US-led Coalition in Iraq & Syria

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

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Published

October 14, 2021

Written by

Airwars Staff and Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC)

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U.S. Army soldiers watch from an observation post in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan (Image via U.S. Army)

Last week marked twenty years since the US-led invasion of Afghanistan began, following which the UK, Netherlands and other NATO members began their own presence with the declared aim to install “security, stability and the rule of law.”

This anniversary happens after last month saw a wave of resignations by senior Ministerial staff and frank debate across Parliaments in Europe, including in relation to the sudden and chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. 

Airwars and Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) urge the new ministers to take a frank look at the mistakes of their predecessors, and understand what could have been done differently. The public and political criticism surrounding the withdrawal of the United States and its allies from Afghanistan and the devastating humanitarian crisis unfolding in Afghanistan, sends a strong message about the urgent need for stronger approaches to civilian harm mitigation, transparency and accountability policies in future military operations.

We encourage the new ministers in the Netherlands and in the UK to learn about the risks to civilians caught in armed conflict in planning phases for any military operations, so they may work towards their protection. We also call on them to commit to improving transparency and accountability for civilian harm, including by consistently tracking, investigating, publicly acknowledging, and amending harm through compensation payments, apologies, and other offerings in accordance with victims’ needs and preferences.  We extend the same call to the United States and other NATO nations. This is especially important because the risk to civilians in Afghanistan is not unique. In fact, in the 20 years since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, we have seen risks to civilians multiply and deepen in many parts of the world. War is now increasingly fought in urban environments with long-lasting and lethal effects. NATO members, increasingly hesitant to deploy “boots on the ground,” have relied instead on supporting local forces through air support – even when local partners may lack the capacity to protect civilians. And multiple countries have claimed the power to use force anywhere in the world, including outside recognized war zones and including through the use of armed drones, sometimes devastating civilian communities in the process.

As risks to civilians have increased, transparency and accountability for harm is diminishing.  In Iraq and Syria, the UK still only admits one civilian death over the course of its operation, despite declaring thousands of UK airstrikes and despite Airwars’ own assessment showing that at least 8,300 civilians have likely been killed by the US-led Coalition.

We urge all NATO nations to take heed of these past mistakes, which had devastating and continuing consequences on the lives of civilians. As Liz Truss starts as the new UK Foreign Secretary, and as the new Dutch Minister of Defence, Henk Kamp, and Foreign Minister, Ben Knapen, begin their tenure, we urge them to immediately take the following steps:

    Recognise publicly and through a revision of doctrine, the imperative of civilian harm mitigation, transparency, and accountability in all aspects of defence and foreign affairs, including in their nations’ own operations as well as “train, advise, and assist” missions. Prioritise resourcing for the monitoring and tracking of civilian harm in current and future military deployments. Commit to investigating, publicly recognizing, and amending legacy civilian harm from Afghanistan and other operations over the past 20 years, including by issuing compensation or solatia payments; and commit to applying these policies and practices in all future operations. Adopt and implement clear policies for civilian harm tracking, mitigation and response through consultation with civil society experts, which are adequately resourced at all areas of deployment. Incorporate open-source information from civil society, the media, and other external sources into civilian harm assessments and investigations. Publish the specific date; location; munition type used; and nature of target for all weapon deployments in the anti-ISIS Coalition from 2014 to the present day and in all future operations. Publish regular reports on civilian harm allegations from past and current missions. Engage with conflict-affected civilians (including civil society groups and communities) on issues pertaining to civilian protection and civilian harm mitigation, both at the capital level and in countries of deployment. This includes the establishment of a regular dialogue with civil society, as well as establishing safe channels of communication with conflict-affected civilians to discuss protection concerns. As part of all lessons learned processes around the war in Afghanistan, withdrawal, and evacuation, identify gaps in civilian harm mitigation as well as gaps in civil-military coordination that may have hampered the capacity of civil society and at-risk Afghans to access safe and secure air evacuation options.
▲ U.S. Army soldiers watch from an observation post in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan (Image via U.S. Army)

Published

October 12, 2021

Written by

Georgia Edwards

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The UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office

Open letter from Airwars calls on new UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss to work collaboratively with Ministry of Defence on the protection of civilians affected by UK military actions.

Last week marked 20 years since the US-led ‘War on Terror’ began. The conflict has been defined by a series of major military actions in which the UK has supported the US and allies in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. The recent chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan saw the reshuffle of Dominic Raab from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, amid widespread criticism for the way millions of Afghans were left in uncertain – and concerning – situations.

The UK continues to operate in Iraq and Syria with the US-led Coalition against ISIS to this day – yet refuses to hold itself truly accountable for civilians harmed by its actions in these countries, nor in historical incidents in Afghanistan.

Despite various commitments from the UK government to “investigate any credible reports that the UK actions may have caused civilian harm”, there have been insufficient efforts to work with civil society organisations; to ensure transparent cross-departmental work to make this feasible; nor to put legislation in place to truly offer change.

As Britain’s new Foreign Secretary, Rt. Hon. Liz Truss now has the opportunity to respond to the urgent need for stronger approaches to civilian harm mitigation and monitoring policies which will allow the UK to catch up with its allies, and become more accountable for its actions. 

Airwars this week sent the Foreign Secretary an open letter outlining key improvements we believe are needed now. The full text of our letter is reprinted below.

 

October, 8th  2021

Rt. Hon. Liz Truss Secretary of State for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office King Charles Street Whitehall London SW1A 2AH

cc. Rt. Hon. Ben Wallace, Secretary of State for Defence

RE: Open letter from Airwars to the new Secretary of State for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, calling for the FCDO and MoD to work together and improve protections for civilians resulting from UK military actions. 

Dear Rt. Hon. Liz Truss,

We would like to congratulate you on your promotion to Foreign Secretary. We look forward to working with you to improve UK policy to protect civilians in conflict.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the US-led so-called War on Terror. This conflict has been defined as you know by a series of major military actions in which the UK has supported the US and other allies, in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. These countries have been among those consistently most dangerous for civilians over the last two decades, with military actions involving explosive weapons increasingly taking place in urban environments.

Airwars recently found, for example, that at least 22,679 and potentially as many 48,308 civilians have likely been killed by US-led strikes over the last twenty years.

In light of the recent chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, we are concerned about the UK government’s potential shift to remote warfare in that country, noting the Defence Secretary’s comments on 7th September that “I’ll do whatever I have to do to protect citizens’ lives and our interests and our allies, when we’re called upon to do so, wherever that may be.”

We reiterate our calls for robust and transparent mechanisms to mitigate, monitor, and investigate all instances of civilian harm potentially resulting from UK actions, before these actions are considered. As it stands, the UK is systematically failing to hold itself accountable for  civilians harmed by its own actions in the War on Terror; and there have been insufficient efforts to adequately investigate historical instances flagged by monitoring organisations such as Airwars.

The most striking example of this is the UK’s insistence that there is only evidence of a single civilian casualty from the entire campaign against ISIS within the US-led Coalition in Syria and Iraq. Our own independent monitoring suggests that at least 8,300 and as many as 13,000 civilians have likely been killed so far by the US-led Coalition, including from thousands of British airstrikes. The failure of the MoD to more accurately understand and account for civilian harm on the ground from its own actions places the UK dangerously behind key allies, including the US and Netherlands.

Below we note our main concerns, and reiterate our urgent call for a more open and collaborative approach from the FCDO on civilian harm mitigation. We would very much welcome a meeting to discuss these issues at your earliest convenience.

Improving transparency and accountability

As conflicts have changed over the past two decades, the UK has focused increasingly on assisting local forces through airstrikes, rather than through large-scale deployment of ground forces. Yet such airpower-focused conflicts  are much less accountable to civilians on the ground, we and our partners believe.

UK policies to protect civilians have fallen behind other allies such as the US Department of Defense and the Dutch Ministry of Defence, which have made significant legislation-driven improvements. For example, since 2018, the US DoD has been legally obliged to report annually to Congress on all civilians it deems have been killed by US actions in the past 12 months. No such legislation exists in the UK; and key recommendations from the Chilcot report, “to make every reasonable effort to identify and understand the likely and actual effects of its military actions on civilians,” have yet to be implemented.

We are also concerned that the current MoD review methodology used to determine only one civilian casualty from its ongoing seven year campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria is in part a result of the exceptionally high ‘proof’ threshold currently applied within the Department when assessing civilian harm claims. In other words, this low estimate of civilian harm is a reflection of poor evidence gathering and analysis, not of effective strategies to protect civilians.

The FCDO leads the UK Approach to the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict. Yet despite commitments made to “investigate any credible reports that the UK actions may have caused civilian harm,” there has yet to be any published evidence of change in its approach.  There was no mention of how the MoD and FCDO intend to protect affected communities in the recent Integrated Review, nor how the “Conflict Centre” will work cross-department, or be resourced for these areas.

1. Will the MoD consider assessing its current methodology to determine civilian harm and publish the results of these assessments?

2. Will the FCDO publish its most recent assessment to show how it plans to meet commitments in the UK Approach to the Protection of Civilians?

3. Will the FCDO and MoD publish a document showing how they both intend to work together on civilian harm mitigation, including with the Conflict Centre and conflict strategy?

 

Meaningful collaboration with civil society organisations using open source data

The MoD and FCDO commitment to work with civil society organisations to better protect civilians in regions where the UK is operating has decreased to concerning levels. Airwars has been keen to offer meaningful feedback on policies and operations and to work together with MoD to investigate and re-investigate instances of potential civilian harm when it has been flagged from our monitoring and investigations. For example, the UK still admits evidence of only one civilian casualty from its actions as part of the US-led Coalition. We note with concern that recently, the Pentagon wrongly claimed responsibility to Congress for civilian harm from a series of historical strikes, that were actually carried out by its allies, including the UK.

Airwars remains the primary public reference for locally reported reported civilian harm events from international and domestic military actions tracked across Syria, Libya, and Iraq,  involving air delivered munitions – and is therefore a critical reference point for affected local communities, for media and analysts, and for both the Pentagon and US combatant commands. There has never been the same level of engagement with the UK and MoD.  We feel that this is a wasted opportunity; meaningful dialogue between the MoD and civil society organisations could contribute significant value to the planning, design, implementation and evaluation of military operations and security partnerships, while reinforcing effective governance and oversight.

As the new Foreign Secretary, we reiterate our calls to you for the UK to create and institutionalise systematic engagement with civil society organisations, where civil society can play an essential role in fostering accountability and transparency in the conduct of operations and civilian harm monitoring.

4. Will the MoD consider investigating and re-investigating where necessary specific instances of civilian harm caused by UK airstrikes with the US-led Coalition in Iraq and Syria flagged by civil society monitoring organisations, and publish the results?

5. Will you recommend MoD and FCDO officials to meet with Airwars to discuss better practise recommendations and to encourage a meaningful relationship between civil society organisations and your Departments?

Thank you for taking the time to note our concerns, and we wish you the best in your new role, while looking forward to working with you on these issues.

Yours sincerely,

Chris Woods,

Director, Airwars

▲ The UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office

Published

October 1, 2021

Written by

Megan Karlshoej-Pedersen

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A F-16 Fighting Falcon from the Belgian Air Force refuels

Open letter from Belgian and international organisations calls on the Defence Minister to increase transparency and accountability for civilian harm.

October 1st marks the anniversary of Belgium relaunching its participation in Operation Inherent Resolve – the international campaign against so-called Islamic State.

Throughout its engagement in this coalition, Belgium has been one of the least transparent – and least accountable – countries when it comes to acknowledging civilian harm. In fact, the Government has refused to publicly concede any civilian harm from its own actions. While the Parliament called for changes last year, urging the Government to introduce transparency and engage with civil society organisations, we have seen no tangible improvements. 

Together, we are publishing a joint open letter to Minister of Defence Dedonder with our Belgian and international partners. We ask the Belgian government to urgently take concrete steps to improve its transparency and accountability for civilian harm resulting from its own military actions. The full text of the letter is reprinted below.

 

Dear Minister Dedonder,

October 1st marks one year since Belgium re-joined Operation Inherent Resolve, the US-led war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. However, while Belgium has made significant contributions to this conflict for more than 7 years, conducting well over 1,000 missions, there remains a severe lack of transparency over the harm to civilians from Belgian actions; in fact, Belgium stands out among allies in its blanket refusal to acknowledge casualties. This refusal persists even when the US-led Coalition have conceded Belgian involvement in specific strikes which killed and injured civilians.

On June 25, 2020, the Belgian Parliament adopted resolution 1298. Among other things, it asked the federal government to ensure; “maximum transparency (…) with regard to the prevention, monitoring and reporting of possible civilian casualties as a result of our military deployment”. In addition, the government was asked to enter into a dialogue with its counterparts in the Netherlands about the lessons learned from the disaster of Hawija, in which dozens of civilians were killed as a result of a bombing raid carried out by the Dutch army. Finally, the resolution also called for public communication about possible civilian casualties and active cooperation with external monitoring groups and human rights organisations.

Yet it is unclear to us whether (and if so, how) these recommendations were implemented in any way during the deployment of the last year. No interim mission reports were published and the MoD continues to fail to provide data on the number of strikes and civilian casualties in a meaningful way.

Engagement with civil society

Since Belgium relaunched its participation in Operation Inherent Resolve, we have had some promising engagements with the Ministry of Defence. In May 2021, for instance, some of us were able to meet with officials and shared key lessons from the last decade of counting civilian harm. Nonetheless a more sustained approach is needed. We would encourage Belgium to draw inspiration from the processes set up by some of Belgium’s allies, in particular those in the Netherlands and the US. We stand ready to engage and share our lessons and key findings in a constructive way, to ensure that past civilian harm can lead to improvements in future protection of civilians.

We understand that recent events in Afghanistan may have delayed follow-up to our concerns. Those same events, however, should make it abundantly clear that a sustained, institutional, and consultative discussion about how to prevent civilian casualties is needed. We urge the minister to react to this, and relaunch discussions with civil society groups on this topic. We further urge the minister to do so with urgency so that experts from  civil society organisations may feed into Belgium’s update of the Strategic Vision 2030:  the need to address civilian harm and the protection of civilians in this document is crucial.

Recommendations

The undersigned organisations call upon the Belgian government to do the following, at minimum:

–      Engage in a sustained, systematised debate with civil society organisations in Belgium, who hold specialist knowledge on lessons that can be learned on how to best protect civilians and which are keen to share such knowledge;

–      Publish the exact date and near location of all Belgian air raids carried out in the fight against ISIS;

–      Launch an evaluation of claimed civilian harm that has occurred from suspected Belgian strikes in Iraq and Syria over the last year, including strikes which were IHL compliant, covering lessons which can be learned from this, and how civilians can better be protected in the future;

–      Publish the results of all investigations into civilian casualties – including the date, location, targets and number of civilian casualties of military action – even if the Ministry of Defence’s own investigation concludes that there has been no violation of international humanitarian law;

–      Draft guidelines for proactively publishing this information (in the future) as open data in a machine-readable overview that enables use by independent parties;

–      Work together with external parties, including NGOs, by drawing up standards for the minimum criteria that external claims for civilian victims must meet in order for the Ministry of Defence to be able to assess them;

–          Provide capacity at the Ministry of Defence so that officials can focus on monitoring and actively publishing data on airstrikes and civilian casualties in armed conflict, including in future military interventions, so that the consequences of military intervention are systematically monitored and published;

–      Introduce or support a mechanism where potential victims of Coalition bombardments can come forward and report issues of concern;

–      In line with the clear wishes of the Belgian Parliament, support a strong political declaration against the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas – with a clear commitment to data collection and transparent reporting.

Signed,

11.11.11

Airwars Stichting

Amnesty Belgium

Agir pour la Paix

CNAPD

Humanity & Inclusion

Pax Christi Flanders

Vredesactie

Vrede vzw

▲ A F-16 Fighting Falcon from the Belgian Air Force refuels

Published

August 18, 2021

Written by

Joe Dyke

Focus will now turn to whether UK, France and Belgium will finally admit culpability

When the Department of Defense withdrew a key part of its annual report on civilian harm earlier this month, it all but confirmed something long suspected – that France, Britain and Belgium know they likely killed civilians in Iraq and Syria in specific events, but refuse publicly to accept it.

The original Pentagon report to Congress, released on May 28th, initially claimed responsibility for the deaths of 50 civilians in eleven airstrikes against the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria in 2017 and 2018.

After Airwars pointed out significant errors, the DoD withdrew and reissued the report along with an addendum, removing nine of the eleven incidents in which civilians died. This amounted to the Pentagon’s effective confirmation that those strikes were carried out by its allies, including the UK, France and Belgium.

Of these nine incidents, two were in fact the same event – seemingly a clerical error. Two more have been publicly claimed already by Australia, which has accepted responsibility for the deaths.

That leaves six events in which the Coalition’s own investigators concluded that 18 civilians had died.

What are the six strikes?

Three of them were British airstrikes. We knew this before due to in-depth reporting by Airwars and the BBC but the Pentagon’s withdrawal of the data all but confirms it.

In the most deadly individual case, on August 13th 2017, 12 civilians were killed, including a young girl, in an airstrike targeting an ISIS mortar system. A further six were injured. In February 2019 the US-led Coalition accepted that civilians were killed and the UK later confirmed it was a British strike – yet without accepting anyone died.

In a second case, the Coalition publicly confirmed the deaths of two civilians in a strike near the Iraqi city of Mosul on January 9th 2017. Again the UK confirmed it was a British strike but without accepting that civilians were killed. This contradicted a Coalition whistleblower, who earlier told the BBC that civilians had likely died in the British attack.

The third British incident occurred in Bahrah in eastern Syria on January 20th 2018. The Coalition’s military assessors admitted the death of one civilian. The BBC and Airwars published an investigation showing it was a British strike and the UK accepted this, but again refused to accept responsibility for any civilian harm.

The reason for the gap between the Coalition and British statements is that London applies a different – and critics would say unrealistic – standard for assessing civilian harm. Whereas the Coalition and the US assess whether they caused civilian harm on the ‘balance of probabilities’, the UK demands overwhelming evidence – described as ‘hard facts.’ In the context of an airstrike from thousands of feet and with no Coalition civilian casualty investigation forces on the ground, such overwhelming proof is near impossible to come by.

To date, the UK has accepted just one civilian death in Iraq and Syria, despite 8,000 declared flight sorties over seven years.

Gavin Crowden, Executive Director of Every Casualty Counts, said that when it came to civilian harm, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) was pretending the “absence of evidence is evidence of absence.”

“The Pentagon has shattered the MoD’s already implausible claim that British forces have caused only one civilian death across Iraq and Syria. This is statistically almost impossible.”

“The [Chilcot] Report of the Iraq Inquiry made clear that the MoD had failed to account for civilian casualties following the invasion in 2003. Almost twenty years on, the MoD is still failing to take even basic steps to identify and record harm caused to civilians.”

French and Belgian strikes

The other three incidents the Pentagon insists were not US actions are believed to be either Belgian or French strikes.

On February 27th 2017 a Coalition strike on an ISIS vehicle near the Iraqi-Syrian border killed at least one civilian and injured another. Local sources said the death toll could have been as high as three. The Coalition accepted causing the harm, and a senior Belgian government official unofficially informed Airwars that the strike was Belgian, though the government has never publicly confirmed this.

On March 21st 2017 a civilian was killed in a Coalition strike in the Iraqi city of Mosul. Again a senior government official unofficially informed Airwars that the strike was Belgian, though the government has never publicly confirmed this.

The final incident, which took place on February 8th 2018, killed one civilian near Al-Bahrah village in Syria. Airwars identified it as a likely French strike, though Paris has always publicly refused to comment.

To date, neither France nor Belgium has publicly accepted killing any civilians in years of bombing Iraq and Syria.

Marc Garlasco, a military advisor for PAX and a former US senior Department of Defense intelligence analyst, said the Pentagon errors would increase pressure on European militaries to stop hiding behind the anonymity of the Coalition.

In 2015 a devastating strike in the town of Hawijah in Iraq led to the deaths of more than 70 civilians. The Coalition eventually accepted responsibility, but no member state did. It was only in 2019, after investigative reporting, that the Dutch government finally admitted responsibility.

“It is time for European MoDs to stop hiding behind American statistics and take responsibility for the harm they cause and provide appropriate amends,” Garlasco said.

“One central issue for civilians is the problem coalition warfare causes for strike attribution, and therefore amends. Too often we have seen war victims unable to make claims or even get answers for why they were targeted because they just don’t know who dropped the bombs. It is unreasonable to put the onus of proof on the victim.”

He pointed out that in the wake of the Hawijah massacre the Dutch Ministry of Defence has opened a review of its civilian harm mitigation policies, working alongside organisations like PAX and Airwars.

“We see a real opportunity in the wake of the lessons we have learned by working with the Dutch MoD. There are now positive examples to follow if Belgium, France, the UK, and any other military intends to take civilian harm seriously.”

Every Casualty Count’s Gavin Crowden said the US civilian casualty monitoring process, though far from perfect, was a clear example for other countries to follow. So far the US has admitted killing more than 1,300 civilians in the war against ISIS.

“If European militaries claim they can fire smart missiles straight into the bedroom of a specific target, they should surely be able to compile basic data about where and when they have conducted operations that may have harmed civilians.”

“The US has shown that this is both logistically, militarily and politically possible. Therefore, we have to conclude that the obstacle among European militaries is simply a lack of will.”

Airwars asked the British, French and Belgian militaries for comment on the Pentagon’s report. None said they intended to review their earlier assessments of no civilian harm, in light of the DoD revelations.

▲ File footage: A U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker refuels a British Tornado fighter over Iraq, Dec. 22, 2015. Coalition forces fly daily missions in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Corey Hook/Released)

Published

August 10, 2021

Written by

Joe Dyke

Allied nations almost certainly killed them. So why did the Defense Department tell Congress that the US was responsible?

This article was originally published by The Intercept on August 5th 2021.

The Defense Department has been forced to withdraw a key part of an official report to Congress, after wrongly claiming responsibility for killing 21 civilians in Iraq and Syria who were actually slain by close US allies.

The Pentagon was alerted to the mistake in June by Airwars, which had previously documented most of the strikes as being carried out by other partner nations in the US-led Coalition against the Islamic State, including the United Kingdom, France, and Australia.

After reviewing the findings, the Defense Department finally admitted the error on August 5th.

“This was an oversight in preparing data for the report,” Pentagon spokesperson Mike Howard said, without giving further details on how the error had occurred. “We regret the mistake.”

The revelations will add to growing concern over the Pentagon’s civilian harm policies, after senior Democrats recently accused the Pentagon of underestimating the number of civilians killed in its latest annual report to Congress and criticized the US military’s failure to pay out a single dollar in compensation to victims’ families during 2020.

“You have to wonder what is going on at the Defense Department and [U.S. Central Command] that they can’t even get right this basic obligation to report civilian harm to Congress and to the public accurately and reliably,” Hina Shamsi, director of the National Security Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, told The Intercept. “This only compounds our concerns about underlying issues such as investigations into civilian harm, in which DOD does not even talk to surviving family members for information.”

“Only US casualties”

The Department of Defense’s latest annual report documenting civilians killed and injured by US actions globally was released on May 28th. The report, in which the Defense Department must inform Congress of all officially recognized civilian harm caused by the US military, has been a legal requirement since 2018.

In the latest report, the Pentagon admitted to killing 23 civilians worldwide during 2020, though monitors such as the United Nations in Afghanistan have shown the real figure is likely many times higher.

The report also incorrectly acknowledged responsibility for 50 historical civilian deaths in 11 airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria between January 2017 and February 2018. The Pentagon at first said the incidents had “inadvertently” not been included in reports in previous years, but most were in fact carried out by allied nations.

While the campaign against ISIS was fought by a coalition of mostly Western nations, the report explicitly stated that it “only lists civilian casualties attributed to the use of U.S.-operated weapons,” meaning no strikes conducted by allied aircraft should have been included.

The Intercept and Airwars cross-checked these incidents against public records and found that of the 11, nine were not carried out by the US at all.

The May Defense Department report to Congress claimed responsibility for the deaths of 50 additional civilians in Iraq and Syria in 2017-2018, of whom only 28 were actually killed by US strikes. Source: US Department of Defense, May 2021.

Most of those incidents had been highlighted in a major investigation last year by Airwars, the BBC, Libération, De Morgen and RTL Netherlands, which concluded that European countries were systematically failing to accept causing civilian harm, even when U.S. military assessors declared otherwise.

The addendum released by the Defense Department on August 5th removed nine of the 11 incidents in which the US acknowledged killing civilians in its earlier report.

Two of the incidents for which the Pentagon claimed as US actions had, for example, already been admitted by the Australian Defence Force, which had taken full responsibility for killing the civilians.

In one of those airstrikes, two civilians were killed and two hurt in Mosul, Iraq, on May 3rd 2017. That event was publicly conceded by the ADF more than three years ago, with an official statement at the time saying: “On 3 May 2017, one Australian aircraft conducted an airstrike in support of Iraqi Security Forces who were under direct fire from enemy fighters in West Mosul. … Based on a review of information now available, it is possible that civilian casualties may have occurred as a result of this strike.”

The UK had explicitly claimed responsibility for carrying out between three and four further strikes on the list, and a senior Belgian official had unofficially acknowledged that country’s responsibility for two other attacks.

Among the British incidents was the killing of 12 civilians in the Syrian city of Raqqa on August 13th 2017. The Coalition officially confirmed it had killed the civilians while targeting an ISIS mortar system; the UK later admitted to carrying out the strike, saying Royal Air Force fighter jets targeted “a mortar team in a building at the location given” during clashes between ISIS and Western-backed Kurdish forces.

Among the victims locally named that day were Walid Awad Al Qus and his young daughter Limar.

A ninth event, which killed one civilian in Al Bahrah in Syria in February 2018, was found by Airwars and Libération to have likely been attributable to the French military. Despite the findings, neither the UK, Belgium, nor France has publicly admitted to killing civilians in any of these strikes.

Airwars highlighted the errors to the US Defense Department in early June; the Pentagon then took two months to send an official correction to the report to Congress. That addendum offered no detailed explanation for the mistake.

“The text and table in the report provided in May 2021 … should be omitted and replaced because only two of the eleven incidents on the original table were ‘attributed to the use of U.S.-operated weapons,’” the text of the addendum states.

CENTCOM under scrutiny 

The US arguably has the world’s most advanced mechanisms for monitoring the civilian harm caused by its own military actions across the globe.

During the seven-year campaign against ISIS, the US military has admitted killing more than 1,300 civilians. While monitors like Airwars put the real figure far higher, other militaries barely accept any responsibility for civilian harm: France has not admitted to killing a single civilian, and the UK has acknowledged responsibility for just one civilian death since 2014.

The great majority of deaths from US military actions occur within US Central Command’s area of responsibility, which includes Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen. In recent years, CENTCOM has faced rising concerns about poor management of its civilian harm monitoring and reporting processes.

CENTCOM declined to comment on whether the error in the recent report to Congress had originated with its own personnel, referring questions back to the Department of Defense.

More forgetfulness on Yemen

While publicly claiming responsibility for the deaths of civilians it didn’t in fact harm, CENTCOM has also once again forgotten some of those it did.

In November 2020, following a major Airwars study of US military actions in Yemen under President Donald Trump, CENTCOM officially admitted injuring two civilians during an airstrike in September 2017.

This was only the second time the US had ever publicly admitted specific civilian harm as a result of its airstrikes and raids in Yemen, which date back to 2002.

But that confirmed event was not included in the most recent report to Congress, and no explanation has been given for its omission.

This marked the second time in the past year that CENTCOM has apparently forgotten recent civilian harm it caused in Yemen. In November, it blamed an “administrative mistake” after saying only that it “may” have killed civilians during a botched raid in Yemen in January 2017. At the time, CENTCOM’s own commander, Gen. Joseph Votel, had told the US Senate he took personal responsibility for the deaths of “between four and 12” civilians in that attack.

Bonyan Gamal from the Yemeni human rights organization Mwatana said such errors are “painful for the families” of those injured or killed.

The recent Pentagon civilian harm report did however confirm one new case in Yemen after an investigation by Mwatana: The US admitted that it had targeted and killed an elderly Yemeni man in a 2019 airstrike. To date, no compensation has been paid or offered, and Gamal said the families of victims want justice.

“When we received the confirmation of civilian harm we contacted the family,” Gamal said. “When I spoke to them they asked ‘OK and now what?’ If there are no steps after an acknowledgment and not even an apology then what is the use for this?”

▲ Aftermath of alleged US-led Coalition airstrikes on Hajin on November 10th, 2018 (via Euphrates Post).

Published

August 10, 2021

Written by

Joe Dyke

Despite less than two per cent of Coalition strikes taking place since the fall of Baghouz, civilian casualties persist

This article was originally published by The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft on August 8th 2021.

For the little media coverage it receives these days, you might be forgiven for believing the US-led coalition’s war in Syria and Iraq to be over. Osama Al-Hamid’s family knows better. Last month, the young boy died during reported fighting between Washington’s local Syrian allies and the Islamic State, in which US airstrikes hit the building he was in. Osama was the latest of thousands of alleged victims of coalition strikes.

August 8th marked seven years since the international coalition, led by the United States, began its concerted bombing campaign against the Islamic State, the terrorist group that by 2014 had seized much of northern Iraq and Syria. Since then, the coalition has declared 34,987 strikes against the Islamist group. Today, ISIS has been reduced from a de facto state controlling territory roughly the size of Britain on either side of the Iraqi-Syrian border, to a few disparate cells living in hiding and conducting occasional terror attacks.

The final piece of ISIS territory, the town of Baghouz in eastern Syria, was recaptured in April 2019. Since then, the intensity of the international campaign has dropped dramatically. Only 483 strikes, or less than two percent of the war’s total, have taken place in the last two years.

The civilian toll has also dropped sharply. Of the 1,417 civilians the Operation Inherent Resolve, or OIR Coalition, has officially admitted killing since 2014, only one has occurred since Baghouz fell.

Airwars puts the real figures of civilians killed by coalition strikes far higher — at between 8,317 and 13,190 likely fatalities between 2014 and today. And since April 2019, between 57 and 112 civilians have been likely killed, the watchdog believes.

Yet despite the near destruction of ISIS, the coalition remains in place, even as President Joe Biden’s administration withdraws from Afghanistan, and claims to be looking to end the “forever wars.” The United States retains an estimated 900 troops in Syria and a further 2,500 in Iraq. Other nations have also seemingly increased the intensity of their involvement in the campaign in recent months. Of the 44 confirmed OIR airstrikes against the Islamic State this year, more than half were French or British. Belgium, which resumed its own involvement in the war in October 2020, has provided no data on its own recent strikes.

No perfect exit

Seven years on, and with most of the war’s objectives seemingly achieved, what is to become of the anti-ISIS Coalition?

There are plenty of legitimate reasons for the Coalition to remain concerned.

Thousands of family members of ISIS militants, including those with British, French, and other citizenships, remain stuck in vast prisons in northern Syria, including the infamous Al-Hol camp near Hassakeh. With some countries unwilling to repatriate their nationals, violence in the camps remains a concern and there are fears the conditions could serve to radicalize a new generation of ISIS.

Outside the camps, fears of an ISIS resurgence remain, with periodic claims of their influence increasing. Recently, reports circulated that ISIS cells were forcing villagers in one part of eastern Syria to pay them money or face punishment. The US’s allies in Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces, may not be able to cope without continued Western military support.

The Coalition is also yet to tackle its historic legacy, with rights groups and family members still seeking recompense for the thousands of civilians killed by its own actions. A recent report by Agence France Presse interviewed victims of the single worst disaster, when a U.S. strike killed more than 100 civilians in the Iraqi city of Mosul in March 2017, and found they were still waiting for compensation.

So there are arguments that supporters of the Coalition mission may may make in favour of staying. But bear in mind that just because it is not in the media that doesn’t make it a cost-free exercise — either financially for the US and partners, or for Syrian and Iraqi civilians.

Data from Airwars’ annual report shows conflicts across the Middle East were less violent in 2020

Last month, Osama Al-Hamid — who looks perhaps four or five in the images posted online of him — tragically died. The exact circumstances of his death, in Kharbet Al Janous near Hassakeh in northern Syria on July 21st, are disputed. What is clear is that the United States carried out two airstrikes against alleged ISIS members while supporting the SDF. Somewhere along the way Hamid was killed. The Coalition’s spokesman said the child was being “held captive” by ISIS, but provided no evidence for the claim.

The intensity of Syria’s civil war more generally has dipped significantly in recent years. Airwars data shows that the number of civilians reported killed last year was roughly a third of the tally during 2019. And as the level of violence decreases, so the questions that leaders have to ask themselves shift.

With US, Russian, Turkish, Iranian and other forces seemingly becoming permanent fixtures in Syria, the potential for fatal miscalculation remains. And with no clear long-term strategy currently being articulated by the Biden administration, there remains a risk of another grinding conflict with no end in sight.

In Iraq, the US-led coalition often found itself fighting alongside Iranian-backed militias during the height of the campaign against ISIS. Yet since the Caliphate’s decline, some of those same groups have begun turning their ire on US bases, particularly as tensions with Tehran again escalate. In another echo of the earlier US-UK occupation of Iraq, Shia politicians from across the spectrum increasingly call on the Americans to leave.

When President Obama withdrew from Iraq in 2011 at the insistence of the Iraqi government, he later faced allegations that his purported hasty exit helped lead to the emergence of ISIS. Biden will be wary of repeating the mistake. But he is also perhaps learning from Afghanistan that there is no perfect time to end a war. Maintaining the coalition in perpetuity in Iraq and Syria, against an elusive foe, brings with it a risk of a new forever war.

▲ US soldiers make their way to an oil production facility to meet with its management team, in Syria, Oct. 27, 2020. (Credit: U.S. Army photo by Spc. Jensen Guillory)

Published

June 2, 2021

Written by

Airwars Staff

Conservative public tallies of civilians killed by US during 2020 are almost five times higher than DoD admits

The Pentagon’s annual report to Congress on civilian deaths and injuries resulting from US military actions around the world has declared more than 100 recent casualties. Researchers and human rights groups, including Airwars, Amnesty International and UN monitors in Afghanistan, place the actual toll significantly higher.

For 2020 alone, the Department of Defence said that its forces had killed 23 civilians and injured a further 10 in Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq. An additional 63 historical deaths and 22 injuries were reported for the years 2017-2019, mostly in Syria and Yemen.

By contrast, the minimum public estimate of civilian deaths caused by US forces during 2020 across five conflict nations was 102 fatalities – almost five times higher than DoD admits.

Casualties from US actions in Afghanistan in particular appear to have been officially undercounted. While the Pentagon reports only 20 deaths and 5 injuries from its own actions last year, UNAMA – the respected UN agency in Afghanistan – says that international forces killed at least 89 civilians and injured a further 31. United States personnel made up the great majority of those foreign forces.

For Somalia, DoD declares only one civilian death from US actions last year – while Airwars and others suggest a minimum civilian toll of seven killed.

And for Iraq and Syria, while US forces declare only one death, local reporting indicates at least six civilians killed by US actions.

Only for Yemen is there agreement, with monitoring organisations and the DoD both indicating that there were no likely civilian deaths caused by US actions during the year.

Major decline in US actions

The 21-page Pentagon document, quietly released May 28th and entitled ‘Annual Report on Civilian Casualties In Connection With United States Military Operations in 2020,’ has been a requirement of US law since 2018.

The latest report captures the very significant fall in tempo of US military actions during the latter years of Donald Trump’s presidency. According to Airwars estimates, there were around 1,000 US strikes across four conflict countries during 2020 – down from approximately 3,500 strikes the previous year and a peak of 13,000 such US actions during 2016. Declared civilian deaths fell from 132 to 23 from 2019 to 2020.

The majority of civilian deaths declared by the Pentagon during 2020 were in Afghanistan – despite a major ceasefire between US forces and the Taliban for much of the year. According to the new DoD report, 20 civilians were killed and five injured in seven US actions, primarily airstrikes.

The seven civilian casualty events conceded in Afghanistan by the Pentagon for 2020

However the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) which has been recording extensive data on civilian harm from all parties to the fighting since 2009, placed the toll far higher. According to its own annual report for 2020 published earlier this year, “UNAMA attributed 120 civilian casualties (89 killed and 31 injured) to international military forces”.

While these casualties represented just one per cent of the overall reported civilian toll in Afghanistan for the year – with most civilians killed by the Taliban and Afghan forces – of concern was DoD’s major undercounting of its own impact on civilians – with UNAMA logging four and a half times more deaths primarily from US actions than those officially conceded by the Pentagon.

Reported civilian casualties from US actions against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria have remained low since the terror group’s defeat as a territorial entity in mid 2019. According to the Pentagon, just one civilian was killed by an action in Iraq, after US forces targeted Iranian linked militias at Karbala airport on March 13th 2020. Twenty three year old security guard Karrar Sabbar was killed in that US attack. However the additional reported deaths of two civilian policemen in the attack are not acknowledged by the US.

In Syria, Airwars estimates three to six likely civilian deaths from US actions during 2020, mainly during counterterrorism raids against ISIS remnants. None of these were conceded either.

In Somalia, between 7 and 13 civilians were likely killed by US actions during the year, according to Airwars monitoring of local communities. The US military itself concedes five injuries and one death, in two events in early 2020 near Jilib.

Only for Yemen did human rights organisations and DoD appear to agree, with both reporting no likely civilian deaths from US actions during the year.

US forces in Somalia killed one civilian and injured five others during 2020, according to official estimates

Public transparency

Despite continuing disparities between public and military estimates of civilian harm, the Pentagon’s annual report to Congress still represents a significant transparency breakthrough. Close ally France, for example, has refused to declare a single civilian fatality from almost seven years of air and artillery strikes in Iraq and Syria – and recently lashed out at the United Nations after a French airstrike struck a wedding party in Mali.

Later this year the Pentagon will also issue a major overhaul of its civilian casualty mitigation policies, which it has been reviewing in consultation with human rights organisations for several years. On May 25th, new Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Dr Colin Kahl confirmed in writing to NGOs that the new policy – known as a Department of Defense Instruction, or DoD-I – would be published by the Biden administration.

“We welcome the Pentagon’s publication to Congress of its latest annual civilian harm report, as well as confirmation that the DOD-I on civilian casualty mitigation will be published by the new administration,” noted Airwars director Chris Woods. “We remain concerned however that DoD estimates of civilian harm once again fall well below credible public estimates, and call on officials to review why such undercounts remain so common. Civilians surely deserve better.”

▲ Aftermath of a deadly US airstrike on Karbala Airport on March 13th, 2020 which the Pentagon admits killed a civilian.

Published

January 12, 2021

Written by

Laurie Treffers

Header Image

Belgian military personnel deployed for Operation Inherent Resolve at their military base in Jordan, November 2020 (image via Belgian Air Force).

Pressure is growing on countries to support an international political declaration to restrict the use of explosive weapons in urban areas.

The Belgian parliament is considering adopting a resolution to help protect civilians from the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas. The resolution calls for Belgium’s active participation in ongoing diplomatic negotiations among nations on an international political declaration to avoid the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, to help reduce civilian suffering.

In a joint statement published on January 12th, Airwars, Humanity & Inclusion, PAX Christi Vlaanderen and PAX for Peace called upon Members of Parliament in Belgium to support the resolution. The statement reads: “Such resolution is a good step in the right direction as it clearly demands the Belgian Federal Government for an unequivocal commitment against the use of high-impact explosive weapons in populated areas, in line with the presumption of non-use; a recognition of the “domino effects” of wide-range explosive weapons; and a commitment to victim assistance and unconditional access to humanitarian aid. After dozens of parliamentary questions, motions and public hearings in France, Germany, Switzerland, Luxembourg and the UK, the adoption of this resolution would be pioneering as it is the first of its kind.”

Parliamentary hearing

On January 6th, the National Defence Commission of the Belgian Federal Parliament came together to discuss a draft of Resolution 1222/1 on the protection of civilians from the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas. Prior to the hearing, Airwars, Humanity & Inclusion, Pax Christi Vlaanderen and PAX for Peace sent Members of Parliament a letter with key recommendations.

If the Resolution is adopted by the Belgian parliament, it could be a key event in the ongoing negotiations between nations on an international political declaration. Since October 2019, more than 70 countries, including Belgium, have participated in diplomatic negotiations led by Ireland to draft such a declaration.

During the parliamentary hearing on January 6th, experts from the Belgian Red Cross and Humanity & Inclusion (HI) gave short presentations on the importance of the proposed resolution. Anne Hery, director of advocacy and institutional relations at HI, stated: “How can one systematically claim to respect the principles of precaution and proportionality of attack when using artillery or mortar shells in places where children, women and men are concentrated, or when bombing near infrastructures vital for the survival of populations, such as hospitals, schools or even power stations? The devastation in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Ukraine, Libya, more recently in Nagorno Karabakh or in the Tigray region, in Ethiopia, forces us to rethink the methods, tactics and choice of weapons of war used today.”

"Comment peut-on prétendre systématiquement respecter les principes de précaution & proportionnalité de l’attaque lorsqu’on utilise obus d’artillerie/mortier dans des lieux où se concentrent des civils ou quand on bombarde à proximité d’infrastructures vitales?" @Anneh2906 #EWIPA pic.twitter.com/40NFKrBiKj

— Baptiste Chapuis (@Baptiste_Cps) January 6, 2021

 

Resolution 1222/1

Samuel Cogolati, a Member of Parliament for ECOLO-Groen, is one of the initiators of the resolution. Mr Cogolati told Airwars: “Today’s armed conflicts in Yemen, Syria and Libya are not the same as those of 20, 30 or 50 years ago. Because although conflicts are increasingly urban, battles are most often fought with weapons or ammunition systems with indiscriminate effects, initially designed for use on open battlefields.”

According to Cogolati, the draft resolution is “simply an attempt to respond to the call of the UN Secretary-General, as well as the ICRC and Handicap International. The text itself was written in close cooperation with civil society.” The text calls upon the Belgian federal government to not only avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas, but also requests that the government actively pushes for the recognition of reverberating effects of explosive weapons and victim assistance as key elements of the international political declaration.

Mr Cogolati also emphasised the reverberating effects for civilians of the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects, such as the destruction of vital infrastructure, contamination by explosive remnants of war and massive waves of forced displacement. In October 2020, Airwars and PAX for Peace presented their joint report Seeing through the Rubble on the long-term effects of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas to MPs in Belgium, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, France and Germany.

Camilla Roberti, advocacy officer for Humanity & Inclusion, is hopeful that the Resolution will be adapted, but also has reservations. “We remain concerned as Belgium reiterates its belief that IHL is strong enough and that strict compliance and implementation of IHL rules will suffice [to limit civilian harm during urban fighting]. On the contrary, we believe that IHL, which remains crucial, must be coupled with policies and standards that enhance its effectiveness during conflict and address the harm caused to civilians and civilian infrastructure during and after conflict.”

Roberti also warns that Belgium “doesn’t seem to take into account the indiscriminate effects caused by these weapons even in those cases where attacks appear ‘legitimate’. This is something we call on all States, and Belgium in particular, to put at the very centre of the future political declaration, as it will be the only way to put the people at the centre and prevent harm to civilians.”

Denial of civilian harm

Whilst Belgian parliamentarians are focused on pushing Belgium to become a pioneer in the protection of civilians, the Belgian Ministry of Defence continues to refuse taking responsibility for any civilian harm its own actions may have caused.

During a recent public event ‘New Military Technologies: What About Drones?’, organised by PAX Christi Vlaanderen, Vrede Vzw and the European Forum on Armed Drones on December 2nd 2020, Chief of Staff of the Belgian Air Forces, Colonel Geert de Decker, stated that “Neither in Libya, nor in Iraq, we have any reports of civilian casualties as a result of Belgian interventions. That is one of the things that we pride ourselves on. You are never one hundred per cent sure, but we do everything possible to avoid making civilian casualties.”

Belgium has, in fact, been implicated in several civilian harm incidents that were officially acknowledged by the US-led Coalition, but has repeatedly refused to answer on its possible involvement in these incidents. It remains unknown whether it was Belgium or France which was responsible for five airstrikes which led to the confirmed deaths of at least 22 civilians. When the Belgian Ministry of Defence was asked about their possible involvement in these strikes, officials told Airwars: “For the year 2017, BAF [Belgian Armed Forces] was certainly not involved in all events”, indicating that the Belgians were in fact involved in some of those events. It remains unclear why Belgium then still continues to state that its actions in Syria and Iraq have caused zero civilian casualties. On September 30th, 11 international and Belgian NGOs sent an open letter to then Minister of Defence Phillipe Goffin, calling on the Belgian government to finally take concrete steps to improve its transparency and accountability for civilian harm.

The Belgian parliament will likely vote on whether to adopt Resolution 1222/1 by February 2021.

▲ Belgian military personnel deployed for Operation Inherent Resolve at their military base in Jordan, November 2020 (image via Belgian Air Force).