US-led Coalition in Iraq & Syria

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

start date
end date
70 Results
sort by:

Published

October 29, 2020

Written by

Laurie Treffers and Mohammed al Jumaily

Assisted by

Maysa Ismael

Header Image

Damage in the industrial area of Hawijah, years after the attack in June 2015 (image via NOS).
Read this article in:
English
Arabic
Dutch

A Dutch airstrike on Hawijah in 2015 led to the deaths of at least 70 civilians. In a key interview, the city's Mayor discusses events that day - and the ongoing suffering of affected civilians.

On the night of June 2nd to June 3rd 2015, Dutch F-16s bombed an ISIS Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosives Devices (VBIED) factory in the city of Hawijah, in Iraq’s Kirkuk province. Secondary explosions triggered by the airstrike killed at least 70 civilians and wounded hundreds more. Today, the city of Hawijah is still recovering – not only from long-standing ISIS control of the area, but also the lasting impact on civilian lives of the Dutch airstrike five years ago.

For their new joint report, Seeing through the rubble: The civilian impact of the use of explosive weapons in the fight against ISIS, Airwars and PAX interviewed Hawijah Mayor Subhan Al Jabouri about the direct, indirect, and ongoing effects of the strike.

The questions were answered via e-mail on September 28th, 2020. The first part of the interview discusses the direct consequences of the Dutch air raid. The second focuses on the indirect effects. In the third section, the Mayor was asked about the impact the Dutch air raid still has on the lives of civilians in Hawijah. Finally, the Mayor examines the overall damage that both the ISIS occupation and the anti-ISIS Coalition have caused in his city.

Subhan Al Jabouri, the Mayor of Hawijah, in his office (Image courtesy of the Mayor)

Interview with Subhan Al Jabouri, Mayor of Hawijah

Part I: Direct harm

1. What is Hawijah Council’s present estimate of civilian deaths and injuries resulting from this Dutch airstrike?

According to preliminary reports, more than 70 civilians were killed and more than 500 others injured.

2. Can the Council please characterise the damage caused to civilian objects such as houses, roads, medical facilities, shops, schools, childcare facilities, pharmacies, factories? Is there a list of damaged properties?

Besides severe damage to civilian properties, factories, workshops and homes in the surrounding area of the explosion, a power station, civil defence centre and a wheat mill were also destroyed.

3. How many schools were damaged in the attack, and are these functional again?

A total of 37 schools were damaged and four schools are out of service and no longer running and these have not yet been rebuilt.

4. How many pharmacies were damaged and are these open again? 

No answer.

5. Is it true that an ice- and brick factory were damaged, and are these operational again?

Yes, it was confirmed that more than one ice production plant and brick factories were destroyed as a result of the airstrike. The factories have not completely reopened, nor have their owners returned to the area.

6. Is it true that the surface water sewage system was damaged, and is that operational again?

No answer.

7. Is there an overall estimate of buildings both damaged and destroyed in the Dutch airstrike?

According to the first assessment of the size of the destruction and the diameter of the impact of the shock wave of the explosion, the size of the damage reached a diameter of more than 2km and 500 buildings were subject to major damage.

8. Can the Council please outline damage to infrastructure, such as electricity, gas pipelines, water pipelines, communication lines, etcetera?

The infrastructure in the area of the explosion and the surrounding neighbourhoods were damaged, which led to the suspension of a large number of facilities, including a power station, main communication lines and water pipes in the area.

Part II: Indirect harm

9. What has been the impact of the damage to civilian objects and infrastructure from the Dutch airstrike such as a decline in access to water, electricity, heating or other essential services such as water and sanitation services, health services, displacement, environmental impact, rubble and waste management

The great damage caused to the infrastructure of the region and the surrounding areas, as well as damage to the power station and water pipelines, led to the displacement of a large number of families from the affected areas and a significant decrease in access to basic services to them.

10. What psychological impact on local communities does the Council believe has occurred?

The horror of this strike had a profound psychological effect on the psyche of the victims, as it led to the death of dozens of families and the injury of hundreds. Some families were completely wiped out, others lost at least three or four family members. The absence of direct health care and the inability of the people to help their families and watch them die under the rubble induced trauma for the people. This is in addition to the loss of their homes, properties and sources of income and their experiences of being displaced.

11. It has been reported that Hawijans remain concerned about possible radiological and other contaminant effects of both the Dutch strike and the broader campaign to remove ISIS. Can the Council please update us on these concerns?

Despite the liberation of the area and the return of locals and their attempts, the industrial zone and surrounding residential areas have not been rebuilt. However, there are still concerns among the residents about the radiological effects and polluting materials as a result of the tremendous force of the explosion, as some believe that radioactive materials are present in the area.

Part III: Long-term effects   12. How are survivors of the Dutch airstrike presently doing?

The Al-Ghad organisation, in cooperation with the local authorities, is ensuring the registration of survivors and those affected by the airstrike through voluntary work. The information currently recorded shows that the survivors are divided between internally displaced persons in Kirkuk and Salah al-Din governorate, and internally displaced persons inside Hawija as a result of the destruction of homes, sources of income and laboratories, and the lack of basic services in the area.

13. Can the local authorities please confirm the estimate that as a result of this attack, that around 2,000 people experienced psycho-social problems?

Yes, and the number of people affected may exceed this number due to the side effects of the strike.

14. Are psychological and physical rehabilitation programs available?

There are no specialized rehabilitation or psychological support programs that specifically target survivors of the Dutch airstrike, but they may be included in public programs that target the Hawija area or Internally Displaced Peoples.

15. Have victims been compensated in any way? Can the Council confirm that there has been only one family that has received compensation? 

No compensation programs were implemented for survivors.

The aftermath of the Dutch strike on Hawijah in 2015 which killed an estimated 70 civilians (via Iraqi Revolution).

16. Have the homes of citizens been repaired? If so, how many? Could the Council please confirm the estimate that 50-60 per cent of the buildings in the area have now been rebuilt?

The houses have not been completely rebuilt, and the percentage of repaired homes does not exceed 40% of the homes. Families returning to the area live in houses damaged by the effects of the strike, as they are unable to repair their homes. It is difficult to confirm this percentage, as there are many buildings that were completely destroyed and the owners of those buildings have not returned.

17. Have people returned or are they still displaced and under which circumstances are they living now?  How many Hawijans remain displaced from the neighbourhood damaged in the Dutch strike?

Living conditions are very difficult due to the lack of basic services, sources of income and the destruction of homes. It is difficult to determine the percentages of returnees in these areas because some displaced persons from outside these areas have returned to live in the affected areas and many of them are still displaced or settled in other areas such as Kirkuk and Salah al-Din.

18. Has infrastructure and or factories/shops/facilities been repaired? What has and has not so far been repaired?

The local government has launched plans to rebuild the infrastructure, but it has not been fully implemented and the region still suffers from a lack of services. Some factories have been rebuilt, such as the wheat mill and a few workshops and shops, but a number of factories are still destroyed along with many car showrooms, workshops and schools.

19. Do people have access to water and electricity again? Did they have access to it before the attack?

A number of transmission lines and water pipes have been repaired, but the main station that was damaged as a result of the bombing has not been operational yet.

20. Have roads been repaired? If so how many?

Yes, only the main road in the area has been repaired. 

21. Has the rubble been cleared? How much?

Some of the debris has been removed but the bigger proportion remains in the area.

22. Is it safe to live in the affected neighbourhoods again? Or is there a risk of unexploded ordnance?

Yes, it is safe, and the Al-Ghad Organisation for Women and Children’s Care is implementing an awareness project about the dangers of war remnants in Hawija now.

23. Do people have access to the same local facilities as before, such as medical facilities, shops, daycares, pharmacies etcetera?

Yes, some facilities were reopened thanks to individual efforts.

24. Can the local authorities confirm the loss of jobs which resulted from this attack (because stores, workshops and factories closed and are still not opened because the area still lacks electricity and has not been rebuilt)?

Hundreds of Hawija residents lost their jobs and sources of income as a result of the destruction of workshops, car showrooms and factories, as well as the destruction of the basic infrastructure of the area. Some people have reopened a small number of workshops and shops, and the mill was rebuilt too, but the lack of services hinders the complete restoration of economic and urban life.

Part IV: General damage ISIS occupation and anti-ISIS Coalition

25. One source mentions that one of two water treatment plants (WTP) in the city were damaged in another airstrike. However another source says the WTP itself wasn’t damaged by an airstrike, but instead a power station was damaged that normally provided the WTP with electricity to pump the water. Was it the WTP itself or the power station and pipelines that were damaged? 

Yes, the water transmission lines, the supplied electricity network and the power station were all damaged.

26. The source also mentions that currently, only one WTP is functioning in Hawijah, through the public grid. However because the grid is not reliable, the functioning of the WTP is limited and it cannot cover the needs of the population.  Can the Council please confirm if this was and remains true?

Yes, it is true and the situation is still as mentioned.

27. A 2018 report noted that two of the three healthcare facilities in Hawijah had been damaged by fighting with only one functioning at that time – meaning people had to travel to Kirkuk for specialized care. However, a separate local source asserts that “No health care center has been damaged because airstrike, only some minor damages in the Directorate of Health building and it already been rehabilitated, Hawija General Hospital and public health center is functioning now – but according to field staff there are huge gaps in sanitation facilities.”

Could the Council please confirm whether two out of three health centres were or were not damaged – and if so, whether they have now been repaired?  

The Health Directorate, known to the government as the ‘second health sector’ was affected by the strike.

28. Can the local authorities please confirm that there are no rehabilitation or psycho-social support programmes for the victims presently available in Hawijah?

Humanitarian organizations generally implement psychological support programs in Hawija, but there are no programs specifically for survivors of the strike.

محافظ الحويجة سبهان الجبوري في مكتبه. الصورة مقدمة من المحافظ.

مقابلة مع محافظ الحويجة: سبهان الجبوري

ليلة الثاني إلى الثالث من حزيران عام 2015، قصفت طائرة حربية هولندية من نوع F-16s معملاً  لداعش متخصصاً في تصنيع القنابل في الحويجة بالعراق. قتلت الانفجارات الثانوية التي سببتها الضربة ما لا يقل عن 70 مدنياً وأدت لجرح مئات آخرين. اليوم، لا تزال مدينة الحويجة تتعافى، ليس من حكم داعش طويل الأمد على المنطقة فقط، بل من التأثير المستمر على حياة المدنيين من الضربة الجوية الهولندية قبل خمس سنوات.

أجرت Airwars و PAX مقابلة مع محافظ الحويجة سبهان الجبوري عن التأثير المباشر وغير المباشر للضربة الهولندية، لتقريرهما المشترك الأخير “الرؤية من خلال الركام: تأثير استخدام الأسلحة المتفجرة في الحرب ضد داعش على المدنيين”.

تمت الإجابة على الأسئلة عبر البريد الإلكتروني يوم الثامن والعشرين من أيلول 2020. يدور القسم الأول من الأسئلة حول التأثيرات المباشرة للغارة الجوية الهولندية، فيما يركز القسم الثاني على الآثار غير المباشرة. في القسم الثالث سئل المحافظ عن التأثيرات المستمرة للضربة على حياة المدنيين في الحويجة حالياً. يبحث المحافظ في القسم الرابع الضرر الإجمالي الذي سببه احتلال داعش والتحالف المضاد لداعش على المدينة.

القسم الأول: الأذى المباشر

1.ما هو تقدير مجلس الحويجة الحالي للقتلى والجرحى المدنيين نتيجة هذه الغارة الجوية الهولندية؟ 

بحسب التقارير الاولية لأعداد القتلى المدنيين فقد بلغت أكثر من 70 قتيلا وأكثر من 500 جريح.

2.هل يمكن للمجلس أن يصف الأضرار التي لحقت بالممتلكات المدنية مثل المنازل والشوارع والمرافق الطبية والمحلات التجارية والمدارس ومرافق رعاية الأطفال والصيدليات والمصانع. هل توجد قائمة بالممتلكات المدمرة أو المتضررة؟

تعرضت الممتلكات المدنية إلى أضرار كبيرة حيث تعرضت المعامل والورش والمحال التجارية والمنازل المحيطة بمنطقة الانفجار الى محو ودمار بالكامل، إضافة إلى تدمير محطة الكهرباء ومركز للدفاع المدني ومطحنة.

3. كم عدد المدارس التي تضررت جراء الهجوم، وهل عادت للعمل مجدداً؟

تعرضت 37 مدرسة للضرر في المجمل،  مع خروج 4 مدارس عن الخدمة، ولم تتم إعادة بنائها.

4. كم عدد الصيدليات التي تضررت وهل تم فتحها مجدداً؟

لا جواب

5. هل صحيح أن معمل ثلج وطوب تضرر نتيجة الضربة وهل عاد للعمل مجدداً؟

نعم، تم تأكيد تدمير أكثر من معمل لإنتاج الثلج وكذلك معامل للطوب نتيجة الضربة الجوية . لم يتم اعادة افتتاح المعامل بشكل كامل او أن أصحابها لم يعودوا للمنطقة.

6. هل صحيح أن نظام الصرف الصحي السطحي تضرر وهل عاد للعمل مجدداً؟

لا جواب

7. هل هناك تقدير إجمالي للمباني المتضررة والمدمرة في هذه الغارة الجوية الهولندية؟

حسب التقييم الأولي لحجم الدمار وقطر تأثير الموجة الارتدادية للانفجار، وصل الدمار الى  دائرة يزيد قطرها عن 2 كيلومتر وتعرض 500 مبنى لدمار بنسبة كبيرة.

·8. هل يمكن للمجلس أن يحدد الأضرار التي لحقت بالبنية التحتية مثل الكهرباء وأنابيب الغاز وأنابيب المياه وخطوط الاتصال وما إلى ذلك؟

نتيجة للأضرار الكبيرة التي لحقت بالبنى التحتية للمنطقة والمناطق المحيطة وتعرض البنى التحتية في منطقة الانفجار والأحياء المحيطة بها إلى أضرار، توقف عدد كبير من المرافق منها محطة كهرباء و خطوط الاتصالات الرئيسية وأنابيب الماء في المنطقة.

القسم الثاني: الأذى غير المباشر

9. ما هو تأثير الأضرار التي لحقت بالممتلكات المدنية والبنية التحتية من الغارة الجوية الهولندية مثل: صعوبة الوصول إلى المياه والكهرباء والتدفئة أو غيرها من الخدمات الأساسية مثل خدمات المياه والصرف الصحي والخدمات الصحية والنزوح والأثر البيئي والأنقاض وإدارة النفايات؟

أدت الأضرار الكبيرة التي لحقت بالبنى التحتية للمنطقة والمناطق المحيطة وتضرر محطة الكهرباء وأنابيب الماء إلى نزوح عدد كبير من العوائل من المناطق المتضررة وتدني نسبة وصول الخدمات الأساسية إليهم .

10. ما هو الأثر النفسي الذي حدث على المجتمعات المحلية؟

كان لهول هذه الضربة أثر نفسي عميق على الضحايا حيث أدت إلى مقتل العشرات من العوائل وإصابة المئات. بعض العوائل محيت بالكامل والبعض الآخر خسر ما لا يقل عن 3-4 أفراد من أفراد الأسرة . تسبب غياب الرعاية الصحية المباشرة وعدم قدرة الأهالي على إسعاف ذويهم ومشاهدتهم يتوفون تحت الركام بصدمة كبيرة لدى الأهالي، إضافة لخسارتهم منازلهم وممتلكاتهم ومصادر الدخل اليوم وتعرضهم للنزوح .

11. أفادت التقارير أن أهالي الحويجة ما زالوا قلقين بشأن الآثار الإشعاعية المحتملة وغيرها من الآثار الملوثة من الضربة الهولندية والحملة ضد داعش. هل يمكن للمجلس إطلاعنا على هذه المخاوف؟

رغم تحرير المنطقة وعودة الأهالي ومحاولاتهم لإعادة بناء المنطقة الصناعية والمناطق السكنية المحيطة إلا أن المخاوف ما زالت مستمرة بين الأهالي من الاثار الإشعاعية والمواد الملوثة نتيجة لقوة الانفجار الهائلة حيث يعتقد بعضهم وجود مواد إشعاعية في المنطقة.

القسم الثالث: الآثار طويلة المدى

12. كيف حال الناجين من الغارة الجوية الهولندية حالياً؟

تقوم منظمة الغد بالتعاون مع السلطات المحلية بعملية تسجيل للناجين والمتضررين من الغارة الجوية بعمل تطوعي، حيث بينت المعلومات المسجلة حالياً أن الناجين منقسمون بين نازحين داخلياً الى محافظة كركوك وصلاح الدين، و نازحين داخل الحويجة نتيجة دمار المنازل ومصادر الدخل والمعامل ونقص الخدمات الأساسية في المنطقة .

13. هل يمكن للسلطات المحلية أن تؤكد التقديرات أنه نتيجة للهجوم تعرض حوالي 2000 شخص لمشاكل اجتماعية – نفسية؟

نعم ويمكن أن يتجاوز عدد المتضررين هذا العدد بسبب الآثار الجانبية للضربة.

14. هل تتوافر برامج للتأهيل النفسي والجسدي؟ 

لا توجد برامج تأهيل أو دعم نفسي متخصصة تستهدف الناجين من الضربة الجوية الهولندية تحديداً، لكن قد يتم شمولهم بالبرامج العامة التي تستهدف منطقة الحويجة او النازحين.

15. هل تم تعويض الضحايا بأي شكل من الأشكال؟ وهل يمكن للمجلس أن يؤكد أن احدى العائلات تلقت تعويضاً؟

لم يتم تنفيذ أي برامج تعويضات للناجين.

آثار الضربة الهولندية على الحويجة عام 2015 والتي أدت لمقتل ما يقارب 70 مدنياً (عن صفحة الثورة العراقية)‎.

16. هل تم إصلاح منازل المواطنين التي تضررت؟ في حال تم ذلك، كم عددها؟ هل يمكن للمجلس أن يؤكد أن ما بين 50-60 بالمئة من المباني في المنطقة أعيد بناؤها؟

لم يتم ترميم المنازل بشكل كامل ولا تتجاوز نسبة المنازل المرممة 40% من المنازل رغم عودة العوائل للمنطقة، إلا أنهم يسكنون في منازل متضررة من آثار الضربة لعدم قدرتهم على إصلاح تلك المنازل .

قد يكون من الصعوبة تأكيد هذه النسبة لوجود العديد من المباني التي دمرت بالكامل وعدم عودة أصحاب تلك المباني .

17. ما الظروف التي يعيشها الناس الآن؟ هل عادوا إلى ديارهم أم لا يزالون نازحين؟ كم عدد سكان الحويجة الذين ما زالوا نازحين من المناطق المتضرر من الضربة الهولندية؟

الظروف المعيشية صعبة جداً بسبب نقص الخدمات الأساسية ومصادر الدخل ودمار المنازل. من الصعب تحديد نسبة العائدين في تلك المناطق بسبب عودة بعض النازحين من خارج تلك المناطق للسكن في المناطق المتضررة،  ومازال العديد منهم نازحين او استقروا في مناطق أخرى مثل كركوك وصلاح الدين.

18. هل تم إصلاح البنية التحتية و المصانع و المحلات والمرافق؟ ما الذي تم إصلاحه ولم يتم إصلاحه حتى الآن؟

أطلقت الحكومة المحلية خططاً لإصلاح البنى التحتية إلا أنها لم تنفذ بشكل كامل ومازالت المنطقة تعاني من نقص الخدمات. تم اعادة بناء بعض من المصانع مثل مطحنة الحنطة وعدد قليل من الورش والمحال لكن لا يزال عدد من المصانع مدمراً والكثير من معارض السيارات والورش والمدارس.

19. هل يحصل الناس على الماء والكهرباء من جديد؟ (هل تمكنوا من الوصول إليهما قبل الهجوم)؟

تم إصلاح عدد من الخطوط الناقلة وأنابيب المياه لكن المحطة الرئيسية التي تضررت نتيجة القصف لم تعمل حتى الآن.

20. هل تم إصلاح الطرق؟ إذا كان الأمر كذلك فكم منها تم إصلاحه؟

نعم،  تم إصلاح الطريق الرئيسي للمنطقة فقط.

21. هل تمت إزالة الأنقاض؟ في حال حدث ذلك فكم حجمها؟

تم ازالة جزء من الركام لكن الجزء الاكبر باق في المنطقة.

22. هل الأحياء المتضررة آمنة للعيش فيها مرة أخرى (بالنسبة للألغام و ما إلى ذلك)؟

نعم آمنة وتقوم منظمة الغد لرعاية المرأة والطفل بتنفيذ مشروع التوعية من مخاطر المخلفات الحربية داخل الحويجة حالياً.

 23. هل تتوفر نفس المرافق المحلية لأهالي الحويجة كما كانت من قبل (مثل منشآت طبية، محلات، ومراكز رعاية للأطفال، وصيدليات)؟

نعم،  تم إعادة افتتاح بعض  المرافق بجهود ذاتية بسيطة.

24. هل يمكن للسلطات المحلية أن تؤكد خسارة وظائف بسبب الهجوم (باعتبار أن محالاً وورش عمل ومصانع أغلقت ولا تزال غير فاعلة لأن المنطقة لا تزال تعاني من انقطاع الكهرباء ولم تتم إعادة بنائها)؟

فقد المئات من أهالي الحويجة وظائفهم ومصادر دخلهم نتيجة لدمار الورش ومعارض السيارات والمصانع وكذلك دمار البنى التحتية الأساسية للمنطقة. أعاد بعض الناس افتتاح عدد قليل من الورش والمحال وكذلك إعادة بناء المطحنة إلا أن نقص الخدمات يعرقل إعادة الحركة العمرانية بالكامل.

القسم الرابع: التأثير العام لاحتلال داعش و للتحالف المضاد لداعش على الحويجة.

25. يذكر أحد المصادر أن إحدى محطتي معالجة المياه (WTP) في المدينة تضررت في غارة جوية أخرى. ومع ذلك ، يقول مصدر آخر إن محطة المعالجة نفسها لم تتضرر من جراء الغارة الجوية  ولكن بدلاً من ذلك تضررت محطة طاقة  كانت تزود محطة معالجة المياه بالكهرباء لضخ المياه. هل تضررت محطة المعالجة نفسها أم محطة الطاقة وخطوط الأنابيب؟

نعم تضررت الخطوط الناقلة والشبكة المجهزة للكهرباء ومحطة الطاقة.

26. ويشير المصدر أيضًا إلى أن محطة معالجة واحدة فقط تعمل حاليًا في الحويجة من خلال الشبكة العامة. ومع ذلك ، نظرًا لأن الشبكة غير موثوقة ، فإن تشغيل محطة المعالجة محدودة ولا يمكنها تغطية احتياجات السكان. هل يمكن للمجلس أن يؤكد ما إذا كان هذا صحيحًا ولا يزال كذلك؟

نعم صحيح ومازال الوضع كما هو مذكور.

 27. أشار تقرير صدر عام 2018 إلى أن اثنتين من مرافق الرعاية الصحية الثلاثة في الحويجة تضررت بسبب القتال وكان هناك مركز واحد فقط يعمل في ذلك الوقت – مما يعني أن الناس اضطروا أن يسافروا إلى كركوك للحصول على رعاية متخصصة. ومع ذلك، أكد مصدر محلي منفصل أنه “لم يتضرر أي مركز رعاية صحية بسبب الغارة الجوية، فقط بعض الأضرار الطفيفة في مبنى مديرية الصحة وتم إعادة تأهيله بالفعل، ومستشفى الحويجة العام ومركز الصحة العامة يعملان الآن – ولكن وفقًا للموظفين الميدانيين هناك فجوات هائلة في مرافق الصرف الصحي”. 

هل يمكن للمجلس أن يؤكد ما إذا كان 2 من أصل 3 مراكز صحية قد تضررت أو لم تتضرر – وإذا كان الأمر كذلك ، فهل تم إعادة إعمارها الآن؟

تضررت مديرية الصحة من أثر الضربة واسمها المعروف لدى الحكومة حالياً القطاع الصحي الثاني.

28. هل يمكن للسلطات المحلية أن تؤكد غياب وجود برامج دعم اجتماعية نفسية للناجين الموجودين حالياً في الحويجة؟

تقوم المنظمات الإنسانية بتنفيذ برامج الدعم النفسي في الحويجة بشكل عام،  لكن لا توجد برامج مخصصة للناجين من الضربة.

Subhan Al Jabouri, de burgemeester van Hawija in zijn kantoor (foto via de burgemeester).

Interview met Subhan al-Jabouri, burgemeester van Hawija

In de nacht van 2 op 3 juni 2015 bombardeerden Nederlandse F-16’s een ISIS Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosives Devices (VBIED) -fabriek in Hawija, Irak. Secundaire explosies veroorzaakt door de luchtaanval hebben minstens 70 burgers gedood en honderden anderen raakten gewond. Vandaag de dag is de stad nog steeds aan het herstellen van niet alleen de langdurige ISIS-controle over het gebied, maar ook van de blijvende impact op het burgerleven van de Nederlandse luchtaanval vijf jaar geleden.

Voor hun recentelijk gepubliceerde gezamenlijke rapport Seeing through the rubble: The civilian impact of the use of explosive weapons in the fight against ISIS, interviewden Airwars en PAX de burgemeester van Hawija Subhan Al Jabouri over de directe en indirecte aanhoudende gevolgen van de aanval.

De vragen zijn op 28 september 2020 via e-mail beantwoord. Het eerste deel van de vragen gaat over de directe gevolgen van de Nederlandse luchtaanval. Het tweede deel focust op de indirecte gevolgen. In het derde deel is de burgemeester gevraagd naar de impact die de Nederlandse luchtaanval vandaag de dag nog altijd heeft op het leven van burgers in Hawija. In het vierde deel gaat de burgemeester in op de algehele schade die de ISIS-bezetting en anti-ISIS Coalitie hebben achtergelaten in zijn stad.

Deel I: Directe gevolgen  1. Wat is uw huidige inschatting van het aantal burgerdoden en gewonden door de Nederlandse luchtaanval op Hawija in de macht van 2 op 3 juni? 

Volgens de eerste rapportages zijn er meer dan 70 burgers gedood, en meer dan 500 gewond geraakt. 

2. Kunt u de schade aan civiele objecten omschrijven; zoals schade aan huizen, wegen, medische voorzieningen, winkels, scholen, kinderopvang, apotheken, fabrieken, enzovoorts? Is er een lijst van beschadigde objecten?

Er zijn behalve zware beschadigingen aan civiele objecten zoals fabrieken, werkplaatsen, winkels en huizen in de directe omgeving van de explosie ook een elektriciteitscentrale, een Civil Defense Center en een molen vernietigd. 

3. Hoeveel scholen zijn beschadigd geraakt, en zijn deze inmiddels weer operationeel?

Er zijn in totaal 37 scholen beschadigd waarvan vier scholen volledig zijn gesloten; deze zijn nog niet opnieuw opgebouwd. 

4. Hoeveel apotheken zijn beschadigd, en zijn deze weer open?

Geen antwoord.

5. Klopt het dat er ook een ijs- en een baksteenfabriek zijn beschadigd, en zijn deze weer operationeel inmiddels? 

Ja, het is bevestigd dat er meer dan een ijsproductiefabriek en steenfabrieken zijn verwoest door de luchtaanval. De fabrieken zijn nog niet volledig heropend, of de eigenaren zijn nog niet teruggekeerd.

6. Klopt het dat het (oppervlakte water) riool is beschadigd; is dit inmiddels weer gerepareerd? 

Geen antwoord.

7. Is er een schatting van de totale schade van gebouwen die beschadigd of vernietigd zijn door de Nederlandse luchtaanval?

Volgens het eerste onderzoek naar de reikwijdte van de schade, en de doorsnee van het gebied dat door de drukgolf van de explosie is geraakt, heeft de vernietiging een diameter van meer dan 2 kilometer, waarbij 500 gebouwen voor een groot deel werden verwoest. 

8. Kunt u de schade aan infrastructuur zoals elektriciteitsvoorzieningen, gasleidingen, waterleidingen, communicatie infrastructuur etcetera beschrijven?

De infrastructuur van zowel het explosiegebied als de omliggende buurten is beschadigd, wat heeft geleid tot gebrek aan veel diensten die deze faciliteiten leverden, zoals een elektriciteitscentrale, communicatielijnen en waterbuizen. 

Deel II: Indirecte gevolgen 

9. Wat is de impact van deze schade aan civiele objecten en infrastructuur ten gevolge van de Nederlandse luchtaanval geweest, zoals verminderde toegang tot water, elektriciteit, verwarming en andere essentiële diensten zoals water en sanitaire voorzieningen, gezondheidszorg, ontheemd raken, de impact op milieu en vuilnis- en puinverwerking? 

De grote schade aan de infrastructuur van de buurt en omliggende buurten, maar ook de schade aan de elektriciteitscentrale en Waterbuizen heeft ervoor gezorgd dat een groot aantal families uit de getroffen gebieden ontheemd is geraakt en heeft geleid tot een significant verminderde toegang tot basisvoorzieningen. 

10. Wat is volgens u de psychosociale impact op de lokale gemeenschap geweest?

De verschrikking van deze aanval heeft een heftige psychologische impact op de zielen van de slachtoffers achtergelaten, aangezien het in tientallen families tot de dood heeft geleid, en honderden gevallen tot verwondingen. Sommige families zijn volledig weggevaagd, andere families verloren minsten drie of vier gezinsleden. De afwezigheid van directe medische zorg en het onvermogen van mensen om hun families te helpen en hen te zien sterven onder het puin veroorzaakten een enorme schok bij inwoners. Tel daarbij op het verlies van hun huizen, bezittingen, inkomstenbronnen en het verworden tot vluchteling. 

11. Er leven naar verluidt onder de mensen in Hawija zorgen over mogelijke radiologische en andere giftige effecten van zowel deze Nederlandse aanval, als ook de bredere militaire campagne om ISIS te verjagen. Kunt u ons over deze zorgen vertellen? 

Ondanks de bevrijding van het gebied en de terugkomst en pogingen van inwoners ten spijt, zijn het bedrijventerrein en de omliggende woonwijken nog niet opnieuw opgebouwd. Er zijn nog steeds zorgen onder de inwoners over stralingseffecten en verontreinigde materialen ten gevolge van de enorme explosie, aangezien sommigen zeggen dat er ook radioactieve materialen in de wijk aanwezig zouden zijn geweest. 

Deel III: Langdurige gevolgen

12. Hoe gaat het met de overlevenden van de Nederlandse luchtaanval?

De organisatie al-Ghad registreert samen met de lokale autoriteiten op vrijwillige basis de ontheemden (Internal Displaced People) en diegenen die schade hebben geleden door de aanval. De tot nu toe verzamelde informatie laat zien dat het ene gedeelte van de ontheemden in Kirkuk en de Salah al-Din provincie leeft, en het andere gedeelte in Hawija, aangezien hun huizen vernietigd zijn, hun bronnen van inkomsten en de fabrieken zijn weggevallen, en het aan basisvoorzieningen ontbreekt in het gebied.

13. Kunt u bevestigen dat als gevolg van de Nederlandse aanval rond de 2000 mensen psychosociale problemen ondervinden? 

Ja en mogelijk nog meer, gezien de neveneffecten van de aanval. 

14. Worden er psychologische en fysieke revalideringstrajecten aangeboden? 

Er zijn geen rehabilitatieprogramma’s of speciale psychologische hulpprogramma’s, specifiek voor de groep ontheemden van de Nederlandse aanval, maar mogelijk doen ze mee in de bredere programma’s die worden aangeboden in het gebied Hawija of aan ontheemden. 

15. Zijn de slachtoffers op welke wijze dan ook gecompenseerd? Kan de burgemeester bevestigen dat er maar een familie is die tot nu toe compensatie heeft ontvangen?

Er is geen compensatie geweest voor ontheemden. 

De ravage na de Nederlandse aanval op Hawija in juni 2015 (via Iraqi Revolution).

16. Zijn de huizen inmiddels weer opgebouwd? Zo ja, hoeveel? Klopt het dat rond de 50 tot 60 procent is herbouwd?

De huizen zijn niet volledig gerestaureerd, en niet meer dan 40 procent van de huizen zijn gerepareerd. Teruggekeerde families wonen in de door de luchtaanval beschadigde huizen omdat ze niet in staat zijn hun huis te repareren. Het is moeilijk het percentage precies te bevestigen, omdat er veel gebouwen volledig zijn verwoest en de eigenaren van deze gebouwen niet zijn teruggekeerd. 

17. Zijn de mensen inmiddels weer teruggekeerd, of zijn ze nog op de vlucht, en wat zijn hun leefomstandigheden? Hoeveel mensen uit Hawija zijn nog steeds dakloos door de door de Nederlandse aanval veroorzaakte schade? 

De leefomstandigheden zijn slecht vanwege het gebrek aan basisvoorzieningen, inkomstenbronnen en verwoeste huizen. Het is lastig een percentage te geven van hoeveel mensen zijn teruggekeerd, omdat sommige vluchtelingen van elders in het gebied zijn gaan wonen. En nog steeds zijn velen van hen ontheemd of hebben zich gevestigd in andere gebieden zoals Kirkuk en Salah al-Din.

18. Is de infrastructuur en zijn fabrieken/winkels/andere faciliteiten inmiddels gerepareerd? Wat is er wel en niet heropgebouwd tot nu toe?

De lokale overheid heeft plannen gelanceerd om de infrastructuur te repareren, maar ze heeft die niet volledig uitgevoerd en het gebied gaat nog steeds gebukt onder een gebrek aan voorzieningen. Sommige fabrieken zijn herbouwd, zoals de tarwemolen, en een paar werkplaatsen en winkels, maar nog steeds is een aantal fabrieken verwoest, net als veel autoshowrooms, werkplaatsen en scholen. 

19. Hebben mensen weer stromend water en elektra? (En hadden ze dit voor de aanval?)

Een aantal transportleidingen en waterbuizen gerepareerd, maar de centrale die verwoest werd door het bombardement is tot nu toe nog niet operationeel. 

20. Zijn er wegen hersteld, en zo ja hoeveel?

Ja, alleen de hoofdweg in het gebied is gerepareerd. 

21. Is het puin geruimd? Hoeveel?

Een deel van het puin is geruimd, maar het grootste gedeelte ligt nog in het gebied. 

22. Is het veilig om weer in de getroffen wijken te wonen? Of liggen er nog explosieve oorlogsresten?

Ja het is veilig, en Al-Ghad Organisation for Women and Children’s Care geeft momenteel voorlichting over de gevaren van oorlogsresten in Hawija. 

23. Hebben mensen weer toegang tot dezelfde voorzieningen als voor de aanval, zoals medische faciliteiten, winkels, kinderopvang, apotheken, etcetera?

Ja, sommigen zijn weer geopend met basale individuele inspanningen.

24. Kunt u bevestigen dat veel mensen als gevolg van deze aanval hun baan hebben verloren, omdat winkels, werkplaatsen en fabrieken zijn gesloten en niet meer open zijn gegaan, en het gebied nog steeds niet herbouwd is en gebrek heeft aan elektriciteit?

Honderden inwoners van Hawija hebben hun banen en hun bron van inkomsten verloren door de verwoesting van de werkplaatsen, autoshowrooms en fabrieken, en ook is de basale infrastructuur van het gebied verwoest. Sommige mensen hebben opnieuw een paar werkplaatsen en winkels geopend, en ook de meelfabriek is herbouwd, maar het gebrek aan voorzieningen hindert de volledige terugkeer van het economische en stadse leven. 

Deel IV: Algemene schade ISIS-bezetting en anti-ISIS Coalitie

25. Een van onze bronnen meldt dat een van de twee waterzuiveringsinstallaties in de stad is beschadigd in een andere luchtaanval, terwijl een andere bron zegt dat niet de waterzuiveringsinstallatie zelf geraakt is, maar de elektriciteitscentrale die de zuiveringsinstallatie normaal voorzag van elektriciteit, en dat deze daarom niet werkt. Was de waterzuiveringsinstallatie zelf beschadigd of de elektriciteitscentrale? 

Zowel de transportleidingen, het elektriciteit netwerk als de elektriciteitscentrale zijn beschadigd. 

26. Diezelfde bron rapporteert ook dat er op dit moment maar een waterzuiveringsinstallatie werkt, die afhankelijk is van het openbare elektriciteitsnetwerk. Maar omdat het elektriciteitsnetwerk niet betrouwbaar is, is de watervoorziening beperkt en dus niet genoeg voor de behoefte van de lokale bevolking. Is dit inderdaad het geval?

Ja, dit is correct en is nog steeds het geval. 

27. Een rapport uit 2018 meldt dat twee van de drie gezondheidscentra in Hawija beschadigd waren door de gevechten, en dat er op dat moment slechts een operationeel was – dit had als gevolg dat mensen naar Kirkuk moesten reizen voor meer specialistische zorg. Een lokale bron meldt echter dat er “geen gezondheidscentrum is beschadigd, maar dat er alleen kleine schade aan het “Directorate of Health”-gebouw was (inmiddels gerepareerd), dat het algemeen ziekenhuis in Hawijah weer open is, maar dat er wel enorme gaten zijn gevallen in de sanitaire voorzieningen in het ziekenhuis.” 

Kunt u bevestigen of er inderdaad twee van de drie gezondheidscentra zijn beschadigd, en zo ja, of deze inmiddels zijn hersteld? 

Het “Health Directorate” gebouw, ook bekend als de “tweede gezondheidssector”, is inderdaad beschadigd geweest.

28. Klopt het dat er geen revalidatie en psychosociale ondersteuning is voor de slachtoffers nu in Hawija?

Er zijn wel humanitaire organisaties die psychologische hulpprogramma’s bieden in Hawija, maar niet specifiek voor de overlevenden en ontheemden van deze aanval. 

▲ Damage in the industrial area of Hawijah, years after the attack in June 2015 (image via NOS).

Published

October 25, 2020

Written by

Airwars Staff

Examining the civilian impact of the use of explosive weapons in the fight against ISIS

Airwars and PAX have published a new joint report, Seeing Through The Rubble, examining the dire and long-lasting effects of explosive weapons on civilian populations in urban areas in recent international military campaigns in Mosul, Raqqa and Hawijah. The report calls upon States to develop and support an international political declaration to better protect civilians against the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

The report was launched at a virtual event on October 26th. Ambassador Michael Gaffey of Ireland, which is spearheading efforts to create an international consensus on limiting the use of explosive weapons in cities, told participants: “We would not have reached the point of acceptance for the need for a political declaration [on explosive weapons] if it was not because of the work of civil society organisations. Their research and advocacy are vital to the process.”

The new report concludes that ‘precision’ when using explosive weapons in urban areas is not the key determinant of civilian harm. “Rather”, write the authors, “it is the wide area effect of an explosive weapon in relation to the proximity of civilians in populated areas.”

The PAX and Airwars report furthermore concludes that the cases of Mosul, Raqqah and Hawijah show that States acting in accordance with International Humanitarian Law is not enough in itself to prevent immense civilian harm and civilian suffering when explosive weapons are deployed in populated areas.

Co-author of the report Roos Boer, programme leader of the Humanitarian Disarmament programme at Dutch peace organisation PAX, states: “Large aircraft bombs and heavy artillery are intended for open battlefields. When bombing and shelling take place in towns and cities, civilians are killed and suffer life-changing injuries, and vital infrastructure like hospitals and schools are destroyed. We need to see states agree to stronger rules that will stop these urban attacks.”

Explosive weapons in populated areas

According to data monitoring by Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), 92 per cent of the 19,401 civilian deaths and injuries tracked by the organisation from the worldwide use of explosive weapons in 2019 occurred in urban areas. Furthermore, AOAV concludes that when explosive weapons, such as artillery, grenades, missiles, rockets and aircraft bombs, are used in towns and cities, nine out of ten casualties are civilians.

Explosive weapons are a major driver of forced displacement of civilians – not only because of fear of death and injury and the destruction of homes, but also because of their devastating impact on critical infrastructure services such as health care, education and water and sanitation services.

Cities in rubble

Two nations particularly affected by recent urban fighting are Iraq and Syria. While a variety of actors have caused major civilian harm and widespread destruction in both countries, the report focuses on military operations by the US-led International Coalition against ISIS. Using publicly available sources, the report analyses the short- and long-term effects of the use of explosive weapons in Mosul, Raqqa and Hawijah.

These cases illustrate that the effects of explosive weapons continue long after the bombs have exploded. In Mosul, the costs of the 2016-17 campaign to drive ISIS out of the city were high: at least 9,000 civilians were reportedly killed in the fighting. Around 700,000 Moslawis were displaced; and city officials have stated that 80 per cent of the inner city’s buildings were destroyed.

In June 2019, the UN International Organisation for Migration (IOM) reported that entire neighbourhoods of Mosul had yet to be rebuilt and that a lack of essential services and poor sanitation were still threatening public health. Additionally, unexploded bombs, missiles, rockets and shells prevented civilians from returning to the city.

A federal Iraqi recovery team removes a body from the ruins of west Mosul, May 2018. (Image courtesy of Mosul Eye).

New details on Hawijah disaster

Seeing Through The Rubble also adds fresh information on the current situation in Hawijah. Six different sources, including Hawijah’s mayor, were interviewed for the report on the recent state of the city after a devastating 2015 Dutch airstrike on an ISIS IED factory, leading to the deaths of at least 70 civilians and hundreds more injured.

The report estimates that the secondary explosions triggered by the Dutch airstrike damaged between 400 and 500 buildings in the area, including many shops, homes and schools. Sources also reported that the airstrike caused major damage to crucial infrastructure, including roads and water pipelines.

According to the Mayor of Hawijah, Subhan Al Jabouri, less than 40 per cent of the buildings have been rebuilt and much rubble remains. The industrial area in Hawijah still suffers from a shortage of water and electricity.

Chris Woods, director of Airwars and a co-author of the report along with Laurie Treffers and Roos Boer, notes: “In highlighting the negative consequences for civilians of recent Western military interventions at Mosul, Hawijah and Raqqa, our new report demonstrates why militaries can’t rely simply upon compliance with the laws of war when trying to reduce civilian casualties during urban fighting. Large scale civilian harm during city battles is a terrible reality – and greater international safeguards are urgently needed.”

International political declaration 

Since 2019, Ireland has been leading a series of consultations in Geneva, aimed at drawing up an international political declaration to ban the use of explosive weapons in urban areas. The International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), a network of NGOs, urges states to take immediate action to prevent human suffering from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. “These case studies show once again the unacceptably high levels of civilian casualties and destruction as a result of bombing and shelling in cities and other populated areas,” says Laura Boillot, coordinator of INEW, responding to the new report.

“Every year we see tens of thousands of civilians killed and injured, that suffer psychological trauma, and are forced to flee for safety. Cities are being torn apart – housing, hospitals, schools and vital infrastructure is destroyed which has disastrous consequences for the survival and wellbeing of the people that live there”, continues Boillot.

“This pattern of civilian harm should not be considered an inevitable consequence of war. Using heavy explosive weapons such as heavy artillery, multi-barrel rocket launchers and large bombs and missiles in populated areas – even against military targets – is not acceptable and must stop.”

▲ An airstrike targets a civilian neighbourhood in Mosul in March 2017 operations to drive out so called Islamic State (Reuters/ Alaa Al-Marjani)

Published

October 2, 2020

Written by

Laurie Treffers

As Belgium's F-16s return to the skies of Iraq and Syria, significant accountability improvements for civilian harm are needed.

On October 1st, Belgium once again sent its F-16s to participate in Operation Inherent Resolve, fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Yet the Belgian, Iraqi and Syrian publics are still kept in the dark when it comes to civilian harm during previous deployments. The Belgian military to this day refuses to take responsibility for civilians its actions might have killed or injured.

Also this week, an open letter to defence minister Philippe Goffin from eleven civil society organisations including Airwars – calling for greater transparency and accountability for reported civilian harm – has been widely covered by the Belgian media.

Until the end of 2017, Belgium was one of the more active Coalition allies, alternating with the Dutch military. During some 991 declared missions, the Belgians fired nearly one thousand bombs and missiles. A total of 95 Belgian military personnel and a team of four Red Card Holders will now be deployed again until September 2021. According to the parliamentary resolution approving this latest weapon deployment, any possible action in Syria “covers only a buffer zone on the border with Iraq and is much more restricted than in 2017”. The stated aim of the mission is to protect troops on the ground, and to carry out planned or ad-hoc targeted attacks on ISIS.

In August, the Belgian news organisation HLN reported that the Belgian military had updated its weapons to ‘precision bombs’. F-16s will be armed with bombs of the type GBU-39/B Small Diameter Bomb. According to a Belgian military technician, the munition was chosen because of its “surgical precision”.

According to Alma Al Osta, Arms Advocacy Manager with Humanity And Inclusion, this change of munition is not enough: “There is much more to protecting civilians than just choosing a precise weapon. Belgium has indeed chosen GBU-39/B bombs, which are known for their precision, but these bombs weigh around 115kg and are capable of penetrating one meter of steel-reinforced concrete. If this weapon is used on open battlefields without the presence of civilians, then the risk would be smaller. But wars nowadays are fought in towns and cities where people live, children go to school, and civilians gather on markets.”

Besides the direct impact of explosive weapons in urban areas, Al Osta is worried about their secondary effects: “We have no information on how Belgium will prevent civilian harm and mitigate the so-called domino effects of airstrikes, such as trauma, damage to civilian objects, displacement, lack of access to education, health care and agricultural land, contamination with unexploded ordnances, damage to the environment and further instability,” she notes.

The zero civilian casualty myth

In March 2020, Commander of the Belgian Air Component Frederik Vansina refused to answer any questions on Belgian involvement in specific civilian harm incidents and told De Morgen: “Countries within the Coalition show solidarity and neither confirm nor deny [involvement]. Let’s talk about how the Syrian regime and Russia operate there. That’s a different story. Just look at the images of Homs and Aleppo.”

Back in 2017, a senior Belgian official had told Airwars that the government was planning to admit two civilian harm incidents – one at Al Qaim on February 27th 2017 and the second incident on March 21st of that year in the vicinity of Mosul. According to the US-led Coalition itself, the strikes had killed at least two civilians and injured four others. However, the Belgian government then publicly failed to take responsibility for these incidents, and even asserted that its actions had killed zero civilians.

In March 2020, a joint investigation by Airwars, RTL Netherlands, BBC, De Morgen and Liberation revealed that Belgium consistently refuses to acknowledge civilian casualties from its actions, even where the US-led Coalition has conceded particular Belgian strikes to have killed and injured non combatants. In response to this investigation, the Belgian Ministry of Defence stated only that the Belgium Armed Forces (BAF) were “certainly not involved in all events.”

Previous comments by Colonel J. Poesen, head of operations at the Belgian Air Force, indicated that only incidents in which international humanitarian law was possibly violated were being investigated. However, the acknowledged civilian harm events recognised by the Coalition show that civilians are nevertheless killed in military actions, even where they might comply with international humanitarian law.

Lack of parliamentary overview

A major bottleneck to greater transparency and accountability for Belgian military actions abroad is a lack of effective parliamentary oversight. According to a 2018 report by Pax Christi Vlaanderen and Vredesactie, “there is no binding parliamentary approval for foreign missions, nor mandatory evaluations during and after the operation. Moreover, there is no formal and transparent framework under which the government periodically informs parliament about the specific objectives, content and consequences of military operations.”

In the special parliamentary commission Follow-up of Foreign Missions, established in the early 2000s, MPs are confidentially briefed about military interventions. Yf Reykers, Assistant Professor in International Relations at Maastricht University notes: “This commission is special in the sense that there are not many countries having such a commission in which high-level classified information is shared. However, that information cannot be used by MPs who are part of that commission because they are bound to strict confidentiality. They are also unable to verify this information independently with other sources.”

Belgium about to send four #F16s to #Iraq and #Syria as part of #InherentResolve.For the #warpowers community: parliamentary approval by a remarkable coalition of minority government parties with @de_NVA and far-right @vlbelang. https://t.co/lVAIsQFRzP via @demorgen

— Yf Reykers (@YfReykers) June 26, 2020

The Parliamentary resolution approving the upcoming weapon deployment does include several amendments that call on the government to improve its transparency and accountability practices. For example, Parliament requests the federal government “to communicate publicly, after investigation and taking into account military and security considerations, about possible civilian casualties as a result of Belgian military operations and to ensure active cooperation and exchange with external monitoring groups and human rights organizations.”

Reykers is generally positive about the amendments: “It is progress that Parliament is even considering transparency and accountability practices. That is really a change compared to a few years ago. We see that Belgium is learning from its neighbouring countries, such as the Netherlands, especially after the Hawijah scandal.”

However, Reykers also sees possibilities for the Government to manoeuvre itself through the amendments with minimum levels of transparency and accountability: “The question is if these amendments will bring about structural change. One of the things that is really needed is systematic evaluations [of civilian harm claims] before, during and after a mission, ideally publicly available.”

While the new parliamentary resolution urges the federal Government to improve its transparency and accountability during the upcoming deployment, it is yet to be seen whether Belgium will structurally change its practices – and whether the civilian victims of its previous airstrikes will receive answers.

    An opinion piece by Laurie Treffers for Airwars, related to Belgium’s recent redeployment to Iraq and Syria, was also published in the Belgian daily De Standaard on September 24th 2020.
▲ Library image: A pair of Belgian F-16s over the Baltic region in early 2020 (Picture via Belgian Defence)

Published

September 30, 2020

Written by

Airwars Syria team and Shihab Halep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Charles Lister (@Charles_Lister) February 13, 2016

The US-led Coalition and civilian harm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assad’s allies: Russia and Iran in Syria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unilateral interventions in Syria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The reverberating effects of foreign intervention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A price worth paying?

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

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

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

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

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

Published

September 30, 2020

Written by

Airwars Staff

Open letter from 11 Belgian and international organisations calls on the Defence Minister to increase transparency and accountability for civilian harm.

On October 1st 2020, Belgium will send four F-16s to Iraq and Northeast Syria for a period of 12 months, to once again participate in Operation Inherent Resolve – the international campaign against so-called Islamic State.

Yet Belgium has been one of the least transparent countries in the Coalition, refusing publicly to concede any civilian harm from its own actions and with no additional accountability mechanisms being put in place during the new deployment. despite the urgings of the Belgian parliament.. 

Airwars, together with our Belgian and international partners, is today publishing a joint open letter recently sent to Minister of Defence Philippe Goffin, which urges the Belgian government to take concrete steps to improve its transparency and accountability for civilian harm resulting from its own military actions. The full text is reprinted below. 

 

Dear Mr Goffin,

On October 1st, 2020, Belgium will send four F-16s to participate in Operation Inherent Resolve. As a collective of civil society organisations, we have concerns about the limited levels of transparency and accountability of this military deployment. Belgium’s past participation in Operation Inherent Resolve still remains highly secretive. As a result, Belgian members of Parliament cannot thoroughly exercise democratic oversight, while the Belgian, Syrian and Iraqi public are kept in the dark about possible cases of civilian harm as the result of previous Belgian airstrikes or other activities in support of airstrikes in the fight against the so-called Islamic State.

Previous comparative research by Airwars has highlighted that Belgium remains one of the least transparent countries in the US-led International Coalition. As a joint investigation by Airwars, BBC, De Morgen and Liberation revealed in March 2020, Belgium refuses to acknowledge civilian casualties from its actions, even where the US-led Coalition has conceded these same cases as credible. In response to this investigation, the Belgian Ministry of Defence stated only that the Belgium Armed Forces (BAF) were “certainly not involved in all events”, without providing any more details or proof for such a bold claim.

Belgium’s focus thus far in the debate on civilian harm and accountability has been on the legality of airstrikes. As long as the Belgian Ministry of Defence does not consider civilian harm incidents to have breached international humanitarian law, it refrains from engaging in exercises or lessons learnt, or in evaluations that are publicly available.

We believe that this position is not sustainable. As we have seen in the Netherlands, where media uncovered in October 2019 that the Netherlands had been responsible for a 2015 airstrike on Hawijah, Iraq, in which at least 70 civilians died, once the truth about civilian harm incidents inevitably comes to light, it can lead to major national blowback and severely harm the trust of both Parliament and the public in its government.

Call for greater transparency 

So far, the Belgium Ministry of Defence has given few signs that it is committed to improving its transparency and accountability practices during the coming deployment of four F-16s, even while there has been a clear message from Parliament that more transparency is required. We, therefore, urge the Ministry of Defence to fully comply with a parliamentary resolution of June 25th, 2020. Specifically, Amendment number 4, 6 and 17 of this motion request the federal government to do the following (unofficial translation):

4. To demonstrate militarily responsible maximum transparency vis-à-vis the Chamber of Representatives, with regard to the prevention, monitoring and reporting of possible civilian casualties as a result of our military efforts, in particular through strengthening parliamentary scrutiny of the actions of the national Red Card Holder.

6. To actively consult with the Dutch government in order to take note of all the lessons learned from the Hawija tragedy, to understand them and to subsequently report to the Chamber of Representatives on how these lessons will be used during the Belgian military deployment, in order to avoid civilian casualties as much as possible.

17. To communicate publicly, after investigation and taking into account military and security considerations, about possible civilian casualties as a result of Belgian military operations and to ensure active cooperation and exchange with external monitoring groups and human rights organizations (emphasis added).

Currently, consultative processes are ongoing [with militaries] in the United States, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands to improve transparency and accountability for civilian harm and to implement policies to better protect civilians in armed conflict. These processes are taking place in consultation with various civil society organisations, including academics and NGOs, such as Airwars, CIVIC, Amnesty International and local civil society organisations.

We believe that it is crucial that Belgium commits itself to improve its poor transparency and accountability track record. We hereby wish to inform you that we, as a collective of civil society organisations, stand ready to actively work together and share our expertise and knowledge with the Ministry of Defence in order to make concrete progress towards improved transparency and accountability of Belgium’s upcoming military deployment in Iraq and Syria.

Recommendations

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

    Publish the exact date and near location of all Belgian air raids carried out in the fight against ISIS; Publish the results of all investigations into civilian casualties – including the data, 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 control by independent parties; To 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; Adopt a political declaration on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas with a clear commitment to data collection and transparent reporting.

While the Belgian military has decided to use precise small diameter bombs during the coming deployment period, we believe that it is crucial to emphasise that protecting the lives of civilians and civilian infrastructure, in particular in urban areas, requires more than using precision weapons.

The undersigned organisations are preparing to publicly communicate on this matter and share a copy of this letter with the Belgian press by the end of September, as we believe this discussion concerns the Belgian public. We hope that you will respond positively to our call for cooperation and exchange on this important matter, and we are happy to enter into dialogue with the Ministry of Defence for further discussion of our recommendations.

Signed,

11.11.11

Agir pour la Paix

Airwars

Amnesty Belgium

CNAPD

GRIP

Humanity & Inclusion

Oxfam Belgium

Pax Christi Flanders

Vredesactie

Vrede vzw

▲ Library image: The F-16s of the Belgian military have been deployed to Iraq and Syria several times since 2014. Picture via Belgian Ministry of Defence.

Published

August 7, 2020

Written by

Mohammed al Jumaily

A protracted conflict against the terror group ISIS has left much of Iraq in ruins - though there are signs of rebirth.

On the fateful evening of August 7th 2014, then-US President Barack Obama gave a live address to the nation announcing the beginning of military actions in Iraq against so-called Islamic State (also known as ISIS and Daesh), ushering in a new era of US involvement. The following day, US Navy F-18 Hornet fighters launched the first airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq. Six years on, and 14,700 international air and artillery strikes later as well as thousands more by Iraq government forces, Iraqis are still reeling from the war against ISIS and its aftermath.

The conflict itself displaced over five million Iraqis and left schools, hospitals and other vital infrastructure in affected provinces across northern and central Iraq in utter ruin. While statistics on the number of civilians who perished overall during the war against ISIS varies, Iraq Body Count estimates that 67,376 civilians were killed between January 2014 and December 2017. According to the World Bank, the total cost of the conflict amounts to a staggering 124 trillion Iraqi Dinars ($107 billion), which is equivalent to 73% of the country’s entire GDP in 2013.

It is also estimated that 138,051 residential buildings and units were damaged, half of which were destroyed beyond repair in Iraq during the long war on ISIS. Meanwhile, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) has estimated that the conflict left 6.2 million people in need of targeted humanitarian assistance.

Beyond the cold statistics showing the impact of war on an already beleaguered country, personal testimonies of Iraqis themselves give a more visceral idea of life under ISIS, and the aftermath of the military campaign. They also speak to the ongoing challenges that Iraqis living in formerly ISIS-occupied areas continue to face six years on.

Life under ISIS

By the time the US began its military campaign in Iraq, so-called Islamic State had already seized significant territories in northern and western parts of the country including Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city – plunging the nation into its most serious crisis since the US-British invasion in 2003.

The announcement of a US air campaign came shortly after ISIS’s genocidal campaign on the Yazidi community in Sinjar and its surrounding areas in Nineveh province had begun – and almost two months after ISIS’s notorious massacre [Warning: GRAPHIC] of up to 1,700 unarmed Iraqi military cadets in Camp Speicher. The next three years would see the lives of millions of people change radically. The terror group’s occupation of these territories ravaged communities and decimated the social fabric of many of the cities under the group’s rule. Locals living in areas under ISIS occupation recount wanton acts of brutality by the group, in a bid to enforce their control and dominance.

Khalid al-Rawi, a musician and community activist in Mosul [see main picture], describes the state of fear instilled by the group during their occupation of Iraq’s second city. “I know many musicians who destroyed their instruments [out of fear of being caught] or would go far away in order to play a bit of music… If anyone played music openly, they could have been killed, but musicians wouldn’t have dared to do this”, Khalid recalled to Airwars this week. “People were killed for the smallest reasons by them [ISIS] – I was one of the people who if they caught me, I would have been killed instantly.”

Ziad Ghanim Sha’ban, a lawyer from Tikrit in Salahuddin province, paints a similar picture of violence and fear under ISIS, particularly when it came to religious and ethnic coexistence. “Iraqi society, as you know, is like a mosaic [of different ethnic and religious groups],” explains Ziad. “We have Kurds, we have Sunnis with Shia parents and Shias with Sunni parents, as well as Turkmen in our community – we are one country, but when ISIS came, this changed. They rejected and fought this vigorously, and killed anyone promoting this [coexistence] – this instilled great fear in society and many families were torn from the community.”

Ziad goes on to recall how some husbands and wives who had spouses from southern Iraq – where the population is predominantly Shia Muslim – divorced and ran away to avoid persecution by the group.

War on ISIS and the legacy of the International Coalition

Following a series of gains made by ISIS throughout 2014 that saw the terror group control up to a fifth of Iraq’s territory and 6.3 million people (19% of the population), the Iraqi Government, with the support of the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs) consisting of numerous armed groups, as well as international allies led by the United States, began pushing back against ISIS, slowly reclaiming territory until the group’s territorial defeat in December 2017.

The role played by the US-led Coalition was instrumental in eventually defeating ISIS. The US-led alliance has declared 14,771 air and artillery strikes in Iraq since its inception, providing air cover for Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and decimating ISIS positions in northern and western Iraq. Today the group exists only on the margins of Iraq, harried by ISF and Coalition attacks. However, the human and material cost of this campaign has been immense – and experienced almost exclusively by Iraqis themselves.

ISIS killed and injured many thousands of civilians during its occupation, and many more died in ISF actions. Using local sources, Airwars has also to date tracked 895 separate civilian harm allegations against the International Coalition in Iraq. According to local reports, between 9,801 and 14,037 civilians were claimed killed in these incidents and up to 12,248 others injured. The US-led alliance itself has so far publicly admitted 688 deaths from its actions in Iraq.

Beyond this, the military campaign has left vast swathes of the country in ruins, making it almost impossible for hundreds of thousands of civilians – still displaced by the conflict – to return to their homes.

Khalid recalls a number of instances where families were caught up in airstrikes targeting ISIS militants: “I have a friend whose family, including uncles and aunts, were living in the same house. From what was explained to me, there was one ISIS member on the roof of the house so an International Coalition missile struck the building, killing 13 or 14 members of that family.”

Ziad also recounts the tragic story of his younger brother, who was killed by what he says was an International Coalition airstrike in Tikrit. “I have my brother, a child, named Muhanad aged only 11 years old, who was injured in an airstrike and died immediately and we have still, to this day, not received any compensation or acknowledgement from the Coalition.”

In almost all cases, those interviewed say that very few, if anyone, receives any form of acknowledgement or compensation from the Iraqi Government or from the International Coalition. “The reality is that as a lawyer, as part of a team of lawyers, we submitted more than a hundred complaints against Coalition forces, calling for compensation…In the end we didn’t even receive 5% of the compensation we were entitled to,” Ziad told Airwars.

Reconstruction and Reconciliation

Six years on from the beginning of the International Coalition’s own campaign against ISIS, the societal impact of the group’s occupation and the conflict that ensued has been transformative, and will likely remain with Iraqis for decades. In many parts of the country that were under ISIS rule, communities remain divided, and little effort has been made by central and local governments to bring people together. In the absence of government action, locals have taken it upon themselves to repair the social fabric of their communities, in the days following liberation from ISIS.

Khalid al-Rawi points out that despite the immense challenges faced by the people of Mosul and the difficulties of the last few years, the re-emergence of a vibrant civil society in the city has been an unexpected yet significant silver lining in the post-ISIS years. “A number of initiatives have emerged aimed at promoting reconciliation, which I myself have taken part in. For example, we went to Hamdaniya, [a predominantly Assyrian district, with a significant Christian population] and cleaned and helped rebuild churches; and a number of young people helped clean another church in Mosul.”

He also says that the city’s experience under ISIS rule has changed many people’s attitudes about music and the arts, which were previously, perhaps, looked down upon by many in more conservative parts of the city.

“There is a positive I see [from this experience], a new page has been turned for the youth of this community – a revolution has occurred….from an artistic perspective, before people [used to say to me] music is wrong and haram and if you learn music it means you work in a bar. Now that is not the case, there has been a lot more acceptance after liberation from ISIS.”

Music is back to Mosul.Mosul produced music for centuries and now it is all over the place again.Let's play music… #Mosul2019 #ReviveThespiritOfMosul pic.twitter.com/dTqIrTuDlq

— Mosul Eye عين الموصل (@MosulEye) October 24, 2019

However, Ziad paints a bleaker image of the societal impact of ISIS rule and the subsequent fighting that emerged. In contrast to Mosul’s civic revival, many in Tikrit are afraid to engage in civic activities, he says. “Since the violence we saw in Hawijah and Tikrit in 2013 against protesters and by ISIS during their rule, activists have not emerged in our areas because they saw the executions that would take place if they did come out… Even when protests emerged in Baghdad and the south [in 2019 and 2020], there were no protests in Salahuddin, Anbar, Hawijah and Mosul because [people] knew they could be killed,” explains Ziad.

In terms of reconstruction, efforts by the Government have often seemed futile, with progress slow and, in many cases, non-existent. Despite liberation from ISIS, residents of Anbar, Salahuddin and Nineveh provinces face an uphill task in rebuilding their cities and communities, made even more difficult by government incompetence and widespread corruption.

Abdulrahman Mohammad, a businessman and community leader in Fallujah, who fled his hometown after the arrival of ISIS back in 2014, explains that upon returning to his city after three years, he found a city in ruins and a devastated local economy. “When we came back after ISIS, everything we had was lost. Our factories were destroyed. In the end, the economy of the province [of Anbar] had halted,” explains Abdulrahman. “Work is not given to anyone except to a specific group [of people] through patronage networks,” he elaborates.

“Anbar had 30 very large cement factories, each employing 500 people. To this day, these factories remain damaged and unusable,” laments Abdulrahman, adding that “Efforts to create jobs by the government are non-existent. None.”

The situation in other towns such as Sinjar in Nineveh, and Baiji in Salahuddin, is even more dire. According to the World Bank, 70% of housing assets in Sinjar were damaged, while in Baiji, 94% of residential buildings were damaged.

As Iraq now enters its seventh year following the beginning of the war against ISIS, many Iraqis have little faith in government efforts to rebuild their cities, and are instead forced to put up with the devastation wrought upon them by ISIS and years of war. While the post-ISIS period has brought security to the liberated provinces of Iraq – and has also created a space for local civil activism to flourish in certain areas – many know that there is still a long way to go before the majority can truly taste the fruits of liberation from ISIS.

▲ Musician Khalid Al-Rawi trained with his friends on the Oud secretly under ISIS. Once the city was liberated, he took to Mosul's streets spreading music and arts. This photo was taken near the central library of Mosul University during Mosul Eye's Save The Book campaign in August 2017.  Published with kind permission of Ali Y. Al-Baroodi

Published

July 9, 2020

Written by

Airwars Staff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The second drone age’

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

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

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

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

— Agnes Callamard (@AgnesCallamard) July 8, 2020

 

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

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

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

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

Civilian harm concerns

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

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

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

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

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

Published

July 7, 2020

Written by

Laurie Treffers

Header Image

Archive image of munitions being loaded onto a Dutch F-16, during the war against ISIS (via Defensie).

Ministry of Defence says it is revising current civilian harm reporting procedures

The Dutch Minister of Defence, Ank Bijleveld, has reported to Parliament on the latest progress made by the Government in improving transparency regarding civilian harm as a result of Dutch military actions. Coupled with other steps taken in the months after the Hawijah scandal, the Netherlands appears slowly to be shedding its reputation as one of the least transparent members of the international Coalition fighting so-called Islamic State.

In her June 29th letter to Parliament, the Minister laid out a number of changes which she claimed would improve both transparency and accountability. The letter followed on from a fourth parliamentary debate on May 14th on the Hawijah case. Back in October 2019, it was revealed that the Dutch military had been responsible for a 2015 airstrike in Iraq, which had led to the deaths of an estimated 70 civilians. The Government had then withheld that fact from the public for more than four years.

An important topic during the fourth debate was the April 21st release of key US military documents on the Hawijah incident. The US Department of Defense had provided those previously classified documents to Dutch media, after a judicial procedure following an unanswered Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

Four months earlier, Minister Bijleveld had filed a request with her US counterpart Defense Secretary Mark Esper publicly to share the documents, including the American DoD’s own investigation into Hawijah. She received a negative response to that request on February 28th. However, MPs say they found it difficult to understand why the Minister was not given permission to share the documents, when they were publicly released to the press just two months later.

The contents of those documents revealed that US officials had been aware that an airstrike on the targeted ISIS IED factory in Hawijah could possibly present a significant risk to civilians. CIA informants had, for example, warned the Coalition about civilians living in the area. Furthermore, while Minister Bijleveld has continuously stated that all procedures leading up to the Hawijah strike were followed correctly, the US investigation revealed that Coalition target development processes had been amended after the deadly event, as they had proved to be insufficient. This was not reported to Parliament by Dutch defence officials.

Excerpt of the key US documents released to Dutch media in April 2020. LTG Sean MacFarland approved the recommendation to adjust the Coalition’s targeting development processes.

It was in this context that the Minister, once again, recently had to explain herself in front of a clearly frustrated Parliament. During the May 14th debate, Bijleveld said she shared the frustration of MPs regarding what was characterised as poor communication from the Americans and the Coalition.

In her letter of June 29th to MPs, the Minister wrote that she had met with her US counterpart Mark Esper earlier that day and that he had, in her words, “deplored the course of events, endorsed the importance of transparency and indicated that his department had done everything possible to provide the correct information.”

Red Card Holder

One major criticism of Hawijah was that the Dutch ‘red card holder’ had agreed on the strike taking place – despite the known risk to civilians in the area. The Red Card Holder  (RCH) was the Dutch representative in the Combined Air Operations Center in Qatar, with the option of vetoing actions which fell outside Dutch rules of engagement. According to Bijleveld, as of July 1st, the instructions for the Dutch Red Card Holder have been updated in line with a successful parliamentary motion. From now on, she noted, the red card holder must proactively request important information related to future airstrikes the Dutch military may carry out. In the case of Hawijah, the Dutch RCH was, for example, unaware that the Americans had intelligence suggesting that a possible airstrike posed a risk to civilians.

The Minister’s latest letter also states that the MoD expects to complete its updating of internal reporting procedure on civilian harm in the second half of 2020. The process of informing the Public Prosecutor’s Office (OM) has already been updated: from now on, the OM will be informed as soon as the MoD starts an investigation into any civilian harm allegation. In the case of Hawijah, it took Defensie nine months to inform the OM.

On June 23rd, the minister additionally proposed a new procedure to inform Parliament of any investigations into civilian harm during future Dutch missions. Whereas the initial plan was to inform Parliament confidentially, the Minister now suggests that due to “the importance the parliament attaches to public transparency”, the default will instead be for the defence ministry to publicly inform parliament of such cases, unless this “is impossible, according to the Minister.”

According to Lauren Gould, Assistant Professor in Conflict Studies at Utrecht University and project leader of the Intimacies of Remote Warfare project, the Minister’s proposal contains several loopholes: “This is history just repeating itself: the Minister uses the catchphrase ‘national, operational and personnel security’ and is exempt from being transparent or being held to account for a lack of transparency. It should be clearly defined when the parliament finds it acceptable that a minister does not inform the broader public. The minister will have to prove that these exceptional circumstances are at play.”

Gould continued: “Furthermore, the question remains: what information will Defensie share with parliament? They’ve stated multiple times that as a small country, the Netherlands is unequipped to independently investigate the nature of targets or the civilian casualties that occur. There’s nothing in the procedure about how they will tackle one of the main problems in the Hawijah case: that crucial information collected by the US about Dutch military actions was withheld from the Dutch parliament and public.”

The aftermath of the Dutch strike on Hawijah in 2015 which killed an estimated 70 civilians (via Iraqi Revolution).

Victim compensation

In her June 29th letter to Parliament, the minister also noted that on June 10th, Defensie personnel had spoken with Basim Razzo, a survivor of another 2015 Dutch airstrike, which had killed four relatives when Mr Razzo’s Mosul home was bombed by a Dutch F-16 as a result of an intelligence error. Mr Razzo himself was severely injured. According to Minister Bijleveld, discussions are continuing with Mr Razzo’s counsel, human rights lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld.

Earlier, the Minister had promised to explore possibilities to voluntarily aid local projects for the devastated community in Hawijah. There have, it’s now emerged, been talks between the Dutch embassy and local authorities on the matter. The Minister writes that Defensie has identified several local organisations operating in Hawijah; and that these have been asked what their community needs. Bijleveld says she hopes to inform Parliament of developments after the summer recess.

“To prevent this information from reaching Parliament in another manner”, the Minister also note that local authorities in Hawijah have expressed concerns about possible undefined radiation after the Dutch airstrike in June 2015. According to Bijleveld however, the munitions used in the attack were not capable of producing radiation. Both the MoD and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs say they will explore whether the concerns of Hawijans can be verified in another manner.

The Minister also reports on a lawsuit filed by human rights lawyer Zegveld in the name of Hawijah’s victims. According to Bijleveld, the Dutch Cabinet has sent a note of sympathy to the victims and their relatives, but claimed that an offer to begin a conversation was rejected.

Explaining that rejection, lawyer Zegveld told Airwars: “[The Minister] wanted to have a one on one conversation ‘human being to human being’ with the Hawijah victim living in the Netherlands. He was expected to come alone, without me or anyone else. We did not agree to that. It’s not about the person Bijleveld, but about her responsibility as a Minister.”

Republishing data

Along with the Minister’s latest June 29th letter to Parliament, the MoD has now also published its weekly reports of all anti-ISIS airstrikes in Iraq and Syria between 2014 and 2018 as open data, after recent requests from Airwars and the Open State Foundation.

“While Airwars welcomes this next step towards a more transparent Defensie, the content of the data is still below standard,” says Airwars deputy director Dmytro Chupryna. “Other Coalition allies such as the UK already report the specific date, targets and near locations of their airstrikes. For Defensie to become more transparent, improving their reporting on airstrikes really is one of the first steps to take.”

▲ Archive image of munitions being loaded onto a Dutch F-16, during the war against ISIS (via Defensie).