US-led Coalition in Iraq & Syria

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

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Published

April 8, 2022

Written by

Sanjana Varghese

International gathering brings nearer a protocol on restricting explosive weapon use in urban areas.

States edged closer to a political declaration on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas on April 8th, after three days of crunch talks in Geneva.

More than 65 states descended on the Swiss city for key talks on the wording of a political declaration that advocates believe would save thousands of lives by restricting the use of wide area effect explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA). Detractors, such as the United States government, argue it would unfairly limit the freedom of their own military actions and have threatened not to sign.

While no final text was agreed upon Friday, all sides struck an optimistic tone at the end of the three-day meet – saying a deal was nearer than ever. Delegates will meet again for one day in two months before an adoption ceremony expected in the summer.

“There are clearly differences of opinion but we have seen a very positive, solution oriented approach,” the chairperson, Ambassador Michael Gaffey of Ireland, said. “We are not simply working on a formula of words in a political declaration –  we want to make a real difference and impact on the ground and foster behavioural change.”

The talks were given additional urgency by the ongoing war in Ukraine, and Russia’s extensive use of explosive weapons on its cities. Moscow did not attend the talks.

Even the United States, widely viewed as one of the most hostile states to a declaration with teeth, struck a more positive tone than in previous meets. “There are still tough drafting issues and decisions ahead, and we have to get them right. The US delegation pledges our goodwill, to help to get to a positive outcome. We look forward to doing so.”

Since 2018, Ireland has chaired consultations on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. In the sessions since, the need for such a declaration – which is not legally binding and so does not create new legal obligations – has only become clearer.

“The draft declaration text holds the potential to make a meaningful contribution to the protection of civilians, and negotiations over the past few days have overall been constructive,” Laura Boillot of INEW, a network of NGOs pushing for the protocol, told Airwars.

“But decisions will now need to be made if the final text is going to have humanitarian effect. Most importantly it needs to establish a presumption against the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in towns, cities and other populated areas.”

It will be a failure to leave this room agreeing that simply restating existing laws will reduce civilian harm – a failure for all of us who came here with the intention to reduce that harm in the first place." @alma_osta in HI concluding remarks at #EWIPA negotiations today. pic.twitter.com/pTKpgfqWWU

— HI_Advocacy (@HI_Advocacy) April 8, 2022

Civil society groups and international agencies made a strong case for restricting EWIPA.

Three days of consultations

During three days of focused talks, several key fissures bubbled. While states in attendance – and civil society organisations – repeatedly emphasised the shared desire to produce a tangible and meaningful political declaration that could help save civilian lives on the ground, the practicalities of the process made clear that good intentions weren’t going to be enough.

On the first day of the informal consultations on April 6th, states made general remarks – affirming their support for the proceedings as well as their national positions – after an introductory statement from Ireland, the penholder.

In these general remarks, most states tended towards re-affirming the positions they had made clear in previous negotiations. On the hawkish side, the UK, US, Israel and Canada all emphasized that their positions as militarily active states meant that they would not sign a declaration in its current form, which included strong language about avoiding the use of explosive weapons in urban areas. Throughout the week, the delegates from these countries could often be seen meeting as a bloc outside of formal proceedings.

Many of the sticking points that emerged on the first day continued to dominate both the main floor and side conversations. The predominant line of argument was between those who argued that the declaration needed only to reaffirm the importance of international humanitarian law and provide further guidance about how to do so in this context; and those who asserted that this declaration needed to strengthen existing commitments and add new ones for states around the use of explosive weapons.

The second day of discussions took a more technical turn, with the majority of interventions focused on the wording of specific clauses and paragraphs of the text.

Clause 3.3, which attracted much attention in previous consultations, was once  again hotly debated. It is one of the first clauses in Section B, the operative section – which lays out the actions that states have to comply with if they choose to sign onto the declaration.

In the current draft, Clause 3.3 says states must: “Ensure that our armed forces adopt and implement a range of policies and practices to avoid civilian harm, including by restricting or refraining from the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas, when the effects may be expected to extend beyond a military objective.”

The bulk of the discussion around this clause was on the second sentence, as many states intervened on the use of “restricting or refraining,” with some suggesting it was strong enough while others lobbied instead for the use of “avoid”.

A split between the majority of civil society organisations and militarily-powerful states was apparent during these parts of the discussions, with NGOs and international agencies pushing for stronger language, rather than trying to place limits on what kinds of civilian harm would be protected under this new declaration.

Airwars’ incoming director and current head of research Emily Tripp also made an intervention – emphasising how crucial it was for states to actually track civilian harm.

Airwars’ incoming director Emily Tripp addresses a UN-backed conference on explosive weapons in Geneva on April 7th, 2022 (Image: Airwars)

At the end of day two INEW, one of the organisers, named nine states – Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Israel, the Republic of Korea, Sweden, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States – that it said had “worked to weaken declaration provisions.” The UK delegation, for example, agreed that tracking civilian harm was a ‘moral obligation,’ but then highlighted ways in which it claimed this was not feasible – arguing that live hostilities made it near impossible to monitor casualties properly.

But INEW also said that there had been a “shift in the collective tone set by states since the last round of negotiations, with more governments explicitly committed to strengthening the protection of civilians through the declaration.”

The statement said this was likely as a response to the bombing of Ukrainian towns and cities, and the Ukraine crisis loomed large over the conflict. Not only did the majority of states open their remarks with condemnation of the Russian aggression in Ukraine, many also emphasised the importance of a meaningful political declaration with specific reference to Ukrainian cities and towns such as Mariupol, Bucha and Khrarkiv.

There was also an emphasis on the value of protecting civilian objects and infrastructure, such as schools and hospitals, with states such as Mexico and the delegate for the Holy See (which holds observer state) urging specific language around the need to protect hospitals, blood transfusion centres, and environmental and religious sites.

Speaking at the end of the latest talks, Ambassador Gaffey said Ireland and organisers would review the submissions from all parties before a month or two of further work on the text. He said states and NGOs would then hold a final one-day consultation in a couple of months, before a political adoption ceremony where states would declare their support for the text.

As Alma Taslidžan Al-Osta, of Humanity and Inclusion, noted in her own concluding remarks to delegates: “Eleven years in Syria, seven years in Yemen and over a month in Ukraine have taught us that explosive weapons with wide area effects should not be used in towns, cities and populated areas. The status quo is no longer an option.”

Civilians increasingly bear the brunt of modern conflicts. Addressing the devastating harm to civilians from Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas is a priority for 🇮🇪. We welcome states, international organisations and civil society to consultations in Geneva this week #EWIPA pic.twitter.com/pAyglwZO9D

— Disarmament IRELAND (@DisarmamentIRL) April 6, 2022

Ireland chaired Geneva talks on restricting urban use of explosive weapons

▲ The three-day EWIPA conference in Geneva sought to reach a deal on the use of explosive weapons in urban environments (Airwars)

Published

April 7, 2022

Written by

Sanjana Varghese

Crunch talks in Geneva aim to hammer out protocol on explosive weapons in urban areas

The shadow of the Ukraine conflict loomed large over the first day of the informal UN-backed consultations on a political declaration on restricting the use of wide area effect explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA), currently underway in Geneva.

Delegates from more than 65 nations have gathered to fine tune the language of the political declaration, along with more than 15 civil society organisations including Airwars. The chairperson, Michael Gaffey of Ireland, opened the proceedings by calling for a minute of silence for Ukraine.

Nujeen Mustafa, who had fled the war in Aleppo, then powerfully testified via a video message, saying, “throughout history, diplomats have discussed world problems while sitting at a table with a nice coffee. People trapped in a conflict zone cannot do that. Today, you have the possibility to change a terrible situation and protect civilians.”

Nujeen Mustafa, a Syrian who fled Aleppo after it was largely destroyed by explosive weapons, addresses delegates:“While you’ve been negotiating whether a declaration should be made, 11,076 people have fallen victim to these weapons" she sayshttps://t.co/DI9vYhD6nq

— Airwars (@airwars) April 6, 2022

While there are two days of discussion left before proceedings close on Friday evening, many of the most pressing issues arose in proceedings on Wednesday – particularly as states laid out their own positions during opening remarks. Here are five key themes from the first day of EWIPA negotiations.

1. The conflict in Ukraine adds a sense of urgency

The first statement was made by the Ukrainian delegate, who noted that “our cities and towns have been turned into dead ash because of the use of these explosive weapons” – highlighting a new sense of urgency and relevance which the negotiations have taken on.

Every delegate who spoke made reference to the Ukraine conflict, with many emphasising that the violent and horrific violence against Ukrainian civilians must move states to act more effectively. The French delegate noted that Russia did not attend the proceedings, while the Japanese delegation emphasised the importance of documenting civilian harm in Ukraine.

Many other states called on Russia to cease its aggression and indiscriminate bombing of civilians and it was noted multiple times that Russia’s campaign has targeted and destroyed civilian neighbourhoods using wide area effect explosive weapons – referring to the scenes of destruction in Kherson, Mariupol, and Kharkiv.

2.  The gap between ‘IHL is enough’ and ‘IHL does not go far enough’

Broadly the delegates and countries fall into two groups – those that believe international humanitarian law (IHL) is enough to protect civilians under attack in urban areas – and those that argue more is needed to protect civilians.

States such as the USA, UK, France and Israel argued that any political declaration could not introduce new legal requirements (which it cannot) and that the requirements currently set out under IHL should be sufficient protection for civilians. Currently, these frameworks emphasise for example that deliberately attacking civilians and civilian infrastructure constitutes a violation of IHL – and that any military actions must be both proportionate, and distinguish between civilians and combatants.

Those backing strong wording to the political declaration text – from Ireland to the ICRC – insist that adherence to IHL alone is not doing enough to protect civilians during much urban fighting.

The US nevertheless called on those states gathered not to produce an “unrealistic impression” that civilians would not be harmed in conflict, while emphasising that explosive weapons are “considered a legitimate and lawful means of warfare when used in accordance with IHL.”

But other states, as well as civil society organisations such as Human Rights Watch, emphasised that any resolution which merely restated the value of IHL – and how states must abide by it – would effectively be useless, as it would be an iteration of what states have already committed to.

States such as Finland and Sweden remarked that there are gaps within IHL around EWIPA , and mere compliance with IHL is not enough to protect civilians.  This has been an ongoing fissure during previous consultations, and continues to be a major fault line.

3.  Reverberating effects

The particularities of the language used in the eventual political declaration are at the heart of the ongoing consultations in Geneva – with discussions about whether to “avoid” or “restrict” the use of explosive weapons in populated areas already a key sticking point.

An additional area of tension appears to the so-called “reverberating effects” of EWIPA, which are essentially the long-term effects.

An example of a reverberating effect would be the destruction of a bridge. If destroyed, it has the immediate effect of removing a crucial piece of civilian infrastructure. But even after the conflict finishes the destruction could also mean that people can’t travel across a certain river, making it harder to access other kinds of civilian infrastructure such as hospitals or schools.

These long-term impacts were the subject of much discussion on Wednesday – with some states, such as the US, Israel, and the UK all noting that ‘reverberating effects’ is neither a legal term nor – they claimed – a widely accepted term with a clear definition. The US also said it would not accept a ‘novel’ term such as reverberating effects in the eventual political declaration.

However, civil society organisations such as PAX and observer states such as the Vatican suggested that it would be difficult to meaningfully understand the full implications of how civilian populations were impacted without incorporating ‘reverberating’ effects.

4. Focus on the humanitarian impacts

The Holy See opened its own remarks by noting that it believes conventional weapons should be named “weapons of mass displacement,” a nod to the ongoing long term effects that explosive weapons can have. The Danish Refugee Council also noted that the use of EWIPA can contribute to displacement, and in time, continuously produce forms of renewed displacement.

Some other states such as Uruguay emphasised the need to collect and monitor the impacts of EWIPA on specific groups – such as those with disabilities, or those who face discrimination because of their gender. Organisations such as CIVIC, PAX and Humanity and Inclusion also spoke about the psychological and mental effects of the use of explosive weapons, notably the need for a survivor-centric approach to any kind of political declaration.

 5. The impact of non-state actors 

While the political declaration is primarily a matter between states, the UK, Israel, the US and others asked that the considerations around EWIPA must also extend to non-state actors, such as armed groups, in the interest of maintaining what they termed a balanced account of how explosive weapons are actually used in populated areas.

The US noted for example that “the declaration has to make it clear that all belligerents, including non-state armed groups, must take steps to address the harms to civilians and civilian objects.” The Turkish delegation argued that asking non-state actors to really consider these impacts would also mean they would be considered as legitimate parties to an international armed conflict – which they are currently, for the most part, not.

The declaration has to make it clear that all belligerents, including non state armed groups, must take steps to address the harms to civilians and civilian objects,” says the USA, intervening for the second time today. pic.twitter.com/cNBYvzncqN

— Airwars (@airwars) April 6, 2022

▲ MPs from various European countries attend the first day of EWIPA talks on April 6, 2022 (Photo: INEW)

Published

March 31, 2022

Written by

Sanjana Varghese

US-led coalition against Islamic State had not admitted harming civilians in eight months

The US-led International Coalition has quietly admitted to killing 18 more civilians in Iraq and Syria and injuring a further 11, its first such public concession in eight months.

On March 10th, Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) – the US-led coalition against the so-called Islamic State – quietly released on its website its first public civilian harm assessment since July 2021. It assessed a total of 63 incidents dating back to 2015, of which 10 were assessed to be ‘credible’ – meaning the Coalition accepted causing civilian harm.

The statement conceded that 18 civilians were killed and 11 were injured cumulatively in these ten events. Matching the incidents to its own archive, Airwars put the likely casualty numbers far higher for these events, with between 45 and 166 civilians reportedly killed. The remaining 53 incidents were deemed ‘non-credible.’

Unlike previous Coalition announcements on civilian harm, there was no accompanying public press statement or social media commentary. In a phone call to Airwars, CENTCOM confirmed it had published the information without any public announcement.

The release came after US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had ordered a comprehensive review into US military civilian harm processes following intense media scrutiny. As the Coalition itself noted in its opening paragraph, “this report is released as part of the commitment by the U.S. government to increased transparency and accountability.”

In total since the beginning of the war against ISIS in 2014, OIR has assessed 3,034 incidents of reported civilian harm from its air and artillery strikes. The alliance has only conceded 360 of these events to be credible allegations of civilian harm, according to Airwars analysis.

While the Coalition now concedes killing, overall, at least 1,437 civilians in its long war against the Islamic State, Airwars believes the likely tally is in fact at least 8,192 to 13,243 civilians killed.

Decline in releases

Civilian harm assessments released by the US-led Coalition were published monthly for a number of years, although they have significantly dropped in frequency since 2020. Last year, only seven such reports were released – four of them in the month of July. This was the first report since then.

Of the 10 incidents designated credible by the Coalition in its new report, seven were referrals from Airwars’ own archive. We were able to match an eighth event which was referred via both Amnesty and Airwars, to an incident within Airwars’ own database.

In only two of the eight events in the Airwars database admitted by CENTCOM did its own civilian casualty estimates match the public record. In the other six, US military concessions were far lower than the figures local communities had reported.

One of the ten ‘credible’ civilian harm incidents occurred on June 9th 2017 in Raqqa, during the most intense period of fighting for that city. Eight members of the al-Nasser family, including four children, were killed by a Coalition airstrike when their family home was hit. Najma Fadawi al-Nasser, whose 60 year old brother Faddawi was killed in the attack, had briefly left her cousin’s home when the strike happened. As she later told Amnesty “we were together and then I went to my cousins’ house across the road and my brother’s house was bombed and they were all killed. Why did they kill innocent people?” The incident was initially assessed by the Coalition as non credible. Now, four years later, the Coalition has conceded that eight civilians “were unintentionally killed due to their proximity to the strike.”

A further 53 incidents in the new report were assessed or reassessed by the Coalition to be  ‘non-credible.’ A range of reasons are usually given for such categorisation, including  ‘no strikes were conducted in the geographical area’; or that the ‘original allegations did not have sufficient information on the time and location of the incident’. However, these 53 incidents were all – highly unusually – designated as ‘non-credible’ for the same reason: that “after review of all available evidence it was determined that more likely than not civilian casualties did not occur as a result of a Coalition strike”.

Along with basic information about each incident, the Coalition’s own assessments also included an MGRS code, a military variation of latitude and longitude coordinates, which makes it possible to geolocate where each incident is alleged to have happened. Airwars found that at least one of the ‘non credible’ incidents had a location code in Turkey, indicating an error.

New York Times investigation

One of the ‘credible’ incidents in the new report, in Baghouz, Syria in March 2019, had previously been rejected twice by the Coalition as ‘non-credible’. A blockbuster New York Times investigation into the event recently led the Department of Defense to open an investigation into the incident – despite CENTCOM still classifying it as ‘non-credible’. While Airwars estimates that between 20 and 100 civilians were likely killed as a result of this strike, CENTCOM itself now says, “Regrettably, four civilians were unintentionally killed due to their proximity to the strike.” The release does not detail how this number was reached, or why it has only conceded four.

In January 2022, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered a 90-day review into the Baghouz event and associated processes, which is due to publish by the end of April. Given that ongoing investigation by a four star US general – which Airwars has assisted – it remains possible that CENTCOM may yet release a fourth assessment of the event.

Speaking about the latest Coalition civilian harm release, incoming Airwars Director Emily Tripp noted: “While we welcome the release of these civilian harm assessments, it is clear that there still needs to be radical improvement in DoD processes.”

“We are seeking clarity in particular on when the remaining 37 open cases will be reviewed, as well as further information from DoD on their civilian harm assessment standards.”

▲ The aftermath of alleged Coalition shelling of Al Baghouz camp, March 18th - 19th 2019, which allegedly killed dozens of civilians (via Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently)

Published

February 21, 2022

Written by

Imogen Piper, Joe Dyke and Sanjana Varghese

Coalition's 'request for information' system in the spotlight in light of New York Times document release

For many years during the international air campaign against the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), Airwars participated in information sharing with the US-led Coalition on civilian harm incidents. When local Syrian and Iraqi sources alleged civilians had been killed or injured, the Coalition would review the event and on occasion ask Airwars for specific details. These official Requests for Information (RFIs) ranged from seeking the coordinates of a specific building, to requesting details about how many civilians died in particular strikes or neighbourhoods.

Airwars’ team would then pore over our own archives; geolocate events by exploiting every piece of known information; and then send back a detailed response. While there were periods when our public relations with the Coalition were fraught, we continued to work privately with its civilian harm assessment team over several years, in the hope that our technical assistance would lead to more recognition of civilian harm.

Yet a newly published trove of more than 1,300 previously classified military assessments, released by The New York Times after a lengthy lawsuit, has highlighted that the US-led Coalition’s internal reporting processes for civilian harm were often defective and unreliable. This, The Times claims, led the Coalition to radically underestimate the number of Syrian and Iraqi civilians it killed.

Those 1,300 assessments of civilian harm also provide an opportunity to assess how the Coalition itself carried out the RFI process.

Airwars selected a sample of 91 incidents between December 2016 and October 2017. In each case, the US-led Coalition had specifically reached out to Airwars requesting further details on alleged civilian harm. In 70 of these cases, we were able to match our response directly to declassified assessments in the Times database.

The results are concerning.

In total, in only three of the 70 cases where the Coalition asked Airwars for more information did it eventually go on to accept causing civilian harm. The other 67 incidents were deemed ‘non-credible.’

In 37 of the cases we were able to provide exactly the information they requested. In the other 33 cases we provided as much as possible, often including specific locations and details on victims.

Airwars’ monitoring has found that at least 8,168 civilians have been killed by the US-led Coalition during the campaign against ISIS. The Coalition, however, has accepted responsibility for 1,417.

‘No specific information’

We identified three worrying trends in how our information was treated during the RFI process. The first was that the Coalition sometimes closed assessments before we had even provided our feedback, or did not reopen them when new information was provided.

On April 30th, 2017, three civilians were reportedly killed in an apparent airstrike near a roundabout in Tabaqa in western Raqqa province, Syria, with up to eighteen more people wounded. All sources attributed the attack to the US-led Coalition that was, at the time, involved in one of the most intense stretches of its grinding campaign against ISIS – striking dozens of targets a day.

The three civilians who died were reportedly women, although their identities remain unknown. Ongoing fighting in the area had led to mass displacement of civilians and the ones who stayed behind were often trapped between ISIS and the US-led Coalition. Local sources reported the attack had hit a civilian neighbourhood near the ‘church roundabout.’

In the middle of 2017, Airwars wrote to the Coalition raising concerns about this incident.

Later that year, the Coalition opened up an initial assessment on the event. Its own civilian casualty assessment team wrote to Airwars on November 22nd with a simple question: “​​What are the coordinates for the alleged CIVCAS?”

Shortly afterwards, Airwars provided close coordinates for the event to the Coalition following work by our own geolocations team as documented below.

We also included a satellite image of the likely location – a 350 x 260m area north east of the roundabout.

Yet we now know that some time before our email was sent, the Coalition had privately deemed the event to be ‘non-credible’. It asserted that the claim needed to “be more specific to justify performing a search for strikes.”

Even after receiving Airwars’ response, there is no evidence the case was reopened. A year later, a press release declared that there was “insufficient information of the time, location and details to assess its credibility.” To date the US-led Coalition still does not accept responsibility for the deaths of those three women.

In total we tracked at least 18 such cases where the Coalition had already closed case files before we had responded. In none of these cases was there any evidence they reopened the file.

A second dispiriting trend was how rarely Airwars’ work actually prompted further review by the Coalition.

As the New York Times files show, the vast majority of Coalition probes stopped at the initial assessment stage – essentially a series of yes/no boxes where a single ‘no’ leads to the allegation being deemed ‘non-credible.’ In only seven of the 70 cases where we provided information did this lead to additional review steps being taken – in most cases turning an initial assessment into a Civilian Casualty Assessment Report (CCAR). These are slightly longer assessments but again often end in non-credible determinations.

If the evidence is more significant – or if there are claims of a breach of the laws of war –  a third, far more extensive, investigation called an AR15-6 could be carried out. We did not find any cases in the sample that went as far as an AR15-6, even among the three cases deemed credible by Inherent Resolve.

‘Thicker walls’

A third trend was that in cases where Airwars itself was not able, from local reporting, to specify exactly which civilians were killed in particular locations, the Coalition almost always rejected such allegations.

Particularly during intense urban fighting, local reports of civilian harm often comprise casualties from a number of weapon releases across an area over a period of time, which can make it difficult to ascertain the exact location where each victim was harmed. This would have been especially challenging during 2017, the most intense year of bombing in Iraq and Syria, when the sheer number of Coalition strikes made allegations even harder to disentangle.

When a few incidents were reported in the same area, the Coalition would often request that we specify which civilian harm occurred in which location. In 15 cases, the Coalition decided that, rather than search multiple areas they would instead close the assessment, using justifications such as “the CIVCAS numbers need to be broken up into the neighbourhoods that they belong to.”

A typical case was the strikes on January 3rd 2017 which killed up to 22 civilians and injured 29 more in eastern Mosul, reportedly targeting two houses close together. Two children were among those reported killed. Only one of the fatal victims – Younis Hassan Abdullah al-Badrani – was named in reports.

An RFI sent by Coalition assessors asked Airwars which civilian casualties were attributed to which of three named neighbourhoods in Mosul –  Mushayrifa, Hermat, Ma’moon. We replied back with the exact time and coordinates of an airstrike in Ma’moon, although we also noted that sources did not differentiate between the three proximate neighbourhoods when attributing civilian casualties. The corresponding document published by the New York Times shows the Coalition investigation was then closed and deemed ‘non-credible’ on the grounds that there were no Coalition strikes in Mushayrifa, even though we had provided an exact location in Ma’moon. It’s unclear whether the Coalition assessors ever investigated all of the three neighbourhoods identified.

Other claimed civilian harm events were closed despite there being credible information provided not just by Airwars, but also in detailed investigations by other major NGOs –  such as an airstrike on April 28th 2017, where multiple members of two families were killed in a residential home on Palestine Street in Tabaqa, Syria.

Fifteen members of the Dalo family, including five children under the age of ten, and three members of the al Miri’i family, were killed by a suspected Coalition airstrike at 4pm. A Human Rights Watch investigation released months later spoke to the owner of the house that had been flattened, who said he had given the Dalo family his keys as his house had thicker walls than their own. HRW also found the remnants of a Hellfire missile at the scene – which was linked back to Lockheed Martin, one of the US military’s largest contractors.

Despite this wealth of evidence, the US-led Coalition maintained there was insufficient information about the location, time and date – despite Airwars providing coordinates for the district that Palestine Street was in, as close as we could get with limited satellite imagery. Airwars also provided an exact date for the incident, as Coalition assessors were unsure about whether this incident took place on April 28th or May 3rd. After speaking directly with local sources, Airwars determined that the incident took place on April 28th, although cleanup efforts led to bodies being pulled from the rubble several days later.

None of this detailed information appeared to influence the Coalition – which deemed the event ‘non credible.’

How it should work

Our limited review of the Times documents did reveal at least one instance where Airwars provided information which then helped change the internal designation of an incident from non-credible to credible. This, in theory, was how the system was meant to operate.

On March 21st 2017, between 10 and 20 civilians were reported killed and dozens more injured when Coalition airstrikes targeted multiple locations in Tabaqa, Syria. A number of buildings, including a gas depot, a carwash, garages, shops and the area around the hospital were reportedly damaged.

In October, the Coalition asked Airwars for the locations of each of these sites. We provided exact coordinates for the majority, while providing neighbourhood-level coordinates for the remainder, alongside annotated satellite imagery.

Unusually, the Coalition then used this information to review its own strike database. Three corroborating strikes were identified, of which two were assessed to have led to civilian harm – one death and one injury. However, even here, the extent of the Coalition’s admission starkly contrasts with the number of fatalities and injuries reported by local sources. While the Coalition assessment claims it is ‘more likely than not’ that one civilian was killed and another injured as a result of these strikes, local sources insisted that between 10-20 civilians were killed, and up to 36 more injured in the same incident.

This RFI response by Airwars appears to have been no more or less remarkable than the other 36 cases where we provided the Coalition with exact information as requested. Yet it is the exception in terms of the event being officially deemed credible.

Were the Coalition to have treated those other 36 cases in the same manner, it might have accepted responsibility for at least 50 more civilian fatalities. Instead these civilians remain uncounted, and their families’ questions unanswered.

“We are only beginning to get to grips with this vast trove of formerly secret Coalition assessments – yet what we are finding already troubles us deeply,” says Airwars research manager Emily Tripp. “Iraqis and Syrians deserve far better than the inconsistencies, poor work and disinterest in casualty estimates which are demonstrated, again and again, by these official documents.”

Published

February 9, 2022

Written by

Airwars Staff

Header Image

President Joe Biden in the Oval Office, November 2021 (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

“For two decades, U.S. operations overseas have killed tens of thousands of civilians around the world – primarily from Brown, Black, and Muslim communities.”

On February 8th, Airwars joined its voice with 104 other organisations – including human rights, humanitarian, protection of civilians, peacebuilding, civil liberties, social and racial justice, government accountability, veterans, and faith based NGOs – to call for President Joe Biden to act urgently to overhaul US civilian harm policies and practises.

Recent New York Times investigations have documented significant shortcomings in how the US government – and its allies – monitors, investigates, and accounts for civilian harm as a result of its own military action. These have shown how the US military has routinely rejected civilian harm incidents, with decisions often riddled with basic errors, translation problems, or a lack of judgement and oversight. The Times reports echo years of similar findings by casualty monitors and human rights investigators.

There is now renewed attention within Congress and the Department of Defense on the vital changes needed, for example with the announcement of a Pentagon inquiry into how the military covered up civilian harm in Baghouz, and during recent sessions of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“As an organisation committed to reducing civilian harm in the battlefield, we join our many partners in urging President Biden to publicly recognise systemic and structural flaws in the US military’s approach to civilian casualties,” says Airwars advocacy officer Georgia Edwards. “Fulfilling his earlier pledges on human rights and moral leadership, he must now set a new course for the US government and military which opens up pathways to justice and accountability for civilians affected by US military actions.”

▲ President Joe Biden in the Oval Office, November 2021 (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

Published

January 28, 2022

Written by

Sanjana Varghese

Civilian harm reduction proposals cautiously welcomed by NGOs - but delivery will be key.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has announced major proposals to overhaul how the US military monitors, assesses and documents when its actions kill civilians, a move warily welcomed by human rights and civilian harm mitigation NGOs.

Building on years of documentation by groups like the Syrian Network for Human Rights and Airwars, since late 2021 the New York Times has produced a series of deep investigations documenting systemic flaws in the way US military operations track casualties from their strikes. These revelations have prompted further scrutiny of the US military’s approach to civilian harm and raised pressures on the Biden administration to intervene.

In a directive released on January 27th, Austin announced a major shake-up of Department of Defense (DoD) policies on civilian harm reduction, including the establishment of a ‘civilian protection center of excellence’.

“The protection of innocent civilians in the conduct of our operations remains vital to the ultimate success of our operations and as a significant strategic and moral imperative,” Austin told reporters.

The directive gives the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Dr Colin Kahl, 90 days to prepare a “comprehensive” Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan, or CHMRAP, that emphasises that “efforts to protect civilians are the responsibility of all leaders throughout the (DoD), always, and not only that of our commanders and personnel in the field in the execution of missions assigned.”

Austin’s directive also paves the way for the establishment of a new ‘civilian protection center of excellence’ which according to DoD, will enable it to “better expedite and institutionalize the advancement of our knowledge, practices, and tools for preventing, mitigating, and responding to civilian harm.”

And there are also plans to shake up how the Pentagon collects, shares and learns from casualty data; to re-examine the issue of condolence payments to victims; and to “Incorporate guidance for addressing civilian harm across the full spectrum of armed conflict into doctrine and operational plans, so that we are prepared to mitigate and respond to civilian harm in any future fight.”

The CHMRAP will then itself feed into a forthcoming Department of Defense Instruction, or DODI – a long awaited department-wide policy on civilian harm reduction. Airwars was among more than a dozen US and international NGOs which engaged extensively with the Pentagon on the DODI – which has been awaiting a signature since November 2020, when drafting was completed.

According to Austin, the DODI “should be informed by the CHMRAP and presented to the Secretary of Defense  for signature within 90 days of the CHMRAP’s conclusion” – meaning it should come into force by late July.

“Austin’s directive and the promised release of the DODI could be a crucial step towards standardising the US military’s approach to civilian harm assessments across US commands,” Emily Tripp, Airwars’ research manager, said.

Marc Garlasco, a military advisor at PAX and former civilian harm assessor with NATO, was among those cautiously welcoming the Pentagon announcements. “The memo sends a strong message that civilian harm mitigation (CHM) is not simply an issue for counterinsurgency. The US military is embracing CHM as it shifts to great power competition,” he said in a thread on Twitter.

🧵 on today's memo on "Improving Civilian Harm Mitigation & Response" by @SecDef. The memo is welcome focus from the highest level of @DeptofDefense showing leadership & taking ownership of the issue of civilian harm. Allow me to cover the salient points both pro & con 1/ #CIVCAS https://t.co/BJ83W6mXX9

— Marc Garlasco (@marcgarlasco) January 28, 2022

Critical study

On the same day that Secretary Austin announced his shakeup, the RAND Corporation also published a major Congressionally-mandated review of the US military’s approaches to mitigating civilian harm.

The deep-dive report, ‘US Department of Defense Civilian Casualty Policies and Procedures,’ argues that while the DoD may have made progress in some areas, “additional concrete steps are overdue.”

RAND points to several weaknesses in the DoD’s own policies and procedures – including that military officials often did not “sufficiently engage external sources” such as Airwars before they concluded investigations and designated them as non-credible; that investigations are often treated as independent of each other and so levels of detail between them vary widely; and that military assessments are often subject to long delays.

Several graphics in the report demonstrate the often extreme gap between US military estimates of civilian harm, and those of NGOs such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Airwars – noting that in Syria in 2019, more than 1,100 civilian deaths were locally alleged from US actions, yet with only 21 fatalities so far officially admitted.

The RAND report makes a number of recommendations, noting that many were called for several years ago. These include incorporating civilian harm assessments into intelligence estimates; reducing the eligibility conditions for those who can claim ex gratia payments; and implementing a standardised civilian harm reporting process across conflicts.

Airwars was among several stakeholders which met with RAND during the drafting of the report. “Many of the critical recommendations in this valuable study have long been requested by the NGO community and by Congress – and we urge the Biden Administration to now act swiftly,” Airwars director Chris Woods said.

▲ US Vice President Kamala Harris, President Joe Biden and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, tour the Pentagon on February 10th 2021 (Official White House photo by Adam Schultz)

Published

December 22, 2021

Written by

Imogen Piper and Joe Dyke

Official military data shows a 54 percent decline in strikes across all US conflicts during Biden’s year in office.

There has been much speculation in recent weeks about what President Biden’s first year in office shows us about his foreign policy – and in particular whether he is ending 20 years of America’s so-called ‘forever wars’.

As 2021 nears its end, Airwars reached out to US combatant commands to request strike data for conflicts. Coupled with the long-delayed release of crucial strike data from Afghanistan, Airwars can assess for the first time what the ‘war on terror’ looks like under Joe Biden.

The biggest take-home is that Biden has significantly decreased US military action across the globe.

Overall, declared US strikes have fallen by 54% globally during 2021

In total, declared US strikes across all five active US conflict zones – Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Syria and Yemen – fell from 951 actions in 2020, to 439 by mid December 2021, a decrease of 54 percent. This is by far the lowest declared annual US strike number since at least 2004, and reflects a broader trend of declining US actions in recent years.

During 2021, the overwhelming majority of US strikes (372) took place in Afghanistan prior to withdrawal on August 31st. In fact, the United States carried out more than five times as many strikes in Afghanistan this year than in all other active US conflict zones combined.

If you were to remove Afghanistan from the data, the United States has declared just 67 strikes across the globe so far in 2021.

Afghanistan dominated US military actions during 2021

Civilian casualties also down

This trend is also reflected in far lower numbers of civilians allegedly killed by US strikes. During 2021, there were no credible local allegations of civilians likely killed by US strikes in Iraq, Libya, Pakistan or Yemen.

However,  at least 11 civilians were likely killed by US actions in Syria. In Afghanistan at least 10 civilians were confirmed killed by US actions. That latter figure is almost certainly higher, since we now know the US dropped more than 800 munitions on Taliban and Islamic State fighters during the year. At least some of those strikes were in urban areas where civilians are particularly at risk. However exact estimates remain elusive, due to ongoing confusion between US strikes and those carried out by Afghan security forces up to August.

In Somalia one civilian was locally reported killed by US strikes, though this occurred before Biden assumed office on January 20th.

Biden is partly continuing a trend seen in recent years – the number of strikes has largely fallen since 2016 when the war with the so-called Islamic State reached its apex. Below, we provide breakdowns of both US and allied airstrikes and locally reported civilian casualties – as well as emerging trends – for each individual conflict.

Over the length of the ‘War on Terror’, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 still marks the highest number of declared US strikes.

Afghanistan

On December 17th 2021, Biden’s administration finally released strike data for the final two years of the Afghanistan war. Such monthly releases were standard practice for nearly two decades but were stopped in March 2020, with the Trump administration arguing that their ongoing release could jeopardise peace talks with the Taliban. The Biden administration then chose to continue with that secrecy.

Now we can see why. The new releases show that despite a ‘peace’ agreement with the Taliban signed on February 29th 2020, under which the US was expected to withdraw in 14 months, the Pentagon continued its aggressive aerial campaigns in Afghanistan. Between March and December 2020, more than 400 previously undeclared strikes took place under Trump, while there were at least 300 US strikes in Afghanistan under Biden until August.

In total, almost 800 previously secret recent US airstrikes in Afghanistan during the Trump and Biden administrations have now been declared.

While Airwars does not track allegations of civilian harm in Afghanistan, the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) has done so for more than a decade. Yet the decision by the Pentagon to stop publishing strike data in early 2020 may have led the UN to significantly underestimate casualties from US actions.

In its report detailing civilian casualties in Afghanistan from January to June 2021, UNAMA found that 146 civilians had been killed and 243 injured in airstrikes. Yet it seemed to assume these were all carried out by US-backed Afghan military forces, instead of the US.

“UNAMA…did not verify any airstrike by international military forces that resulted in civilian casualties during the first six months of 2021,” the report asserted. Such assessments will likely now require a fresh review, in the wake of recent US strike data releases.

We do know for certain that ten civilians were killed by US actions after that six-month period, on August 29th this year in Kabul – in the final US drone strike of a 20-year war. The US initially claimed this was a “righteous strike” on an Islamic State terrorist. However investigative journalists quickly showed the victims were in fact an aid worker and nine members of his young family, forcing the military to admit an error. Despite this, it recently concluded no disciplinary measures against personnel were necessary.

After the ignominious US withdrawal on August 31, US strikes have stopped. While at the time Biden discussed the possibility of continuing “over the horizon” airstrikes from a nearby country, this has not yet happened.

“The skies over Afghanistan are free of US war planes for the first time in two decades. A whole generation grew up under their contrails, nobody looks at the sky without checking for them,” Graeme Smith of the International Crisis Group told Airwars. “Their absence heralds the start of a new era, even if it’s not yet clear what that new chapter will bring.”

Iraq and Syria

During 2020, the number of air and artillery strikes conducted by the US-led Coalition against the Islamic State – Operation Inherent Resolve – has continued to fall, alongside an ongoing reduction in civilian harm allegations.

OIR declared 201 air and artillery strikes in Iraq and Syria in 2020, and only 58 strikes by early December 2021. This represents a reduction of around 70  percent in one year, and a 99 percent reduction in declared strikes between 2017 and 2021.

In Iraq, Airwars has tracked no local allegations of civilian harm from US led actions during 2021, down from an estimated five civilian fatalities in 2020. At the height of the Coalition’s war against ISIS in 2017, Airwars had tracked a minimum of 1,423 civilian fatalities.

In Syria, however, civilian harm allegations from Coalition actions actually increased this year, up from a minimum of one death in 2020 to at least eleven likely civilian fatalities in 2021. This does still represent a low figure compared to recent history: in 2019, Airwars had identified a minimum of 490 civilians likely killed by the Coalition, a reduction of 98 percent to this year.

Since 2019, Afghanistan has replaced Iraq and Syria as the primary focus of US military actions.

One key concern in Syria is that most recently reported civilian deaths have resulted not from declared US airstrikes, but from joint ground operations with Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), often supported by US attack helicopters.

These include a raid on the town of Thiban in Deir Ezzor, carried out by the SDF with the support of the US-led Coalition at dawn on July 16th 2021. Eyewitnesses reported that a “force consisting of several cars raided civilian homes, without warning, accompanied by indiscriminate shooting between the houses with the aim of terrorising the ‘wanted’”. Two civilians, a father and son, were killed in the raid, reportedly shot outside their home.

Separately, on the morning of December 3rd 2021, a declared US drone strike killed at least one man and injured at least six civilians, including up to four children from the same family. Multiple sources reported that the drone targeted a motorcycle but also hit a passing car that the Qasoum family were traveling in. Ahmed Qasoum, who was driving, described the incident; “the motorcycle was going in front of me and I decided to pass it, when I got parallel to it, I felt a lot of pressure pushing the car to the left of the road….It was horrible.” His ten-year-old son had a fractured skull, while his 15-year-old daughter sustained a serious shrapnel injury to her head.

On December 6th, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said the strike had targeted an Al-Qaeda linked militant but “the initial review of the strike did indicate the potential for possible civilian casualties.”

+18 | "دوبلت الموتور إجت طيارة استطلاع ضربتني"يستمعون إلى الموسيقا وفجأة..مشهد مرعب للحظة استهداف عائلة في ريف #إدلبخاص #تلفزيون_سوريا@syriastream pic.twitter.com/ao0hy4stb1

— تلفزيون سوريا (@syr_television) December 5, 2021

A dashboard camera captures the moment a US strike also hits a passing civilian vehicle. 

Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen

Under Donald Trump, there had been a record rise both in declared US airstrikes in Somalia, and in locally reported civilian deaths and injuries – with the last likely death from a US action tracked by Airwars on the final day of Trump’s presidency.

Since then, Airwars has tracked no locally reported civilian deaths in Somalia under Biden. For the entire year, AFRICOM has declared nine strikes so far, four of which occurred under Biden. When he came to power, his administration implemented a six-month moratorium on strikes, multiple sources said. This meant that both AFRICOM and even the CIA had to have White House permission before carrying out strikes in either Somalia or Yemen.

On July 20th 2021, the day the moratorium ended, AFRICOM declared the first Somali strike of the Biden era – targeting the Al-Shabaab Islamist group. Multiple militants were reported killed, though no civilians were among them. A small number of additional strikes against Al-Shabaab occurred in the weeks afterwards, the most recent of which was on August 24th. Since then, there have been no declared strikes.

In Yemen, where the US has carried out periodic strikes against alleged Al-Qaeda affiliates since 2009, there have so far been no reliable reports of US strikes under Biden. In August, Al-Qaeda itself claimed two of its fighters had been killed in a US action, though there were no details on the date or location of this event.

Responding to an email query from Airwars on November 18th, the US military denied carrying out any recent attacks, noting that “CENTCOM conducted its last counterterror strike in Yemen on June 24, 2019. CENTCOM has not conducted any new counterterror strikes in Yemen since.”

However, in a more ambivalent statement to Airwars on December 16th, CENTCOM spokesperson Bill Urban noted only that “I am not aware of any strikes in Yemen in 2021.” Airwars is seeking further clarity, particularly since it is known that the CIA carried out several airstrikes on Al Qaeda in Yemen during 2020.

In both Libya and Pakistan, long running US counter terrorism campaigns now appear to be over. The last locally claimed CIA strike in Pakistan was in July 2018 under President Trump, while in Libya, the last likely US strike was in October 2019.

A crucial year ahead

Based on official US military data, it is clear that Joe Biden is building on a trend seen in the latter years of Donald Trump’s presidency, further decreasing the scope and scale of the ‘forever wars.’

In Iraq and Syria, US forces appear to be transitioning away from carrying out active strikes in favour of supporting allied groups – although Special Forces ground actions continue in Syria, sometimes with associated civilian harm. The war in Afghanistan is now over, and it seems the long-running US campaigns in Pakistan and Libya have drawn to permanent halts. US airstrikes in Somalia and Yemen have all but stopped for now.

Still unknown is the likely framework for US military actions moving forward. In early 2021, Biden commissioned a major review of US counter terrorism policy. Led by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, the results are expected to be announced in the coming months. This will likely give us a far clearer idea how Biden believes the US should fight both ongoing wars and future ones.

Is 2022 the year Biden rescinds the AUMF? (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

And then there is amending – or even repealing – the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF). That law, passed by Congress in the wake of 9/11, essentially granted the US President the right to conduct strikes anywhere in the world in the context of the ‘war on terror.’ Initially designed for use against Al-Qaeda, it has been employed against an ever widening pool of US enemies.

The future of the 2001 AUMF is once again likely to be debated by Congress in 2022. While unlikely to be repealed, it could possibly be significantly amended, Brian Finucane, senior advisor for the US programme at International Crisis Group, told Airwars.

“That would entail at a minimum specifying who the United States can hit – explicitly identifying the enemy. Secondly identifying where it should be used – geographical limits. And thirdly giving a sunset clause,” he said. “As it is now that AUMF is basically a blank cheque to be used by different administrations.”

▲ President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris meet with national security advisers to discuss the situation in Afghanistan, Thursday, August 19, 2021, in the White House Situation Room. (Official White House Photo by Erin Scott)

Published

December 3, 2021

Written by

Georgia Edwards and Megan Karlshoej-Pedersen

Official Sorgdrager Commission is reportedly not functioning as intended - with doubts over a planned trip to Hawijah

More than six years after much of the Iraqi city of Hawijah was devastated following a Dutch airstrike against ISIS, fresh revelations point to major ongoing problems for those seeking answers to the disaster in which at least 70 civilians died.

Speaking at the annual PAX for Peace conference on the protection of civilians in conflict on December 1st, the Mayor of Hawijah, Subhan Al Jabouri, gave a moving talk on the continued lack of recovery in the city. He also revealed that there is so far no sign of the Dutch Government’s promised recovery fund and that he was not aware of the Sorgdrager Commission – the official Dutch review expected to learn lessons from Hawijah.

“The disappointment is great,” Mayor al-Jabouri told delegates. Aid has been promised via two UN agencies, yet there appears to be little contact with city authorities: “I don’t know who they are in touch with, but it’s not with us. I don’t know what they’re going to do either.”

Mayor of #Hawija: My expectations are the same as my people. We want an ethical conversation with the Dutch government. And an official apology.

Join the conversation: https://t.co/aU0qqskGMN#PAXPoC2021 #Hawija #Iraq #CivilianHarm pic.twitter.com/iksxsqX5HG

— PAX Protection of Civilians (@PAXPoC) December 2, 2021

 

In the same week, Dutch news organisation NOS revealed that the Sorgdrager Commission is experiencing major challenges in fulfilling its own mandate, with two out of three members of the commission apparently no longer able to give time on a regular basis. There are major doubts too about whether a proposed Commission trip to Hawijah in January might go ahead, with the Dutch defence ministry saying it is concerned about safety.

The head of the commission, Winnie Sorgdrager, has herself acknowledged the importance of speaking to Hawijans directly. In response to the Dutch MoD apparently refusing to allow members of the commission access to Hawija, she told NOS: “If you want to investigate something closely, you must also have spoken to people there. But if it’s said ‘it’s too dangerous there,’ we need to reconsider our request.”

In June 2015, the Royal Netherlands Air Force launched an airstrike on an ISIS IED factory in Hawijah. The huge explosion that followed killed more than 70 civilians, destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses, and deprived thousands of civilians of their long term livelihoods. Six years on, Hawjiah remains a shadow of what it once was. Take the wrong turn at the roundabout at the entrance to the city, and you will face a crater several meters deep.

While the Sorgdrager Commission continues to prevaricate about visiting the city, a joint research project by the University of Utrecht and PAX For Peace has done just that. The independent Hawijah investigation has now revealed some of its own provisional field findings at the recent PAX conference.

New PAX/ University of Utrecht research undertaken this year in Hawijah, expected to be released in full next year, interviewed 119 civilians in the city who either lost their loved ones or sustained injuries or material damage; and looked at the reverberating effects of the strike. The study also examines how – six and a half years later – civilian lives are still impacted heavily, with chronic issues from physical injuries to psychological trauma and damage to livelihoods. When the PAX/ UU team asked civilians on the ground what they most wanted, the response was clear: “Everybody wanted an apology from the Dutch – a formal apology by the Dutch government and by the parties who carried out the strike”.

“This is neither meaningful transparency nor accountability and the Dutch Ministry of Defence, the Parliament and the Sorgdrager Commission know it. Everyone involved must do better in the name of the 70 civilians the Netherlands killed more than six years ago in Hawijah – and take meaningful lessons forward centring civilian protection in future missions,” says Jessica Dorsey, the chair of Airwars Stichting.

The long string of cities destroyed by Western militaries in recent years, with great human loss as a result, are not unusual mistakes, Professor Lauren Gould from the University of Utrecht asserted at the recent PAX conference. They form a pattern, which undermines the very premise of remote warfare as being “[the most] precise and careful campaign in the history of warfare on this planet.” Yet instead, “War is inherently about destruction. There will never be such a thing as clean, precise war.”

Hawijans meet with PAX investigators during a recent visit in 2021 (Image courtesy of Roos Boer)

▲ PAX team view wreckage and destruction still affecting the city of Hawijah in 2021 (Image courtesy of Mustafa Aljanaby Al Ghad)