syria could also encourage caution. Israel has long had de facto control over the Palestinian territories but open involvement in Syria could risk a backlash at a time when Israel has secured landmark deals with Arab states including the United Arab Emirates.

“An unacceptable number of civilian deaths opens the door to blowback and bounce back, in the court of international opinion,” he said.

“Maybe from a geopolitical perspective, extra caution is necessary in Syria.”

▲ Airwars' homepage comparing Israeli strikes in Syria and Gaza

Published

December 9, 2021

Written by

Airwars Staff

Population density is greatest driver of civilian casualties from strikes in Gaza, Israel and Syria, new study shows.

In just eleven days in May 2021, Israeli air and artillery strikes on Gaza killed up to 10 times more civilians than the country’s eight-year bombing campaign against Iranian-linked forces in Syria, new Airwars research has found. The study raises critical concerns about the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

The report – ‘Why did they bomb us?’ Urban civilian harm in Gaza, Syria and Israel from explosive weapons use’ – comprehensively documents the civilian toll of recent Israeli actions in Gaza and Syria, as well as from Palestinian rocket fire into Israel during May. Published jointly in Arabic, Hebrew and English, the 16,000 word report employs Airwars’ standard methodology to examine how, when, and where civilians are killed in urban conflicts.

The report chronicles civilian casualties from two very different military campaigns by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

Among the report’s key findings are:

    Across the three conflict areas, both the targeting approach and the population density of those areas bombed were critical drivers of civilian harm, leading to profoundly different outcomes for civilians. In Gaza between 151 and 192 civilians were likely killed as a result of IDF actions in May 2021, mostly in densely populated areas. At least a third of those killed were children. Between 15 and 20 civilian deaths in Gaza were additionally likely to have resulted from Palestinian misfires. 10 civilians were directly killed in Israel in May 2021 resulting from Palestinian militant actions – with most casualties occurring when rockets penetrated Israel’s ‘Iron Dome’ defence system and reached cities and towns. In Syria, an extensive IDF air campaign since 2013 has had a far smaller impact on civilians. Israeli strikes have likely killed at least 14 and up to 40 Syrian civilians, with attacks mostly focused on exclusively military targets, away from population centres. Airwars has produced an interactive map showing its findings for Gaza, which can be viewed here. The map allows users to navigate through 128 individual assessments of civilian harm in Gaza, and provides a lasting testimony to the civilian victims of the conflict.

 

Israel’s longtime rival Iran has been active within near neighbour Syria since civil war erupted a decade ago, with Tehran helping to prop up President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Beginning in January 2013, Israel has periodically carried out attacks within Syria to counter Iranian entrenchment. Strikes have targeted Iranian and Syrian troops, as well as militias from multiple countries aligned with Tehran.

Airwars has tracked Israeli strikes in Syria for several years as part of its long running monitoring of actions there by all foreign actors. It has now published interactive mapping of all locally reported allegations against Israel in Syria. It’s believed to be the first comprehensive assessment of the civilian toll of an extensive but secretive air campaign.

Airwars researchers also recorded civilian harm from Israeli military strikes during the May 2021 eruption of violence in Gaza, alongside harm caused by rockets fired into Israel by Palestinian militants.

An image from Airwars’ interactive map of civilian harm in Gaza

Choice of targets

Since 2008 Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip have fought four major combat operations. Airwars researchers looked at the latest conflict in May 2021 in order to provide comparative data with the more limited civilian harm events being reported from Israeli strikes in Syria.

After compiling all community-reported civilian harm events in the conflicts in Syria and Gaza, Airwars researchers found that one of the critical explainers behind the dramatically different outcomes for civilians was where the IDF chooses to bomb.

According to local reports, the great majority of Israeli actions in Syria have targeted military assets such as air bases, troop convoys and weapons stores, away from major cities and towns. Hundreds of militants were killed in these operations, for the most part in military settings.

In Gaza, the picture was very different. Strikes routinely hit residential neighbourhoods, and militants were frequently targeted in non-military settings: Airwars identified 17 locally reported incidents in which militants were targeted in residential buildings and in which civilians were killed or injured nearby. In those incidents, local reports found that between 27 and 33 civilians were killed, with more than 100 injured. One third of those killed in the Gaza Strip were children.

Airwars also identified between 56 and 68 civilians killed when the IDF targeted what they said was a Hamas militant tunnel network beneath heavily populated areas in Gaza City, leading the buildings above to collapse. Most of the deaths came from a single incident: in the early morning of May 16th, at least 41 civilians were killed in strikes on the residential al-Wahda street, of which up to 18 were children.

Riyad Ishkontana, 42, lost his wife and four of his children in the al-Wahda street attack. He had spent the days leading up to the bombing reassuring the young family they were safe: their building was in an area of professionals and shops, he told them. But in the early hours of the morning, as Ishkontana was out getting snacks, the building was hit. Only one of his children survived. “I wish I never left,” he told The New York Times.

Population density mapping

Airwars also mapped all civilian harm allegations in Gaza, Syria and Israel against population density, and found a second clear driver of civilian harm: the more heavily populated an area, the more civilians were killed.

Airwars’s new landing page comparing Israeli actions in Syria and Gaza

In Gaza, one of the most heavily populated places in the world, more than 1,500 declared Israeli air and artillery strikes hit the territory in just 11 days. This dramatically increased the likelihood of civilian harm. Even within Gaza, there was a clear trend – the more heavily populated a neighbourhood, the more civilians died there.

The trend was also noticeable in Syria. While the scale of civilian harm from IDF strikes was much lower than in Gaza, it is still overwhelmingly located in heavily populated areas. Around 45 percent of estimated civilian casualties from Israeli strikes since 2013 occurred in the capital Damascus. In Israel, 17 of the 33 reported civilian harm incidents resulting from Palestinian rockets also took place in more densely populated areas, Airwars found.

Population density in Gaza may have given some a false sense of security. On May 12th in Gaza, airstrikes killed Reema Saad, who was four months pregnant, alongside her two children and husband. The family had decided to stay in their apartment because they believed the densely populated neighbourhood would be immune from targeting, Reema’s mother Samia told Middle East Eye.

Airwars mapping of population density and reported civilian harm for Gaza, May 2021

Urban deaths part of a global trend

The new findings support what Airwars has found across all conflicts it monitors: that using wide area effect explosive weapons in populated urban areas leads to high levels of civilian deaths and injuries.

This phenomenon is certainly not restricted to actions by the IDF, or by Palestinian militant groups. Indeed, the Gaza campaign in particular can be seen as part of a profoundly worrying trend in which nations and others conduct intensive military actions in urban areas, often with devastating results.

High civilian casualties in Gaza are symptomatic of an escalating and troubling global military trend in the use of wide area effect weapons in populated areas (sometimes known as EWIPA) – seen from Gaza to Mosul, Aleppo to Raqqa, and Tripoli to Kabul. These latest findings lend further urgency to an ongoing international push to restrict their use in a United Nations-brokered Political Declaration by nations, expected to be finalised in early 2022.

“Our latest study corroborates what we have found with other large scale conflicts in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere: even technologically advanced militaries kill large numbers of civilians when attacks focus on urban centres,” Chris Woods, director at Airwars, said. “Despite repeated assurances to the contrary, it’s clear that ‘precision warfare’ cannot sufficiently mitigate civilian harm.”

“Stark differences in civilian deaths and injuries from Israeli actions in Syria and in the Gaza Strip clearly illustrate that the most significant driver of civilian harm remains the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. The single most effective way to reduce the number of civilians dying in warfare would be to restrict the use of such dangerous wide area effect weapons on urban centres.”

How the new research was carried out

The Airwars report is the result of months of meticulous research carried out by a team of local language researchers, geolocators and specialist assessors.

Thousands of local media, social media and official sources documenting civilian harm as it happened were identified and archived by Airwars’ team of Arabic-, Hebrew- and English-language researchers in relation to the May 2021 conflict in Gaza and Israel. Researchers also continue to monitor and archive all civilian harm allegations in Syria resulting from Israeli strikes since 2013.

Airwars has then assessed the civilian harm from each incident in Gaza, Syria and Israel using the same standard methodology it applies across all conflicts it monitors. Its approach can best be described as remote, original language hyperlocal monitoring of casualty claims by affected communities – along with a review of broader reports and claims by belligerents, media and other investigators. All assessments are viewed as provisional – that is, any credible new information relating to an event will be subsequently added, potentially affecting our understanding of the incident.

Full resource list

The full report available in English, Hebrew and Arabic

Interactive mapping of civilian harm in Gaza

Video documenting key findings

Full dataset for civilian harm from Israeli strikes in Gaza and Syria

Full dataset for civilian harm from Palestinian rocket fire in Israel

▲ A child uses his mobile device in the ruins of a building in Beit Lahia, Gaza Strip on May 26th 2021. © Mohamed Zaanoun

Published

September 30, 2020

Written by

Airwars Syria team and Shihab Halep

At least 17 nations have intervened militarily in Syria in recent years. In their own words, Syrians describe the often devastating consequences for civilians.

In 1996, the US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was asked by reporter Lesley Stahl about sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq: “We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?” Stahl asked. The Secretary of State responded: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it.”

Airwars data collected from local sources indicates that since 2014, at least 15,000 civilians were likely killed as a result of airstrikes and shelling from at least 17 foreign powers fighting within Syria, including members of the US-led Coalition; Russia; Iran; Turkey; and Israel. Thousands more have been injured. Here the Airwars Syria team asks: has the price paid by civilians been worth it?

For some Syrians, the intervention of so many foreign powers in Syria has its origins in the Assad government’s mishandling of mass demonstrations in the early days of a national uprising. Jala, a Syrian woman now living in London, told Airwars “Had the crisis been managed correctly by the Syrian regime back in 2011, and had the regime focused on a political solution and refrained from using power against its own people and from deploying the army in Dara’a, the intervening powers wouldn’t have found a pretext, and we wouldn’t be talking about the intervention now.”

Reasons for the intervention of so many foreign powers in Syria vary widely. For Russia, assistance to the Assad government has helped deliver long dreamt of access to a Mediterranean port. For Iran, its costly efforts to ensure the survival of the Syrian regime while seeking to promote a regional anti-Israel axis have been paramount. For the United States and its Coalition allies, a desire to defeat the terrorist group Islamic State has more recently been supplemented by a desire to counter Iranian and Russian plans for Syria. President Erdogan of Turkey has used the chaos of Syria’s wars to impose a buffer zone in northern Syria and disrupt Kurdish efforts to carve out a new state. And Israel, although not involved in the ground conflict, has nevertheless conducted hundreds of airstrikes against both Iranian and Hezbollah forces within Syria in recent years.

With so many foreign powers and their proxy actors fighting within Syria, this chart by analyst Charles Lister from 2016 indicates the sheer complexity of the situation.

This *simple* chart shows all states of hostility currently being played out on #Syria’s territory#IntractableWar pic.twitter.com/1inprNB6U0

— Charles Lister (@Charles_Lister) February 13, 2016

The US-led Coalition and civilian harm

Without the intervention of so many foreign powers in Syria, the recent history of the nation would have looked very different. Starved of Russian and Iranian support, the Assad government would most likely have been overrun by rebel forces. ISIS would also likely have surged, using the vast arsenal of weapons it had captured in Iraq during 2014 to occupy more and more Syrian territory.

So did the international intervention save the Syrian peoples? Or instead has it elongated and exacerbated the conflict, and consequently the suffering of civilians?

Following an earlier military intervention in Syria by Iran in support of the Assad government, six years ago this week the US-led Coalition launched its first airstrikes in Syria on September 23rd 2014, targeting both the so-called Islamic State that now controlled vast swathes of Syria; and also al-Qaeda’s local Syrian faction. Dozens of strikes by US, Saudi, Emirati and Jordanian aircraft that day – as well as Tomahawk missiles fired from US warships – led to the Coalition’s first reported massacre of civilians in Syria in Kafar Dryan. The Coalition still denies civilian casualties in that attack.

According to Airwars data gathered from local sources on the ground since 2014, the long running Coalition campaign against ISIS in Syria has so far likely killed at least 5,658 civilians, a high proportion of whom were women and children. Almost four thousand more civilians have reportedly been injured. The alliance itself presently concedes 671 non combatants killed by its actions.

Hasan Al-Kassab is an activist from Raqqa, who worked in the research unit of the Euphrates Project which funds many reconstruction and body retrieval projects in Raqqa. Hasan told Airwars that he lost two of his uncles during the Coalition’s Raqqa campaign in 2017. One uncle, Abdul Latif Hasan Al-kassab, was taking water from the Euphrates river when a Coalition airstrike targeted the area on June 25th 2017. His uncle was immediately killed along with two other civilians. His other uncle died when another Coalition airstrike targeted a building in Raqqa days before the city was liberated. “There is no mechanism to contact the Coalition who I believe is responsible for the death of my two uncles to investigate their death,” says Hasan today.

Additionally, Hasan told Airwars that the Initial Response Team in Raqqa has so far found 28 mass graves in Raqqa, containing more than 6,000 bodies, with two thirds of them believed to be civilians.

Destruction in Raqqa city in 2017, following the Coalition’s successful campaign to oust ISIS (Picture via Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently)

Zain Al-Abidin Al-A’kedi, an activist from Deir Ezzor living in northern Syria, told Airwars that he believes that the Coalition’s intervention against ISIS in Syria was necessary, but had come too late. “The wasted time led to an increase in the number of deaths and casualties by ISIS and the US-led Coalition airstrikes, in addition to huge damage in the cities and towns,” Zain said.

Firas Hanosh, an activist from Raqqa and a former doctor with Medecins Sans Frontières in one of Raqqa’s field hospitals, also believes that the US-led Coalition intervention in Syria was necessary, because local forces were unable to defeat ISIS. However, he argues that the Coalition’s choice of the mainly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces as its ground proxy was a mistake. “The US-led Coalition didn’t choose the right partner on the ground (SDF) , which is racist against the Arab civilians.” Firas told Airwars that it is unsafe for him to return to his ravaged home city. He says he is also worried about being arrested by the SDF, because of his work as an activist monitoring the situation in Raqqa.

Wary of intervening on the ground in Syria or getting involved in the civil war, the US still needed to combat ISIS. It therefore turned to the Kurds – initially helping the newly formed SDF to drive out ISIS from its own areas. “Without the Coalition’s intervention forces, we would have lost Kobane, Qamishli and other Kurdish areas.” Dlshad, a Syrian cyber security engineer now living in Washington DC ,said. However, as the SDF then advanced against ISIS in primarily Arabic-population territory, tensions rose.

Other Syrians believe the US and its allies had hidden motives. Jala, a Syrian woman now living in London, believes that the US intervention in Syria, though declared to be against ISIS, was in fact aimed at controlling the oil fields of North East Syria. President Trump has done little to dispel this view, and US troops today occupy many of Syria’s oil fields.

Assad’s allies: Russia and Iran in Syria

Even as the US-led Coalition was ramping up its attacks against ISIS in Syria, the regime was losing badly on the ground to rebel forces. Reports estimated that despite Iranian and Hezbollah support, Bashar al-Assad held only 25% of Syria by late 2015. Assad asked for support from his Russian allies – leading to Moscow’s largest foreign intervention since its disastrous Afghanistan campaign of 1979-1989. The outcome in Syria would prove to be very different.

The first Russian airstrikes in Syria took place on September 30th 2015, targeting the towns of Za`faranah, Talbisah and Ar-Rastan in Homs; and Al Makrmeya and Jisr al Shughour in Idlib. From the first day, the effects on civilians were devastating. At least 43 civilians reportedly died in Russia’s initial airstrikes – with more than 150 more injured.

A BBC map from 2015 indicates how little territory the Assad government still held before Russia’s armed intervention.

Accused of indifference to civilian harm from its actions in Syria – and even the deliberate targeting of communities – Moscow has yet to admit to a single civilian death in five years of war. Airwars monitoring has so far recorded 4,487 locally reported problem airstrikes by Russia in partnership with the Assad government from 2015 to 2020 – which between them reportedly led to the deaths of as many as 22,000 non combatants, and the injuring of up to 40,000 more.

“The Russian intervention in Syria is not new,” argues Dlshad, a cyber security engineer now living in Washington DC: “I come from Rmeilan city which is rich with oil, and the Russians have been in the city for a long time.” That said, Dlshad believes the Russian intervention both extended the life of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime – and in some cases curbed his actions. He argues for example that Assad would have been more brutal against his own people without Russian control.

“The Russian military involvement changed the military equation,” argues Abdulkarim Ekzayez, a Research Associate at the Department of War Studies at King’s College, University of London and himself a Syrian: “Large-scale aerial attacks on vital infrastructure such as hospitals, schools and bakeries have weakened the resilience of the targeted communities in opposition held areas. Consequently the regime was able to take control over most of the opposition pockets in central and southern Syria, pushing all opposition factions into the north west with clearly defined contact lines between the two warring parties.”

Mohammed Al Fares, the nom de plume of a humanitarian worker living in Idlib, believes that the Russians have followed a systematic plan to target civilians in Syria – something the US-led Coalition tried to avoid, he says. However, Jala believes that none of the actors in the Syrian conflict cared deeply about civilians, including Syrian fighters on the ground because they focused only on achieving military gains and not on civilians.

The other key ally of the Assad government, Iran, has taken a different approach. Years of sanctions have left it with a poorly equipped air force. Instead Tehran’s efforts in Syria focused on its domestic rocket and drone programmes, in turn channelling them to both Hezbollah and to the Syrian regime.

In addition, Iranian ground forces have played a key role in the fighting. The Quds Brigade is known to be involved at a senior level in the Syrian conflict and even in changing the structure of the Syrian army. The Syrian 4th Brigade is close to Iran for example, while the 5th Brigade has closer links to Russian forces.

Qassem Soleimani, the former head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, pictured near Aleppo’s historic castle after the city’s capture from rebels (Image via Zaman al Wasl)

Unilateral interventions in Syria

With a weak government in Damascus, multiple foreign powers have for years conducted unilateral actions in Syria in support of their own national interests. The United States has long targeted al Qaeda-linked fighters in western Syria for example; while the British conducted a controversial targeted killing of a UK citizen in 2015. Two nations in particular have fought lengthy unilateral campaigns.

Turkey has launched several massive operations in North East Syria, alongside its earlier targeting of ISIS in Idlib. In January 2018, Ankara launched Operation Olive Branch in Afrin, and later Operation Peace Spring in October 2019.

Overall, hundreds of Syrian civilians have been locally reported killed by Turkish actions – both against Kurdish forces, and ISIS-occupied areas such as al Bab.

Syrians interviewed for this article were strongly opposed to Turkey’s interventions. “There was no threat against Turkey. Why did Turkey intervene? Turkey is racist against the Kurds and that’s it,” claimed Dlshad.

H.J, a female architect from Damascus who asked not to be fully named for safety reasons, argued: “Syrians thought that Erdogan was helping the Syrian cause, but he eventually used it as a bargaining chip with Europe; causing destruction and division between Arabs and Kurds, and turning Syrian youth into mercenaries”.

Israel’s own unilateral aerial campaign in Syria has proved devastating against both Iranian and Hezbollah forces. In early 2019, a senior Israeli commander declared that the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) had dropped more than 2,000 bombs on Syria during the previous year, while Prime Minister Binyamin Netenyahu said that “the IDF has attacked hundreds of times Iranian and Hezbollah targets.”

Despite the significant scale of Israel’s intervention, international attention has been limited. This may in part be due to the low levels of reported civilian harm from Israeli strikes in Syria compared with other foreign powers. Since 2019, Airwars monitoring indicates that between 13 and 22 civilians were killed and over 40 injured in nine Israeli airstrikes of concern. With its focus in Syria almost exclusively on military targets, Israel appears to have limited the widescale civilian harm seen in the actions of others.

According to Mohammed Al Fares, a Syrian spoken to for this article, “It is good that Israel is destroying the regime’s military installations. However, they are doing it because they don’t want Iran to get an upper hand in Syria, not for the sake of the Syrian people.”

The reverberating effects of foreign intervention

Years of conflict in Syria, combined with external intervention by at least 17 foreign powers, have changed the face of the country for ever. According to the UNHCR, there are 6.2 million people, including 2.5 million children, currently internally displaced within Syria, the largest such population in the world. Beyond Syria’s borders, the total number of registered Syrian refugees has so far reached 5.5 million.

The direct links between external interventions and the displacement of civilians can be challenging to unpack.

In North East Syria for example actions by rebels; by ISIS; and later by Turkish forces, saw more than 215,000 people driven from their homes. While many have returned, an estimated 100,000 remain displaced.

Similarly, Syrian Arab Army operations supported from the air by Russia have proved highly disruptive. During the last major campaign between December 2019 and March 2020 in North West Syria, the UN reported a new displacement of more than 960,000 people, including more than 575,000 children.

Humanitarian worker Mohammed Al Fares, himself an IDP, told Airwars about his own experience. “When you are forced outside your residence, you die slowly. You lose everything, your home, your land, your job and your money. You try to start over and build a new life, but it is difficult.”

A Syrian woman pictured in an IDP camp in north east Syria (Picture courtesy of Refugees International)

The destruction of Syria’s infrastructure over the past nine years has also been extreme – much of it the result of foreign actions. Among the most brutal examples have been Aleppo and Raqqa – the first significantly at the hands of Russian forces; the latter mostly as a result of  the US-led Coalition’s targeting of ISIS. According to ReliefWeb: “About a third of homes in Syria were thought to have been damaged or destroyed by 2017. In 2018, the UN estimated the cost of material destruction in Syria at $120 billion.”

Hasan Al-Kassab told Airwars that eleven bridges in Raqqa were destroyed including Raqqa’s New Bridge during the Coalition’s 2017 campaign, and that civilians are only slowly starting to return because of a lack of basic services. For example, 60% of Raqqa is still without electricity.

East Aleppo, which witnessed brutal bombing by the Assad government supported by its Russian ally, experienced a similar fate. Battles which began in  2012 reached their climax in November 2016, when SAA troops began a decisive campaign that ended a month later with the retaking of the city. This caused very significant damage to Aleppo.

H.J, the architect from Damascus, believes that the destruction in Syria has been systemic and not just ‘collateral damage’ as militaries claim. “The destruction caused by all different actors is called many things, of which: Urbicide/ Identicide. That is, to commit a massacre against the urban environment; to target relationships that connect people and places, erasing their identities. Nowadays, one third of Syria is destroyed, and about 80% of Syria’s Night lights are gone.”

Significant opposition remains from many countries to the reconstruction process in Syria while Bashar al-Assad remains in power. However, the US is implementing small scale rebuilding activities in areas under SDF control, focusing on basic services like water, electricity and rubble removal that don’t reach the level of reconstruction. At the same time, with Russia and Iran unable significantly to support the regime financially as it seeks to rebuild Syria, limited scale investments risk lining the pockets of warlords, profiteers and cronies.

A price worth paying?

Mohammed Al Fares believes that overall, external intervention by so many foreign powers has had a negative impact on the course of the Syrian revolution, and on the general situation in the country. “Syrians had been in a state of solidarity with each other when the revolution started and [they eventually] controlled about 70% of Syria. External intervention including money channelling, divided the Syrians and brought into the decision making people who were not fit to lead. This in turn made the revolution very political until it lost its momentum. However, the revolution continues with its youth, women, elders and children despite all the obstacles it faces”

However others see more subtlety. According to Hasan Al-Kassab from Raqqa: “We can’t put all the interventions in the same basket. The Coalition intervened to eliminate ISIS, Russia intervened to oppress the people and legitimise the regime against the civilians, while Turkey intervened to fight the PKK and secure its borders. However every intervention is still an occupation, because there is no mechanism to give oversight to the people. They built military bases and disturbed the fabric of the Syrian people.”

From her side, H.J, the female architect from Damascus, argues that after the regime started killing civilians in 2012, the Syrian people tolerated even ‘allying with the devil’ to oust Bashar Al-Assad. ‘’I didn’t personally support this opinion, but we needed any offerings, we naively thought that the world would help us without anything in return. We were wrong, and all interventions were bad. The country was divided, and military bases were established.”

With peace still nowhere in sight in Syria – and fighting likely to resume as the Covid pandemic recedes – there is little sign of foreign powers withdrawing any time soon. While their interventions have radically changed conflict dynamics, they have done little to support the Syrian peoples in their aspirations for freedom and justice. Yet if the same kind of resource spent by foreign powers on bombs and missiles could one day be diverted to Syria’s infrastructure development, to education, and to the fostering of civil society, another future remains possible.

▲ Syria's Bashar al-Assad in the cockpit of a Russian Su-35 fighter at Hmeimim air base, Latakia in December 2017 (Image via Syrian regime Facebook page)

Published

July 9, 2020

Written by

Airwars Staff

Killing of Iranian commander by US drone strike represents 'not just a slippery slope. It is a cliff', warns Special Rapporteur

The US assassination of Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), in Baghdad in January 2020, was unlawful on several counts, according to a new report submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council by its expert on extrajudicial killings.

Dr Agnes Callamard, the current UN Special Rapporteur on Extra-Judicial Executions, asserts in her latest report that Soleimani’s controversial assassination by a US drone strike on Baghdad International Airport on January 3rd 2020 had violated international law in several ways.

Noting that the US drone strike had also killed several Iraqi military personnel, Dr Callamard notes that “By killing General Soleimani on Iraqi soil without first obtaining Iraq’s consent, the US violated the territorial integrity of Iraq.”

The Special Rapporteur also argues that by failing to demonstrate that Soleimani represented an imminent threat to the United States – and instead focusing on his past actions dating back to 2006 – that his killing “would be unlawful under jus ad bellum“, the criteria by which a state may engage in war.

In the bluntest condemnation yet of the Trump Administration’s killing of Iran’s leading military commander, Dr Callamard argues that “the targeted killing of General Soleimani, coming in the wake of 20 years of distortions of international law, and repeated massive violations of humanitarian law, is not just a slippery slope. It is a cliff.”

She also warns that the killing of Iran’s top general may see other nations exploit the US’s justification for the assassination: “The international community must now confront the very real prospect that States may opt to ‘strategically’ eliminate high ranking military officials outside the context of a ‘known’ war, and seek to justify the killing on the grounds of the target’s classification as a ‘terrorist’ who posed a potential future threat.”

Speaking to Airwars from Geneva ahead of her presentation to the UNHRC, Dr Callamard described the US killing of General Soleimani as “a significant escalation in the use of armed drones, and in the use of extraterritorial force. Until now, drones have focused on terrorism and on counterterrorism responses. Here we’re seeing the displacement of a counterterrorism strategy onto State officials.” She described the Trump administration’s justification of the assassination of a senior Iranian government official as “a distortion of self defence.”

Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s highest ranked military commander, was assassinated in a US drone strike near Baghdad on January 3rd 2020 (via @IRaqiRev).

‘The second drone age’

Dr Callamard’s denouncement of the US’s killing of Qasem Soleimani marks the latest in almost 20 years of concerns raised by United Nations experts on the use of armed drones for targeted assassinations. In 2002, following the killing of five al Qaeda suspects in Yemen by the CIA, then-rapporteur Asma Jahangir warned for example that the attack constituted “a clear case of extrajudicial killing”.

UN reports since then have tended to focus on controversial drone campaigns outside the hot battlefield, in countries including Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Palestine’s West Bank and Gaza Strip.

With her new report, delivered to the UNHRC on July 9th, Dr Callamard seeks to bring the discussion on armed drone use up to date, noting that “the world has entered what has been called the ‘second drone age’ with a now vast array of State and non-State actors deploying ever more advanced drone technologies, making their use a major and fast becoming international security issue.” The term ‘second drone age’ was originally coined by Airwars director Chris Woods, to reflect a growing wave of armed drone proliferation among state and non-state actors.

My latest report to the UN #HRC44 focus on targeted killings by armed drones: https://t.co/qLsqubaMpA The world has entered a “second drone age”, in which State and non-State actors are deploying ever more advanced drone technologies, a major international, security issue.

— Agnes Callamard (@AgnesCallamard) July 8, 2020

 

As Dr Callamard and her team write: “The present report seeks to update previous findings. It interrogates the reasons for drones’ proliferation and the legal implications of their promises; questions the legal bases upon which their use is founded and legitimized; and identifies the mechanisms and institutions (or lack thereof) to regulate drones’ use and respond to targeted killings. The report shows that drones are a lightning rod for key questions about protection of the right to life in conflicts, asymmetrical warfare, counter-terrorism operations, and so-called peace situations.”

Many of the conflicts monitored by Airwars are referenced by Dr Callamard.

    In Iraq, she notes that non state actors including ISIS deployed armed drones, sometimes to devastating effect. “In 2017 in Mosul, Iraq, for example, within a 24-hour period ‘there were no less than 82 drones of all shapes and sizes’ striking at Iraqi, Kurdish, US, and French forces.” In Libya, the Special Rapporteur asserts that “The Haftar Armed Forces carried out over 600 drone strikes against opposition targets resulting allegedly in massive civilian casualties, including, in August 2019, against a migrant detention center.” Callamard notes that a ‘nations unwilling or unable to act’ defence – first used by George W Bush’s administration to justify drone strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere – had been employed by several nations, including Turkey and Israel, to justify attacks in Syria. The UN Special Rapporteur also cautions that as more States acquire armed drones, their use domestically has increased: “Turkey has reportedly used drones domestically against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), while Nigeria first confirmed attack was carried out against a Boko Haram logistics base in 2016. In 2015 Pakistan allegedly used its armed drones for the very first time in an operation to kill three ‘high profile terrorists.’ Iraq has similarly purchased drones to carry out strikes against ISIS in Anbar province in 2016.” Finally, Dr Callamard warns that non-State actors including terrorist groups increasingly have access to remotely piloted technologies – noting that “At least 20 armed non-State actors have reportedly obtained armed and unarmed drone systems.”

“Drones are now the weapon of choice for many countries. They are claimed to be both surgical and to save lives – though we have insufficient evidence to conclude either,” Dr Callamard told Airwars. “Drones may save the lives of ‘our’ soldiers – but on the ground is another matter.”

Civilian harm concerns

The UN Special Rapporteur’s latest report highlights concerns about ongoing risks to civilians from armed drone use. Citing multiple studies, she writes that “even when a drone (eventually) strikes its intended target, accurately and ‘successfully’, the evidence shows that frequently many more people die, sometimes because of multiple strikes.”

Callamard also cautions that “Civilian harm caused by armed drone strikes extends far beyond killings, with many more wounded. While the consequences of both armed and non-combat drones remain to be systematically studied, evidence shows that the populations living under ‘drones’ persistent stare and noise experience generalized threat and daily terror’.”

The UN’s expert on extrajudicial killings additionally notes the key role drones play in helping militaries to determine likely civilian harm: “Without on-the-ground, post-strike assessment, authorities rely on pre- and post-strike drone-video feeds to detect civilian casualties leaving potentially significant numbers of civilian casualties, including of those misidentified as ‘enemies’, undiscovered. Studies showed that in Syria and Iraq the initial military estimates missed 57% of casualties.”

The Special Rapporteur does however point out that civilian harm can be reduced by militaries, “through stronger coordination, improved data analysis, better training of drones’ operators, and systematic evaluation of strikes.”

▲ Aftermath of US drone strike on Baghdad International Airport in January 2020 which assassinated Iranian General Qasem Soleimani (via Arab48).