News & Investigations

News & Investigations

start date
end date
265 Results
sort by:

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)

Published

February 14, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

Officials have confirmed that the US military – despite vowing not to use controversial Depleted Uranium (DU) weapons on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria – fired thousands of rounds of such munitions during two high-profile raids on oil trucks in Islamic State-controlled Syria in late 2015. The air assaults mark the first confirmed use of this armament since the 2003 Iraq invasion, when hundreds of thousands of rounds were fired, leading to outrage among local communities which alleged that toxic remnants caused both cancer and birth defects.

US Central Command (CENTCOM) spokesman Major Josh Jacques told Airwars and Foreign Policy that 5,265 armor-piercing 30mm rounds containing depleted uranium (DU) were shot from Air Force A-10 fixed-wing aircraft on November 16th and 22nd 2015, destroying about 350 vehicles in the country’s eastern desert.

30mm fire hits targets on November 16th in Syria. Image captured from CJTF video release.

Earlier in the campaign, both Coalition and US officials said the ammunition had not and would not be used in anti-Islamic State operations. In March 2015, Coalition spokesman John Moore said, “US and Coalition aircraft have not been and will not be using depleted uranium munitions in Iraq or Syria during Operation Inherent Resolve.” Later that month, a Pentagon representative told War is Boring that A-10s deployed in the region would not have access to armor-piercing ammunition containing DU because the Islamic State didn’t possess the tanks it is designed to penetrate.

It remains unclear if the November 2015 strikes occurred near populated areas. In 2003, hundreds of thousands of rounds were shot in densely settled areas during the American invasion, leading to deep resentment and fear among Iraqi civilians and – later – anger at the highest levels of government in Baghdad. In 2014, in a UN report on DU, the Iraqi government expressed “its deep concern over the harmful effects” of the material. DU weapons, it said, “constitute a danger to human beings and the environment” and urged the United Nations to conduct in-depth studies on their effects. Such studies of DU have not yet been completed, and most scientists and doctors say as a result there is still very limited credible “direct epidemiological evidence” connecting DU to negative health effects.

The potential popular blowback from using DU, however, is very real. While the United States insists it has the right to use the weapon, experts have called the decision to use the munition in such quantities against targets it wasn’t designed for — such as tanks — peculiar at best.

The US raids in 2015 were part of “Tidal Wave II” — an operation aimed at crippling infrastructure that the Islamic State relied on to sell millions of dollars’ worth of oil. The Pentagon said the November 16th attacks happened in the early morning near Al-Bukamal, a city in the governorate of Deir Ezzor near the border with Iraq, and destroyed 116 tanker trucks. Though the Coalition said the strikes occurred entirely in Syrian territory, both sides of the frontier were completely under the control of the militant group at the time. Any firing of DU in Iraqi territory would have had far greater political repercussions, given the anger over its previous use there. The November 16th video below shows tankers hit first by larger ordnances, before others are engulfed in sparks and are ripped apart by fire from 30mm cannons.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZQkG-RWxFfY

Video of the second DU run on November 22nd destroyed what is described as 283 “Daesh Oil trucks” in the desert between Al-Hasakeh and Deir Ezzor — both capitals of governorates of the same names.

The use of DU in Syria was first reported by this author in IRIN News last October. CENTCOM and the US Air Force at first denied it was fired, then offered differing accounts of what happened, including an admission in October that the weapon had been used. However, the dates confirmed by CENTCOM at that point were off by several days. It is now clear that the munitions were used in the most publicized of the Tidal Wave II attacks.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8IC-GzY2SRw

Armoured targets

Depleted uranium is left over from the enrichment of uranium 235. It is exceptionally hard, and has been employed by militaries both to penetrate armoured targets and to reinforce potential targets like tanks against enemy fire. Though less radioactive than the original uranium, DU is toxic and is considered by the US Environmental Protection Agency to be a “radiation health hazard when inside the body.”

The most likely way for such intake to occur is through the inhalation of small particles near where a munition is used. But doctors and anti-nuclear activists alike say there hasn’t been enough research done to prove the precise health effects and exposure thresholds for humans. This lack of comprehensive research on illnesses and health outcomes in post-conflict areas where DU was used has led to a proliferation of assumptions and theories about DU’s potential to cause birth defects and cancer. Firing rounds near civilian populations also has a powerful psychological effect, causing distress and severe anxiety, as the International Atomic Energy Agency noted in 2014.

Internationally, DU exists in a legal gray area. It is not explicitly banned by UN conventions like those that restrict land mines or chemical weapons. And although the United States applies restrictions on the weapon’s handling domestically, it does not regulate its use overseas in civilian areas with nearly the same caution.

“I think this is an area of international humanitarian law that needs a lot more attention,” says Cymie Payne, a legal scholar and professor of ecology at Rutgers University who has researched DU. “As we’ve been focusing more in recent years on the post-conflict period and thinking about peace building… we need a clean environment so people can use the environment.”

Major Jacques, the CENTCOM spokesman, says the ammunition was fired that November because of a “higher probability of destruction for targets.” Shortly after both attacks, the US-led Coalition released the videos showing multiple vehicles lit up by bombs, missiles, and prolonged fire from the 30 mm cannons of Air Force A-10s — but did not specify that the flight crews had loaded those cannons with DU. Those videos — along with dozens of other strike recordings — have been removed from official Coalition channels in recent months.

When DU rounds are loaded in A-10s, they are combined with a lesser amount of non-DU high-explosive incendiary (HEI) rounds, amounting to a “combat mix.” In November 2015, a total of 6,320 rounds of the mix were used in Syria: According to CENTCOM, 1,790 30 mm rounds — including 1,490 with DU — were fired on November 16; on November 22, 4,530 rounds of combat mix were fired containing 3,775 DU armor-piercing munitions. Though DU rounds have been fired in other theaters — including the Balkans — much of the attention centers on Iraq, where an estimated 1 million rounds were shot during the first Gulf War and the 2003 invasion.

A recent analysis of previously undisclosed firing data from the 2003 US invasion of Iraq showed that most DU rounds were fired at so-called soft targets, such as vehicles or troop positions, instead of targeting the tanks and armoured vehicles according to Pentagon guidelines that date back at least to a 1975 review by the US Air Force. The Pentagon’s current Law of War Manual states, “Depleted uranium (DU) is used in some munitions because its density and physical properties create a particularly effective penetrating combination to defeat enemy armored vehicles, including tanks.”

A line of tanker trucks in the Syrian desert on November 22nd, 2015. Image taken from CJTF video release of Coalition attacks on that day.

‘At risk of exposure’

The oil trucks hit in November 2015 were also unarmoured and would qualify as soft targets, the researchers who performed the analysis of the 2003 targeting cache contend. The trucks, in fact, were most likely manned by civilians rather than Islamic State members, according to US officials. A Pentagon representative said the United States had dropped leaflets warning of an imminent attack before the November 16th strike, in an effort to minimize casualties.

“The use of DU ammunition against oil tankers seems difficult to justify militarily on the basis of the arguments used by the US to support its use — that it is for destroying armoured targets,” says Doug Weir, head of the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons. “Tankers are clearly not armoured, and the alternative non-DU HEI [high-explosive incendiary] rounds would likely have been sufficient for the task.”

The spent ammunition littering eastern Syria after the attack, along with the wreckage of the trucks, was almost surely not handled appropriately by the occupying authority — that is, the Islamic State. Even if civilians driving the trucks were not initially exposed to the toxic remnants of DU, scavengers and other local residents will likely be placed at risk for years to come.

“What will happen with the destroyed vehicles? Usually they end up in scrapyards, are stripped of valuable parts and components, and dumped,” says Wim Zwijnenburg, senior researcher at the Dutch research NGO Pax. “This puts scrap-metal workers, most likely local civilians, at risk of exposure.”

If there are few ideas for what post-Islamic State governance will resemble in eastern Syria, there are none at all about how to safely handle the depleted uranium that the US-led Coalition has placed into the environment.

Published in conjunction with Foreign Policy

Published

February 10, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

New Airwars research shows that for the first time since Moscow intervened in Syria’s civil war in September 2015,  airstrikes  by the  US-led Coalition are now claiming the lives of more civilians than Russia’s brutal aerial campaign

To date, Airwars researchers have identified 95 separate reported civilian casualty events in January across Iraq and Syria allegedly involving the Coalition. For the same period, 57 alleged Russian incidents took place.  

Likely civilian deaths as a result of Coalition actions are also higher for January. Airwars presently estimates that at least 254 non-combatants were likely killed in 47 strikes evaluated as “fair” – where there are multiple local reports of civilian casualties, and confirmed Coalition airstrikes in the near vicinity on the same date. January’s civilian toll is by far the highest to have been assessed by Airwars in more than two and a half years of Coalition airstrikes.

Monitoring groups have put non-combatant deaths in Syria from Russian strikes in January far lower. The Syrian Network for Human Rights, for instance, has reported that 48 civilians were killed by Moscow’s actions – against a minimum of 91 civilians killed by Coalition strikes in Syria for the same month – a figure somewhat higher than Airwars’ own estimated minimum of 65 civilians killed in Syria only by the Coalition.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights puts the figure for January for those killed by both Syrian government and Russian raids and shelling at 180.

One year ago, in January 2016, Russia killed at least 713 civilians according to Airwars estimates.  That was 14 times more deaths than were attributed to the Coalition for the same month.  But now roles may be shifting.

For full data and interactive charts, visit https://airwars.org/data/

An inflection point for Russia and the US

Russian and Coalition casualty figures for the first month of 2017 appear to represent an inflection point in the two campaigns, which together have likely left thousands of civilians dead.

Well into December 2016, Russia was still targeting civilian-populated areas of eastern Aleppo with bombs and missiles,  as regime forces retook the city’s last rebel-held neighbourhoods. A ceasefire deal was reached with the involvement of diplomats from Iran, Turkey and Russia followed shortly after. And the pace of Moscow’s airstrikes – along with their threat to civilians – has since slowed.

In parallel, the Coalition has ramped up its own operations – with civilians now at more risk. In Mosul, heavy Coalition air and artillery strikes in support of Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) have targeted fighters of so-called Islamic State (ISIL) for more than three months. And in Syria – barely reported by international media – the Coalition has been backing an aggressive ground campaign by Kurdish proxies to encircle  ISIL’s self-declared capital of Raqqa.

“The regime’s Russian-backed military gains of the last year, of which the seizure of Aleppo and Russia’s subsequent rapprochement with Turkey have been key, mean that the breadth and intensity of combat has been significantly diminished,” Julien Barnes-Dacey, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations told Airwars, referring to the level of fighting and bombings in Syria.

“The Russian-led shift,” added Barnes-Dacey, “comes just as the fight for Mosul and towards Raqqa has picked up new intensity, resulting in increased casualty numbers – a trend that could accelerate further if President Trump relaxes the rules of US engagement as some are anticipating.”

New US President Donald Trump has given Pentagon commanders 30 days to come up with a more aggressive plan to defeat ISIL. According to reports this may include further relaxing restrictions aimed at limiting harm to civilians on the battlefield.

Yet as Airwars reported on January 20th, the civilian toll from US airstrikes was already escalating steeply  in the final months of the Obama administration. From the start of operations to capture Mosul on October 17th through Obama’s last day in office on January 20th, Airwars researchers assessed that at least 294 civilians were likely killed in that city alone. Unlike the siege of rebel-held areas in Aleppo, these strikes – if not the ground fighting itself – have received relatively little media coverage. In Raqqa governorate, 62 civilians were judged as likely killed in the same period.

For full data and interactive charts, visit https://airwars.org/data/

These trends have continued into Trump’s presidency. On his second day, as many as 15 civilians, including women and children, were reportedly killed in strikes on the Al-Rashidiyah neighborhood of Mosul. Local residents blamed the attack on the Coalition, which they say targeted  a car bomb but which also destroyed a civilian house.

Airwars was able to reach a family member inside Mosul whose relatives were killed in the strike. “The house was targeted by Coalition airstrikes at 12:22PM on Saturday [January 20th],” the relative says. “Four family members were killed as well as seven others who had come to the house as guests. The guests were employees of a medicine factory in the same area.”

The source named his four relatives as Zahra Ibarehem Ali Jumah; Jasim Mohammed Hassan Ali; Shamsah Jasim Hassan Ali; and Rania Raed Maohammed Hassan. Four members of a second family also killed in the event have also been named by others.

Airwars has also been provided with a picture from the scene that appears to depict the remnants of an American-manufactured ammunition in the rubble. Two weapons experts, including Human Rights Watch’s senior arms researcher Mark Hiznay indentified the remnants as belonging to an American-produced Hellfire air-to-surface missile. The US, UK and Iraqi militaries all possess Hellfires.

Remnant of Hellfire missile fired in Mosul on January 21st. (Image courtesy of Fathil Jasim)

“January was the deadliest month yet for civilians in Mosul,” says Airwars’ Iraq researcher. “More than 50 airstrikes reportedly targeted them, killing in their homes women, children, professors, engineers and physicians.” In total, at least 133 strikes took place in Mosul during January, according to daily Coalition strike reports.

Shamsah Jasim Hassan Ali, one of those killed in the January 21st strike. (Image courtesy of Fatihil Jasim).

“It is true that the left (eastern) side of Mosul has been liberated, but civilians paid a very high price,” he added.

Raqqa in crisis

Meanwhile, having reportedly discarded plans drawn up by the Obama administration to take Raqqa from ISIL with the assistance of Syrian-Kurdish forces, it remains unclear what President Trump’s plan are in Syria. For the last several months, the Coalition has launched numerous daily strikes – up to 22 in a 24-hour period – in the vicinity of the city, primarily in surrounding towns and villages that are held by ISIL.  

During January, Coalition forces launched at least 336 strikes “near” Raqqa – a massive tally – according to daily strike reports. Without a clear strategy to take the city with ground forces, airstrikes are likely to endure for an extended period of time, and continue to claim the lives of civilians – potentially without matching gains in territory.

Syrian monitoring groups reported large death tolls in Raqqa from Coalition strikes just days into the New Year. On January 6th, airstrikes northeast of Tabaqa were said to have killed at least eight  civilians. Other strikes in the area have claimed dozens of lives. Those trends have continued during the opening weeks of the Trump administration. On January 27th, four civilians including up to three children were reportedly killed in Shanina village in Raqqa governorate. On January 30th, al Tabaqa was hit again, killing up to three civilians – this time reportedly by a raid which struck a school. Local sources said one of the casualties was a person with special needs.

Fadel Abdul Ghany, director of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, said the contrast with Russian strikes – which for months targeted medical facilities and other protected sites in clear violation of international law – was changing.

While Russia continues to bomb opposition controlled areas, elsewhere “the level of strikes has dropped and in some areas stopped completely, which has had a very positive impact on the lives of people living in those areas,” said Ghany. “We are starting to see an increase in the movement of civilians between villages and cities, in markets and various workshops. Children are back playing out in the street and out in the farms.”

The point, he said, was not that Russia had discovered human rights norms, but that the Coalition risked alienating more Syrians as its bombing campaign against ISIL heads towards its third anniversary.

“The big and fundamental difference is that international coalition countries are leading countries in the defense of human rights,” he added. “Unfortunately, this huge number of victims [caused by the Coalition] hasn’t led these countries to change their combat strategy.”

▲ Man stands in front of destroyed homes in Mosul on January 12th. (Image courtesy of Iraqyoon)

Published

January 31, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

The Executive Order signed by President Donald J. Trump on January 27th has sent shock waves through refugee communities, citizens of the seven Muslim-majority countries banned from travel to the US, and the wider international community. But one inclusion appears to have taken even the Pentagon and military planners by surprise.

Key US ally Iraq – in the midst of a bloody campaign to capture Mosul from so called Islamic State (ISIL) – finds itself on the list of banned nations, placing in limbo the visas of many Iraqis who have helped the US. Also at risk: extensive cooperation between thousands of American soldiers and their Iraqi counterparts, painstakingly built up since August 2014.

In an angry response to the Trump ban, Iraqi MPs on January 30th supported a “reciprocity measure” that would similarly prevent Americans from entering the country. Though the measure is so far non-binding, it illustrates how quickly relations have been souring in the days following Trump’s action. In a report from the front lines in Mosul, a member of Iraqi special forces told Associated Press: “When he [Trump] made this decision he destroyed us.”

Perhaps in response to such tensions, in recent days the Coalition has been heavily stressing the vital and deadly role being played by Iraqi forces in the war against ISIL. Daily strike releases now note that Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) “are willing to take the brunt of fighting to liberate their country.” Some Iraqi officials estimate that in addition to 5,000 civilian casualties, some 1,600 Iraqi troops have already been killed or injured in the ongoing battle for Mosul.

‘The Coalition was not consulted’

Trump’s controversial executive order has frozen the US’s refugee program for 120 days – and also blocks all citizens from Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Iran from entering the United States for at least 90 days. Widely  criticized as a ‘Muslim Ban’ – in part due to language of the text, and claims by Trump that the US would privilege some religious minorities – the order has led to major protests across the United States including at airports, where over 100 people had reportedly been detained. The first well-publicized incident, at New York’s JFK Airport, saw the detention of an Iraqi man, Hameed Darweesh, who had previously worked as a translator for the US military.

The signing of the controversial order took place at the Pentagon, following the ceremonial swearing-in of former US Marine Corps general James Mattis as US Defense Secretary. Mattis, who stood next to Trump as he signed the order, is seen by some critics of the president as a voice of reason within his Cabinet.

It has since been reported that the Pentagon may not have had a chance to provide input ahead of the signing. According to the New York Times Mattis “did not see a final version of the order until Friday morning, only hours before Mr. Trump arrived to sign it at the Pentagon.”

Airwars reached out to the Pentagon to confirm whether Department of Defense officials had been able to offer advice on the order. The Pentagon referred the question to the White House, which did not respond.

The US-led Coalition did however respond. Chief spokesman Colonel John Dorrian said on January 30th that “The Coalition was not consulted, to my knowledge.”

US forces have invested heavily in rebuilding the Iraqi military since 2014. Trust between the two allies remains vital in the fight against ISIL, both on and off the battlefield  (US Army/ Spc. Christopher Brecht)

Mosul Campaign

Iraqi forces are presently in the middle of the biggest military assault since World War 2, as they seek to recapture the country’s second largest city from ISIL forces.  On January 25th – two days before Trump’s executive order was signed – US Army Maj. Gen. Joseph M. Martin declared that the eastern half of Mosul had been completely taken after 100 days of fighting.

“It’s the hardest door-to-door fighting the world has seen in recent history,” Martin told reporters. “There is still a difficult fight ahead in western Mosul, but the ISF has proven that they are both a professional and formidable fighting force.”

There are at least 5,000 American soldiers on the ground in Iraq, in addition to civilian contractors. The US provides direct support through Coalition airstrikes, Apache helicopter firepower and artillery. On the ground, US forces have also been advising their Iraqi partners on the front lines. As Airwars recently reported, by mid January the Coalition had already launched 419 airstrikes in support of Iraqi forces at Mosul – while also firing more than 4,500 artillery shells and rockets. All of these actions require close coordination between the Coalition and Iraqi forces.

The US-backed campaign to rid Iraq of ISIL has in turn displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians, and laid entire cities and towns to waste. At the outset of the Mosul assault, some 1.2 million Iraqis remained trapped in the city. Today, the UN estimates that the majority – some 750,000 – are still within occupied eastern Mosul, which Iraqi forces have yet to penetrate.

That the US would now cut off access to refugees from a country it invaded 14 years ago is a particularly bitter irony for many Iraqis. Baghdad’s former ambassador to the United States Lukman Faily – himself now banned – is one of many high ranking officials voicing their anger: “To be treated like this… to say it’s a betrayal (is) an understatement,” he told Yahoo News.

Members of President Trump’s own party have also pointed to potential blowback from the executive order – which could put civilian lives in even greater danger. “At this very moment, American troops are fighting side-by-side with our Iraqi partners to defeat ISIL. But this executive order bans Iraqi pilots from coming to military bases in Arizona to fight our common enemies,” said Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham in a joint statement.

“Our most important allies in the fight against ISIL are the vast majority of Muslims who reject its apocalyptic ideology of hatred. This executive order sends a signal, intended or not, that America does not want Muslims coming into our country. That is why we fear this executive order may do more to help terrorist recruitment than improve our security.”

In New York, Hameed Khalif Darweesh, the Iraqi whose detention helped lead to a first wave of US street protests, was eventually released. He remains positive. “America is the land of freedom, the land of life,” he told reporters. “America is the greatest nation.”

Pentagon officials may struggle to placate others still working with the US military. On January 30th, a spokesperson said the DoD was now working on a list of Iraqis who had assisted US troops, and who might be exempted from Trump’s order – evidently something that hadn’t been done before the new president put pen to paper.

▲ U.S. Navy corpsmen assigned to Team 40, Task Force Al-Taqaddum and Iraqi security forces soldiers celebrate following a graduation ceremony near Camp Manion, Iraq, Jan 11, 2017. ISF soldiers graduated from a three-day combat lifesaver course taught by Navy corpsmen in support of Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve, the global Coalition to defeat ISIL in Iraq and Syria. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Christopher Brecht)

Published

January 20, 2017

Written by

Jessica Purkiss
This page is archived from original Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporting on US military actions in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The outgoing Obama administration said on Thursday the US had conducted 53 strikes outside areas of active hostilities in 2016, killing one non-combatant.

This contrasts slightly with reports collated by the Bureau – we recorded 49 counter-terrorism strikes in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan in 2016, killing four to six civilians.

The White House began publishing casualty data on its counterterrorism operations last year amid calls for more transparency from civil society organisations including the Bureau.  The numbers are not broken down by country however, making it hard explain differences between official figures and our data.

The Director of National Intelligence (DNI) statement did not specify where 2016’s strikes occurred, but said that areas of active hostilities included Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

One of the civilian deaths recorded by the Bureau took place in the restive Pakistani region of Balochistan. According to the victim’s family, a drone hit taxi driver Mohammed Azam while he transported Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour, unaware of Mansour’s identity. Azam’s family launched a criminal case against the US demanding accountability for his death.

The Bureau also recorded reports of three civilians killed in an attack on what the US described as an al Shabaab camp in Somalia on April 11-12. Witnesses and local officials said the strikes actually hit a village under the control of the militants.

The Bureau put this version of events to a Pentagon spokesperson at the time but were told there were no reports of civilian casualties.

The DNI statement said that “no discrepancies” were identified between its post-strike assessments and credible reporting from non-governmental organisations about civilian deaths resulting from these strikes.

The Bureau recorded the deaths of 362-507 people, including the four to six civilians, as a result of US strikes outside areas of active hostilities last year. The US government put the figure of “combatants” killed in counterterrorism strikes at 431-441.

Follow the Bureau’s dedicated drone war Twitter feed: @dronereadsFollow the Bureau’s Twitter feed tracking each strike when it happens: @latest_strike

Photo of unmanned US predator aerial vehicle with a hellfire missile attached via US Air Force

Published

January 20, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

In the last weeks of the Obama presidency, the US-led air war against so-called Islamic State intensified dramatically – leading to hundreds of likely civilian deaths. Yet in contrast to recent events at Aleppo, international press coverage has been largely absent.

Since the official start of operations to capture Mosul on October 17th, Airwars researchers have tracked 91 allegations of civilian casualties from Coalition airstrikes in and around the city. Of those, 35 claimed events are from just the first 17 days of 2017, as Iraqi forces sought to capture all of eastern Mosul.

So far four Coalition incidents in the battle for Iraq’s second city have been confirmed, taking the lives of at least 20 civilians. A further 35 incidents have been graded as “fair” by Airwars researchers – meaning there are two or more credible local reports and Coalition airstrikes reported in the near vicinity. Based on Airwars assessments, those additional alleged strikes likely claimed the lives of between 294 and 350 civilians in Mosul. 

In the same period – from October 17th onward – Airwars researchers have recorded 62 alleged civilian casualty incidents stemming from Coalition operations supporting US proxy ground forces in Raqqa governorate.  Two of those incidents have been confirmed by the Coalition, while a further 43 were rated “fair” by Airwars researchers. Based on Airwars monitoring, those incidents appear likely to have claimed the lives of another 154 to 229 civilians.

Reports from Mosul in January have seen daily allegations of civilian deaths. Airwars has learned of at least one incident – which reportedly claimed the lives of 11 civilians from one family – a full month after it occurred. It is likely that additional cases will be uncovered as journalists gain access to the liberated east of the city. And in Raqqa, several alleged Coalition strikes over the last month have claimed dozens of lives. 

Both cities are being hit heavily by foreign airpower, leaving many civilians dead amid siege-like conditions. But in the waning days of the Obama administration – and just after the much-covered fall of rebel-held Aleppo – media interest shifted. In total, 450 or more civilians appear to have been killed in intense Coalition actions across Iraq and Syria since October – yet their deaths have largely been ignored. 

“With reported fatalities from Coalition strikes at record levels we would have expected significant media engagement,” says Airwars Director Chris Woods. “Instead, anything beyond local reporting has been almost non-existent.”

Erbil, Iraq: US troops prepare AH-64E Apache attack helicopters for operations on January 10 2017 (Photo via US Army video.)

Heavy firepower

According to the United Nations, the assault on Mosul is the largest such military operation since World War Two. Despite an estimated 1.2 million civilians being trapped in the city at the start of the siege, the firepower unleashed has been formidable.

According to military officials, the Coalition has already released more than 9,500 munitions during 419 airstrikes in support of operations to capture Mosul. According to a spokesperson, those strikes have “destroyed 145 VBIEDs, [vehicle borne improvised explosive devices] 349 buildings/facilities, 845 craters/bridges, 132 tunnels, 335 vehicles, 377 bunkers, 23 AAA [anti-aircraft artillery], and 300 artillery/mortar systems.”

American Apache helicopters are also used regularly by the Coalition, and have fired more than 150 munitions according to officials. Airwars can also report that as of January 12th, more than 4,500 artillery shells and rockets had been fired by Coalition ground forces in the vicinity of Mosul since October 17th.

None of these totals count heavy weapons used by Iraqi Security Forces, or missiles and bombs dropped by the Iraqi Air Force. Though the UN recently claimed Iraqi forces have avoided artillery strikes inside Mosul in order to avoid civilian casualties, monitoring of social media accounts used by Iraqi forces show artillery and other ground-based munitions regularly being fired into the city. Iraq’s own air force of F-16s, armed Chinese drones and attack helicopters is also heavily engaged, and has reportedly been responsible for civilian deaths. 

Amazing #pictures from #Reuters! #Iraqi #Soldiers continue to bring the fight to #Daesh in #mosul @USAFAS @CJTFOIR @CENTCOM @DogFaceSoldier pic.twitter.com/DluRjBr7bj

— Danger 6 (@Danger6_1ID) January 19, 2017

Coalition commander Major General Martin tweets in support of Iraqi forces using rockets and artillery in the assault on Mosul, January 19th 2017

Counting the dead

Public estimates vary of civilians killed since the start of operations on October 17th to capture Mosul. The United Nations, which was recently pressured into no longer publishing tallies of Iraqi security forces killed in the battle, does not have an official estimate of civilian deaths – though one UN official has suggested it could be nearly half of all combat fatalities in Mosul. In a “normal conflict this would be around 15 to 20 percent,” another UN source told Airwars. “Here it is surely higher.”

For the first two months of the Mosul campaign, signs pointed to ISIL being responsible for the majority of civilian deaths. The militant group indiscriminately mortared captured neighbourhoods, and fired on non-combatants attempting to escape ISIL territory – claiming the lives of many civilians.

But there are also ominous signs, especially of late, that civilians are dying in increasing numbers as a result of intensified ground operations supported by Coalition air power. It is not always clear who is responsible for civilian deaths, but casualty numbers are moving upwards.

On January 12th for example, as many as 30 civilians were reportedly killed on the left (Western) side of the Tigris River, which has yet to see ground assaults by Iraqi security forces. According to The Guardian, witnesses described at least three missiles striking the al-Jadida district. The target may have been a senior ISIL leader named Harbi Abdel Qader. “He was not in the building at the time, but several members of his family died,” wrote the paper, citing a local resident. It was unclear whether the strike had been carried out by the Coalition or the Iraqi Air Force.

Airwars spoke to one Western journalist who has been covering operations in Mosul since October. He described significant early access to the battle, then far less as the fighting pushed into the city. Today, he is able to venture once more into liberated areas. But reporting has not kept pace with the civilian toll.

“By early December our access was basically completely cut off,” he said. “There hasn’t been a lot of reporting [on civilian casualties] in Mosul. I don’t think there is enough – the amount of reporting doesn’t reflect the reality.”

Airwars’ Iraq researcher has closely monitored civilian casualty claims in Mosul for the past two years. He says the firepower reportedly unleashed by Iraqi forces and the Coalition has increased since the end of December, as they pressed towards the Tigris from the east – capturing important districts and landmarks like the city’s University.

In many cases, ISIL fighters may be present in an area, darting in and out of buildings or firing sniper rounds from a roof. But they may also have gone by the time strikes are called in.

“According to locals, twenty minutes later American jets come and destroy those locations even if there is no ISIS,” says the researcher.

A family slain

Salam al Sultan, a Moslawi who now lives in Canada, told Airwars how eleven members of his family were killed in the early afternoon of December 13th by one such incident in east Mosul – after airstrikes tried to take out an ISIL sniper a few houses down. Their bodies could only be recovered from the rubble a month later.

Salam’s uncle, Ahmed Nather Mahmood, lived with his wife and two sons, Sehab and Amear and their families in al Sukur, a Mosul neighbourhood which has recently seen heavy fighting.  

Sometime around 1pm, a neighbour who had planned to flee the fighting arrived to see if the Mahmood family would leave with him. Fearful of the violence around them, Salam’s family had already packed to escape, but told the neighbour to linger just a bit longer.

“He came to them and said let us leave. They said let us finish our lunch, and we will leave together,” said Salam, speaking to Airwars by phone from Canada. “The neighbour said no I’m leaving.”

Minutes later, an airstrike obliterated the home. Salam, who had already lost one brother to an ISIS execution in 2015 and another to unknown assailants during violence in Mosul in 2008, now lost eleven more members of his family.

“They were going to leave… Hanan said ‘even my luggage was ready, my bag was ready,’” he said, referring to a female cousin who survived the attack, but whose whereabouts are now unclear. “They were just going to finish their lunch.”

For a month the bodies of Salam’s uncle, aunt, his brothers and their dead children lay under the shattered remnants of their home. Only on January 14th were other family members and neighbours able to start retrieving their corpses. The stench was overpowering.

Salam says his family was fearful of airstrikes, but considered them “more accurate” prior to the operation to retake the city, and especially of late. The Iraqi government, he said, was behind schedule – and now moved quickly with “massive firepower.”

Only after the attack did those who survived learn why the area may have been targeted: an ISIS sniper had apparently been spotted on a roof two houses down.“If there is a sniper how come they don’t use a small machine gun from a plane, how come they have to use a big rocket to destroy three or four houses?”

The house of Ahmed Nather Mahmood, where eleven family members died. Photograph courtesy of family.

‘Fear has me paralyzed’

In November Airwars spoke with Noora, a Moslawi now living in the United Kingdom. She described then how her young cousin and the girl’s mother were killed in airstrikes on Mosul during 2015. A year later, another relative was cut down by an airdropped munition.

Noora’s grandparents and aunt have remained in Mosul, communicating intermittently as they waited for security forces to reach their neighbourhood. In the summer of 2016, her grandmother had referred offhand to an airstrike as “nothing.” After reviewing the incident with Airwars, Noora learned that the attack likely left nearly a dozen civilians dead, and was extremely close to where her grandmother lived. It was certainly not “nothing.”

On January 10th 2017, Airwars spoke to Noora again. “They’re getting close to my family’s neighbourhood,” she wrote. “Fear has me paralyzed.” Days earlier, on January 6th, her aunt had been near to a deadly strike that killed several members of a family with which hers was close. Local reports indicated that some 20 civilians were killed when alleged Coalition planes bombed near the entrance of a mosque in the Ziraei district of eastern Mosul. Those local reports and social media posts included the names of Noora’s family’s friends.

During the bombing Noora’s aunt called her family, distraught. “There were so many strikes that day,” she said. Footage posted by an ISIL-linked outlet showed the destruction. An internal UN human rights assessment obtained by Airwars included the following account of the incident:

Airstrike reportedly kills 17 civilians and wounds 11 others in Mosul: During the morning of 6 January, sources alleged that airstrikes targeting an ISIL gathering in Ziraie neighbourhood of central Mosul killed 17 civilians, including seven women and four children, and wounded 11 others, including four women and two children.

On January 18th, Iraq’s government said it had gained complete control of eastern Mosul. Some 450,000 residents are now free of ISIL. But nearly double that number – around 750,000 people – remain to the west of the Tigris River according to UN figures. Already behind its stated schedule to retake the entire city, Iraqi armed forces will now turn their attention to the left bank. Numerous additional civilian casualties are likely.

Raqqa: the invisible campaign

While the assault on Mosul has been reasonably well reported, almost no international media coverage has been given to Coalition-supported actions to recapture Raqqa city from so-called islamic State.

In some of his final comments, outgoing US Defense Secretary Ash Carter noted that “our local partners continue to converge down on Raqqa and I’m also confident that they will soon have ISIL’s so-called capital isolated.” Yet Airwars tracking suggests the cost to civilians has been high – with at least 154 non-combatants recently alleged killed around the city.

The US’s preferred ground proxies the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – comprising mostly Kurdish irregulars – have captured a string of villages and towns in heavy fighting in recent weeks, supported by intense Coalition (mainly US) airstrikes. But the reported civilian death toll has been very high, with almost daily allegations of ‘massacres’ from key local monitors.

“In November we saw almost daily allegations and sometimes several a day – so that in that one month alone there were 35 incidents with more than 150 civilians claimed killed,” says Airwars’ senior Syria researcher Kinda Haddad. “This pattern continued into December – albeit somewhat reduced – with 14 alleged incidents causing over 90 civilian casualties.”

“This has been a consistent pattern we have seen over the course of the war,” adds Haddad. “Every time strikes are stepped up we see a notable rise in allegations of civilian casualties. As ever, this is because ISIL is based in civilian centres and not on an imaginary front line. They live among civilians and their offices are located on main streets and in residential and office buildings. So while individually they may be legitimate military targets, their location means they are in effect also civilian targets.”

Widah Abdallah, a victim of a Nov 19th attack on Bia’as village. Te Coalition says the incident is now under investigation (via Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently)

Among the incidents tracked by Haddad and her colleagues was a series of attacks on Al Heisha village in Raqqa governorate on November 8th, which reportedly left as many as 24 civilians dead. In that case, both the Coalition and the SDF – were blamed. In daily reporting for November 7th-8th and November 8th-9th, the Coalition reported two strikes near “Ar Raqqah.”

On the same day – November 8th – between two and five civilians, possibly including two children, were reportedly killed in Al Kalta village.

On November 19th, between 8 and 11 civilians were killed in Bia’as village in an incident that the Coalition has confirmed to Airwars is now under investigation. Width Abdullah (pictured) was among the dead. A similar pattern of heavy casualties from reported airstrikes continued into the next month.

Fadel Abdul Ghani, director of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, points to an incident on December 9th, at a time when SDF forces were able to reach Ja’bar Castle near the city of al Tabaqa. “International forces launched raids to support the progress of the Syrian Democratic Forces and caused dozens of civilian casualties,” Mr Abdul Ghani told Airwars. “The most prominent incident was the bombing of the village of Ma’yezila in northern Raqqa, which is under the control of Daesh – killing 22 civilians, including six children and six women.”

Asked why he thought there was such a lack of international media coverage of the toll inflicted by the anti-ISIL campaign at Raqqa, Mr Abdul Ghani said: “The justification is always there – Daesh.”

The girl Reham Al Haj Saleh, age 13, died in #IntlCoalition warplanes missiles fired on Al Tabaqa city in #Raqqa, Dec 20#Syria pic.twitter.com/VBQQdrzoRk

— Syrian Network (@snhr) December 21, 2016

In 2017, heavy Coalition strikes have continued. On January 6th, another raid northeast of Tabaqa reportedly claimed the lives of at least eight civilians. The Syrian Observatory for Human rights reported that “the death toll is expected to rise because there are some people in a critical situation.”

“The Al-Swidiyyeh massacre is considered the first massacre against civilians carried out by warplanes of the coalition during the year 2017,” said the Observatory.

Donald Trump, inaugurated as US President on January 20th, has promised to “bomb the hell out of ISIS” – making defeat of the terror group a key goal. If the Trump campaign is to match or increase the intensity of the last months of the Obama administration, the civilian toll will only grow. 

Published

January 19, 2017

Written by

Jack Serle
This page is archived from original Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporting on US military actions in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Barack Obama’s foreign policy legacy is often discussed in terms of things he didn’t do: intervene in Syria, reset with Russia, get out of Afghanistan.

In one area however, Obama developed and expanded a defining policy architecture which his successor Donald Trump now inherits: the ability to kill suspected terrorists anywhere without US personnel having to leave their bases.

While his administration lauded the drone programme for being so “surgical and precise” it could take out the enemy without putting “innocent men, women and children in danger”, human rights groups lambasted it for doing just that – hundreds of civilians were reported killed outside active battlefields during Obama’s eight years in power.

As his presidency progressed, Obama put restraints in place aimed at reducing civilian casualties – but experts are now worried those limitations will be swept away by Trump in favour of an “anything goes to get the bad guys” approach.

Armed drones were first used under George W Bush. But it was Obama who dramatically increased their use. Responding to evolving militant threats and the greater availability of remote piloting technology, Obama ordered ten times more counter-terror strikes than his predecessor over the course of his term.

These operations have resulted in the deaths of senior terrorists such as Baitullah Mehsud, the head of the Pakistani Taliban, and Nasser al Wuhayshi, the commander of the Yemeni branch of al Qaeda. But they have also killed civilians, stoked resentment, and helped establish what civil liberties advocates say is the template for an unaccountable forever war.

Demand for drones has been so high under Obama that the Air Force has struggled to train enough new pilots to keep up with the burnout rate. This year it introduced $35,000 a year retention bonuses to try to persuade more drone pilots to stay on, working long hours in windowless rooms.

Secret operations

It is not just that Obama has put more of a certain type of aircraft in the skies. The low-footprint nature of drone strikes – which can be carried out without having personnel in the country being hit – made it politically easier for the US to mount operations in countries with which it was not technically at war.

The Bureau has recorded 546 strikes against suspected terrorists in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan since Obama took office.

These operations have been run by highly secretive organisations – the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command – and have been much less accountable to public scrutiny than conventional military operations. In Iraq and Syria, the Pentagon releases data on most of the strikes it carries out. But the US would neither confirm nor deny the existence of operations in Pakistan until a drone accidentally killed an American civilian in Pakistan in 2015.

The legal justification for these operations comes from one sentence in the piece of legislation passed in the wake of 9/11, which authorised action against the perpetrators and those who helped them. The president was authorised “to use all necessary and appropriate force” against the nations, organisations and people who planned and abetted the attacks, “in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States,” the resolution stated.

In the following 15 years that authorisation was stretched to justify US action as far afield as Libya and Somalia. Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) national security programme, says that the drone campaign has “no meaningful temporal or geographical limits”.

The drone programme has consistently enjoyed popular support among broad swathes of US society. Its advocates say it has saved American lives and reduced the need for messy ground operations like the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Outrage over civilians deaths

But it has also caused outrage. Drones have hit hundreds of ordinary civilians going about their everyday life. Towards the peak of the covert drone war, the Bureau found reports of at least 100 civilians killed during Obama’s first year in power in Pakistan alone. Across his eight years in power the Bureau has recorded between 384 and 807 civilians killed by drones in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. (The Obama administration insists the drone war civilian death toll is substantially lower than that recorded by the Bureau and other civil society organisations.)

Experts warned the civilian casualties could have a radicalising effect on the very societies US drones are trying to eliminate extremists from, and human rights organisations lambasted the targeted killing programme for its “clear violations of international humanitarian law.”

Following such criticisms, drone strike procedures seem to have changed. In 2013, Obama announced that he had signed a piece of Presidential Policy Guidance (PPG), formal policy governing kill or capture missions outside declared battlefields, including drone strikes.

It was the product of four years work, the president said in his 2013 announcement, applying a framework of “clear guidelines, oversight and accountability” to the drone war. This was lacking during the early years of his presidency, Obama said in April last year, when the US drone campaign in Pakistan peaked and the attacks were increasing in frequency in Yemen.

“Continuing imminent threat” rule applied

According to these guidelines, parts of which were published in 2016 after years of legal pressure from the American Civil Liberties Council, strikes were only approved when it had been determined that the targeted individual constituted a “continuing imminent threat”, that there was no way of capturing them, and there was near-certainty that no civilians would be killed.

Reports of civilian casualties in Pakistan plummeted from 52 in 2011 to zero by 2013, suggesting the rules Obama officially announced that year had gradually been adopted in the preceding years.

Ongoing civilian casualties in Yemen suggest the new procedures were not always robustly applied in practice. But they were cautiously welcomed by civil liberties groups as being better than no restrictions at all.

In a further bid to embed policies preventing civilian casualties before leaving office, Obama also issued an Executive Order in 2016. The order called for transparent reporting of civilian casualties in US military operations, including those outside of declared battlefields. White House insiders said the move was a direct response to continued pressure by the Bureau and other organisations which collect and publish data on drone war deaths.

The problem, as Hina Shamsi points out, is that the constraints on the drone programme instituted by Obama are “recognised as a matter of policy not of law.” This means they could be overturned by the Trump administration.

Constraints could be dismantled

Luke Hartig, formerly senior director for counter-terrorism at the National Security Council and now a fellow at the New America Foundation, identified two elements of the PPG as specifically vulnerable.

One is “the continuing, imminent threat” standard, an overarching principle that stipulates a terrorist can only be targeted if their activities pose a real and immediate danger to US citizens.

It could be scrapped because “it speaks to what some critics would say is a legalistic approach from the Obama administration,” Hartig said.

He suggested that the “near-certainty” standard might also be changed – a rule whereby a terrorist can only be taken out if there is near certainty no non-combatants will be killed or injured (except in extraordinary circumstances).

“If you’re in the Trump administration and you’re saying you’re going to be tough on terrorism, some of these standards could be perceived as tying your own hands,” Hartig said.

Hartig stressed however that the PPGs were not the only constraints on drone strikes.

“The PPG also reflects pragmatic realities about civilian casualties, the diplomatic realities surrounding the use of force, and what our operators know based on 15 years of fighting terrorist and insurgent networks,” he said.

“If you loosen the standard on civilian casualties, you may see an increase in such incidents, but it won’t be off the charts because our operators have become so good at preventing collateral damage.”

This caveat was echoed by Christopher Kolenda, a former US military commander in Afghanistan and co-author of a June paper for the Open Society Foundation on civilian casualties in the country.

“I frankly don’t see a doomsday scenario in the near term,” he told the Bureau. “This generation of senior leaders has all experienced Iraq and Afghanistan, and have all experienced the consequences of civilian harm that occurs within laws of armed conflict.

“I can’t see them taking a different approach than what they know to be right.”

Kolenda is worried about the long term however. People retire or move on and “if you don’t have things institutionalised as doctrine some of those lessons are at risk.”

What Trump is planning is anyone’s guess

No-one knows exactly what Donald Trump’s intentions are for the drone programme.

He has selected as National Security Advisor a retired general who has said the religion of Islam is a “cancer”. Michael Flynn was at the heart of the US counter-terrorism campaigns in Pakistan and Afghanistan that saw widespread use of drones. However he was also one of the voices warning that careless drone strikes only served to radicalise populations.

The President-Elect himself has made inflammatory statements while campaigning that could indicate how he will act. He told ecstatic crowds of thousands at his rallies that he would “bomb the shit” out of Islamic State.

In an interview with the Daily Mail last May he suggested he would continue the covert drone war.

“As far as drones are concerned, yes. To take out terrorists,” he said. “The only thing is, I want them to get it right. But to take out terrorists, yes, I would think that that is something I would continue to do.”

What this means in practice however remains unclear.

“I don’t want to talk about it because I do want to be unpredictable in a sense,” said Trump. “I don’t want the enemy to know exactly where I’m coming from.”

Published

January 18, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

Among the dozen nations that are officially a part of the kinetic US-led Coalition fighting ISIL in Iraq and Syria, few are more important – and none potentially more challenging for the Coalition itself – than Turkey.

A NATO member, Turkey shares a border with both Iraq and Syria, and has deployed troops in each. Yet in neither case are the Turkish soldiers there part of Inherent Resolve operations. The Coalition depends heavily for its Syria actions on Incirlik air base in southern Turkey. Yet in recent weeks, Turkey has gone so far as to call in Russian airstrikes during its fight for the key ISIL-occupied Syrian city of Al-Bab – a startling development that Ankara blames on Washington’s refusal to help.

As Airwars observed in its December 2016 audit of the anti-ISIL alliance, “Turkey remains the most ambivalent member of the US-led Coalition – with almost all of its military actions viewed as unilateral by its purported allies.” While Turkey has launched numerous air raids into both Iraq and Syria, Airwars researchers at the time observed that no more than ten had actually been in direct support of Coalition objectives.

Disparate enemies

Underlying all of Turkey’s cross-border actions is a tension between two disparate enemies. Ankara is determined to suppress a domestic Kurdish insurgency, while also reining back ascendant Kurdish forces in both Syria and Iraq. At the same time, Turkey is now directly confronting the so-called Islamic State in the Levant. When Turkey launched an invasion of northern Syria in August 2016, its troops pushed ISIL from a buffer zone along the border. But Turkey also targeted local Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), fresh from their own Coalition-backed victories against the Islamic State.

A female Kurdish soldier sits atop an armored vehicle, allegedly captured from Turkish-backed rebels in rural Aleppo. (Girê Sipî Post, posted October 13, 2016)

The Ankara government considers the YPG to be the Syrian arm of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged an insurgency inside Turkey since the 1980s – often employing terror tactics. In 2013 the Turkish government reached a ceasefire with the rebels – though that deal eroded as the Syrian war progressed. Ankara had to watch as Kurdish irregulars gained prominence and territory in northern Syria, which some said might form part of a future Kurdish state. In 2015 the ceasefire completely collapsed.

In addition to fighting the PKK – along with conducting alleged human rights violations in Kurdish areas of Turkey – the Turkish government has bombed PKK sites in Iraqi Kurdistan (the Kurdish regional government there is not itself allied to the PKK). Complicating matters further, Ankara has insinuated itself into the fight to retake Mosul, basing its troops out of an old military camp near the city since 2015. At least 800 Turkish troops remain at Bashiqa, against the wishes of the government in Baghdad.

Harking back to the Ottoman period when that area of northern Iraq was part of the former empire, Turkey’s President Erdogan insists that it is still a part of his own nation’s zone of influence. Turkish forces have shelled Mosul, reportedly killing civilians, while the US-led Coalition has suggested its presence is not sanctioned. “It is the position of the US and the coalition that anyone that is fighting terrorism in Iraq should be doing so in coordination with the government of Iraq,” Coalition spokesperson Colonel John Dorrian told Airwars in November. 

The Turkish line – that “Iraqi sovereignty is very important to us” but that its own (unwelcome) military presence is “a result of need” as Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said in January 2017 – is contradictory. Yet it is a line the Turks have stood by, as they seek to assert themselves ahead of ISIL’s expected fall in northern Iraq. The Turkish government wants to check Iranian-backed militias in the area, and, it claims, to protect local Turkmen communities with whom leaders in Ankara say they enjoy a kinship and ancestral bonds. From its occupied base at Bashiqa, Turkey has also trained both friendly Kurdish Peshmerga troops, and elements of local Sunni tribal militias who are opposed to ISIL.

“You called us to Bashiqa, and now you are telling us to leave. Excuse me, but I have kin there, I have Turkmen brothers there, Turkish brothers who ask us to come and help,” Erdogan said in October 2016. “Excuse me, but I won’t leave.”

Bogged down at Al-Bab

Advancing swiftly through northern Syria in the early days of its 2016 invasion,Turkey and its local Arab allies in Operation Euphrates Shield now risk becoming bogged down in a bitter struggle for Al-Bab –  a key city where ISIL appears willing to fight to the death. In the wake of heavy troop losses over the past month, Turkey has loudly protested a lack of Coalition air support for its operation to capture the city – an assertion backed by the Coalition’s own strike reports, which show no raids in the vicinity.

The US prefers that the Coalition keeps its Syria focus on ISIL’s self-declared capital of Raqqa, where dozens of strikes have taken place in recent weeks. The Coalition has also poured intense firepower into Mosul, stretching resources between the two fronts. There has also been irritation as the Turks push hard against Washington’s favoured (and mostly Kurdish) SDF allies. Turkey’s defense minister in turn has threatened to cut off US access to Incirlik airbase.

#Aleppo: #ISIS destroyed Turkish army Leopard 2A4 & M60T tanks with ATGM strikes at #Al_Bab. Last photo: abandoned Otokar Cobra. pic.twitter.com/53OWYjwy0n

— WorldOnAlert (@worldonalert) December 24, 2016

Dozens of Turkish troops have been reported killed in the bloody fight for Al-Bab

“US-Turkish relations are not good; the US primarily is trying to prevent the Syrian Kurds and Turkish troops and the Turkish-allied rebels from fighting each other, rather than the Islamic State,” says Aaron Stein, a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.  “Turkish strikes in Syria and Iraq,” he notes, “are not coordinated with the Coalition beforehand.”

As the Al-Bab campaign continued, Turkey reached a ceasefire deal along with Iran and Russia in late December involving the Syrian government and certain rebel groups. Sensing an opening, Russia began cooperating with Turkey at Al-Bab. The tentative set-up came just a year after Turkey shot down a Russian jet along the Syrian border – and just days after the assassination of Russia’s ambassador in Ankara.

Turkish defense officials have confirmed an arrangement with Russia. One military source told the Turkish daily Hurriyet that “We have got the cooperation that we couldn’t get with the [U.S.-led anti-ISIL] coalition with Russia.”

Though remarkable for a member of NATO – particularly one so at odds with Moscow since the start of the Syrian war – the recent deal with Russia could still be viewed as being in line with Turkish self-interest: defeating ISIL, while also preventing a de facto Kurdish state from emerging on the fringes of Syria, Iraq and Turkey. 

A US F-16 takes off from Incirlilk airbase in eastern Turkey. Ankara has threatened to throw the Coalition out if it continues to support Kurdish ‘terrorist’ forces in Syria.

Failed coup

Much has also changed since the failed and bloody coup attempt which sought to overthrow President Erdogan in mid 2016. Since then, Turkish nationalism has been on the rise – and old certainties are under pressure.

“Turkey is officially part of the Coalition, but really since the botched coup attempt of last July, and then the normalization with Russia, there has been so much anti-Americanism that’s been widespread in Turkey,” says Sinan Ulgen, visiting scholar at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“There is hope in Ankara that things will improve – and they can’t be much worse than today with the Obama administration. Not only that [the administration] failed in Syria. but there is widespread belief that the US had consciously moved to undermine Turkey’s position both domestically and in Syria by aligning itself with the Kurds, by arming the [YPG], and by extension the PKK.”

Ulgen estimates that Turkey could take Al-Bab within the next two months. The question then, is what comes next? “If Turkey successfully captures Al-Bab, will that be the end of the Turkish offensive in Syria? Or, as some claim, will Turkish forces then be directed to Manbij?”

Manbij, to the west of the Euphrates, was captured by the Kurds after a bloody, Coalition-backed fight in 2016. The town is now controlled by the SDF, and a Turkish assault may represent a point of no return for the US, which has thus far withstood the dissonance of nominally allying with the Turks and relying on their air bases, while actively and deeply supporting the YPG in Syria – the very force that the Coalition plans to support in taking ISIL’s proclaimed capital of Raqqa.

Major Michael Meyer, a spokesperson for US CENTCOM, told Airwars on January 10th that despite reports that the US was increasing support for Turkish military operations, “there have been no changes to existing US policy regarding support to the Turkish military in Al-Bab and we are not conducting US airstrikes in or near Al-Bab.”

However, a week later the Coalition confirmed on January 17th that the first strikes in support of Turkish forces had in fact taken place.There have been four of these strikes so far,” spokesman Colonel Dorrian told reporters. “And again, we do expect to continue doing these types of strikes in the days ahead.”

What if any deal the US-led Coalition has made with Turkey on air support remains unclear. Any decision of how to proceed with the Turkish government, in any event, will be handed off the President Donald Trump.

“The United States is kind of checked out – everyone is waiting for Trump, and I think that the major players like the Turks have in this sense essentially written off the Obama administration,” Steven Cook, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Airwars. “Putin and his people seemingly want to flip the Turks, and you have a certain amount of receptivity to that in Ankara.”

The risk of that occurring may have been furthered after CENTCOM’s official twitter account posted a statement issued by the SDF, writing underneath that “SDF confirms that it has no affiliation or ties to PKK.” Ibrahim Kalin, press secretary to President Erdogan, tweeted back, “Is this a joke or @CENTCOM has lost its senses? Do you believe anyone will buy this? The US must stop trying to legitimize a terrorist group.”

Is this a joke or @CENTCOM has lost its senses? Do you believe anyone will buy this? The US must stop trying to legitimize a terrorist group

— Ibrahim Kalin (@ikalin1) January 12, 2017

Turkey’s presidential spokesman blasts CENTCOM for its support of ‘terrorists’

Civilians at risk

Any Turkish attack on Manbij would also be ominous for civilians living there. Hundreds already likely died in the US-backed campaign to oust Islamic State from the city and its environs in 2016.  A fresh Turkish assault would inevitably lead to more casualties. The Syrian Observatory estimates that at least 280 civilians – including 100 women and children – have already been killed by Turkey and its allies since they invaded northern Syria five months ago.

On December 9th – to take a recent example – local reports indicated that at least 13 civilians died in an airstrike on Al-Bab. Citing an ISIL media affiliate, Al Jazeera said two families were among the dead and blamed multiple “Turkish airstrikes.” The Syrian Observatory also blamed the Turkish military, while the Syrian Network for Human Rights blamed the Coalition. While Airwars has classed the incident as “contested,” the Coalition did not report strikes in the area on that date – and it appears most likely that Turkey was to blame on this occasion.

“The picture is often not clear, and you often don’t know with strikes – you have some sources saying it’s Turkey, some saying it’s Russia, some saying it’s the Syrian regime,” says Kinda Haddad, chief Syria researcher at Airwars, who has tracked local reports on Aleppo governorate for two years. “That said, there was clearly a very obvious spike in allegations of civilian casualties from Turkish strikes in the second half of last year. As with the Russians and the Syrian government, they deny the civilian casualties.”

Yet without US air support, the current Turkish attempt to take Al-Bab and possibly Manbij could be even bloodier for non-combatants. As a recent Washington Institute study assessed, “Turkey will eventually take Al-Bab with or without U.S. help, likely by shelling the city and otherwise causing heavy civilian casualties.”

“Erdogan might then apply the same technique to Manbij if the SDF has not withdrawn by then, leaving Washington with the prospect of major civilian carnage, direct Turkish-Kurdish military confrontation, and further interference by the Russians, who would likely insert themselves as arbiters between Ankara and the Kurds,” the assessment concluded.

Airwars reached out to both the Turkish mission to the UN and its embassy in Washington for comment on this article. As of publication, neither had responded.

With the forthcoming inauguration of Donald Trump on January 20th, US policy remains very much in flux. The recent Obama approach – going after ISIL, while dodging tough decisions about whether Kurdish ground proxies or NATO ally Turkey are more important to US interests –  may not sustain. The potential for new, explosive violence and needless civilian casualties in both Iraq and Syria remains a serious threat.