Turkish Military in Iraq & Syria

An internally displaced Kurdish family in northern Iraq, 2016 (Maranie R. Staab)

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Published

September 30, 2020

Written by

Airwars Syria team and Shihab Halep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Charles Lister (@Charles_Lister) February 13, 2016

The US-led Coalition and civilian harm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assad’s allies: Russia and Iran in Syria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unilateral interventions in Syria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The reverberating effects of foreign intervention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A price worth paying?

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

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

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

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

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

Published

July 9, 2020

Written by

Airwars Staff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The second drone age’

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

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

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

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

— Agnes Callamard (@AgnesCallamard) July 8, 2020

 

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

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

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

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

Civilian harm concerns

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

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

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

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

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

Published

June 22, 2020

Written by

Laurie Treffers, Mohammed al Jumaily and Oliver Imhof

Foreign power involvement risks linking Syria and Libya wars, experts warn.

Civilians are continuing to benefit from a months-long ceasefire in northern Syria, which has seen casualty numbers sharply fall to levels last seen in the early months of the civil war. Experts remain divided however, on how long this pause in fighting will last – and what it means for Syria and its divided people.

April and May 2020 marked the first complete months since the beginning of the Russian campaign in Syria in September 2015, in which Airwars did not monitor any civilian casualty allegations against Moscow. A ceasefire beginning in early March – and international pressure in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis – brought an end to months of violent air raids on Idlib governorate, which had killed up to 556 civilians.

On March 5th, 2020, Russia and Turkey reached agreement on a ceasefire in Idlib governorate, after recent escalations had led to the deaths of 36 Turkish soldiers. Terms included the provision of a 12 kilometre long safety corridor alongside the M4 highway, which connects Aleppo with Latakia; and joint patrols by Russian and Turkish forces.

“The reason why Russia signed the ceasefire is because it got what it wanted. Their endgame has always been to secure the integrity of the Syrian regime,” argues Alexey Khlebnikov, a Middle East expert and Russian foreign policy analyst with the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC). “The priority in Idlib was never to take it over in its entirety. The campaign was not targeted at getting every centimetre. There were and there are two major goals: securing the M5, which connects Aleppo and Damascus, and the M4 highway, connecting Aleppo with Latakia.”

According to some experts, Turkey did less well out of that agreement. Gerhard Mangott, a professor at the University of Innsbruck specialising in international relations and security in the post-Soviet region, notes: “The ceasefire is a compromise between Russian and Turkish interests, with poor results for Turkey and good results for Russia. Turkey had set an ultimatum to the Syrian government to withdraw to the front line of April 2019, when Syrian and allied forces started their offensive in Idlib. Due to Russian pressure, Turkey had to accept the actual front line.”

Idlib offensive: at least 423 civilian deaths

As the last remaining opposition stronghold, north west Syria was targeted heavily during a three-month campaign by the Assad regime and Russia as they sought to gain control of the region. Russian-backed pro-government forces (made up of Syrian Government forces, Hezbollah, and allied armed groups) attempted to push into both Idlib and Aleppo Governorates, and defeat remaining anti-government rebels.

The beginning of the offensive saw pro-government forces make quick advances against rebel troops. By the end of December 2019, the Assad government had captured large parts of the Ma’arat Al Nu’man countryside including Jarjnaz, the largest town in the area; and had completely encircled the main Turkish observation point in Sarman.

Then, following a short-lived ceasefire between January 9th and 15th, the Syrian Government made some of its most significant advances in Idlib since the civil war began in 2011. By January 28th, pro-government forces had managed to capture Ma’arat Al Nu’man, a city of major strategic and symbolic importance due to its position on the Aleppo-Damascus Highway, which serves as one of the country’s main economic arteries to areas under government control in northwestern Syria.

Just eight days later, the town of Saraqib – another locale which had served as a bastion against the Assad Government for many years – was captured. The following weeks saw more government advances including the full capture of the province of Aleppo for the first time since the outbreak of the civil war.

Russian airpower has been crucial to each pro-government advance. However, these military victories came at a catastrophic cost to civilians, in both Idlib and Aleppo. Heavily populated urban areas were pummelled before each incursion, with almost no respite for residents.

During the three months of the campaign, Russia was allegedly involved in 250 separate civilian harm incidents – averaging more than three events every day. These airstrikes led to between 423 and 556 civilian deaths and the injuring of up to 1,137 more, Airwars monitoring of local sources indicates. At least 128 children were killed during the campaign – more than a quarter of all tracked fatalities – showing that the most vulnerable often bore the brunt of a ruthless air campaign.

Additionally, crucial civilian infrastructure was hit numerous times. Schools were targeted on at least 15 occasions, while hospitals and medical centres were struck at least nine times. This targeting of civilian infrastructure by Assad and Russia was not new. According to the World Health Organisation, there have been 83 attacks on healthcare facilities in Syria since April 2019.

The Idlib campaign triggered a widespread displacement crisis in northern Syria. By the end of the assault, at least 980,000 people, most of them women and children, were forced to flee the violence. According to Mark Lowcock, UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, these displaced people were struggling to survive in what he described as “horrific conditions”.

Tank rolling through ruins in Maarat Numan (via Oleg Blokhin).

Impact of Covid-19

The fighting in Idlib eventually stopped after Turkey escalated its own operations against pro-Assad government forces, following a devastating airstrike on a Turkish infantry battalion on the road between al-Bara and Balyun, which had left 32 Turkish soldiers dead and many others wounded.

Following this event, Ankara took the bold decision to intervene directly on the side of the rebels. The ferociousness of Turkey’s intervention was unprecedented, with Turkish forces launching a barrage of attacks on pro-regime positions, destroying dozens of military vehicles, equipment and several Russian-made air defence systems. These attacks devastated the Syrian Government, with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reporting that 170 pro-regime forces died. Turkish defence minister Hulusi Akar put the toll far higher – claiming that Turkish forces had destroyed two Syrian Su-24 fighter jets, two drones, 135 tanks, and five air defence systems; and had “neutralised” more than 2,500 fighters loyal to the Syrian government.

The risk of being embroiled in an all-out confrontation with Turkey forced the hands of both the Syrian and Russian governments, and prompted a formal ceasefire agreement between Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Vladmir Putin of Russia. While the eventual ceasefire provided a much-needed respite for civilians in northwestern Syria, millions continued to suffer from the after-effects of the brutal campaign. And with the COVID-19 pandemic showing no signs of abating in the region, refugees from the violence in Syria, clustered into overcrowded camps, may remain most at risk of suffering from the virus.

Khlebnikov at RIAC says he does not, however, think the Covid-19 crisis was the main driver of the ceasefire: “I wouldn’t say it is a game-changer or a strong factor in this ceasefire. The Ukraine crisis did not impact Russia’s foreign policy, even though the economy was under great distress. So why would Covid-19? It might affect the intensity of the conflict in the long run, and it slows things down because diplomats and leaders are unable to meet in person.”

Elizabeth Tsurkov, a research fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a Syria expert, agrees: “I don’t think the Covid-19 crisis impacted the calculations of the warring parties in this conflict.”

That the ceasefire has lasted following the Covid-19 outbreak might seem paradoxical, given that both Russia and Turkey recently increased their involvement in Libya. However, those contributions are relatively small for now, compared to Syria. That said, the conflict in Libya has become both interlinked with Syria – with Russia and Turkey again on opposite sides – and also a continuation of the civil war on different soil, as Syrian mercenaries recruited by both Turkey and Russia now fight each other in the Maghreb. Talks between Moscow and Ankara to explore a deal that might see the fates of Syria and Libya connected have been put off for now.

Disinfectant teams battling Covid-19 working in Northern and Eastern Syria (via Rojava Information Center).

“Costs of violating the ceasefire are much higher now”

Previous Syria ceasefires have been fairly short-lived. So why is the Idlib pause still holding more than three months on? “The situation on the ground is different from two years ago. Idlib is now the only lasting stronghold of opposition armed groups and terrorists. And a ceasefire during a civil war, it is not a literal thing. There are certain violations,” asserts Khlebnikov.

According to his own estimates, there were 80 violations of the ceasefire in the first half of May. Even so, Khlebnikov sees the ceasefire as quite successful: “Since March 5th, the violence fell significantly. The first [joint Russian and Turkish] patrols were 5 or 7 kilometres long, now they are 45 kilometres long. This builds trust; and the Russian and Turkish militaries are getting used to interacting with each other on hostile ground. That creates a certain restraint for [other] armed groups to escalate.”

Mangott also views the results of the ceasefire as so far positive: “I think it will last. Russia is in a difficult economic and financial situation, the GDP will drop by 10% this year. There will probably be a drop in military spending. The current spending priority is on social causes [at home] to take care of the economic crisis, so there is no money for an escalation in Syria.”

In mid June there were some reports of violations of the ceasefire, with Russian airstrikes on Idlib and reports of civilian casualties. These appeared to be in retaliation for attempts by the HTS to seize several villages, and attack Russian targets, however. Dr Elizabeth Tsurkov remains positive: “This is the first time in the history of ceasefires in Syria when Russia and the regime will be punished for violating it. Turkish drones will be up the skies, killing soldiers. The costs will be much higher for them. It is difficult to make predictions, because there are too many uncertain factors right now, also looking at the elections in the US coming up. But I think the ceasefire will last for the rest of 2020.”

Tsurkov adds: “The area north of the M4 highway will remain out of regime hands for the foreseeable future. Until a deal is reached, the area will essentially be annexed into Turkey. We are already seeing the dynamics of that in northern Aleppo.”

Amplifying fears in Damascus of a de facto annexation, in mid June Turkish-backed opposition groups introduced the Turkish Lira and the US dollar as local currencies in cities and towns across Idlib governorate in an effort, they claimed, to stabilise the local economy after the ongoing depreciation of the Syrian pound.

Russia’s endgame in Syria 

Whenever it might end, Khlebnikov sees the ongoing ceasefire between Russia, the regime and Turkey in northern Syria as a temporary solution: “It is definitely not a final solution. There are two options with the ceasefire: it will be cancelled, or updated. I don’t think there will be any major breaches.”

“On the other hand, there is a certain risk of escalation, because if Turkey won’t be able to deliver on its promises to clear the buffer zone, that may become a legitimate reason for Russia and the Syrian army to launch operations.” But, warns Khlebnikov: “In the last four months, Turkey allocated about 15.000 troops and upped military equipment. It is amassing its forces in Idlib. Any fight with Turkey will be a disaster for Russia.”

With a mass outbreak of the Covid-19 virus still threatening Syria – with its heavily weakened health care system after nearly a decade of war – a fight between Russia and Turkey on Syrian territory would not only carry great risk for Moscow. It is likely that Syrian civilians would bear the greatest losses, once again.

▲ Russia patrol in northern Syria (via Rojava News Network).

Published

May 26, 2020

Written by

Laurie Treffers and Oliver Imhof

Airwars and design partners Rectangle are commemorating those civilians killed and injured in conflicts, by livestreaming over 24 hours the names of 8,337 civilian casualties the international monitor has documented in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Somalia in recent years.

The digital event marks the occasion of the UN’s 2020 Protection of Civilians Week.

Every name has a story

Over twenty-four hours starting at midnight London time on May 26th/27th – the date of the UN Secretary General’s annual Protection of Civilians (PoC)  speech –  the names of just some of the many civilians reportedly killed by air and artillery strikes in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Somalia since 2007 will be livestreamed on our website and YouTube channel.

Khaled Mustafa Qurmo and Khaled Abdel Majid were about to drop off their friend Barakat Barakat at his home in October 2019. The three friends were eating pumpkin seeds while driving through Barisha in northwestern Syria when they were reportedly hit by helicopters searching for ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi.

“There were so many shells falling on us, it was like rain. My hand, the one holding up Khaled’s head, got cut off,” Barakat explained to NPR last year. “Am I Baghdadi? How is this my fault? I’m just a civilian. I didn’t have any weapons. We’re farmers. I make less than a dollar a day. Now I’m handicapped, and my two friends are in their graves.”

Barakat Barakat is just one of 8,337 civilian casualties over the past 13 years whose names Airwars has recorded while monitoring conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Somalia.

UN Protection of Civilians Week 2020

Through its daily monitoring of local news organisations, social media and official sources, as well as via sources on the ground, Airwars has in total recorded over 119,000 reported civilian deaths and injuries since we began documenting conflicts in August 2014 – of which more than eight thousand casualties attributed to specific belligerents can presently be named.

This UN PoC Week, Airwars aims to commemorate those who have lost their lives, while calling for governments to better account for their military actions.

The project Conflicting Truth is in partnership with the Scottish-American design team Rectangle, who also produce the complex mapping and data representations on the Airwars website.

This week’s live cast is based on an original installation by Rectangle with Sophie Dyer, first shown in Detroit in March 2019. It had been hoped to show Conflicting Truth in New York during this year’s UN PoC Week. Instead, due to the Covid-19 crisis, the decision was taken to livecast a digital version.

Rimas and Shahem Hamdou with their father Hamza al Haj Hamdou. The children were killed in an alleged Russian strike in Thalatheen Street in Idlib city on March 3rd 2020 (image courtesy of the Syrian Network for Human Rights)

Not just numbers

The Airwars/ Rectangle project seeks to show that those killed and injured in conflict are not mere statistics –  they are people with names, friends and families. Their loss inflicts severe pain on relatives, and the communities they belong to.

“I was washing dishes. Suddenly our house was filled with shrapnel. I went out and called Arif (my son), but I did not see him. I only saw black smoke. When the smoke faded away, I saw my son on the ground as a martyr,” said a mother whose son Arif was among eight other children reportedly killed in alleged Turkish shelling on Tal Rifaat in Syria on December 2nd, 2019.

The suffering often does not end with losing loved ones or seeing them disabled: it also heavily impacts the lives of those spared by the fighting. “All a young man like me cares about now is how he gets home safe every day. Or when you go to bed, all you’re thinking about is the possibility that a rocket falls on you,” Marwan, a resident of the southern suburbs of the Libyan capital Tripoli recently told Airwars. “I lost friends, relatives, loved ones in this war,” he elaborates. “I’m doing an MA now, and I’m afraid to lose my dream, and my future and I can’t do anything. That makes me want to run away, to live a decent life with equal opportunities.”

Airwars aims to add as many biographical details of victims as possible. On May 16th of this year for example, the 5-year-old Bangladeshi boy Wahi Zuhair Matin was killed in alleged LNA artillery strikes on Al Fornaj neighbourhood in Tripoli. The GNA-affiliated Burkan Al Ghadab Operation wrote on Facebook that the child’s “ambition was to buy a bike and play ‘like the kids’.”

Civil Society Call for Action

Airwars is also joining with other international partners and organisations in a Civil Society Call for Action to Protect Civilians during PoC week. The joint statement signed by 22 organisations calls on the UN Security Council, Member States, and the UN System to take urgent, bold and practical steps to respond to the challenges that remain in the protection of civilians in armed conflict.

The UN Security Council added the protection of civilians in armed conflict (PoC) to its agenda in 1999, recognising PoC as a matter of international peace and security. The UN PoC Week is held annually between May 27th and June 1st. The United Nations celebrates UN Peacekeeping Day on May 29th.

▲ The original physical installation Conflicting Truth was shown in Detroit in March 2019, and was developed by Rectangle with Sophie Dyer. It features the names of civilian victims preserved in the Airwars database. (Image courtesy of Rectangle)

Published

February 11, 2020

Written by

Alex Hopkins

Assisted by

Dmytro Chupryna, Laurie Treffers, Maysa Ismael, Mohammed al Jumaily and Oliver Imhof

During 2019 - for the first time in five years - monitors tracked a sharp move away from US-led Coalition civilian deaths.

Airwars research shows that at least 2,214 civilians were locally alleged killed by international military actions across Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Somalia during 2019 – a 42% decrease in minimum claimed deaths on the previous year. This sharp fall was largely because deaths from reported US-led Coalition actions plummeted following the territorial defeat of ISIS in Syria in March.

However, elsewhere civilians remained in significant danger. Russian strikes in support of the Assad regime claimed at least 1,000 lives in the fierce Idlib and Hama offensives. Meanwhile, Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria in October saw over 300 non-combatants alleged killed.

The year also saw alarming developments in Libya. From April, the Libyan National Army’s Tripoli offensive had a devastating impact on civilians. As more foreign powers joined the conflict, alleged deaths rose by an astonishing 720% on 2018. Almost half of all civilian deaths in Libya’s civil war since 2012 occurred last year.

Download our full annual report for 2019

The US-led Coalition in Syria: a brutal final assault

On March 23rd, after 55 months of war, ISIS was finally ousted from Syria, when the Syrian Democratic Forces seized the town of al-Baghuz al Fawqani in Ezzor governorate. This followed the terror group’s earlier defeat in Iraq in December 2017.

Yet this final assault came at a terrible cost for civilians trapped on the ground. Of the minimum of 2,214 civilians locally alleged killed during 2019, at least 470 deaths (21%) reportedly occurred as a result of US-led Coalition strikes in the first quarter of 2019, in Deir Ezzor governorate.

The aftermath of alleged Coalition shelling of Al Baghouz camp, March 18th – 19th 2019, which allegedly killed at least 160 civilians (via Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently)

After March 23rd, with ISIS downgraded to an insurgency, there was a significant winding down in Coalition strikes. As a result, locally alleged civilian deaths from alliance actions rapidly declined.

For the first time in five years, the Coalition was no longer the primary driver of civilian harm in Airwars monitoring. Indeed, our tracking shows that many more civilians were claimed killed by almost every other monitored belligerent than by the US-led alliance between April and December 2019.

With this shift away from Coalition civilian deaths, Airwars’ focus with the alliance and with partner militaries began moving towards post-conflict restitution and reconciliation engagements.

Syria’s civilians remain at great risk

Civilians may finally have gained respite from Coalition strikes, but 2019 saw them face increased danger on other fronts. Russia’s ongoing campaign in Syria continued to devastate civilian populations and infrastructure.

In total, our researchers tracked at least 1,000 civilian deaths in 710 casualty incidents reportedly carried out by Russia. Some 81% of these events were in Idlib governorate, where Russia lent its formidable airpower to the regime’s offensive to oust the rebels.

The aftermath of an alleged Russian airstrike on a popular market in Saraqib on July 30th (via Edlib Media Center).

Additionally, in October, Syria’s civilians faced a new threat from Turkey. The offensive came against a backdrop of repeated Turkish threats to unilaterally invade northern Syria. The chaotic withdrawal of US forces on October 7th gave Turkey a green light to launch its ‘Operation Peace Spring’.

Airwars research shows that there were between 246 and 314 locally alleged civilian deaths in 207 casualty incidents involving both sides during the final three months of 2019. Most disturbingly, there were numerous claims of war crimes by both sides, including summary executions of civilians and enemy fighters.

Libya: a 720% rise in civilian deaths

Meanwhile, civilian harm spiralled in Libya. Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) launched its offensive on Tripoli in April. However, what was intended to be a brief conflict soon turned into a protracted siege, with foreign powers playing an increased role, particularly in a proxy drone war between the United Arab Emirates and Turkey.

The impact on civilians was dire. Between April 4th and December 31st 2019, local sources reported between 279 and 399 civilian deaths. A measure of the intensity of 2019’s bombing is shown by the fact that more than 48% of all locally reported civilian fatalities in Libya’s civil war since 2012 occurred during the nine months between April and December 2019.

Image caption translation: “Warlord Haftar’s warplane bombs oil facility and tannery in Tajoura, east Tripoli”, June 19th 2019 (via Libya Observer)

Somalia: Record number of declared US actions

In April, Airwars expanded its conflict portfolio when it took over the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s long running monitoring of US counter terrorism drone strikes and civilian harm claims in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan. We are currently reviewing this significant dataset using Airwars’ own internationally-respected methodology.

Our assessment of US air and ground operations in Somalia since 2007 is now complete – with our annual report revealing that a maximum of 44 civilian deaths were alleged during 2019, in thirteen locally claimed civilian harm events. Overall the US declared 63 airstrikes against both al Shabaab and ISIS for the year – the highest ever tally.

Advocating on behalf of affected non-combatants

Our emphasis at Airwars has always been working on behalf of affected civilians. Throughout 2019, our advocacy teams continued to engage with the US-led Coalition and its allies. More than half of all Coalition-conceded conceded civilian harm events during the year were Airwars referrals for example – with at least 220 additional deaths conceded.

Substantial talks on transparency and accountability for civilian harm were also held with senior Pentagon officials; with the British and Dutch ministries of defence; and with NATO’s Allied Rapid Reaction Corps.

In November, the Netherlands finally admitted responsibility for a June 2015 strike in Hawijah, Iraq, which killed at least 70 civilians, according to locals. Airwars is now partnering with a number of Dutch NGOs and academics, with a focus on securing long term improvements in transparency and accountability for civilian harm by the Netherlands military.

“Since Airwars began in 2014, our exceptional team has tracked more than 50,000 locally reported civilian deaths across several conflict nations,” notes Airwars director Chris Woods. “As our 2019 report demonstrates, civilian harm remains a constant in war. Yet too often, belligerents deny or downplay civilian harm – even when local communities themselves are making clear the true costs of conflict.”

Download our full annual report for 2019

Scene of a devastating Coalition strike at Hawijah, Iraq which killed up to 70 civilians (via Iraqi Spring)

▲ The aftermath of an alleged Russian or Syrian regime airstrike on Saraqib, Idlib, June 22nd 2019 (via White Helmets)

Published

December 24, 2019

Written by

Mohammed al Jumaily

Despite October ceasefires, the violence has continued with atrocities alleged on both sides.

Eleven weeks on from the October 9th launch of a Turkish-led offensive against Kurds in northern Syria, known as ‘Operation Peace Spring’, fighting continues to rage with civilians still encountering significant violence.

Since the beginning of the latest clashes, Airwars researchers have overall monitored between 244 and 312 reported civilian deaths resulting from air, artillery and ground action by both sides, as well as the wounding of between 705 and 924 civilians.

See our searchable database of reported Turkish civilian harm events in Syria

The recent conflict between Turkish-led forces and the Kurds has also seen a sharp rise in reported atrocities from both sides, which could be considered war crimes according to international law.

While the majority of civilian deaths tracked by Airwars resulted from actions by Turkey and its proxies, around one in four fatalities were however reportedly caused by Kurdish strikes – a significant change from Afrin.

Between 172 and 225 civilian fatalities and between 419 and 553 civilian injuries were attributed by local sources to Turkey and its proxy forces in Syria across 117 incidents, which are presently graded as fairly reported by Airwars. This means that two or more credible, uncontested sources have reported civilian harm blamed on a specific belligerent.

Meanwhile, between 55 and 64 civilian fatalities and between 208 and 260 injuries were attributed to Kurdish armed groups in 35 civilian harm incidents for which Airwars has assessed the reporting as fair.

Reported civilian harm from Kurdish counterfire – the incidents

The offensive, which Turkey had been preparing for since July 2019, followed the chaotic initial withdrawal of US forces from Syria in a bid by President Trump to deflate US-Turkish tensions. The assault by Ankara is the latest in a long history of hostilities between the Turkish state, and Kurdish separatists affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

However, more recent tensions began after the PKK-affiliated Syrian Kurdish Protection Units (YPG), operating under the broader umbrella of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), began to grow in prominence in northern Syria during their successful campaign against ISIS, with the support of the United States and the international Coalition.

The SDF’s growing strength despite thousands of losses in the war against ISIS – and the significant territory it now controlled in northern Syria – reportedly elevated fears in Ankara that an autonomous administration dominated by the YPG on its restive border could inspire separatist sentiments amongst Kurds in southern Turkey.

The apparent purpose of this incursion, therefore, was both to weaken the YPG, and to create a buffer zone along the Syria-Turkey border, by driving out the local Kurdish population and replacing it with forcibly returned Syrian refugees, a policy which some academics and commentators have described as displaying the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing.

‘Operation Peace Spring’

The beginning of the recent campaign saw Turkish forces and their proxy allies on the ground bombard key towns and urban settlements under the control of the SDF. such as Ras al-Ain in Hasakah province; Tal Abyad in Raqqa province; and Kobani in Aleppo province, as well as numerous other civilian-populated areas of northern Syria. The SDF in turn hit back, targeting Turkish forces and affiliated groups’ positions in Syria as well as towns in southern Turkey.

In stark contrast to Turkey’s Afrin campaign in January 2018 – when the SDF had also been embroiled in their major campaign against ISIS in northeastern Syria, leaving them vulnerable to Turkey’s offensive – Kurdish forces appeared more prepared this time. The proportion of Kurdish counterstrikes to Turkish attacks in this campaign are significantly higher than previous campaigns, as evidenced by Airwars monitoring. In the Afrin campaign, there were 4.75 Turkish incidents for every Kurdish incident, while in comparison during this latest confrontation, there have been three Turkish incidents for every Kurdish incident.

While supposed ceasefires between the warring parties were reached on October 17th and October 22nd, mediated by Washington and Moscow respectively, the violence did not cease and civilians continued to be caught in attacks. Since October 18th, following the implementation of the ceasefire, 57 additional civilian harm event allegations have been levelled against Turkey and 25 such allegations against Kurdish forces.

The worst reported event since October 17th occurred just one day after the ceasefire was announced in the village of Zirgan, close to the city of Ras al-Ain, where between 12 and 19 civilians were killed, including four children, in what Kurdish media sources described as a massacre.

Turkish jets struck a convoy heading from Cizire to Serekaniye. Initial reports say that the airstrike left many people dead or wounded. Journalists from France and Brazil are also reported to be in the targeted convoy. pic.twitter.com/LfJlmfrkbZ

— Firat News Agency (@anfenglish) October 13, 2019

The ineffectual ceasefire also failed to protect humanitarian workers from harm. On November 3rd, a Doctors Without Borders convoy was targeted by an alleged Turkish mortar strike, killing Zau Seng, a member of the Free Burma Rangers and injuring three others.

Today, Nov. 3, our Kachin cameraman and medic from Burma, Zau Seng, was killed today by an FSA/Turkish Army mortar strike that hit our CCP. Our Iraqi coordinator was also wounded. Thank you for your prayers during this time. https://t.co/LT1YANLbj1

— Free Burma Rangers (@FreeBurmaRangrs) November 3, 2019

Diplomatic negotiations between Ankara, Moscow and Washington gave the Kurds time to withdraw their forces 30km back from a 120km long strip along the Turkey-Syria border – at least partially granting Turkey its ‘safe zone’.

However, this was achieved at the expense of a humanitarian crisis in northern Syria. Beyond the disastrous loss of life, hundreds of thousands have been forcefully displaced as a result of the fighting. According to Refugee International, over 215,000 people have so far been driven from their homes as a result of the offensive, compounding an already bleak humanitarian situation in northeast Syria, where, according to the United Nations, 1.3 million people were already in need of humanitarian assistance.

Allegations of war crimes

Civil society activists, human rights groups, medical personnel and journalists have all accused the Turkish military and Turkish-backed groups of committing war crimes and human rights violations over the course of the offensive. These abuses have taken various forms. Local sources have for example reported numerous cases of summary execution of civilians and public officials.

The most notorious case was the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army’s (SNA) execution of Hevrin Khalaf of the Syria Future Party and the mutilation of her body, which was captured on camera. Numerous other cases have emerged of Turkish-backed forces summarily executing civilians and combatants alike. The M4 highway, which runs parallel with Syria’s northern border with Turkey has become synonymous with summary executions and extrajudicial killings. A plethora of videos have emerged showing Turkish-backed forces taunting victims before killing them and mutilating their bodies.

Here are the murderer gangs of leader of Future of Syria Party MARTYR Hevrin Khalaf. pic.twitter.com/bYDwWolc1N

— Turkey Untold (@TurkeyUntold) October 12, 2019

However, there is also ample evidence to indicate that atrocities have been carried out by both sides of the conflict. In one case, on October 20th, YPG forces reportedly handcuffed and executed seven civilians, including three from the same family in Ras al-Ain on charges of conspiring with Turkish-backed forces in the region. The fact that these atrocities have been so widespread from both sides points to an unprecedented level of brutality in this campaign, that was absent even from the Afrin offensive in 2018.

Additionally, reports have emerged of indiscriminate shelling by Turkey of medical facilities in Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad, as well as civilian-populated neighbourhoods of major cities such as Qamishli.

Turkish backed forces have also been accused of looting and pillaging the property of civilians, with numerous reports emerging over the course of the conflict suggesting that the SNA had allegedly ransacked homes, shops, businesses and farms belonging to civilians in northern Syria.

Finally, the suspected use of prohibited weapons, allegedly by Turkey, has been well documented by journalists and medical personnel. According to a report by Dr Abbas Mansouran, a senior member of the medical staff at the main hospital of Hasakah, approximately 30 victims, mostly civilians were admitted to the hospital with severe and unusual burns and injuries, which he believes were caused by chemical weapons use, specifically the use of white phosphorus munitions.

According to Dr Mansouran, Turkish forces may have used dense inert metal explosive (DIME) bombs, which have similar chemical properties to white phosphorus.

    Airwars reached out for comment from both Turkish and YPG military authorities for this article, though had received no response at time of publication.
▲ A civilian in a wheelchair and his helper attempt to flee Mishrafa village, Hasakah Governorate, Syria, on October 9th following an alleged Turkish strike (via @dersi4m)

Published

January 29, 2018

Written by

Samuel Oakford

More than a week of Turkish-backed air and artillery strikes and ground incursions into the Kurdish controlled Syrian region of Afrin have led to multiple credible reports of civilian harm.

Affected areas include not just the Afrin enclave but also civilian towns within Turkey – and Turkish-occupied towns in Syria – which have seen retaliatory attacks from Kurdish forces.

A new rolling assessment published by Airwars has so far tracked 24 claimed civilian casualty events within Afrin blamed on Turkey – and a further nine events attributed to Kurdish forces.

From the start of operations on January 20th to January 28th, at least 41 to 55 civilian deaths have been assessed by Airwars as likely caused by Turkish-backed forces, along with an estimated 10 to 15 civilian fatalities tied to Kurdish counterfire.

That civilian toll could increase dramatically if the fighting moves into more heavily populated areas where tens of thousands of civilians – many displaced from elsewhere – have taken shelter in Afrin and other Kurdish-held areas of northern Syria. The Afrin district of Aleppo governorate is cut off from the bulk of the remaining Kurdish-controlled areas in Syria (known as Rojava by Syrian Kurds) by Turkish-backed opposition forces to the east. To the north and west lie Turkish border areas from which Turkish-backed forces have punched through into Afrin district in several areas.

The Turkish flag is shown raised at Burseya Mountain in Syria, within the Kurdish-held Syrian enclave of Afrin, on January 28th 2018 (image via Turkish Armed Forces)

Civilians on the move

Activists and aid workers on the ground tell Airwars that most displacement from the recent fighting has so far been confined to the Afrin region, as civilians move from targeted villages to other areas, including the city of Afrin itself.

“The town itself has become a refuge for civilians from neighbouring border villages who fled their homes due to the Turkish offensive,” wrote the Kurdish Red Crescent in a January 26th Facebook post.

On January 26th, UNICEF reported that civilians “attempting to flee the area in search of safety have reportedly been prevented from leaving AFRIN.” Violence, the organization said, was “reported to be so intense that families are confined to the basements of their buildings.”

Seven days and #Turkish shelling continues on the villages of the city of #Afrin thousands of civilians are hiding in the shelters and the situation is very bad . pic.twitter.com/n1tWIHs2SL

— Shero Alo (@SheroAlo1) January 27, 2018

The Afrin region is already filled with vulnerable civilians, including 125,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) that the UN estimates are in Afrin district and nearby SDF-held areas of “northern rural Aleppo.”

After just two days of fighting, on January 22nd the UN’s humanitarian agency OCHA reported the displacement of some 5,000 people “from the border communities of Bulbul, Shankal, Admanli, Balal Kuy and Ali Bakki to the central parts of Afrin District.”

See here for more on reported civilian casualty claims relating to Afrin

Ground operations have heavily utilized Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army units. Airstrikes have been uneven, and limited compared to artillery fire, said Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The Turks are in some respects mimicking the recent American model in Syria – utilizing proxy ground forces, and backing them with heavier weapons from a distance.

“It seems the Turkish strategy is just to blow stuff up with a lot of artillery fire and pushing the FSA in,” said Cook. “What’s clear to me is the Turks are very nervous about throwing their own guys into this, and they want the FSA to be their cannon fodder.”

The US-led Coalition has employed a similar strategy to back the proxy Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in campaigns to take Syrian cities including Manbij and Raqqa. The SDF, however, is heavily dominated by member of a Kurdish separatist faction called the YPG. Justifying its attack on Afrin, Turkey in turn cites YPG ties to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which has waged a three decade insurgency inside Turkey, and is listed as a terrorist entity by both Ankara and Washington.

Turkey at odds with US

While the YPG is Ankara’s target, it remains unclear just how far Operation Olive Branch, as it’s been dubbed, will go. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said the first move in a four-part operation will be to secure a 30-kilometer “safe zone” along Turkey’s border, while President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to move on Manbij, which is located to the east of where Turkish-backed opposition forces have operated along the border since 2016.

The US has at least 2,000 troops still in Syria, including a semi-permanent presence in the vicinity of Manbij. A move on that larger area by Turkey could prove explosive, pushing Washington to finally choose between loyalties to dueling Kurdish and Turkish allies. Turkey is a part both of NATO and a supporting cast member of the anti-ISIS Coalition. That US-led alliance in turn has relied heavily on Turkish bases to fly missions over Iraq and Syria – including those in direct support of the SDF.

US officials have warned Turkey against incurring a heavy toll in Afrin. On January 24th, the White House said President Trump had urged Erdogan on a phone call that day to “deescalate, limit its military actions, and avoid civilian casualties and increases to displaced person.”  The US has, however, stopped short of calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities.

“The violence in Afrin disrupts what was a relatively stable area of Syria. It distracts from international efforts to ensure the defeat of ISIS, and this could be exploited by ISIS and al-Qaida,” US Defense Secretary Mattis said during a recent trip to Indonesia.

Deadly attacks

Even as regional and international powers have grappled with the implications of the Afrin assault, the civilian toll has climbed.

What appears to have been the deadliest incident since the incursion began took place on January 21st, when at least 10 civilians – mostly children – were credibly reported killed on a poultry farm in A’nabka by Turkish fire. The local outlet Afrin Now initially named seven victims – 6 children and an adult woman – and later provided Airwars with the names of three additional victims, who it said belonged to a displaced family.

A child is removed from the rubble following an alleged Turkish airstrike on A’nabka in the Afrin countryside (via Afrin Now)

On January 23rd, local outlets reported that between four and six more civilians were killed and and 16 wounded in an alleged Turkish attack on Jindires. Photographs posted on social media showed destruction in what appeared to be residential areas of the town. Additional graphic photographs uploaded to the website of the Manbij Military Council showed bodies being loaded into the back of a pickup truck. 

‘The effects of the destruction as a result of heavy Turkish shelling of civilian houses in the area of Jenderes in the countryside of Afrin.’ (via Afrin Now)

On January 26th, seven more civilians – reportedly belonging to a family displaced from Idlib –  were alleged killed by Turkish strikes on Ma’abatli village. The outlet Free Afrin identified five victims, including a 14 year old child. 

Boushkin Mohama Ali, director of Afrin Now, a local monitor in the Kurdish district, said that more than 40 civilians had been killed in Afrin district by January 27th. “The situation is getting worse every night,” he told Airwars in a Whatsapp exchange. “The shelling includes several areas, especially the villages of Jindires, Rajo and Bulbul – in the border area between Syria and Turkey.”

“There are more than 100 displaced families from the villages of Afrin who moved to the center of the city of Afrin and reside in schools and cellars, and many [more] displaced families reside in the center of the city of Afrin in the homes of their relatives,” said Ali.

Activists and monitors say casualties from Turkish strikes are so far largely being limited to more rural areas outside of Afrin city. Monitoring also suggest this is the case: only one civilian casualty incident recorded by Airwars researchers – a January 20th airstrike – was reportedly inside the city itself.

The #Turkish army targeted one of the mosques in Jondiers in the countryside of #Afrin . pic.twitter.com/g1YHSuqvlV

— Afrin Now (@afrinnow) January 27, 2018

#Turkish shelling today on the village of Blilko in the countryside of #Afrin .أثار القصف التركي اليوم على قرية بليلكو في ريف عفرين .#عفرين_الآن pic.twitter.com/gSaJSGW6Vx

— Afrin Now (@afrinnow) January 27, 2018

“The bombing so far has been in villages and towns around Afrin, but there have been few bombs in Afrin city,” Dr. Noori Sheikh Qanbar, head of the Kurdish Red Crescent, told Airwars. He said that the bombing in Jindires on January 23rd – southwest of Afrin city – had lasted for 24 hours, and claimed the lives of five people while leaving 27 wounded. Qanbar said that to January 26th, the Kurdish Red Crescent had so far documented 162 wounded civilians.

Turkish civilians under fire

Kurdish attacks have also reportedly claimed lives, both in Turkey and in Syria. On the night of January 19th, Airwars monitored reports that at least one civilian was killed in Al Bab by Kurdish shelling. The following day another civilian was killed by shelling in Kilis, across the border in Turkey. On January 22nd, Airwars monitored three separate incidents in the Turkish town of Qeirekhan. In one case, Shahin Elitash, an electric company employee, was killed while repairing power lines.

On January 24th, reports from FSA-held areas in Aleppo governorate indicated that several civilians were injured in a Kurdish strike that allegedly claimed the life of a Turkish-backed opposition fighter. Smart News agency said the rocket attack took place in Abla, south of al Bab. That same day, at least two additional civilians were killed and more than a dozen reportedly injured when rocket attacks hit a mosque and homes in Kilis.

See here for more on reported civilian casualty claims relating to Afrin

Information about operations and civilian casualties is, however, often widely contradictory. Falsely attributed photos and videos of conflict victims have made monitoring more difficult.

“There are many inflated news reports published by both parties [pro-Kurdish and pro-Turkish media],’ said Ali of Afrin Now.

The weak quality of some sourcing inside Kurdish-controlled Afrin – and in some cases, misleading or exaggerated reports – has made tracking civilian casualties more difficult. Social media accounts have for example circulated photographs of victims which Airwars researchers were able to tie to past events.

“Some monitors and media outlets are transparent as to whose side they’re on. Pro-Kurdish sites generally seem to report only on the civilians killed by Turkish airstrikes and artillery, while those on the Turkish side are mostly reporting on the civilians reportedly killed by YPG missiles,” said Airwars’ chief Syria researcher Kinda Haddad. “There are still some media outlets reporting on civilian casualties regardless of where they die  – but the fact that some monitors and media outlets appear to be taking sides is worrying.”

Military toll

Both sides in the Afrin battle are well armed and equipped, and are using battle hardened troops. However the use of heavy Turkish air and artillery power places the Kurds at a disadvantage.

On the night of the 25th-26th, Turkey said that 48 targets were “destroyed” in attacks that involved “27 warplanes.” Reports on the ground however suggest that strikes have been more limited at night, and that artillery has often featured more heavily than aircraft.

After a week of fighting, Turkey reported that three of its own soldiers had been killed along with 13 FSA fighters. It also claimed that more than 440 Kurdish forces had been ‘liquidated’ – numbers that are impossible to confirm.

Meanwhile, Kurdish sources reported that one tenth that number of YPG fighters – 43 so far – had been killed, while claiming that more than 300 Turkish soldiers had been slain.

There's a significant disparity between official Kurdish and Turkish reports: with each side claiming few of its own casualties, and many opposing troops killed https://t.co/HavJtLVIsm

— Airwars (@airwars) January 27, 2018

▲ A public funeral for military and civilian victims of Turkey's assault on Afrin, January 22nd 2018 (via Afrin Now)

Published

February 24, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

After more than three months of fighting, Turkish-backed Syrian rebels have captured central al-Bab from so-called Islamic State according to local reports.

Yet civilian deaths from airstrikes, artillery and ground combat in and around the town reportedly stretched into the hundreds, according to the United Nations. Considering al-Bab’s small size, this high toll raises concerns about further Turkish-led actions in northern Syria – where the US has supported Kurdish forces that Turkey now says it will next target.

As the administration of US President Donald Trump weighs whether to revamp American mlitary policy in Syria, and possible lower thresholds for civilian casualties, the threat of prolonged and bloodier confrontations grows.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lAbSQkGlOEo

A Smart News video depicts Turkish-backed FSA rebels following their February 23rd capture of al-Bab

Following heavy criticism from NATO ally Turkey, since mid-January the US-led Coalition launched nearly 50 strikes in support of Turkish forces fighting to capture al-Bab. The raids represented a distinct third front of Coalition activity after operations at Raqqa and Mosul – and added a volatile element to an already convoluted situation in the town.

By entering the fray, the Coalition also became the third international force bombing al-Bab, in addition to Turkey and Russia. On the ground, Turkish forces and allied opposition units battled ISIL.

Following news of ISIL’s withdrawal from al-Bab on February 23rd, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Ankara’s Euphrates Shield operation would now continue towards Kurdish-held Manbij. That city lies to the east of Al-Bab and was captured in the summer of 2016 by Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) backed by deadly Coalition air support. The presence of the predominantly Kurdish SDF in Manbij has been a point of tension for Turkey ever since. A January assessment conducted by the Washington Institute predicted that Turkey may apply the same ruthless techniques used in al-Bab at Manbij, “leaving Washington with the prospect of major civilian carnage.”

Turkish State TV enters Al-Bab following the FSA's seizure of the town pic.twitter.com/sBU1wtVMk0

— Ragıp Soylu (@ragipsoylu) February 23, 2017

North Syria increasingly chaotic

In late December, after the US initially balked at supporting Turkey’s unilateral move on al-Bab – preferring attention be paid to Raqqa instead – Ankara began cooperating with Russia to coordinate strikes around al-Bab. Whatever the level of cooperation, this was an unprecedented move for a NATO member, and increased pressure on the US to provide its own superior airpower.

The Obama administration had tried to maintain a delicate balance – and forestall an extended confrontation – between its treaty ally Turkey and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) that fight under the SDF banner. Turkey accuses the YPG of being the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a militant group waging a renewed campaign inside Turkey.

Abd al Jawwad Yassin (left), Mohammad the son of Abd al Sattar and a child, the daughter of Abd al Sattar (top), and Abd al Sattar Yassin. Reported killed killed in Beza’a city, east of al Bab. (picture courtesy of Al Bab al Hadath)

Both Turkey and the US consider the PKK a terrorist organization. The US, however has embedded special operation forces with the SDF, and has relied on the group to capture northern Syrian cities including Manbij. The Coalition has also backed SDF with hundreds of airstrikes in recent months around ISIL’s self-declared capital of Raqqa. In this climate, US CENTCOM told told Airwars as late as January 10th that there had been “no changes to existing US policy regarding support to the Turkish military in al-Bab,” and that American forces were not “conducting US airstrikes in or near Al-Bab.”

That stance changed just one week later, when the Coalition said that it had carried out its first strikes in the area on January 17th – just three days before US President Barack Obama left office.  Since then, the Coalition launched at least 47 raids, according to daily strike reports. Those bombings supported an existing mix of Turkish air and artillery strikes, as well as regular Russian raids and a collage of ground forces – making the tracking and attributing of civilian casualties difficult. While it appears that Turkish airstrikes were primarily focused on the western part of the city – where its forces made slow progress – Coalition and Russian strikes were harder to pinpoint, and neither belligerent provides exact locations for where their weapons are released.

Airwars has monitored dozens of reported civilian casualty incidents in al-Bab since November 2016. Tellingly, reports often conflated Turkish and Coalition actions well before the US-led alliance was officially involved. Through January, the Coalition insisted that Ankara’s offensive was unilateral.

On December 9th, to take one example, reports indicated that at least 13 civilians were killed in al-Bab. Local accounts cited both the Coalition and Turkey, though most blamed Ankara. One local report described how all-Bab “came under aerial bombardment and heavy artillery… [by the] Turkish army,” leaving more than 20 dead from a single family. Three days later, on December 12th, 12 civilians including 6 children were reported killed, and local accounts blamed both Turkey and the Coalition.

Given Turkey’s official membership in the Coalition, it is not always clear if local reports mean to distinguish between the two entities. Since the official start of Coalition strikes in Janaury, that task has become even harder. Extending Euphrates Shield will likely create further contested reporting.

Airwars asked the Coalition how it split targets with Turkey. A spokesperson provided the following statement:

“The Coalition uses a variety of intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance to provide accurate information to intelligence centers, strike cells, pilots, and commanders. These information sources provide the Coalition with situational awareness and allow for research and target development on the enemy’s functional use of locations and structures.”

Fadel Abdul Ghany, director of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, says his organisation does attempt to separate Turkish and Coalition attacks based on certain clues.

“We do distinguish between them, and we do not consider them as one side – as if Turkey was a member of the coalition,” Abdul Ghany told Airwars. “It is hard,” he added, “but the international coalition strikes are more precise and more powerful.”

UN: more than 300 civilians slain in battle for al-Bab

The UN’s human rights office (OHCHR) has also been tracking events in al-Bab, and provided Airwars with data from December 2016 through February 17th 2017, just before the town fell. Matthias Behnke, head of OHCHR’s Syria Team said the team “received reports that about 300 civilians have been killed so far as a result of the offensive to retake al-Bab, primarily due to airstrikes but also from improvised explosive devises (IEDs).” The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the toll slightly higher, reporting that 353 civilians, including 87 children and 55 women had been killed between November 13th 2016 and February 20th, 2017. It blamed those deaths on Turkish airstrikes and artillery.

Alarmingly, Behnke said that their monitoring suggested that “at least 100 civilians have been killed in and around al-Bab town since February 1st.” A strike on February 8th, he noted, “allegedly killed at least 27 civilians and injured at least 30 others, many of them from the same family.”

According to the daily Coalition strike report for February 8th, “Near Al Bab, three strikes engaged two ISIL tactical units; destroyed two mortar systems, a VBIED, vehicle, and a tunnel entrance.” However, local reports monitored by Airwars blamed Turkey. Al Bab 24, for instance, blamed “Turkish air and artillery shelling” and provided an extensive list of civilians from several families. “The number of victims under the rubble is large and it hasn’t been possible to pull them all out due to heavy shelling,” the report added.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PpWkKy49_1c

ISIL proaganda video February 12th 2017 showing heavy damage to al Bab

On February 13th – when the Coalition reported no strikes – at least 15 civilians were allegedly killed in al-Bab. The Al Bab Coordination Committee provided the names of 17 people, including 5 women, which it said had perished. Syrian outlet Shaam News cited ISIL news reports which referred to “Turkish aircraft and aircraft of the international coalition” – reflecting the confusion over who exactly is bombing al-Bab. For locals caught up in the violence, there is often little difference. Worsening the plight of civilians, says the UN, are reports that militants have shot at residents of the city to prevent them from fleeing. “UN Human Rights Office received a number of reports of ISIL fighters shooting civilians trying to leave towards areas controlled by armed opposition groups,” said Behnke. But the UN has also received reports that Turkish-backed rebels have “shot civilians who are mistaken for ISIL elements, and a few reports of Government forces positioned south of al-Bab firing on civilians who are trying to leave towards al Raqqa.”

Given the complicated politics of the al-Bab operation and its high civilian toll from Turkish attacks, it is also unclear the extent to which non-US Coalition members took part in bombings there.  The Coalition would not provide a breakdown of what countries have bombed al-Bab, but the UK told Airwars it carried out one attack during 2017, on January 18th. The UK Ministry of Defense declined to comment on whether it planned to launch any further military actions in the vicinity of al-Bab. While the Coalition’s task is more straightforward in Iraq where it cooperates with the government, the complexities of Syria may make it more difficult for Coalition members to see eye to eye.

The latest civilian casualty incident in al-Bab monitored by the UN took place on February 20th; Behnke said it initially appeared that “tens” of people had been killed. Airwars researchers tracked reports of civilian casualties on this day, when both the Coalition and Turkey reported strikes. The Turkish military said it had bombed or shelled more than 250 targets in al-Bab between February 19th and 21st. The Coalition meanwhile reported that “Near Al Bab, three strikes engaged two ISIS tactical units, destroyed four ISIS-held buildings, and damaged an ISIS-held building.”

Disproportionate toll

If 300 civilians or more were killed in al-Bab since December, it would represent a major toll proportionate to Raqqa and Mosul, where hundreds of thousands more civilians continue to reside, and where the Coalition is now releasing thousands of bombs each month. Al-Bab is much smaller than both cities, and is defended by at most several hundred ISIL fighters – possibly fewer than the number of civilians killed. The Coalition was but one actor in al-Bab – but it was unclear to what extent they are communication with the Turks with an eye to protecting civilians.

Reports in the days before al-Bab’s fall indicate the Trump administration may be willing to lessen support to the SDF, favoring long-term stability with Turkey. According to Aaron Stein, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, that decision to appease the Turks could prolong the campaign to take Raqqa. Indeed, Turkey has made clear it intends to move not towards Raqqa, but Manbij.

The flash points, however, would be al-Bab, Manbij, and Tabqah. In this scenario,” Stein wrote in a recent assessment of US-Turkish interests in northern Syria. “Washington would have to assume the risk of Kurdish-Turkish escalation in favor of the broader effort to appease Ankara while also ousting the Islamic State from Raqqa with a Turkish-backed force.”

Choosing Turkey over the better-poised SDF could stretch the fight for Raqqa into 2018 – ample time for hundreds more airstrikes. 

▲ Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis meets with Turkish Minister of National Defense Fikri Isik at the NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, Feb. 15, 2017. (DOD photo by U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Brigitte N. Brantley)