US-led Coalition in Iraq & Syria

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

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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)

Published

November 4, 2021

Written by

Georgia Edwards and Megan Karlshoej-Pedersen

Airwars speaks to PAX about their recent visit to the still-devastated city of Hawijah in Iraq, and interviews with 119 survivors.

Airwars’ Netherlands-based advocacy partner, PAX for Peace, is currently undertaking research in the Iraqi city of Hawijah, where a 2015 US-led Coalition strike against ISIS led to the deaths of at least 70 civilians and the injuring of hundreds more. On the night of June 2nd-3rd 2015, Dutch F-16s bombed an ISIS Vehicle-Borne Improvised Devices (VBIED) factory in Hawijah. Secondary explosions then destroyed a large area of the city. After withholding its role in the deadly event for more than four years, the Dutch government eventually took public responsibility in November 2019.

PAX’s new research will examine many of the questions that came from the joint report that Airwars and PAX released in October 2020, ‘Seeing Through the Rubble’. We conducted a Q&A with the PAX team to hear more about their recent visit to Hawijah and upcoming report.  As you’ll read from eyewitness reports in this article, the Dutch must urgently hold themselves truly accountable to civilian harm caused from their tragic actions in Hawijah, and other incidents with the US-led Coalition in Iraq and Syria.

The Airwars’ Advocacy Team spoke to Roos Boer, Project Leader for Humanitarian Disarmament at PAX, and Saba Azeem, Project Leader for the Human Security Survey (Iraq). 

Airwars: Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us. To start off, can you describe for someone who doesn’t already know the details of the story, what happened in Hawijah on June 2nd, 2015?

Roos: So on this particular night, a Coalition airstrike targeted an ISIS munitions factory in Hawijah, which was located in the industrial area. The strike was conducted by the Dutch. In this factory, a very large supply of TNT [dynamite] was stored, which detonated after the first impact. When we were talking to people there, people described that it felt like a nuclear attack in terms of the destruction.

Saba: It is also important to understand that there is no clear demarcation such as ‘this is solely an industrial area’, and ‘this is solely a residential area’ – they are often quite intertwined. So to say that it only targeted the industrial area and that there were no residential areas around would also be a very narrow description of the context.

Secondly, there was about 18,000 kilos of TNT in the munitions factory which exploded. It left a crater 11 meters deep and 20 meters wide. And apparently in Kirkuk, which is 50 kilometers away, the shock was measured at 4.3 on the Richter scale. That’s how big it was.

What were the immediate consequences for the local population, and how did the Dutch government and military initially respond to the high number of civilian casualties resulting from this strike?

Roos: The explosions directly led to at least 70 civilian deaths and hundreds of civilians being injured. In addition to that direct impact on civilians, 400-500 buildings were reportedly destroyed; this includes homes and schools, factories and shops.  The electricity transmission station was located in the area, but also many damaged roads, et cetera. So there was a lot of immediate harm but it’s also leading to longer term impacts where services are disrupted.

It’s also very important to mention that it was a really big chaotic event. People didn’t know what was going on, they couldn’t see anything, there was dust everywhere, bodies and body parts everywhere, and this led to a lot of trauma for people. The psychosocial harm has been immense.

You also asked how the Dutch government responded and that is a very interesting question because they didn’t. It was not until 2019, so that’s four years after the attack, following publications by the NOS and the NRC, who are part of the media in the Netherlands, that the Dutch Ministry of Defense publicly took responsibility for the air strikes. So there has been a big lack of transparency. They assessed in their CDE [Collateral Damage Estimation] that the secondary explosions would not extend beyond the industrial area, which was not purely an industrial area, as was already mentioned.

After the attack in September 2015, it was announced that they will increase the scrutiny of targets in populated areas which have the expected potential for secondary explosions.

It sparked, of course, a very intense debate in the Netherlands because the Parliament also was not informed about the events. So there were a lot of questions being asked in Parliament about transparency and accountability. As a result, the then-Dutch Minister of Defense, [Ank] Bijleveld, announced greater transparency in informing Parliament about investigations into civilian casualties. The Dutch government also announced that they would contribute $4 million US dollars to rebuilding the infrastructure. They very clearly were not interested in giving individual compensation, but just in giving a more general contribution to the reconstruction of Hawijah. This was promised 10 months ago, and we understand the money is being contracted through the UNDP/FFS [United Nations Development Programme’s Funding Facility of Stabilisation] , and the IOM [International Organization for Migration]. However, we haven’t seen much of the money being spent – yet – or contributing to the people we spoke to in Hawijah.

Saba: And linking to what Roos already said, the Dutch have claimed responsibility, but they have not apologized, which is quite appalling. In terms of the destruction, we have seen eight car showrooms completely destroyed, the Hawijah municipality department building, the electricity department building, the civil defence department [building and vehicles], four ice factories, at least five or six brick factories, one flour mill all have been destroyed. An estimated 1,900 people have lost their livelihoods. Also the [Dutch] scope of calculating the casualties has been very narrow. The area was besieged, and the general hospital was under ISIS control. So they were not treating any civilian injuries or deaths. So where does this number come from?

Large areas of civilian infrastructure are still destroyed (Image via Roos Boer)

You mentioned that the Dutch government only started talking about this in 2019 after journalists exposed the story. But do you have a sense of when they knew about the civilian harm that had occurred?

Saba: From what we’ve heard, the Minister of Defense knew within a few weeks. We did see that after the strike quite a lot of news channels reported it, even the ISIS news channel at the time, released footage which European channels then used. There was also a press conference by a US General saying that there was a munition factory in Hawijah that was hit. So I think it was within days of this happening, the Coalition and the international community knew of the airstrike. Whether the Dutch knew that they were behind it, that’s a different question.

Roos: Regardless of whether they did or didn’t know; if they knew, then it’s rather problematic that they didn’t report it, if they didn’t know, to me that is very problematic too because they are responsible for assessing the impacts of their weapons. So just as a separate remark about this.

In October last year, PAX and Airwars released our report, ‘Seeing Through the Rubble’. What were the main findings from this report?

Roos: ‘Seeing Through the Rubble’ was a joint report of Airwars and PAX. We examined the longer term effects on civilian populations of the international military campaigns in Mosul, Raqqa, and Hawijah. We especially looked at the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, because we know there is a worldwide pattern of how these weapons in populated areas impact civilians. The longer term effects and reverberating effects are often under-reported. But we know that when explosive weapons are being used in populated areas, nine out of 10 casualties are civilians. So that’s a very alarming number.

And [‘Seeing Through the Rubble’] painted a rather grim image of how the destruction was still there, how difficult it is for people to pick up their lives if their cities are destroyed by our militaries. And then I think it was a good snapshot of the situation. But when we started researching, it only created more questions, so I was very happy that we could continue our research into Hawjiah, and visit the location. And now Saba is leading on a much more in-depth piece of research interviewing many of the survivors in Hawijah. I am sure she can tell you more about it.

Roos Boer presents the PAX/ Airwars report ‘Seeing through the Rubble’ to Subhan Al Jabouri, the Mayor of Hawijah (Image via Roos Boer)

You’ve recently been engaging in this research on the ground in Hawijah. It would be great to hear about what you’re currently researching and how you’re going about investigating this, in a bit more detail.

Saba: The research, which started in February this year, is being done by a consortium led by PAX, with the Intimacies of Remote Warfare at Utrecht University and al-Ghad League for Woman and Child Care as partners.

Out of the 119 civilians interviewed thus far, 62 lost their loved ones, whereas the rest either sustained injuries or material damage.  The research is looking at these reverberating effects and examining how – six and a half years later – civilian lives are still impacted heavily by the airstrikes. Because this was a besieged area, those who were injured were either not treated in a timely manner or not treated properly, which have resulted in very, very chronic issues.

The psychological trauma cannot even be measured. For instance, there is a gentleman we met, who lost seven members of his family including five of his children. How do you rebuild your life from there? Or the child who has had his face burned off and he is being bullied in school and has been forced to drop out because of this bullying – how can you even compensate for that? So it was heartbreaking hearing these individual stories, and meeting the people in person was quite overwhelming. But it also showed us how we failed as the humanitarian community in actually addressing these issues, which were caused by Dutch actions.

Roos: One of the interviewees asked me directly, “Are we less human than you are? If this factory was located in a Dutch city, would you have done it in the same way?”  And those, I think, are very spot on questions and very rightfully asked.

Saba: And to say that civilians are not aware, that is a complete understatement. Every person we met, whether they were authorities or civilians on the ground knew exactly what happened. We were asked how long it took for victims of Srebrenica to get their compensations, so they could calculate how long it would take them. So these are very well-informed people. Everybody wanted an apology from the Dutch – a formal apology by the Dutch government and by the parties who carried out the strike, as well as individual compensation.

Thank you for that. So did your findings confirm the conclusions from ‘Seeing Through the Rubble’?

Saba: This research confirmed the findings and then also added a very direct civilian voice to it. I think so far, most of the studies that have been taking place are usually looking at data from a distance, or maybe interviewing three to five civilians. But now we have the voices from over 119.

Does Hawijah continue to be affected by the strike, and is it still obvious when you visit the city today?

Saba: For us, that was one of the most appalling, for lack of a better term, aspect; that six and a half years later, you still see the rubble on the ground, which until now has not been cleared. You see that the hospital is still – a very major part of it – in prefabricated containers. We met a woman whose daughter was injured in the attack. She was 14 then, so about 20 now. And she was also worried that now that she has these prominent scars because of the injuries, who would marry her? Children, because their parents died or were injured, now can’t go to school, because they have to earn a livelihood. We got reports, which are yet to be confirmed, of children in primary schools, who are suffering from chronic diseases, like heart issues, high blood pressure and diabetes, because they’re so stressed by their trauma that happened six and a half years ago. So the city is very much completely at a standstill and it is still suffering from these aftershocks of what happened in June 2015.

Roos: You see a wounded city. It’s not like a huge city, but it’s a city with this roundabout, and if you take the wrong turn, you are in a pile of rubble. If you take the other turn, you see so many small commercial activities taking place. It is a wounded city with multiple faces. And the people that were affected, that were injured, they sold everything that they still had, to be able to pay for this first [medical] treatment [after the strike], including shelling injuries or amputations. They had nothing before, then they sold their jewellery or whatever they had to pay for this treatment and after that they were left with nothing. And they basically live off what other people are giving to them. It’s a very hopeless feeling if you talk to these people.

Saba: Like the hospital, for instance, it used to have a surgical wing, and now they don’t have the capacity for conducting surgeries anymore. They do not even have medicines for chronic diseases like diabetes or high blood pressure. People now have to travel 50 kilometers to Kirkuk, or have to spend their own money to get medicines [from private hospitals or pharmacies] that they need on a daily basis. They had 5,400 teachers before, and now there’s only 3,200 left. So you see these, these very visible sort of things as well. Giving numbers is one thing, but then when you meet the humans and you can paint a very clear picture of how these civilians feel. We met this gentleman who tried to commit suicide twice, because he used to be one of the richest people in Hawijah and then he lost everything.. And when we asked him, so all of this has happened and how would you like to sort of address it all? And he said, “All I want is death because I am done living.” How do you respond to that?

PAX are shown around the wreckage and destruction still affecting the city of Hawijah (Image via Roos Boer)

Thank you for depicting these long lasting effects and very human tragedies. So finally, I know you’ve touched on this a little bit, but I thought maybe you could just tell us about how the people of Hawijah think of the way that the Dutch have held themselves to account over this incident.

Saba: Well, as Roos already mentioned one of the questions we were asked was if the Dutch had different definitions of human rights? They were saying that you expect things like that from ISIS, which is a terrorist entity, but you don’t expect things like this from the Dutch, who are champions of human rights.

We have also had statements saying that they do not trust the Dutch government, however they do trust the Dutch justice system. So if they’re not given the justice that they deserve, then they will go to court and they will try and get their rights through the formal legal system. But then, across the board, whether it is authorities or whether it’s civilians, they do name the Dutch very outwardly and very clearly.

For instance, in the debate in the Netherlands, we heard that the intelligence was given to the Dutch by the Americans. So when I asked them why not blame the Americans and they actually had a very interesting answer, which we do not disagree with: They said the American intelligence was flawed during the Gulf war, the American intelligence was proved wrong in 2003, when they said there were weapons of mass destruction. So why are the Dutch still trusting the Americans? The person or entity carrying out the airstrike, they also have their own own minds and their own eyes. So why aren’t they trusting their own facilities for that measure?

Thank you very much for sharing this incredible research with us. Those are all our questions. Do you have anything final to add before we end?

Saba: The research report will hopefully be out in January. Hopefully we can add a lot more to the debate and also show multiple entities around the world, whether it’s NATO states or other nations joining international coalitions, or take part in this kind of warfare, to not only take the direct casualties or the direct harm into account. These reverberating effects often are even worse [and longer lasting] than the direct effects. So in the targeting process we firmly believe that this also needs to be integrated.

It will be on our site and on the Intimacies of Remote Warfare website. And there will also be a public launch.

And we will definitely share it widely on our social media as well. So it should be readily available to anyone looking for it. Thank you very much both of you for your time!

Saba: Thank you for, for touching on this important subject. Thank you.

The PAX team vist the destruction in Hawijah (Image via Mustafa Aljanaby, Al Ghad ©)

▲ Six years after a Dutch airstrike devastated Hawijah, damage and destruction remains widespread (Image via Roos Boer, PAX)

Published

October 14, 2021

Written by

Airwars Staff and Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published

October 12, 2021

Written by

Georgia Edwards

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The UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

October, 8th  2021

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

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

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

Dear Rt. Hon. Liz Truss,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Improving transparency and accountability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Meaningful collaboration with civil society organisations using open source data

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours sincerely,

Chris Woods,

Director, Airwars

▲ The UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office

Published

October 1, 2021

Written by

Megan Karlshoej-Pedersen

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

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

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

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

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

 

Dear Minister Dedonder,

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

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

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

Engagement with civil society

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

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

Recommendations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Signed,

11.11.11

Airwars Stichting

Amnesty Belgium

Agir pour la Paix

CNAPD

Humanity & Inclusion

Pax Christi Flanders

Vredesactie

Vrede vzw

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

Published

August 18, 2021

Written by

Joe Dyke

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are the six strikes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

French and Belgian strikes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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