Russian Military in Syria

A Russian combat aircraft at Khmeimim airbase in Syria being prepared for action. (Russian Ministry of Defence)

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Published

February 5, 2019

Written by

Airwars Staff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alexa O’Brien

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

Published

September 10, 2018

Written by

Samuel Oakford

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

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

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

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

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

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

From verge of collapse to near victory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘A counter terror operation’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Targeting ISIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Urban destruction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The final blow?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published

March 7, 2018

Written by

Samuel Oakford

Note: this article has been updated to include a response from the Coalition. 

United Nations investigators charged with monitoring the Syrian conflict have accused both Russia and the US-led Coalition of potentially violating international law or war crimes for strikes in the country during 2017.

In a year which saw shocking reports of civilian harm across Syria, the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic launched a blistering attack on the many belligerents, domestic and foreign, who now crowd Syria’s soil.

The latest report of the Commission of Inquiry outlined cluster munition use by pro-government forces; an attack on a hospital that was treating victims of an April 4th 2017 sarin gas attack; and a brutal pro-government campaign in the second half of that year in the Aleppo countryside, targeting schools – a campaign which the Commission said amounted in each instance to war crimes.

ISIS was accused of using snipers and landmines to deliberately target civilians at Raqqa, forcing them to remain within the beseiged city, and of forcibly moving civilians into neighbourhoods under attack from assaulting forces: “By deliberately placing civilians in areas where they were exposed to combat operations, for the purpose of rendering those areas immune from attack, ISIL militants committed the war crime of using human shields in Raqqah governorate,” the Commission noted.

Investigators also cited the US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) for conscripting children as young as 13 as fighters. In the aftermath of fighting in Raqqa, the Commission noted, the SDF has been interning up to 80,000 displaced people in desert camps, ostensibly to vet them for possible connections to ISIS. According to the Commission, “Irrespective of the legitimacy of a security threat, the blanket internment of all internally displaced persons from Raqqah and Dayr al-Zawr by the Syrian Democratic Forces cannot be justified.”

The Commission also implicated, in effect, four of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council with involvement – either directly, or by association – with likely unlawful airstrikes. That marked a significant change from late 2015, when Commission chair Paulo Pinheiro said there was “no possibility that we will investigate the American air strikes or French or British or Russian.” In the years since, Russian and US-led airstrikes have reportedly killed thousands of civilians in Syria, leading to a far more robust response from the Commission. 

In the case of November 13th 2017 airstrikes in Aleppo, UN investigators took the important step of naming Russia as the perpetrator — not simply “pro-government” forces or the regime and its allies. In a separate investigation, the Commission offered new details about what may be the deadliest airstrike of the entire US-led campaign in Iraq or Syria – an alliance that also counts among its ranks UNSC permanent members France and the United Kingdom.

Highest civilian toll of entire Coalition war

On the night of March 20th-21st 2017, the Al-Badiya school in al Mansourah, by almost all accounts filled with at least 200 internally displaced people, was struck by the Coalition.The US-led alliance has confirmed it conducted the attack – though continues to insist that only ISIS fighters died.

In a September 2017 Human Rights Watch report, researchers interviewed local residents who said some “ISIS members and their families displaced from Iraq had moved into the school prior to the attack,” but that many also were “completely unaffiliated with ISIS.” HRW found that at least 40 named civilians, including 16 children were killed, and said the toll was likely much higher. The UN-sponsored Commission now assesses that 150 civilians were in fact killed that night – and insists no Islamic State fighters died.

Human Rights Watch investigation video interviewing al Mansour survivors

Though it is not allowed to enter Syria by the Assad government, the Commission was able to interview 20 survivors, relatives, rescuers and other witnesses. “Interviewees explained that, since 2012, Al-Badiya school housed internally displaced families,” wrote the UN investigators. “Some of the residents were recent arrivals while other internally displaced persons had been living in the school for years.”

In the weeks after the strike, Airwars itself provided the Coalition with a 28-page dossier of reports monitored prior to and after the attack which in part described the movement or presence of IDPs in the near area.

In their new report, UN investigators found that the school was hit by three separate airstrikes, “each using multiple bombs that destroyed most of the building rendering it uninhabitable.” They also obtained photographs which showed the type of aerial weapons, including Hellfire missiles, which were likely used.

The al Mansoura strike, and the Coalition’s response, immediately raised serious concerns. As reports emerged suggesting a large civilian toll, the Coalition’s then-top commander General Stephen J. Townsend appeared to preempt his own investigative team.

“We had multiple corroborating intelligence sources from various types of intelligence that told us the enemy was using that school,” Townsend told reporters 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 continued. “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.”

The aftermath of a Coalition strike on a school in Al Mansoura, March 21st . This is one of the few images to show the destruction of the attack. (via Mansoura in its People’s Eyes)

In its most recent report, the Commission of Inquiry rebutts that version of events. “Information gathered by the Commission does not support the claim that 30 ISIS fighters were in the school at the time of the strike, nor that the school was otherwise being used by ISIS,” it wrote. Investigators said the Coalition should have been aware that the school had been sheltering displaced families for five years. Indeed, among the reports provided to the Coalition by Airwars that described the presence of IDPs were several that predated the strike by several weeks.

The Commission concluded that the Coalition violated international law in failing to “take all feasible precautions to avoid or minimize incidental loss of life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects.”

The Coalition’s investigative team ultimately concluded that allegations of civilian harm in the Mansoura incident were “non-credible.” As in other high profile US or US-led attacks, Coalition investigators did not visit the site of the strike, instead relying on its own internal sources such as strike video. The Coalition’s subsequent investigation, said the Commission, should have been able to “identify the high number of civilian casualties resulting from this incident.”

Even after Human Rights Watch provided the Coalition with detailed information from its own in-person investigation and published those findings, the Coalition did not reopen the case. Reached by Airwars following the release of the Commission’s report, the Coalition repeated their earlier non-credible assessment but said they would consider the findings.

“Based on all evidence provided, to include weapons system video, we have no solid indication civilian casualties resulted from this strike,” said a Coalition spokesperson. “We are interested in the facts the U.N. used to reach a different determination than our assessment. We have in the past re-examined our assessments based on new information, and are willing to reevaluate this assessment if credible or compelling additional information can be obtained.”

Possible Russian War Crimes

The tandem Russian-Syrian aerial campaign in Syria continues to pose significant roadblocks to accountability. Most reports citing Russia during the recent bombing in eastern Ghouta, for instance, have also cited the regime as the possible culprit. Unlike the Coalition however, neither Moscow nor the regime make any effort to admit civilian harm. That makes the second significant case study of international strikes so important in the new UN report.

In an important piece of detective work examining a mass casualty event at Atareb on November 13th 2017, the Commission’s investigators were able to study flight records and pilot communications – and declare that the Russian air force was responsible for a series of strikes that left at least 84 civilians dead and some 150 injured. “Using unguided weapons, the attack struck a market, police station, shops, and a restaurant, and may amount to a war crime,” the Commission said in a statement.

Aftermath of the November 13th attack in Atareb. (via Syrian Network for Human Rights)

At the time of the attack, while some local reports did cite the regime the large majority blamed Russia alone. Based on those reports, Airwars assessed that the events in Atareb were the deadliest in all of Syria that week to be tied to Russia. According to to the UN, these early accounts – monitored by Airwars – citing local testimony and observations of planes flying overhead proved accurate.

The first target hit in Atareb was a police station, where at least 13 officers and six prisoners died. The Commission found that the police were not involved in fighting, and that the station was not a “lawful military objective.” Four minutes later, a nearby three-story building was bombed.

A third, catastrophic wave of strikes then followed, hitting “a market street killing and maiming civilians and destroying vegetable and clothing shops as well as nearby residential buildings.” The Commission said it was able to corroborate local accounts by using video captured at the scene, and via satellite imagery.

“Shop owners explained that, at the time of the attack, the market was crowded with people who had left work, most of whom were men since many women had stopped going to the market after the earlier attacks,” wrote investigators.

In the market area, the Commission found evidence consistent with damage caused by unguided Russian-made OFAB-500 bombs. Elsewhere was an entry hole through which an unexploded bomplet fell. “Evidence at the scene and video evidence is consistent with a BeTAB-500 unguided ‘bunker buster’ carrying 12 rocket-assisted penetrators,” wrote investigators. “Using such weapons in a densely civilian populated area was certain to impact civilians.”

While Coalition strikes have mostly tailed off after Syrian Democratic Forces captured Raqqa in October 2017, Russian strikes have been blamed for record numbers of civilian deaths in recent weeks. Between February 19th and February 25th alone, Airwars tracked a record 78 new alleged Russian civilian casualty incidents in Syria – nearly all in eastern Ghouta – that reportedly left at least 324 civilians dead. 

On March 5th 2018, the UN Human Rights Council requested that the Commission of Inquiry conduct an urgent investigation into the offensive in the besieged suburb of Damascus.

Published

March 2, 2018

Written by

Samuel Oakford

Reported Russian airstrikes in eastern Ghouta sharply increased in the last full week of February, allegedly killing hundreds of civilians and reaching levels never before tracked by Airwars researchers.

Syrian government strikes on the rebel-held suburb of Damascus, where 400,000 people remain trapped, had already escalated at the start of February ahead of a possible ground offensive by regime forces. Aid agencies and monitors described the bombings as the worst in years. At a Security Council briefing on February 28th, UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock said that over 580 people had been reported killed due to air and ground strikes in eastern Ghouta since February 18th, along with upwards of 1,000 people who had been injured.

That briefing came four days after the Security Council had voted for a ceasefire in the country. What had happened since, asked Lowcock? “More bombing,” he said. “More fighting. More death. More destruction. More maiming of women and children. More hunger. More misery. More, in other words, of the same.days.” Airwars monitoring now indicates that – according to local reports – Russia was likely responsible for a large number of those deaths.

28 airstrikes in only 25 seconds in Qhouta 3 days ago!!.According to my college @Mahmoudadam87 the civilians still inside the shelters so far, they don’t trust the ceasefire agreement because Assad’s regime forces still bombing #Eastern_Ghouta . pic.twitter.com/e2Fem2S9RL

— Khaled Khatib (@995Khaled) February 28, 2018

Hundreds reported killed

Between February 19th and February 25th, Airwars tracked a record 78 new alleged Russian civilian casualty incidents across Syria  — almost eight times more than the week prior. All but four of the strikes were reported in eastern Ghouta, where not a single Russian strike allegation was monitored the week before. Two more strikes were reported in Hama governorate, and one each in Aleppo and Idlib governorates.

At least 324 civilians were alleged killed in the 78 strikes, including 59 or more children and 42 women. A further 140 people were reported injured. All but six of the reported deaths were located in Eastern Ghouta. Airwars is still vetting these reports – a task made more difficult because Russia does not release reliable data on where it is bombing – and these numbers should not be directly compared with more fully evaluated civilian casualty figures for the US-led Coalition.

WATCH : This is a basement where 46 families were sheltering from the relentless bombing in #Ghouta #Syria. A 5 hour daily ceasefire is not good enough…https://t.co/mcSkyCxNTl pic.twitter.com/tLu4FGyOak

— SavetheChildren News (@SaveUKNews) February 27, 2018

The reported intensity and toll of Russian and regime strikes suggests an unprecedented onslaught, worse even than the bloodiest periods of the aerial assault on Eastern Aleppo in late 2016. 

“This is not the first time Russia joined the regime in bombing Eastern Ghouta,” said Airwars Syria researcher Abdulwahab Tahhan. Two weeks earlier – from February 5th to February 11th – Tahhan’s colleagues tracked 44 civilian casualty incidents allegedly tied to Russia, 24 of which were located in Eastern Ghouta. Then, for roughly a week allegations against Russia fell, only to leap up again, worse than ever.

“It is a pattern we have seen over and over again. Some weeks Russia would open hell on civilians, and some weeks, especially leading up to peace talks, Russia would carry out fewer airstrikes,” said Tahhan.

On February 20th, at least 20 civilians including women and children were reported killed when aircraft fired on Beit Sawa, a town in Eastern Ghouta. The Syrian Network blamed both the regime and Russia, and the Ghouta Media Center posted graphic photographs of corpses wrapped in cloth. Two photographs showed young children who had been killed, their lifeless bodies covered with the dust of debris.

Victims of alleged Russian or regime airstrikes in Beit Sawa. (via Ghouta Media Center)

On the same day, 18 people were reported killed, including 8 women and children, in Arbeen. Distressing photographs showed children wrapped in cloth. Reports cited both the regime and Russia as responsible for bombing in the area.

The following day in Kafar Batna area of Eastern Ghouta, Step News reported that “Russian warplanes and helicopter gunships launched dozens of air strikes” in the vicinity, killing around 20 people, including 7 children.They later raised the number killed to 35, again citing Russian involvement.

Similar reports streamed out. There were, the UN reported, 14 attacks on hospitals, three on health centers and two on ambulances between February 18th and 22nd alone. On that latter date, the Syrian Network reported the deaths of at least 34 people, including seven children and nine women, due to “Syrian/Russian” shelling on Douma in Eastern Ghouta.

On February 23rd, the Syrian Network reported the deaths of four children, Sedra, Samer, Ahmed and Jana Salam, who it said were killed “along with their mother as Syrian/Russian warplanes fired missiles” on the town of Ein Tarma in eastern Ghouta.

On February 24th, local media reported possible Russian involvement in air raids on Douma, east of Damascus, that reportedly claimed the lives of at least 17 civilians. Smart News said the bombings were “likely to be Russia,” while the Syrian Network for Human Rights described the attack – one of several in the area on the 24th – as the work of “Syrian/Russian regime” forces.

Sedra, Samer, Ahmad and Jana Salam. (via the Syrian Network)

‘Devoid of respect for international law’

After days of negotiations and false starts, the Security Council passed Resolution 2401 on February 24th, demanding an immediate country-wide ceasefire. The Council’s wishes were flouted almost immediately, and reported strikes continued in Eastern Ghouta in the hours afterwards. Russian President Vladimir Putin then ordered a daily five hour truce in Ghouta – from 9am to 2pm local time – a step tepidly endorsed by aid officials but called far short of what was needed.  

“I have to declare that I know no humanitarian actor, zero humanitarian actor, who thinks the five hours is enough for us to be able to deliver relief into Eastern Ghouta and to organize orderly medical evacuations out,” UN humanitarian adviser Jan Egeland told reporters on March 1st. 

“Eastern Ghouta is devoid of respect for international law,” Egeland said amid reports that pro-government forces had begun further ground incursions at the limits of Eastern Ghouta.

Many reports of incidents that cite Russia also name the regime as involved, and it’s not always clear which – or both – took part in a particular strike among potentially dozens in a neighborhood. This dynamic is only more confusing for monitors when it happens in dense urban areas like Eastern Ghouta. “It is not unusual to see local monitors reporting them both,” said Tahhan.

Analysts suggested a number of reasons for the sudden and deadly increase in Russian activity.

“I would attribute the shift to the stabilization of the front in Idlib Province in early February after Turkey deployed observation posts into Eastern Idlib Province,” said Chris Kozak, a senior analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. “Russia started shifting its strike pattern around that time.”

“I’m not sure why they [Russia] ramped up the bombings but one explanation could be that for the past few weeks Russians have been constantly reporting on rebel shelling from Eastern Ghouta including on the Russian embassy,” said Yury Barmin, a Mideast analyst at the Russian International Affairs Council in Moscow. “But I think it’s also indicative of the general dynamic — deescalation zones are unraveling and Russians would like to grab more land if they can.”

“I would imagine that it is linked to Escalation in the north,” said Barmin. “I think they want to move all those rebels from Ghouta to Idlib and secure the capital. The escalation in Idlib was a good excuse to pull this off.”

Afrin casualties continue

Elsewhere in Syria, there was disagreement about whether the Kurdish enclave of Afrin was included in the Security Council ceasefire.

Though a number of key players, including France, Germany and the US insisted that it was covered, Turkey – which launched an invasion of Afrin in January – claimed that it was not.

On March 2nd, the Afrin Health Council raised its estimate of civilians killed by Turkish forces to 207, and said that over 600 people had been reported injured. As Turkish and allied forces steadily encroached from the borders, thousands of civilians who had fled rural areas of the enclave to Afrin city risked falling into greater danger.

Turkey appears determined to face down three major powers (France, Germany and the USA) after– President Macron insisted the ceasefire “applied to all of Syria, including Afrin"– The US State Dept urged Ankara to "go back and read" the UNSC resolution https://t.co/ONeRqp4POO

— Airwars (@airwars) March 1, 2018

Published

September 23, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

A race to capture the key eastern city of Deir Ezzor along with ISIS-held Syrian territory along the border with Iraq has led to a sharp escalation of deadly airstrikes in the area which are being blamed locally on Russia, the regime and the Coalition – and allegedly leaving hundreds of civilian casualties between them.

Airwars researchers have monitored a major uptick in allegations since mid September in Deir Ezzor governorate. Local Syrian monitors are reporting the same trend: the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has indicated that 191 civilians were killed by Russian and/or regime raids in Deir Ezzor between September 10th and 18th. Though Airwars has not fully vetted Russian strikes during this period, such a toll would be higher than all the allegations against Moscow in Syria which Airwars tracked during August.

“The Russian bombing campaign was relatively quiet until September 10th, when we saw a marked intensification of raids on Deir Ezzor province. Then in just over a week more than 200 civilians were reported to have been killed,” said Kinda Haddad, chief Syria researcher at Airwars. In many of those incidents, she noted, conflicting attribution has made assessments difficult.

In other cases, the evidence points more directly to Russia. On September 10th, numerous sources reported that several dozen civilians were killed when Russian aircraft bombed the al Hawayj river crossing, hit boats and areas where they were launched from. A report in Smart News said that “most of the bodies are still floating on the surface of the Euphrates River.” Some outlets blamed the regime, though cockpit video released days later suggested the attack was likely Russian.

Unusually, the US-led Coalition has proactively been making clear that its forces are not responsibile for many of the claimed incidents. A senior official told Airwars on September 15th, for example, that the Coalition was not conducting any strikes within Deir Ezzor city – the location for many reported strikes.

Destruction in Al Mayadin following a strike on Sept 10th (via Sound and Picture). Sources variably blamed the Coalition, Russia and the Syrian regime — reflecting the state of confusion on the ground.

Divided battlefield

The battlefields of eastern Syria remain chaotic, though are at present effectively split by the Euphrates River, which in that part of the country runs diagonally southeast through Raqqa to Deir Ezzor, and on to oil-rich areas near the border with Iraq.

On September 9th, the Coalition announced the start of “Operation Jazeera Storm,” supporting Syrian Democratic Forces fighting ISIS in the Khabur River Valley. The Khabur river runs south and meets the Euphrates between Deir Ezzor and Mayadin. Contingents from the SDF, which has also captured much of Raqqa from ISIS, are now moving to areas just north of Deir Ezzor city.

At the same time, regime troops backed by Russian airstrikes and Special Forces have moved quickly from the south and east, entering the outskirts of Deir Ezzor city earlier this month and linking with besieged government troops at a garrison there. On both sides of the river, ISIS has lost swaths of territory to the advancing forces.

There remains a risk of conflict between the assaulting forces. On September 16th, the Coalition accused Russian warplanes of bombing SDF positions on the eastern side of the Euphrates, injuring several. Coalition soldiers – likely American – who were nearby according to a press statement. On September 21st, after what it said was SDF shelling of regime positions, the Russian military warned the Pentagon that “any attempts to open fire from areas where SDF fighters are located would be quickly shut down.”

Though significant media attention has been paid to the potential for clashes between Coalition- and Russian-backed forces, there has been little focus on those civilians – many of them already displaced from elsewhere in Syria – who are dying despite ongoing “deconfliction” efforts involving Coalition and Russian officials. Should those measures break down, civilians may be at further risk.

Deconfliction line

Speaking from Baghdad, Coalition spokesman Colonel Ryan Dillon told Airwars that a deconfliction line between the SDF and regime-Russian forces – tentatively drawn a few miles off the right bank of the Euphrates – had run from Tabqa (a city west of Raqqa) to Deir Ezzor. However areas beyond that in the Euphrates Valley such as Mayadin and Abu Kamal – locations believed to harbour senior ISIS leaders – are in territory with unclear deconfliction status, the colonel suggested. Coalition officials expect the fighting in the Valley to be fierce – whichever foe ISIS faces.

Adding to the volatile situation, Iraqi government air raids have recently been documented just inside Syrian territory, as well as in adjacent Iraqi territory still controlled by ISIS. 

Col. Dillon said that the Coalition had bombed inside Deir Ezzor city only until regime forces had reached their garrison on September 5th. Coalition aircraft continue to strike areas northwest of the Euphrates in support of the SDF, along with targets towards the Iraqi border. For instance, published Coalition strike reports indicate that aircraft bombed “near Abu Kamal” on nine of the first 20 days of September.

The Russian military has recently been documented bombing on both sides of the Euphrates. On September 18th, Moscow announced that regime forces had crossed the river south of Deir Ezzor city – potentially jeopardising the line of deconfliction that Col. Dillon described. The move was also the culmination of a particularly deadly period for civilians in Deir Ezzor governorate.

“The [Russian and regime] move significantly discredits the argument that the Euphrates can serve as a viable deconfliction line while IS implodes,” assessed Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute, in a recent report. 

https://twitter.com/todayinsyria/status/909715823367000064

UN ‘deeply concerned’

With reports of high casualties, the UN has issued an urgent call for the protection of civilians in eastern Deir Ezzor, saying it is “deeply concerned.”

On September 10th for example, an airstrike hit a border crossing in Elbuleil, with the UN noting the event as “reportedly killing and injuring tens of civilians.”

On September 14th, Airwars monitored 11 separate alleged civilian casualty events from airstrikes in Deir Ezzor governorate — all of which are currently evaluated as contested by researchers. The worst may have taken place in an area on the eastern side of the Euphrates — possibly a camp for internally displaced people. Some reports suggested a death toll upwards of 100. ISIS-affiliated accounts posted horrific video footage, showing dead and wounded children, and initially blamed the Coalition. A number of subsequent reports claimed Russia was responsible, while at least one called into question whether the incident took place at the camp.

The camp near the village of Jadid Akeidat (via Al Yaqeen news agency)

“Reports for the majority of these allegations were highly confused, with sources reporting them as being perpetrated by the coalition, others saying it was Russia and others still reporting them as regime strikes,” said Kinda Haddad. “Some of the villages mentioned were later reported to have fallen into regime hands, so it is reasonable to assume that those particular ones were either regime or Russian strikes.”

“The UN is deeply concerned for the safety and protection of civilians – men, women and children – who are the victims of continued fighting, airstrikes and military operations in Deir-ez-Zor,” said Ramesh Rajasingham, the acting interim Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria in a statement. “I call on all parties to do their utmost to ensure the safety and well being of civilians in the conduct of military operations and strictly adhere to the international humanitarian law principles of distinction, proportionality, and precautions in and from the effects of attack.”

Not all incidents appear to be the responsibility of Russia or the regime. Airwars currently assesses an event in Abu Kamal on September 17th-18th as having likely been perpetrated by the Coalition. At least seven named civilians were killed from the same family, including four children.

Despite the continuing high toll at Raqqa and escalating casualties around Deir Ezzor, once again no Pentagon reporters asked questions about civilian casualties – in either Iraq or Syria – at the Coalition’s weekly press briefing on September 21st.

‘The children Samir, Amir, and Munir Badr Attallah al Haj Kardoush, killed with their parents in International Coalition warplanes missiles fired on al Sena’a neighborhood in al Boukamal city in Deir Ez-Zour governorate eastern suburbs, September 17, 2017.’ via SN4HR

▲ Suspected Russian air raids on al Mayadeen near Deir Ezzor on September 16th led to a number of civilian casualties (Image via Euphrates Post)

Published

May 5, 2017

Written by

Airwars Staff

Shihab Halep is the nom de plume of one of Airwars’ Syrian researchers, now based in Turkey. Over the past year Shihab has helped Airwars document hundreds of alleged Russian casualty events. Originally from Aleppo and now a refugee, Shihab marks the 1,000th day of Coalition airstrikes with his personal reflections on the devastating impact that airstrikes and shelling can have on civilians in Syria.

The night the University Entrance Exam results were announced in my hometown, Aleppo, my family and friends came down to our flat in Seif Al-Dawla to say congratulations and have some sweets and special drinks we use when celebrating such milestones. I was the first one in my family to go to an engineering school, so my family was very excited and happy despite the tough time we were having in Aleppo in general.

Suddenly, loud explosions were heard from afar, and our guests decided to head home to make sure their beloved families were safe. Gradually, the noises got nearer to the point we felt our flat shaking – and suddenly we were under fire [from the regime]. In the middle of the night we were forced to leave our flat with nothing on us but the clothes we were wearing, though we were lucky as we were dressed up since we were supposed to be celebrating.

Our flat was on the highway, so we decided to move towards the home of my uncle. Suddenly, mortar shells started falling around us. It’s a horrifying experience when you hear the whistle of the shell, a silence for a second or two which feels like a lifetime, and then an explosion, I looked around, my family is still alive, and the same thing keeps repeating. It was too late for us to go back to our flat, and we couldn’t march forward. There was an empty, isolated building nearby, so we decided to hide inside it as it was the best shelter.

Shihab filmed the damage to his family home, in his last moments before becoming a refugee

‘My baby nephew was crying’

My nephew, who was a couple of months old, was crying but we had to flee with nothing on us and weren’t able to provide him with any food. We stayed there until the morning and when the shelling stopped, we quickly went back home to find it partially destroyed and lots of shrapnel and holes everywhere. We tried to quickly grab a few things, mostly food for my nephew, and ran to another shelter.

By this time, helicopters started striking the neighbourhood and we doubted if we were going to make it out alive. Somehow, we did. September 2013 was the last time I saw our flat and our neighbourhood.

Though I couldn’t graduate in Aleppo, I continued studying in Turkey and did not give up on my education. Now as a researcher for Airwars, I am always reminded of my experience fleeing home, especially when I see videos and photos of children in Raqqa and other parts of Syria where civilians are forced to flee. Only the lucky ones make it. The look of those children who are not able to go to school anymore is pretty much the same one I had when I was forced to leave my neighbourhood for the final time.

The schools in Syria all look identical, so when I see schools in Raqqa province being struck and destroyed – like the one in Mansoura on March 21st – I get some flashback and remember my own school in Aleppo. These poor students could have been me or my classmates. We all had dreams and parents who love us. What’s worse, when I escaped Aleppo with my family, I knew where I was going. These civilians don’t. There have been reports that the Euphrates Dam might collapse, which imposes more pressure and adds to the struggle the civilians go through on a daily basis. Airstrikes do not differentiate between babies, elderly or extremists. Death is everywhere and poor civilians are paying a heavy price.

Those feelings are universal, being forced to leave home not knowing if you’d go back at all. I was lucky, I made it to Turkey and managed to continue studying, but civilians in Raqqa are not lucky. They are living under extremist terrorists and can’t escape, while they might die at any minute in airstrikes. Their situation is like mine, only I had an escape route. They do not.

▲ The aftermath of raids on Zee Kaar school and the Ibn Khaldoun of the city of Raqqa, May 12th 2016 (via RBSS)

Published

May 5, 2017

Written by

Airwars Staff

A version of this article is published by Bellingcat.

Christiaan Triebert is Airwars’ volunteer geolocator, helping us to determine coordinates for civilian casualty incidents. As an award-winning researcher at Bellingcat, he focuses on a variety of topics, including post-strike analysis of attacks like that on the mosque in al-Jinah.

Note: Hundreds of official videos showing airstrikes against targets of the so-called Islamic State (ISIL) in Syria and Iraq have recently been removed from the public YouTube channel of the Coalition. In a written statement to Bellingcat, the Coalition said higher-quality versions of the videos were being uploaded to DVIDS for “greater transparency and increased availability.” However, an initial assessment appears to show that not all videos have been migrated. Coalition offficials have also given a different account to Airwars in the past as to why the videos were removed, suggesting their presence on the official YouTube channel no longer matched strategic goals. Airwars is permanently archiving all known Coalition and CENTCOM videos issued since August 2014, to ensure their continued availability.

The publicly provided locations issued by the Coalition for its airstrikes in Iraq and Syria may be off by as much as 93 kilometers, according to a new and detailed analysis of released military videos. After 1,000 days of the anti-ISIL campaign, these disparities pose question marks for monitors attempting to understand where US and allied strikes took place, and then match them to civilian casualty reports from the ground. They also makes clear that Coalition casualty assessors would be unwise to use their own published reports as a guide to where airstrikes have actually taken place,

In its Transparency Audit of the Coalition, published in December 2016, Airwars noted problems with the public reporting process. Difficult to navigate internal logs “in turn led to quite vague military reporting.” Locations, then, could only be taken as approximate. One CENTCOM senior official explained the situation in some detail:

“When the aircrew come back [from a strike mission], as you drill into a geographic location, some of those areas have towns that consist of three or four people. So typically what’s going to be in the strike log is going to be the largest city nearby. And they’ll annotate, ‘Conducted a strike near Mosul.’ In fact it’s going to be some small town that’s 23 clicks [kilometers] outside of Mosul. If they put that on the strike log, once it goes through the ‘Enterprise’ [slang for the Combined Air Operations Centre] no one knows where that is.”

Officials were keen to stress that if an incident was being investigated, “we do have the ability to go back and drill down into the detail.”

200 videos

While earlier videos were posted by CENTCOM, the first video depicting an airstrike was uploaded to the Coalition’s own official Youtube channel on April 11, 2015. Over 200 airstrike videos followed over nearly two years. By far the majority (around 68% as of April 24, 2017) of Coalition airstrikes have been conducted by the US. Airstrike videos are also disseminated through other channels, such as the ministries of defence of Coalition members, including the British, the French, the Jordanians, and the Iraqis.

Additionally, at least one US Navy air squadron had also uploaded videos separately to their own YouTube channel (since taken down.) While Bellingcat has crowdsourcing projects running for those specific MoD videos as well, they are not included in this analysis.

So far, 67 percent of the airstrikes shown in the Coalition airstrike videos have been successfully geolocated. You can access all Bellingcat data, which will be updated as soon as there are new geolocations, including from DVIDS HUB, on Silk. Bellingcat used Meedan’s Check platform to geolocate the videos, and the project is open to everyone to join By far most of the strikes shown in videos uploaded to YouTube (as of April 28, 2017) were geolocated to Iraq.

Broken down by provinces, the highest number of airstrikes were geolocated to the Iraqi governorates of Nineveh and Anbar, followed by the Syrian governorate of Aleppo, as of April 28, 2017.

Generally, the Coalition gives an indication of a geographical location by labeling the videos “near [location X]”. There are only a handful of videos that do not contain the word “near” but simply mention a location. This analysis considers “near” as being within a 10 km range of the claimed location and a label is considered “accurate” when it falls within that range. Of all geolocated videos, 68 percent were determined to be accurate. Videos outside of the 10 km range strayed up to around 93 km of the claimed location, and for one video no location approximation was given.

Many of the videos with a significant distance from the claimed location are oil-related facilities that are indeed ‘near’ Deir ez-Zor or Al-Bukamal, such as an oil separation facility at the Al-Ahmar oil field. In a desert with few or no settled areas nearby, these location claims may still be considered relatively accurate.

However, there are other incidents that appear to be less concisely located. Perhaps the most concerning incident of all the geolocated videos was a strike on an IS “concealed tactical vehicle” that was claimed to have been conducted on March 23, 2015, which was labelled as “near Al Hawl”, a town in north-eastern Syria. However, the targeted building has been successfully geolocated to a building in Jayar Ghalfas, a town in northwest Iraq.

A screenshot from a Coalition video claiming to show an airstrike on an IS ‘concealed tactical vehicle’ near Al-Hawl, a town in eastern Syria. The building was geolocated to Jayar Ghalfas, a town in northwest Iraq, as the Microsoft Bing satellite imagery (36.137411, 41.297414) on the right shows. The location is around 30 km southwest of Al-Hawl.

Though this video was labelled as being in a different country than where it actually took place, it is still relatively near Al-Hawl — around 30 km away.

When Col. Steve Warren, at the time the Coalition’s spokesperson, gave an “Ask Me Anything” on the social media and news aggregation website Reddit, this author asked him about this particular incident. Col. Warren replied that this was “an administrative error that it’s listed as Syria rather than Iraq”, explaining that Al-Hawl in Syria “was the nearest identifiable city to the strike.”

The reply by Col. Warren, the Coalition’s spokesperson on the question why it was labelled near to a town in Syria but showed a location in Iraq.

More recently, the US erred in its labelling once more, when a controversial strike on a group of individuals gathered in a mosque in Al-Jinah, Syria, was initially labelled as being in the Idlib governorate. While close, the building was actually in nearby Aleppo governorate. This strike was not an official Coalition attack – and was instead the United States unilaterally targeting alleged al Qaeda fighters. The US carries out nearly all of the alliance’s anti-ISIL bombings in Syria, and military assets can be used for both campaigns.

When asked for clarification about this incident, a CENTCOM spokesperson told Bellingcat that they “don’t mean to cause any confusion. Different internal reports may have listed this differently.”

The Coalition thus seems to use a limited number of labels for their targeted location areas. The “Al Hawl, Syria” label was probably closer than their nearest other Iraqi location label, “Sinjar”, around 50 km northeast of Jayar Ghalfas.

The Coalition’s ‘region’ labels

Which region does the Coalition use to label one airstrike as “near Mosul” but the other one as “near Al Hawl”? To get a better insight in which regions are used by the Coalition, the geolocator @obretix mapped all geolocated airstrike videos, and then used a Voronoi diagram – which is a partitioning of a plane into regions based on distance to points in a specific subset of the plane. In this case, the points are thus all “near” locations mentioned by the Coalition. The geolocations are then corresponding to a region that is closer than any other point.

As the following image shows, Al-Hawl is indeed the closest location to the target struck by the Coalition (circled in red) in the number of areas the Coalition has used.

An excerpt from a Voronoi diagram of an impression of the regions used by the Coalition, based on the geolocated videos. The geolocated airstrike of March 23, 2016 that was labelled near ‘Al Hawl’ is circled in red. Map by @obretix

There are more interesting insights the maps reveals. While the Coalition does use a label for “near Kubaysah”, a city in Iraq, some strikes within the city’s perimeters were labelled as “near Hit” — a city nearby but still less accurate than using a label there was for that city.

A detailed view on the Kubaysah/Hit region on the Voronoi diagram map, showing that two videos labelled as “near Hit” were in fact closer to Kubaysah, which also has its own ‘location label’.

Another example of remarkable region labels is the use of hamlets, such as “near Washiya” and “near Sultan Abdullah” – places with only a few houses. but close to respectively Aleppo and Mosul. “Near Aleppo” is not used in any of the YouTube videos, while “near Washiya” has been twice for a target only a double dozen kilometres away from Aleppo city. Why would these small hamlets be used as a region label, while the case of Jayar Ghalfas could not get its own region label? Is this intentional? This is a question that remains unanswered.

Overall, all location claims were all within 100 km distance of the claimed location, and all of these claims were relatively accurate as to the location it referred to — unlike the Russian airstrike videos, which were in some cases massively inaccurate.

A detailed view of the area around Aleppo city in Syria. A video close to Aleppo was not tagged as “near Aleppo” but “near Washiya” (orange dot), a tiny hamlet in the northern countryside

Civilian Casualties

It is possible that civilian casualties take place in a portion of these videos. Some, such as the video of airstrikes on the University of Mosul in March 2016, may in fact show airstrikes that caused significant civilian casualties.

Perhaps the most striking example of a video showing civilian casualties came from an airstrike on September 20th-21st, 2015, targeting an IS “VBIED network” according to the Coalition at the time. The video – which showed a structure destroyed by an explosion – was deleted after questions were raised, but  was archived and re-uploaded by others, including investigative journalist Azmat Khan.

But was this really a “VBIED network”? Under the original upload, a commenter posted that the structures shown were his family’s home in Mosul.

“I will NEVER forget my innocent and dear cousins who died in this pointless airstrike. Do you really know who these people were? They were innocent and happy family members of mine.”

Days after the strike Dr Zareena Grewal, a relative living in the US wrote in the New York Times that four members of the Rezzo family had died in the strike. On April 2nd 2017 – 588 days later – the Coalition finally admitted that it indeed bombed a family home which it had confused with an ISIL headquarters.

“The case was brought to our attention by the media and we discovered the oversight, relooked [at] the case based on the information provided by the journalist and family, which confirmed the 2015 assessment,” Colonel Joe Scrocca, Director of Public Affairs for the Coalition told Airwars.

Even though the published strike video actually depicted the unseen killing of a family, it remained – wrongly captioned – on the official Coalition YouTube channel for more than a year.

It is worth mentioning that all of the targets in the Coalition’s videos appear to be ‘clean’ objects like vehicles, factories and fighting positions. It almost looks like video game, just like IS’s propaganda videos of suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (SVBIEDs). The Coalition’s videos appear only to showcase the precision and efficiency of Coalition bombs and missiles. They rarely show people, let alone victims.

Published

May 4, 2017

Written by

Kinda Haddad

For two years Kinda Haddad has tracked and assessed for Airwars more than a thousand alleged Coalition and Russian civilian casualty incidents in Syria. In recent months, as the battle against ISIL has intensified, reports of civilian deaths around Raqqa caused by the US-led alliance have risen steeply. Yet in contrast to the siege of Aleppo, international media coverage has largely been absent. Here Kinda offers her thoughts on why two bombed cities might be treated so differently.

Researching allegations of civilian casualties made against Coalition and Russian air strikes in Syria in real time – while listening to the radio news as I do in my daily life – has become a vivid exercise in cognitive dissonance.

Claims against Russia are, it seems, often quickly picked up and reported on extensively, and especially so at times when Moscow’s actions are at their harshest and most intense.  In the autumn and winter of 2016 for example, Russia and the regime of Bashar al Assad were doing their utmost to retake Aleppo from the rebels. The two allies put the city under a crippling siege and bombed it without any discernible consideration for the presence of civilians. Indeed, on many occasions both Russia and the regime appeared to purposefully target civilian infrastructure and medical facilities.

That brutal campaign succeeded in gaining control of eastern Aleppo in December 2016.  The cost in civilian lives was enormous, and a great proportion of those killed were women and children.  In less than four months leading up to the fall of Aleppo more than 1,000 civilians were reportedly killed by Russian strikes. In November alone, the Syrian Network for Human rights tied 358 civilian deaths to Russia. During all of 2016, the group estimates that Russian forces killed more than 3,900 civilians.

Whatever one thinks of the regime and of Russia, the fact that the plight of civilians was highlighted is what I would expect from a free media in a free society, as part of their job of ‘speaking truth to power’. And they did so in spades.

There was a considerable degree of attention paid by international media to events on the ground, with Russia’s actions in the news all day, every day. Civilians who had escaped were interviewed extensively and the misery and losses they had endured were highlighted. It was so bad I would often turn the radio off. Despite all the awful material I view daily I still find the recorded sounds of shelling and the voices of people more distressing.

The White Helmets rescue civilians from the rubble following Russian or Assad regime airstrikes on Aleppo, July 8th 2016. (via, Alsharq News)

Crippling assault

A few months on and Airwars is monitoring a very similar situation with the Coalition both in Raqqa province in Syria, and in Mosul city in Iraq – each ISIL strongholds for several years.

As with Aleppo, Mosul is under crippling assault – and like the Russians who work alongside the Syrian army, the Coalition is working alongside Iraqi government  forces, carrying out air and artillery shelling.

Despite repeated statements that the Coalition takes great care to avoid targeting civilians, events on the ground reflect a different version of events. The level of casualties has been shocking, with between 1,308 and 2,435 civilians claimed killed by the Coalition in Mosul in March 2017 alone. There remains a high level of confusion as to what degree the Coalition and Iraqi forces – and ISIL – are causing these deaths. The same happened in Aleppo, where it became very hard for people on the ground to distinguish between Russian and regime warplanes. Artillery in particular – used heavily in Mosul – is difficult to tell apart.

While the Russian campaign has shown a clear pattern of targeting civilians, the Coalition insists that it pursues a much more careful operation.  Yet the level of civilian casualties from both the Coalition and Russian operations are simply too high – and in the case of the Coalition it is not appropriate, or just, to dismiss hundreds of incidents as “mistakes.” Every day – not week – we are seeing several such “mistakes,” with no explanation from the Coalition. This gives the distinct impression that when faced with a military target,  neither side cares much as to whether civilians are present or not.

Raqqa Silence

International media was slow to report on high civilian deaths at first. However recent weeks have seen major field reports and investigations from international and regional news groups – which have helped pressure both the Coalition and Iraqi forces into reducing harm to civilians.

But across the border in Syria’s Raqqa province it’s a very different story – even though many of its cities and towns have been put under siege by the Kurdish SDF, and with Coalition air raids escalating in a way we have not seen since the beginning of the war against ISIL in Syria in September 2014. March saw the worst casualty levels yet with between 320 and 860 civilians likely killed in Coalition strikes in Syria, a sixfold increase on the previous month. Ninety per cent of these deaths were around Raqqa.

Where we used to see a handful of allegations a week we are now monitoring several cases a day. Many of these bear high death tolls. For example up to 17 people, most of them women and children, were reportedly killed as they tried to escape Al Tabaqa on April 24th 2017. Their cars were targeted and everyone in the vehicles perished.

#IntlCoalition forces committed #massacre against children and women in al Tabaqa city in #Raqqa on Apr 24 #SNHRhttps://t.co/p2h7VpYPYr

— Syrian Network (@snhr) April 24, 2017

And there are so many incidents like this every week. Sometimes there is very little information. But other times there is a flood of detail from local outlets and social media, including names and photos of the victims. On those days I check how the incident is being reported internationally, and invariably there is…. radio silence

Unlike the allegations made against Russia at Aleppo, claims of civilians killed by the Coalition around Raqqa seem to attract little to no international media attention. Yet the sources for allegations both against the Russians and the Coalition are often identical -activists on the ground, with access to a network of people in the various locations where civilian casualties are occuring.

As in Aleppo, Coalition strikes are many times occurring right in the middle of city and town centres – Mosul, Raqqa, Al Tabaqa, al Mansoura and so many other urban locations. These are civilian villages, towns and cities occupied by ISIL. Some of the residents may be sympathetic to the terror group but most of them are not. It is not a democracy, not a choice to live under ISIL. These are places full of people who have no other option but to remain.

The Coalition is likely to win the war with a high civilian toll, just as Russia helped win at Aleppo. But in order to win the peace, a new strategy is needed with civilians at its heart. We can see in the opposition areas where Russia is operating how hated Moscow is. Inevitably, the same now appears to be happening in areas where the Coalition is operating, with local monitors routinely claiming ‘massacres’ and ‘war crimes’.

Leaving scores of civilians dead, wounded, lame and traumatised is not a wise long term strategy for winning a war that is avowedly being fought on behalf of those exact same civilians.

▲ A man carries a young girl in the aftermath of an airstrike on Al Haydariya, Aleppo, on April 26th, 2016 (via RFS news).