US-led Coalition in Iraq & Syria

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

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Published

April 5, 2018

Written by

Samuel Oakford
Photographs are published with the kind permission of Maranie R. Staab. All rights fully reserved.

Eighteen months ago, Iraqi forces backed by heavy coalition firepower descended on Mosul, Iraq’s second city and the largest ever controlled by the Islamic State. It took them nine months—well beyond initial estimates—to dislodge the terror group. During that time, strategies changed. Under the Obama administration, more commanders with the U.S.-led coalition were given latitude to call in strikes. When Donald Trump took office, he grew that trend, and embraced so-called “annihilation” tactics. In parallel, Iraqi security forces suffered heavy casualties early in the fight among their elite units, and later operated with fewer restraints. By the time the city was captured in July of last year, it was littered with some eight million tons of rubble—three times the mass of the Great Pyramid of Giza, the UN noted.

The urban fighting in Mosul that began on October 16, 2016 was described by U.S. officials as the most intense since World War II. Backing Iraqi forces on the ground, the U.S.-led coalition, which included a dozen partner countries, carried out more than 1,250 strikes in the city, hitting thousands of targets with over 29,000 munitions, according to official figures provided to us. But in the nine months since the reclamation of Mosul, those involved in the operation have conspicuously neglected to assess how many civilians were killed. There remains no official count of the dead in Mosul.

In December 2017, the Associated Press estimated that 9,000 to 11,000 civilians had died in the battle—an estimate nearly 10 times higher than what had been officially reported. At least a third of those deaths, the AP found, came as a result of coalition or Iraqi bombardments. In a separate investigation, NPR reported that the city morgue had recorded the names of 4,865 individuals on death certificates, dating between October 2016 and July 2017, and estimated that more than 5,000 civilians had been killed.

While these reports filled what had, in effect, been a vacuum, they were met with little concern from Western authorities. Neither Washington nor its local and international allies have shown any indication that they will undertake a comprehensive survey of the loss of life in Mosul. Nor have they taken significant steps to compensate the families of those their forces killed inadvertently. While the Pentagon does make such payments and did so during the Iraq war, it has only done so twice in the war against ISIS.

Medics work to stabilize Ammar, age 8. The young Moslawi boy was brought to “Trauma Stabilization Point #2” following an airstrike on the night of June 12, 2017 in West Mosul, Iraq. (Maranie R. Staab)

“It is simply irresponsible to focus criticism on inadvertent casualties caused by the coalition’s war to defeat ISIS,” spokesperson Colonel Thomas Veale told the AP in response to its report. “Without the coalition’s air and ground campaign against ISIS, there would have inevitably been additional years, if not decades of suffering and needless death and mutilation in Syria and Iraq at the hands of terrorists who lack any ethical or moral standards.” This argument—that acting decisively and with overwhelming force in an urban battlefield saved lives in the long term—is belied by an official lack of interest in finding how many died overall, no matter the culprit.

The question of who, if anyone, is accurately tracking civilian deaths is difficult to answer. Both the Pentagon and U.S. embassy in Baghdad directed questions about civilian deaths to the counter-ISIS coalition, the body that represents the countries supporting government forces in Iraq’s fight against ISIS. However, the coalition has only investigated strikes it has identified as its own and found reason to review. This means that only U.S. and French artillery strikes in Mosul, and U.S., British, French, and Australian airstrikes on the city are subject to review—a process which thus far has yielded civilian death estimates far lower than our own, which are based on local reports and the coalition’s own strike data. But the coalition’s tally represents only a small fraction of the overall death toll in Mosul.

To date, the coalition has acknowledged its involvement in the deaths of 352 civilians during the battle for the city. A coalition spokesperson told us that “any assessment on the effects to Iraqi citizens of the ISIS occupation of the city and subsequent liberation by Iraqi Security Forces’ support by the coalition would be conducted by the government of Iraq.” But Iraqi officials have not been forthcoming, and did not respond to requests for comment. In an interview with the AP, Haider al-Abadi, the prime minister of Iraq, even said that, at most, 1,260 civilians were killed in fighting for the city.

With our team of researchers at Airwars, we monitored thousands of local reports and claims from within Mosul during the battle for the city. We also spoke with multiple reporters and researchers carrying out their own field investigations at the time. Based on local reporting and confirmed coalition strikes in the near vicinity, we conservatively estimated that between 1,066 and 1,579 civilians likely died from coalition air and artillery strikes during the nine-month battle, out of a total of somewhere between over 6,000 to nearly 9,000 deaths alleged by local sources against Coalition forces. But in many cases reports from the city were confused: There was simply so much incoming and outgoing fire that it remains unclear whether several thousand civilians were killed by coalition, Iraqi, or ISIS munitions.

Ali’s mother, Noor, grieves over the body of her son. On the night of June 12, 2017 an airstrike hit Ali’s neighborhood in West Mosul, Iraq. The young Moslawi died from blunt force trauma and arrived at the Trauma Stabilization Point (TSP) “dead on arrival.” (Maranie R. Staab)

Interviews with more than 20 journalists and aid workers who were on the ground in Mosul, both during and immediately after the assault, strongly support the view that many thousands of civilians died. Their reporting also showed that simply speaking with locals—something the coalition and American authorities confirmed to us they almost never do as a matter of policy, and Iraqi federal authorities have also not done—can uncover the details of fatal incidents.

On January 24, Iraqi officials announced the liberation of East Mosul.  In late February, Iraqi troops began the far tougher job of penetrating the dense Western part of the city, only capturing it five months later. In the climactic weeks of fighting in Mosul’s Old City, ISIS’s last stronghold in West Mosul, press footage showed civilians attempting harrowing escapes from blocks controlled by the group to those held by Iraqi forces. Many families didn’t make it out. Journalists and aid workers spoke of how Iraqi counter-terror forces—who they described as more careful to avoid endangering civilians—had been depleted in the early stages of the fight. As a result, the less-well-trained security forces took their place in the fight for Western Mosul.

Among them were the Iraqi Federal Police, notorious among locals for their negligence. According to several journalists and aid workers, by the end of the battle, Iraqi forces were launching crude explosive weapons into narrow areas packed with civilians. Some units launched improvised rockets from the back of vehicles. At the time, the Red Cross said civilians were fleeing, “bleeding even from their eyes.”

John Beck, a freelance journalist from Scotland, covered the assault. “When the West came, the Federal Police and Iraqi army took a more prominent role and were less discriminate in their use of heavy unguided artillery,” Beck said. “I began to hear more and more people who said they had relatives buried under the rubble. Many said entire families had been wiped out.”

Human-rights investigators took note. “The U.S.-led coalition was in joint enterprise with Iraqi forces. Its toleration for use of [rockets] enabled the killing of many, many civilians in Mosul,” Benjamin Walsby, a field researcher at Amnesty International, said. In July, Walsby and his colleagues released a significant report outlining the destruction in Mosul. Based on research that included interviews with more than 150 West Mosul residents, as well as medical workers, Amnesty accused ISIS of war crimes, but also said the coalition and Iraqi forces may have committed violations themselves. “I reject any notion that coalition fires were in any way imprecise, unlawful or excessively targeted civilians,” then-coalition commander Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend said in a press conference in July. “I would challenge the people from Amnesty International or anyone else out there who makes these charges to first research their facts.”

An elderly Iraqi man sits outside of a medical Trauma Stabilization Point (TSP) in West Mosul, Iraq. The man is the grandfather of Zainab, a young Moslawi that was injured and who ultimately died following an airstrike on the afternoon of May 31, 2017. (Maranie R. Staab)

Months later, an extensive investigation for The New York Times by journalists Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal determined that in certain areas of northern Iraq, total civilian deaths from coalition strikes during 2016 were more than 31 times higher than official estimates based on video taken by coalition planes and other sources of intelligence. The coalition, they reported, had often misidentified targets. Even with the benefit of drone surveillance and video feeds, its forces had killed civilians where ISIS was not present.

In December 2016, as Khan and Gopal were in the midst of their field research, the Obama administration extended the authority to call in airstrikes to personnel lower in the command chain, moving decision making further from headquarters and to the field level. (This practice continued and grew under the Trump administration, by Trump’s own account.) Khan and Gopal immediately noted an uptick in civilian deaths in areas they’d been surveying. “The number of cases we documented in East Mosul, just within 15 days, it was like night and day, so it was a real change on the ground,” Gopal said.

Journalists who embedded with Iraqi forces have offered specific examples of exactly how civilians were likely killed all over Mosul, and especially in the West, by both the coalition and Iraqi forces. Civilians faced excruciating choices, and often operated with limited knowledge of what was happening around them as they cowered in basements, unsure of how close Iraqi forces were. Who was in homes or other buildings targeted by airstrikes wasn’t always clear. “I can’t see into houses,” as one helicopter pilot told Stars and Stripes.

Injured civilians arrive at “Trauma Stabilization Point #2” in West Mosul, Iraq following an airstrike on the night of June 12, 2017. (Maranie R. Staab)

“We would hear stories of neighbors sheltering together, 40 people, 50 people in a basement,” one Western journalist who was based in Iraq during the assault, and asked that we not share their name due to ongoing work in the region told us. “You can imagine easily a whole family wiped out—a lot of families lived together so it would be parents, their kids and grandkids.”

ISIS certainly put civilians in extreme danger, fighting in their midst, using them as human shields, keeping them in booby-trapped buildings, or executing them outright. In a November report, the UN estimated that at least 741 civilians died in execution-style killings by ISIS during the battle for the city—and hundreds more in shelling and car bombings. Iraqi forces encountered a staggering 700 car bombs in Mosul, according to the coalition. Moslawis told Amnesty International how ISIS would bury bombs under the soil, so civilians were never sure where they could move. One witness recounted how ISIS fighters welded shut the front doors of houses. “They did this to our door, and even worse, they did it to another house in our neighborhood where hundreds of people were staying,” the witness said.

When civilians did flee, weapons fire could come from all sides. Naviseh Kohnavard, a Middle East correspondent for the BBC World Service, recalled the confusion in Zanjili, one of the neighborhoods in Western Mosul hit hardest by fighting. “I saw people coming out; they were bloody and most of the people were carrying out children, and many died in front of us,” she said. Investigations by Mike Giglio of BuzzFeed led the coalition to acknowledge responsibility for the deaths of 36 civilians—but only after he tracked down survivors and witnesses during reporting trips in May. “It’s such a chaotic situation and they don’t have people on the ground,” Giglio said. “All we did to get that information was we drove past checkpoints—my photographer and I—and then I went without an armed escort into civilian neighborhoods and I just asked people where there had been casualties.”

Giglio witnessed incidents first hand as well. In February, he embedded with Iraqi forces in Western Mosul when ISIS fighters—at least one using a tunnel to pop in and out of—began shooting anti-tank missiles in their direction. “I looked down the street and saw the ISIS guy who fired it—they called in an airstrike on this guy’s position,” Giglio said. “An airstrike hit the tunnel, the tunnel was in the street, and I saw it knock down one maybe two houses in the process,” Giglio said. “I think that’s how a lot of this stuff happens.”

Nadia Aziz Mohammed looks on as Mosul civil defence officials search for the bodies of 11 family members, killed in a June 2017 airstrike (Photo by Sam Kimball. All rights reserved.)

Another incident occurred on June 20, in Western Mosul, uncovered later by American journalist Sam Kimball, who was reporting in the area. Once again, an ISIS fighter was seen on the roof of a family home. In the ensuing airstrike, Nadia Aziz Mohammed said she lost 11 relatives. A week later and filmed by Kimball, Mohammed stood a short distance from the home, watching as a bulldozer dug out the remains of her family. By this point in the conflict, the Coalition had informed Airwars that the Iraqi Air Force was no longer carrying out air raids on the city, meaning there was little doubt that any airstrike had been conducted by the U.S.-led alliance. (With the exception of its drones, ISIS had no air force.)

On another occasion—in East Mosul—Kimball told a young man he was looking to speak to victims of airstrikes. The man put out a call and locals began to come forward. “I spoke to so many people who either said I had relatives killed in an airstrike, or my neighbors were killed, or at least one of their family members were killed in an airstrike,” said the young American war reporter.

Among the 352 civilian deaths the coalition has admitted occurred during the Mosul assault, the United States has officially taken responsibility for only one incident that killed civilians to date. On March 17, 2017, an airstrike in the western neighborhood of al Jadida left over 100 civilians dead by the coalition’s own count—likely the deadliest strike during operations in the city. U.S. officials claimed that the two 500-pound bombs that targeted the roof of the building where civilians were sheltering then set off explosives held inside, though locals disagreed with this account.

Activists also moved into the information gap. Perhaps the best known of these is a social media account called “Mosul Eye” run by a Moslawi man named Omar Mohammed. Under ISIS rule and then during the battle for Mosul, “Mosul Eye” meticulously documented reports received from the city. The account relayed reports from sources inside Mosul, or family members of those trapped. These often would have been difficult to fully investigate during the assault. Mohammed maintained that many tens of thousands were killed during the fight for Mosul—an estimate that well exceeds the tallies arrived at by the AP and NPR. “Every day I was receiving reports of families killed by airstrikes or missiles—at least 20 or 25, sometimes 40 people were killed in one house and this was every day,” he told us.

An ambulance leaves Trauma Stabilization Point #2 carrying injured civilians following an airstrike on the night of June 12, 2017. (Maranie R. Staab)

Though the coalition has made strides in reporting civilian harm, the gap between the deaths it has acknowledged and public estimates is substantial.

Across the entire coalition war against ISIS since 2014, the United States and its allies have so far conceded 841 civilian deaths—while Airwars places the likely minimum tally at 6,200 or more killed. As Khan and Gopal’s work has shown, that disparity may stem at least in part from serious procedural issues that implicate the military’s ability to track not just civilian deaths but the location of its bombs—and a failure to investigate events on the ground.

Moslawis recently marked a year since the al Jadida strike that killed over 100 people. For a brief period in 2017, global attention was paid to those civilians killed or injured in the assault on Mosul, and to the limits of “precision” warfare in cities. A year later, the U.S. government appears unwilling to study the civilian toll of massive urban battlefields such as those in Mosul. Americans continue to wage wars without a true understanding of the costs, while Iraqi civilians understand them all too well.

 

 

▲ An Iraqi man rushes his son for medical treatment during the Battle of Mosul. (Maranie R. Staab)

Published

March 29, 2018

Written by

Samuel Oakford

Australia has admitted to killing two civilians and injuring two children during the battle for Mosul – the third such admission of harm by Canberra’s military, and one that further sets the Royal Australian Air Force apart from most other Coalition partners which continue to deny civilian casualties from their own airstrikes.

The case originally came to light during a field investigation by Amnesty International – which was slammed for its findings at the time by the US-led alliance. Airwars then published details of the event – which in turn were investigated by the Australian Defence Force (ADF).

The admitted incident occurred in the Mosul neighborhood of Islah al Zirae on the night of May 3rd 2017, during an intense push by Iraqi forces with Coalition air support. Civilians who reported being trapped by ISIS fighters or pinned down by heavy fire attempted to flee once ISIS fighters had withdrawn. In the midst of this, several family members were attempting to evacuate a home they had been sheltering in when it was hit by an airstrike.

The ADF said it carried out two investigations into the attack, and found that the civilians were killed and injured by munitions dropped by an RAAF Super Hornet.

“On the balance of probabilities, our strike resulted in the death of two people and the injury of two others,” deputy chief of joint operations, Major General Greg Bilton, said in remarks reported by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

‘Chaos of airstrikes’

The newly conceded case was one of 45 civilian harm events that Amnesty researchers documented in West Mosul. Amnesty however only published details of nine of the incidents, leaving out the Ishlah al Zirae event because it was based on a single source — a family member of the deceased. The precise date of the incident also could not be narrowed down at the time, with Amnesty flagging it as having likely taken place some time between May 1st and 3rd.

The testimony taken by Amnesty was however shared with Airwars, which in turn alerted the Coalition to the event as part of its own routine advocacy engagement. In its most recent monthly civilian casualty report, released on March 28th, the Coalition said it had been determined that while conducting a strike to destroy an ISIS fighting position in the neighborhood of Islah al Zirai, “two civilians were unintentionally killed and two civilians injured.”

“We were getting dressed to leave and my brother’s family were still getting dressed and putting jackets on the children,” said the relative who survived and spoke with Amnesty researchers. “I set off with my wife and children and we turned the corner and heard an air strikes. I ran back and the house had caved in. My brother died. My sister in law [wife of another brother] also died.”

“People were panicking and running out of their house – four family members were trapped in the house or trying to leave,” said Ben Walsby, part of the Amnesty team that deployed to Mosul. “They hadn’t been able to get out before because ISIS was preventing them, but in the chaos of airstrikes, they felt they had to get out.”

“This was just a quick interview with a family member who had run out of the house because the airstrikes were coming — people were scrambling,” said Walsby.

In their report, Amnesty accused ISIS of war crimes in Mosul, but also said the Coalition and Iraqi forces may have committed violations themselves. The Coalition responded by sharply questioning the veracity of Amnesty’s work.

“I would challenge the people from Amnesty International or anyone else out there who makes these charges to first research their facts and make sure they are speaking from a position of authority,” said Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, then the Coalition’s top commander.

As it turned out, it was the Coalition which needed to further investigate, and in the case of the May 3rd strike, both the alliance and the Australian Defence Force have now accepted responsibility.

Amnesty International investigated civilian harm events in multiple neighbourhoods of West Mosul for its report – including Islah al Zirae

‘Regrettable incident’

There are several reasons why the latest ADF admission is notable. The Australian military remains the only Coalition partner besides the US to admit to any civilian harm in Iraq or Syria since 2014, despite an estimated 10,000 strikes by non-US allies. Countries like France and the United Kingdom have yet to concede a single civilian death — a statistically implausible assertion.

These countries have been aided by a Coalition practice enforced since 2017 that does not identify which partner is responsible for any single event in the alliance’s monthly casualty reports. With rare exceptions, the US itself no longer acknowledges its own Coalition strikes that caused civilian casualties.

The Amnesty account which triggered the Australian investigation – recorded in an informal camp for displaced persons – also illustrates how effective simply speaking with survivors from battles like Mosul’s can be. Australian officials in the May 3rd case were able to conclude involvement without carrying out their own interviews, though only after Amnesty had recorded the initial testimony. As a policy, the Coalition does not conduct interviews with survivors in the aftermath of strikes – a practice that extends into Syria, as recently reported by Airwars at Raqaa.

Australia was identified in December 2016 by Airwars as one of the Coalition’s least transparent members. Since then it has taken steps to improve the reporting of its actions. In September 2017, the ADF reported its involvement in two previous civilian harm events – one an Australian airstrike, the other an action by another ally for which the ADF had supplied flawed intelligence.

“I think it’s very important for us to recognize what a very complex urban environment environment this was, and the face we are operating in a war zone,” said Defence Minister Marise Payne of the latest ADF admission. “Our operators work to the highest standards but regrettably incidents like this happen.”

“The strike was called in because the Iraqi security forces were under direct sniper attack from the building, and the sniper was causing injuries,” said Payne. The witness who spoke to Amnesty, however, said “there were no Daesh around, otherwise how could I have just walked out of my house?”

Airwars director Chris Woods welcomed the latest Australian admission. “With only a single survivor claim and a fairly vague date attached to this incident originally, the ADF would have had to put quite a bit of detective work into identifying its own role in the event,” said Woods. “The event also shows why we must continue to take seriously the voices of affected Iraqis and Syrians.”

▲ Library image: Royal Australian Air Force personnel start post flight maintenance on an F/A-18A Hornet aircraft following an Operation OKRA mission (Via ADF)

Published

March 15, 2018

Written by

Airwars Staff

A renewal of airstrikes by the Netherlands against so-called Islamic State in 2018 has been accompanied by some improvement in public transparency, an Airwars assessment of the first two months of the campaign has concluded.

While the Netherlands remains less transparent than the UK, changes to the way it publicly reports on military actions now place it on a par with France, one of the more transparent nations in the US-led alliance. Airwars Dutch advocacy officer Koen Kluessien welcomed “this positive move”, while encouraging the defence ministry to go further.

Since the renewal of its mission on January 5th, the Netherlands has included the location of the nearest large settlement to a Dutch strike in its weekly updates. Previously no locational data was provided – leading Airwars repeatedly to identify the Netherlands as the least transparent member of the 13-nation Coalition.

However, despite recent improvements the Dutch defence ministry still does not state on which precise date it conducted its actions, something the UK has been doing since the beginning of the war in 2014. That in turn means Dutch actions cannot be cross-referenced against specific public claims of civilian harm – a key demand from Airwars and others advocating for better public transparency.

“The improved reporting is a step in the right direction, but the Dutch Defense Ministry could do better. An advanced democracy like the Netherlands should be leading the way when it comes to public transparency and accountability,” said Kluessien, who has been closely monitoring the renewed mission.

Six F-16s

The Dutch rejoined the US-led Coalition with six F-16s on January 3rd, from an airbase in Jordan. This is the second time the Netherlands has taken part in the fight against ISIS. Military operations first began in October 2014, with the campaign paused in July 2016 when Dutch F-16s swapped out for Belgian aircraft.

The move towards greater public transparency has brought the Netherlands more into line with all other active Coalition partners. Among the four known active members, the UK remains the most transparent – publicly reporting on the date, location and target of each strike. France and the Netherlands now publish the same level of data – saying roughly where they bomb in any given week – though not precisely when.

The United States now finds itself the least transparent member of the remaining Coalition members it leads – refusing to publish specific data on where, when or what it bombs. However the US is also the only one of the four nations to have conceded any civilian casualties in almost four years of airstrikes, and has committed significant resources towards broader Coalition transparency (for example staffing Operation Inherent Resolve’s civilian casualty monitoring cell.)

An Airwars graphic showing improved Dutch transparency and public accountability – now on a par with the weekly reporting of the French defense ministry.

Parliamentary engagement

In the run-up to the renewed mission, Dutch MPs returned to the issue of transparency and public accountability in late 2017. Parliament’s earlier demands for improved reporting during the 2014-2016 campaign had been ignored by the defense ministry. As social-liberal D66 MP Sjoerd Sjoerdsma stated in a Foreign Affairs committee meeting: “I would like to challenge the Minister of Defense to see if we can do more with regards to the transparency side of things. I had tabled a motion about this. This was passed with a large majority. I’m not quite sure what happened with this, from an operational point of view.”

Airwars director Chris Woods had already warned Dutch MPs at a November 29th parliamentary hearing in The Hague, that the Netherlands risked being remembered as the least transparent partner in the entire Coalition against so-called Islamic State. This concern was later echoed by several Members of Parliament in a plenary debate on the renewed missions against ISIS.

As a result, another cross-party motion was passed calling for “more detailed reporting on military weapon deployments”. The motion was supported by then Minister of Foreign Affairs Halbe Zijlstra, who stated: “[…] we cannot and will not put aside this call for transparency.”

Perhaps as a result of that motion – and of the long running campaign for more transparency from Airwars and others – the weekly reports accompanying the renewed Dutch campaign marked a relative improvement in transparency.

The first update was issued on January 10th by the defense ministry and reported that for the period of January 3rd-9th its F-16s deployed weapons during one mission near Abu Kamal in Deir Ezzor, Syria. Since then, a total of almost 20 Dutch airstrikes have been reported.

‘No civilian casualties’ claim

While the more detailed weekly reports mark a welcome step towards greater accountability, the Dutch defense ministry still insists that hundreds of Dutch airstrikes in Iraq and Syria have never led to any civilian casualties since 2014.

Even with improved airstrike reporting by the Netherlands, it remains difficult for affected victims to understand responsibility.

Between January 3rd and February 27th, our Syria researchers tracked and assessed 19 civilian casualty incidents allegedly tied to Coalition strikes in the vicinity of Abu Kamal and Abu Hammam. Of these 19 events, Airwars presently evaluates 15 as fairly reported and estimates that between 104 and 249 civilians likely died in these incidents.

However, with multiple belligerents bombing the region from the air – and the Netherlands not providing specific dates of strikes – attribution for recent events has proven to be challenging.

Asked if the defense ministry has cross-referenced its own airstrike data with any of these 19 specific claimed events, a spokesperson told Airwars: “When it comes to examining a weapon deployment after the fact, it is assessed whether or not the strike conformed with the mandate; and checked for possible civilian casualties and collateral damage. We use any information available to do so.“

An Airwars map showing the general location of Dutch airstrikes from January 3rd until February 27th. Nearly all of the 19 missions in which weapons were deployed occurred near Abu Kamal and Abu Hammam in Deir Ezzor, Syria.

No release of previous strike locations

Despite recent improvements, for airstrikes conducted during the first leg of its anti-ISIS campaign the Netherlands is sticking to its former levels of poor transparency and accountability.

When asked if the defense ministry would also release the near locations of earlier airstrikes, a senior public affairs officer told Airwars that “The weekly updates for the period 2014-2016 will not be adjusted. These are previous publications that we will not revise.”

At present, almost nothing is known about Dutch strikes between October 2014 and July 2016, even though Dutch F-16s fired more than 1,800 munitions. Official data suggests that the Netherlands may at times have been the fourth most active member of the Coalition – after the US, UK and France. However, all freedom of information requests for information on the Dutch campaign have so far been refused.

▲ A Dutch F16 pilot checking missiles before take-off from the airbase in Jordan (Netherlands defence ministry)

Published

March 12, 2018

Written by

Samuel Oakford

An investigation by Airwars for the Daily Beast shows that Coalition-inflicted casualties were vastly higher than are being publicly acknowledged – and the Trump administration has shown little interest in discovering the truth

In the weeks after the defeat of the so-called Islamic State at Raqqa, a woman named Ayat Mohamed—her black clothing covering burns on her body—led a French TV crew to the ruins of a building in the Al Badou neighborhood. Here in late September Ayat’s husband Khaled al Salama, their four children, along with her mother, sister and niece, had all been killed by an alleged strike by the US-led coalition. Their bodies remained trapped below.

“The planes were bombing and rockets were falling 24 hours a day,” said a tearful Ayat. “There were ISIS snipers everywhere, you couldn’t breath.” In all directions, buildings had been destroyed, and it was hard to tell where one structure began and another ended. “My children are still there, buried under the rubble,” she told the camera. “No one has dug them out yet.” Ayat said she could not afford to have their bodies retrieved. “How can I get them out of these ruins, how can I see them?”

Ayat Mohamed, interviewed by France 24 in her ruined neighbourhood

Nearly three more months would pass before some of the bodies were recovered. A picture taken at the scene shows five white body bags labelled with the names of Ayat’s husband, Khaled, and their children Farah, Mohammad, Najah and Hussein. Their remains were dug out on February 12th, according to the local monitor Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS).

“Al Salama’s wife survived the shelling and spent nearly four months communicating with the Raqqa Civilian Council until they pulled out the bodies of her family,” an RBSS representative told Airwars. The location of the remains of Ayat’s mother, sister and niece is unclear, though it is possible they were among the nearly 30 bodies that have been pulled from the building, most of them badly decomposed and many charred after they were burned in the attack. All of the bodies were buried in Tal al Bai’aa cemetery, said RBSS.

More remains of victims are being retrieved in Raqqa every day, some dug out by laborers hired by relatives and loved ones. According to Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, in the month leading to mid-February alone, upwards of 190 additional unidentified corpses had been pulled from the rubble.

Overall, an estimated 2,000 civilians were killed during bitter fighting for control of Raqqa, according to local casualty monitors – in an assault dominated by US firepower. Even now the dying hasn’t stopped. Cut down by explosives left rigged by ISIS, hundreds of returning civilians have been wounded or killed since October. Like those seeking to retrieve their family members, Raqawis, the people of Raqqa, left to fend for themselves have paid desperate locals to try and disarm their homes, or have attempted to make their homes safe themselves—sometimes with disastrous consequences.

All this is occurring as international media coverage of Raqqa dwindles away. Once the center of countless stories about the so-called Islamic caliphate, ISIS’s self-declared capital is now 80 per cent uninhabitable due to destruction from recent fighting, according to the United Nations.

The remains of Ayat’s husband and four children. Image provided by RBSS.

No Accountability By the time US-backed ground forces began moving into Raqqa in early June 2017, a parallel offensive across the Iraqi border in Mosul was nearly finished. After eight months of bitter fighting, parts of Iraq’s second largest city were devastated and thousands of civilians had been killed or injured. In Raqqa, early accounts indicated that just as in Mosul, civilians were being obstructed from leaving – at risk from booby traps laid by ISIS, or targeted by the terror group’s snipers. At the same time, civilians inside Raqqa received conflicting evacuation instructions from the Coalition and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Unlike operations in Mosul, which took place across two US administrations, the fight in Raqqa was carried out entirely under the watch of Donald Trump’s White House. Trump’s promise to delegate everything to commanders in the field—and Defense Secretary James Mattis’ shift to “annihilation tactics”—helped contribute to a drastic increase in civilian casualties from Coalition strikes that took off early in 2017. As The Daily Beast and Airwars reported last year, the number of civilian deaths caused by the Coalition during the entire war against ISIS had already doubled under Trump by the summer of 2017—right in the midst of operations in Raqqa.

According to official data, the Coalition—in Syria almost entirely consisting of American military aircraft and ground artillery units, with limited support from British and French planes—leaned heavily on airpower and artillery during the five months it took to expel ISIS from an area much smaller than Mosul.

Today, the actual number of weapons fired in Raqqa remains clouded by inconsistent statements from US officials. However, according to an Airwars analysis, at least 95 per cent of strikes in Raqqa and all artillery strikes were American. At least 21,000 munitions—and possibly thousands more—struck the city.

What isn’t uncertain is that the intense bombardment resulted in significant civilian casualties. Local monitors estimate that upwards of 2,000 were killed by all parties to the fighting—and many victims, like those in the Salama family, are only now being found.

At the same time, the Coalition’s record on investigating alleged deaths from air and artillery strikes appears to have significantly weakened in Raqqa. Nine months into operations in Mosul – at the end of June – the Coalition had acknowledged responsibility for 43 strikes that it said killed at least 240 civilians and wounded a further 42. (As of its most recent update, the Coalition has admitted to killing 321 or more civilians in Mosul, and injuring a further 46 people in 60 events.) It concluded that 58 additional alleged civilian casualty incidents at Mosul were considered “non-credible”. That meant that after seven months, 43 percent of the 101 total completed assessments had resulted in acknowledgements of responsibility.

In Raqqa, a greater reliance on air and artillery strikes ahead of more cautious ground advances—as well as the limited firepower of local partner forces (the largest weapons wielded by the SDF were 120mm mortars)—all indicated that civilian harm would be more often tied to Coalition actions.

Yet nine months later, only 11 percent of Coalition civilian harm assessments have resulted in an admission of responsibility. Out of 121 reports so far assessed for the Raqqa assault, the Coalition has confirmed involvement in just 13 strikes, which it says left 21 civilians dead and six injured—far short of the 1,400 likely Coalition-inflicted deaths Airwars tracked between June and October.

The enemy forces arrayed against the Coalition in Raqqa also significantly differed. According to Coalition figures, international and Iraqi forces encountered 700 vehicle borne IEDs during the battle for Mosul. In Raqqa, the Coalition and SDF encountered only “around a dozen VBIEDs” between June and Oct. 20, 2017.

Most damage to the city—described in January 2018 by USAID chief Mark Green as devastation “almost beyond description”—was the result of US air and artillery strikes. Satellite images from before the battle show one neighborhood mostly intact. Soon it was mostly gone.

Meanwhile, decisions about what and what not to strike were moved significantly down the command chain, a dynamic that began in late 2016 under President Barack Obama and which was in full effect during the battle in Raqqa. “TEA [Target Engagement Authority] was decentralized from the Headquarters GO level (far removed from the battlefield) and delegated to the appropriate level commander, who was close to the fight,” AFCENT spokesperson AnnMarie Annicelli told Airwars in an email. The “ground force unit,” she said, “controlled all dynamic engagements” of air and artillery.

View of Raqqa’s Old City, taken on June 2nd 2016.

View of the Old City, taken on July 19th 2017. Images from Amnesty International.

 

A storm of weapons

Fired from afar and usually targeted based on intelligence from local proxy ground forces,the SDF, US bombs, missiles and artillery shells rained almost continuously into Raqqa. According to official figures provided to Airwars, the Coalition launched more than 20,000 munitions into the city during the five-month campaign. In August, that barrage had officially increased to more than one bomb, missile, rocket or artillery round fired every eight minutes—a total of 5,775 munitions during the month.

This was more than all munitions released by the US in Afghanistan during all of 2017. In Mosul – a far larger city with many times as many residents, and where fighting lasted nearly twice as long – the Coalition actually fired on average fewer air-dropped and artillery munitions during nine months of fighting (3,250 per month).

According to Air Force Central Command (AFCENT), Coalition aircraft carried out “nearly 4,500” airstrikes in and around Raqqa between May and October of 2017. During the four month battle for Raqqa, the UK said that its aircraft had hit 213 targets in the city, while France reported fewer than 50 airstrikes on Raqqa over the same period. All other air attacks (approximately 95 percent) and every artillery round to hit the city most likely came from US forces.

During the first half of the battle for Raqqa, fire from A-10 “Warthog” ground assault aircraft accounted for roughly 44 percent of weapon use in Raqqa. The extensive use of A-10s in such an urban setting – which fire 30mm cannons and can also deploy bombs and missiles – was described by US officials at the time as unprecedented.

“The fight itself was within the urban complex of Raqqa and the pilots had to get creative to figure out ways to strike targets at the bottom of these five-story buildings,” said Lt. Col. Craig Morash, commander of the 74th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron. “Urban conflict, at least in this form, was kind of the first time anybody had ever seen it before,” he later told a reporter.

Those A-10s were joined by Reaper drones, B-2 and B-52 bombers, F-15s and F-16s, and long range artillery. Raqqa experienced the full weight of the US warfighting machine.

Quentin Sommerville, the BBC’s veteran Middle East Correspondent, reported extensively from both Raqqa and Mosul. His battlefield dispatches from deserted areas of Raqqa that had been captured from ISIS showed a city in ruins, even as fighting still raged in other neighborhoods. “24 hours of coverage wouldn’t do justice to the total devastation across Raqqa,” he tweeted from the city on September 17th. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“I would say in Mosul artillery and airstrikes were in most cases a last resort,” Sommerville said in an interview with Airwars. “In Raqqa, they seemed like they were used first.”

Recent disclosures suggest the true number of weapons fired in Raqqa may in fact be even higher. Speaking to reporters on January 23rd, Command Sergeant John Wayne Troxell—a senior non-enlisted adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff—said that US Marines stationed near Raqqa had “in five months… fired 30,000 artillery rounds on ISIS targets, killing ISIS fighters by the dozens.”

A spokesperson for the Marine Corps later told Airwars that they were not authorized to verify those figures, while the Coalition said that many of the rounds fired by the unit were aimed “at other Daesh targets in Syria outside of Raqqah.” Artillery, however, has a limited range, and Marines based in Syria during Raqqa fighting likely would have unleashed the majority of rounds inside the city itself, which by June was completely surrounded.

The remains of the building in which Ayat’s entire family was killed. Image via RBSS.

In August, Amnesty International reported that hundreds of civilians were already dead from Coalition air and artillery strikes. “Artillery shells are hitting everywhere, entire streets,” Raqqa resident Ahmad Mahmoud, wounded by artillery himself, told Amnesty in June 2017. “It is indiscriminate shelling and killing a lot of civilians.” A Western reporter in touch with Airwars said survivors from Raqqa later told them artillery was scarier, as it came in deluges and without any warning.

The so-called Islamic State bears significant responsibility for the destruction and death toll at Raqqa, according to investigators. “By deliberately placing civilians in areas where they were exposed to combat operations, for the purpose of rendering those areas immune from attack, ISIL militants committed the war crime of using human shields in Raqqah governorate,” the UN’s Commission of Inquiry for Syria noted in a recent report.

“Despite the fact that civilians were being used as human shields, international coalition airstrikes continued apace on a daily basis, resulting in the destruction of much of Raqqah city and the death of countless civilians, many of whom were buried in improvised cemeteries, including parks,” the Commission also wrote.

Facing down thousands of bombs and shells, residents said ISIS sometimes made civilians wear the same clothes as ISIS fighters so as to appear indistinguishable. ISIS would also position vehicles “next to a house and fire at the planes and helicopters in the sky,” one witness who lost his brother in a subsequent strike told Amnesty. “Then it would move and park next to another house. The helicopters and planes kept trying to hit it. They hit so many houses but they didn’t even hit the vehicle.”

But at times Coalition targeting was less explicable. In one incident, on the night of July 1st, neighbors told Amnesty, a family of five—including three children—died when an airstrike hit their building in Raqqa’s Old City. The house was 100 meters, the witness said, from the closest group of ISIS fighters. The Coalition has identified a number of possible incidents around this date in Raqqa—including one referred to it by a “human rights organization,” and another which the Coalition has already determined was a “non-credible” allegation.

The Salama family appears to have fallen victim to such a scenario. Ayat and her husband Khaled had recently returned to Raqqa in order to bring other family members to safety. Instead they all became trapped as the fighting intensified. According to RBSS, the family was moved by ISIS, reportedly along with many residents of al Amassi neighborhood, to another part of the city called al Badou. There, they were killed in a reported Coalition strike.

Silent media

Despite the horrors experienced by civilians during recent fighting, press reports from Raqqa have been filed far less regularly than its status as the former “ISIS capital” might have suggested. In Mosul, many more journalists covered the battle—often revealing important details about the civilian toll. In December for example, a major field investigation by the Associated Press put the overall civilian death in Mosul above 9,000.

Reporters on the ground in Mosul were able to uncover incidents of civilian deaths from airstrikes, and in several cases help convince the Coalition to concede involvement. The work of BuzzFeed News’ Mike Giglio led to an admission of culpability in four cases, which had left a total of 40 civilians dead. That accountability was only possible after Giglio made unauthorized reporting trips to Mosul, interviewing family members and other witnesses—investigatory steps that the Coalition itself does not undertake. In Raqqa, few media investigations have so far taken place.

When details of civilian deaths do emerge, they gain less traction. In the last month of fighting at Raqqa, a report released by the UN’s humanitarian agency OCHA included details of an October 2nd presumed Coalition strike that hit “a water well located in the outskirts of the Al-Tawaassoiya area in the north of Ar-Raqqa city, reportedly killing 45 civilians.” The next day, another strike hit wells where civilians had again congregated, leaving at least 21 dead according to OCHA. The attacks left the city with no functional wells, said the humanitarian brief.

Those attacks, which followed an alleged pattern of civilians being bombed near water sources, and the targeting of civilians trying to escape the city by boat earlier in the offensive, do not appear to have been widely picked up by English-language media.

“In Mosul, media were falling over each other; almost no stone was left unturned,” said Sommerville. “But Raqqa was more difficult to reach during the offensive, and is still difficult to get to. There we have barely scratched the surface. It seemed to me that wherever we went there were stories of civilian casualties. And no one was investigating.”

Yet access to civilians who had escaped the fighting at Raqqa was possible. The SDF had set up civilian reception centers on the outskirts of the city, where survivors were able to speak freely about their harrowing experiences.

A body part seen in February amid the rubble in the Hadiqa Bayda area of Raqqa. Image provided by RBSS.

“The bombardment had been so heavy that people weren’t even afraid of talking about it in front of the SDF,” said a Western journalist who visited one of the centers. “Almost every single person we spoke to had a relative, friend or neighbor that was killed in some kind of bombardment—whether they were going to get water or something else.”

Though all these civilians passed through central locations, there appears to be little or no official record kept of their testimonies about the toll of fighting and bombing inside the city. “The Coalition has not conducted interviews on the ground in or around Raqqa as part of any civilian casualty investigation,” a Coalition spokesperson told Airwars.

“It is striking to see the Coalition continue to deny civilian casualties even after independent on the ground investigations found the contrary,” said Nadim Houry, of Human Rights Watch. “If they want to talk to survivors, they only need to visit these areas.”

Though Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International were both able to reach Raqqa without permission from the Syrian government, UN investigators have been blocked by Damascus since 2012. The UN’s Commission of Inquiry, established by the Human Rights Council and the only internationally sanctioned body tasked with investigating crimes committed by all sides in the Syrian war, is severely hamstrung. It can only carry out investigations remotely, often via cell phones and the internet.

Ironically, the Syrian government’s attempts to shield its own crimes has also offered a better chance at impunity for its adversaries. “It is beyond comprehension that, despite this extensive range of violations, Syrian victims and survivors continue to be denied any meaningful justice,” said Commission Chair Paulo Pinheiro on March 6th.

Houry of Human Rights Watch visited Raqqa governorate in the lead up to the battle, documenting evidence of at least 84 civilian deaths in two strikes. In each case, HRW provided detailed information to the Coalition, but not a single one of those civilian deaths has been admitted. “The delays at this point suggest either lack of seriousness in the effort or a desire to hide something,” he claims.

The legacy of the fight for Raqqa may now be the thousands upon thousands of unexploded pieces of ordnance that litter the streets, many of them IEDs rigged by ISIS to explode. Coalition countries say they are funding efforts to train and equip cleanup teams, but those efforts appear to be inadequate. On a subsequent trip, Houry documented the toll—at least 491 dead and injured since October—from IEDS, and how desperate many civilians remained.

The going rate for young men to look through properties and remove rubble was around $50 per house, according to one resident. A false step could cost searchers their lives. A successful job could lead to the discovery of more war dead, like the family of Ayat Mohamed. “It’s like playing Russian roulette, but these young men are desperate for money,” said the resident.

Raqqa is only one part of a complex Syrian battlefield that has claimed countless civilian lives. But the defeat of the so-called Islamic State in its self-proclaimed caliphate was a fight orchestrated and carried out in the main by the United States. To date, the Trump administration has shown little interest in properly understanding the civilian harm resulting from its defeat of ISIS.

▲ Photos of bodies pulled from al Tawassouiya neighbourhood (via Reporters Without Borders)

Published

March 7, 2018

Written by

Samuel Oakford

Note: this article has been updated to include a response from the Coalition. 

United Nations investigators charged with monitoring the Syrian conflict have accused both Russia and the US-led Coalition of potentially violating international law or war crimes for strikes in the country during 2017.

In a year which saw shocking reports of civilian harm across Syria, the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic launched a blistering attack on the many belligerents, domestic and foreign, who now crowd Syria’s soil.

The latest report of the Commission of Inquiry outlined cluster munition use by pro-government forces; an attack on a hospital that was treating victims of an April 4th 2017 sarin gas attack; and a brutal pro-government campaign in the second half of that year in the Aleppo countryside, targeting schools – a campaign which the Commission said amounted in each instance to war crimes.

ISIS was accused of using snipers and landmines to deliberately target civilians at Raqqa, forcing them to remain within the beseiged city, and of forcibly moving civilians into neighbourhoods under attack from assaulting forces: “By deliberately placing civilians in areas where they were exposed to combat operations, for the purpose of rendering those areas immune from attack, ISIL militants committed the war crime of using human shields in Raqqah governorate,” the Commission noted.

Investigators also cited the US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) for conscripting children as young as 13 as fighters. In the aftermath of fighting in Raqqa, the Commission noted, the SDF has been interning up to 80,000 displaced people in desert camps, ostensibly to vet them for possible connections to ISIS. According to the Commission, “Irrespective of the legitimacy of a security threat, the blanket internment of all internally displaced persons from Raqqah and Dayr al-Zawr by the Syrian Democratic Forces cannot be justified.”

The Commission also implicated, in effect, four of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council with involvement – either directly, or by association – with likely unlawful airstrikes. That marked a significant change from late 2015, when Commission chair Paulo Pinheiro said there was “no possibility that we will investigate the American air strikes or French or British or Russian.” In the years since, Russian and US-led airstrikes have reportedly killed thousands of civilians in Syria, leading to a far more robust response from the Commission. 

In the case of November 13th 2017 airstrikes in Aleppo, UN investigators took the important step of naming Russia as the perpetrator — not simply “pro-government” forces or the regime and its allies. In a separate investigation, the Commission offered new details about what may be the deadliest airstrike of the entire US-led campaign in Iraq or Syria – an alliance that also counts among its ranks UNSC permanent members France and the United Kingdom.

Highest civilian toll of entire Coalition war

On the night of March 20th-21st 2017, the Al-Badiya school in al Mansourah, by almost all accounts filled with at least 200 internally displaced people, was struck by the Coalition.The US-led alliance has confirmed it conducted the attack – though continues to insist that only ISIS fighters died.

In a September 2017 Human Rights Watch report, researchers interviewed local residents who said some “ISIS members and their families displaced from Iraq had moved into the school prior to the attack,” but that many also were “completely unaffiliated with ISIS.” HRW found that at least 40 named civilians, including 16 children were killed, and said the toll was likely much higher. The UN-sponsored Commission now assesses that 150 civilians were in fact killed that night – and insists no Islamic State fighters died.

Human Rights Watch investigation video interviewing al Mansour survivors

Though it is not allowed to enter Syria by the Assad government, the Commission was able to interview 20 survivors, relatives, rescuers and other witnesses. “Interviewees explained that, since 2012, Al-Badiya school housed internally displaced families,” wrote the UN investigators. “Some of the residents were recent arrivals while other internally displaced persons had been living in the school for years.”

In the weeks after the strike, Airwars itself provided the Coalition with a 28-page dossier of reports monitored prior to and after the attack which in part described the movement or presence of IDPs in the near area.

In their new report, UN investigators found that the school was hit by three separate airstrikes, “each using multiple bombs that destroyed most of the building rendering it uninhabitable.” They also obtained photographs which showed the type of aerial weapons, including Hellfire missiles, which were likely used.

The al Mansoura strike, and the Coalition’s response, immediately raised serious concerns. As reports emerged suggesting a large civilian toll, the Coalition’s then-top commander General Stephen J. Townsend appeared to preempt his own investigative team.

“We had multiple corroborating intelligence sources from various types of intelligence that told us the enemy was using that school,” Townsend told reporters on March 28th 2017. “And we observed it. And we saw what we expected to see. We struck it.”

“Afterwards, we got an allegation that it wasn’t ISIS fighters in there… it was instead refugees of some sort in the school,” Townsend continued. “Yet, not seeing any corroborating evidence of that. In fact, everything we’ve seen since then suggests that it was the 30 or so ISIS fighters we expected to be there.”

The aftermath of a Coalition strike on a school in Al Mansoura, March 21st . This is one of the few images to show the destruction of the attack. (via Mansoura in its People’s Eyes)

In its most recent report, the Commission of Inquiry rebutts that version of events. “Information gathered by the Commission does not support the claim that 30 ISIS fighters were in the school at the time of the strike, nor that the school was otherwise being used by ISIS,” it wrote. Investigators said the Coalition should have been aware that the school had been sheltering displaced families for five years. Indeed, among the reports provided to the Coalition by Airwars that described the presence of IDPs were several that predated the strike by several weeks.

The Commission concluded that the Coalition violated international law in failing to “take all feasible precautions to avoid or minimize incidental loss of life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects.”

The Coalition’s investigative team ultimately concluded that allegations of civilian harm in the Mansoura incident were “non-credible.” As in other high profile US or US-led attacks, Coalition investigators did not visit the site of the strike, instead relying on its own internal sources such as strike video. The Coalition’s subsequent investigation, said the Commission, should have been able to “identify the high number of civilian casualties resulting from this incident.”

Even after Human Rights Watch provided the Coalition with detailed information from its own in-person investigation and published those findings, the Coalition did not reopen the case. Reached by Airwars following the release of the Commission’s report, the Coalition repeated their earlier non-credible assessment but said they would consider the findings.

“Based on all evidence provided, to include weapons system video, we have no solid indication civilian casualties resulted from this strike,” said a Coalition spokesperson. “We are interested in the facts the U.N. used to reach a different determination than our assessment. We have in the past re-examined our assessments based on new information, and are willing to reevaluate this assessment if credible or compelling additional information can be obtained.”

Possible Russian War Crimes

The tandem Russian-Syrian aerial campaign in Syria continues to pose significant roadblocks to accountability. Most reports citing Russia during the recent bombing in eastern Ghouta, for instance, have also cited the regime as the possible culprit. Unlike the Coalition however, neither Moscow nor the regime make any effort to admit civilian harm. That makes the second significant case study of international strikes so important in the new UN report.

In an important piece of detective work examining a mass casualty event at Atareb on November 13th 2017, the Commission’s investigators were able to study flight records and pilot communications – and declare that the Russian air force was responsible for a series of strikes that left at least 84 civilians dead and some 150 injured. “Using unguided weapons, the attack struck a market, police station, shops, and a restaurant, and may amount to a war crime,” the Commission said in a statement.

Aftermath of the November 13th attack in Atareb. (via Syrian Network for Human Rights)

At the time of the attack, while some local reports did cite the regime the large majority blamed Russia alone. Based on those reports, Airwars assessed that the events in Atareb were the deadliest in all of Syria that week to be tied to Russia. According to to the UN, these early accounts – monitored by Airwars – citing local testimony and observations of planes flying overhead proved accurate.

The first target hit in Atareb was a police station, where at least 13 officers and six prisoners died. The Commission found that the police were not involved in fighting, and that the station was not a “lawful military objective.” Four minutes later, a nearby three-story building was bombed.

A third, catastrophic wave of strikes then followed, hitting “a market street killing and maiming civilians and destroying vegetable and clothing shops as well as nearby residential buildings.” The Commission said it was able to corroborate local accounts by using video captured at the scene, and via satellite imagery.

“Shop owners explained that, at the time of the attack, the market was crowded with people who had left work, most of whom were men since many women had stopped going to the market after the earlier attacks,” wrote investigators.

In the market area, the Commission found evidence consistent with damage caused by unguided Russian-made OFAB-500 bombs. Elsewhere was an entry hole through which an unexploded bomplet fell. “Evidence at the scene and video evidence is consistent with a BeTAB-500 unguided ‘bunker buster’ carrying 12 rocket-assisted penetrators,” wrote investigators. “Using such weapons in a densely civilian populated area was certain to impact civilians.”

While Coalition strikes have mostly tailed off after Syrian Democratic Forces captured Raqqa in October 2017, Russian strikes have been blamed for record numbers of civilian deaths in recent weeks. Between February 19th and February 25th alone, Airwars tracked a record 78 new alleged Russian civilian casualty incidents in Syria – nearly all in eastern Ghouta – that reportedly left at least 324 civilians dead. 

On March 5th 2018, the UN Human Rights Council requested that the Commission of Inquiry conduct an urgent investigation into the offensive in the besieged suburb of Damascus.

Published

January 10, 2018

Written by

Samuel Oakford

A former deputy commander of the Royal Air Force – who previously oversaw airstrikes in Iraq, Syria and Libya – says that despite British claims to the contrary, it is inconceivable no civilians have been harmed in more than 1,600 UK airstrikes against so-called Islamic State.

Air Marshall Greg Bagwell, who retired from the RAF in 2016, told campaigning group Drone Wars UK in an extended interview that “I don’t think it is credible… that we have not caused any civilian casualties.” On the same day that Bagwell’s interview was published, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) was still being quoted as saying that “We’ve not seen any evidence that we have caused civilian casualties.”

Senior opposition Labour MP Clive Lewis has called on the Ministry of Defence to “stop treating the British public as mugs” with its “fantasy approach to zero civilian casualties.”

Air Marshall Greg Bagwell (Image via Drone Wars UK)

According to Air Marshall Bagwell, the Ministry of Defence’s focus on defending its claim of zero civilian casualties is contributing to a false image of risk free war, noting that “the 100% claim and the incessant pressure on its defence has frustrated me.”

“I think it’s unfortunate that we continue to maintain a pure 100% argument,” Air Marshall Bagwell told Drone Wars, in an interview published on January 8th. “Although we do our utmost to both prevent civilian casualties and conduct post-strike analysis to confirm, I don’t think it is credible to the average listener that we have not caused any civilian casualties just because you have got no evidence to the contrary.”

Bagwell also called into question the accuracy of battle damage assessments, which are used to determine possible civilian harm, noting that “you can’t see through rubble.”

‘Second only to the United States’

The UK is the second most active member of the anti-ISIS Coalition after the United States. Through December 12th, the British Ministry of Defense (MoD) has reported 1,626 airstrikes – 1,357 in Iraq and 269 in Syria –  which the MoD claims have left upwards of 3,000 ISIS fighters dead. But it has always maintained in parallel that there is no evidence to suggest civilians died as a result of any bombings.

As the war against ISIS moved deeper into heavily populated cities during 2017, British claims of zero civilian harm appeared ever more unlikely. Following the battle for Mosul, former British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon MP boasted that the UK had struck more than 750 targets in the city – “second only to the United States.” Yet a recent Associated Press investigation found that as many as 11,000 civilians may have died in that assault – at least a third killed by air and artillery strikes.

In a September 2017 response to a Freedom of Information request filed by the Press Association, the MoD was still asserting that according to their records “we have found no credible evidence of civilian casualties [that] have been caused by RAF strikes in Iraq or Syria” over the preceding year. Earlier FOIA requests have been answered similarly.

Until 2016, Air Marshall Bagwell was Deputy Commander at Royal Air Force Command, involved in handling Britain’s involvement in the Washington-led Coalition. “He’s a very senior commander with a lot of experience, and I suspect he is only saying publicly what a lot of officers are saying privately amongst themselves,” said Chris Cole, director of Drone Wars. “Suggesting there may not have been any civilian casualties from more than 1,600 airstrikes is simply not credible.”

Bagwell agrees. “It is almost unbelievable that someone, somewhere, has not been killed by accident,” he said. The former RAF commander also warned that the British public was receiving a warped version of what their counterterror operations resulted in, portraying war as clean.

“There is a danger at the moment that we are conditioning ourselves to think in a certain way – that wars are bloodless and we can carry out war in a ‘nice way,’” said Bagwell. “Thinking war is bloodless is a mistake.”

While downplaying the extent of non-combatant fatalities and emphasising the war’s “precision,” top American officials have conceded civilian deaths. “We can make a mistake, and in this kind of warfare, tragedy will happen,” said US Secretary of Defense James Mattis in August 2017. British officials have rarely made such statements, or have waited as Bagwell did, until they retired.

Members of Parliament have taken note. Afghanistan veteran Clive Lewis, chair of the All-Party Parliamenty Group for Drone Warfare and Labour’s former Shadow Defence Secretary, told Airwars that “The Ministry of Defence’s insistence that it has not caused civilian casualties from airstrikes in Iraq and Syria is increasingly untenable, given the lack of transparency surrounding how it investigates civilian casualty reports.”

“The longer the government insist on this fantasy approach to zero civilian casualties, the more they undermine the public’s trust in the government on this matter and beyond,” said Lewis. “This erosion is dangerous and completely unnecessary. My message is clear: Do not treat the British public as mugs.”

The Ministry of Defense does not appear to be budging. In a written response to Parliament on January 8th, Mark Lancaster, the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, claimed that “we have been able to discount RAF involvement in any civilian casualties as a result of any of the strikes that have been brought to our attention.”

A Royal Air Force Tornado GR4 armed with Paveway IV laser guided bombs, shown at a base in Cyprus during 2015. Credit: Cpl Neil Bryden/ MoD

‘Surprised’

By its own admission, the Coalition’s air campaign has killed more than 800 civilians. Airwars researchers estimate the toll is far higher, at over 6,000. By either measure, it appears certain that the United Kingdom – like France and other major partners – have been responsible for some civilians deaths.

In May 2017, Airwars revealed that US officials had judged their coalition partners responsible for at least 80 confirmed deaths due to airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. But with the exception of Australia, no member of the Coalition besides the US has ever admitted to killing a single civilian in Iraq and Syria.

Those 80 deaths were quietly included in an April 2017 civilian casualty report, released by the Coalition. They did not include dates or locations for any the deaths – a decision made to insulate allies from identification. Subsequently, the US stopped publicly identifying its own strikes in Iraq and Syria that killed civilians – again, a step to prevent any ally from being identified by elimination. This meant that survivors and family members of victims could not know which country was involved in dropping bombs which harmed their loved ones, even if the Coalition had admitted responsibility.

In evidence presented at the UK’s Parliament in 2017, Airwars director Chris Woods told MPs and peers that he was “surprised” by MoD claims that it had not caused any civilian harm in Iraq or Syria, based on his private conversations with senior defence officials.

While the MoD has never admitted to civilian casualties, it does review allegations. For 2016, Airwars identified more than 120 alleged incidents in which British airstrikes might have resulted in civilian harm. However  in each case the MoD has so far assessed, the UK has determined  that there was no evidence to suggest civilian casualties.

The disparity has raised questions about the UK’s battle damage assessment capacities, and whether they are fit for purpose. “Our view is, if the British repeatedly cannot see civilian harm, but all of the modelling indicates that we should be seeing civilian harm, then that suggests that the aerial civcas monitoring that the MoD is using is not fit for purpose,” Airwars director Chris Woods told the parliamentary inquiry in July 2017.

Published

December 16, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

When Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi announced victory over so-called Islamic State in Iraq on December 9th, his allies in the international Coalition had just begun their 40th month of bombing ISIS targets in the beleaguered nation. A grinding territorial war was finally ending.

“Our forces fully control the Iraqi-Syrian border, and thus we can announce the end of the war against Daesh,” Abadi said, referring to the group by an Arabic acronym. “Our battle was with the enemy that wanted to kill our civilization, but we have won with our unity and determination.”

As Iraqi forces celebrated in Baghdad with a military parade, the Coalition congratulated Iraqis on the defeat of their common enemy – while the US pledged its continued backing of Baghdad. With ISIS now losing all major territorial footholds in the country, the toll of the occupation – and from the internationally supported campaign to remove the terror group from Iraq – are still being measured.

Estimates of how many have died since ISIS began its blitz across northern and western Iraq in 2014 remain fragmentary. Thousands of civilians were killed, disappeared or were captured and enslaved, as ISIS fighters targeted minority groups like the Yazidis — crimes that a UN Commission of Inquiry would later label genocidal.

“The public statements and conduct of ISIS and its fighters clearly demonstrate that ISIS intended to destroy the Yazidis of Sinjar, composing the majority of the world’s Yazidi population, in whole or in part,” concluded the commission.

A Yazidi boy – his face and hair matted with dust – re-enters Iraq from Syria, at a border crossing in the town of Peshkhabour in Dohuk Governorate. Photo: UNICEF/Wathiq Khuzaie

When they weren’t shooting civilians, ISIS often trapped them in their homes as Iraq’s cities and towns came under assault — at times even welding them inside. Mines and improvised explosives were widely dispersed in homes and in the street. These will likely kill Iraqis for years to come. The Coalition recently reported that it has so far helped remove “nearly 40,000 kilograms of explosives since April 2016 from liberated areas in Iraq.”

Thousands of captured Iraqi soldiers and police officers were also murdered during the early stages of the occupation, their executions shown in graphic ISIS propaganda videos. During recent operations to capture Mosul, the UN estimates that at least 741 civilians were summarily executed by ISIS fighters, with hundreds more killed by the groups’ artillery and vehicle bombs.  Mass graves are still being found.

“There are many layers of the dead in and around Mosul,” said Katharina Ritz, head of delegation for the ICRC in Iraq. “From different stages of this latest conflict, such as the discovery of many mass graves reportedly linked to ISIS rule, to those who died in various ways during the assault, and those who died at the end and were buried under rubble.”

The heat map shows the locations of alleged Coalition strikes resulting in civilian casualties in Iraq (via the Airwars database) throughout the war. The intensity of colour shows where most claims have been reported. The largest dot represents Mosul.

Iraqis bore brunt of military cost

Ground fighters on all sides of the conflict in Iraq suffered heavy casualties. US military officials have thrown around large numbers — claiming anywhere from 45,000 to 70,000 or more ISIS fighters killed since Coalition operations began. But analysts have questioned whether the number of ISIS fighters in general has tended to be exaggerated, especially by Western militaries.

In the fight for Mosul, elite units like Iraq’s Special Operations Forces were so heavily depleted during fighting — by some estimates they suffered “upwards of 50 percent casualties” in East Mosul — that their role in the more densely packed West was severely diminished.

In March, CENTCOM chief Gen. Joseph Votel said that 774 Iraqi troops had so far been killed in Mosul. US officials have since put the number of Iraqi military dead in Mosul at 1,400. Other estimates place the number even higher: In November 2016, the UN reported that 1,959 members of the Iraqi Security Forces and supporting forces had been killed that month alone in Iraq. After the Iraqi government protested, the UN stopped publishing estimates of government forces killed in the fighting. Many more Peshmerga fighters and irregulars with Popular Mobilization Forces militias also died fighting ISIS.

Partly as a result of this high Iraqi toll, in December 2016 the Obama administration loosened restrictions on who could call in airstrikes, allowing personnel farther down the command chain to do so. That decision allowed faster approval of attacks, which Coalition officials said would help assist ground troops.

However some journalists on the ground have said that this led to an immediate rise in civilian casualties, a toll that only grew as operations in Mosul continued into the city’s West and ultimately ended in a hellish assault on the narrowly packed Old City.

Though civilians, Iraqi forces and members of ISIS were killed in significant numbers, remarkably few Coalition personnel have died during combat operations – a measure not just of battlefield superiority but of how intensively the alliance depended upon remote air and artillery strikes. As of December 15th, just 13 US service members were reported as killed in action during the entirety of Coalition operations in Iraq and Syria going back to 2014. Partners like France have only suffered rare casualties during operations around Mosul, and not from direct fighting.

There are few conflicts in the history of warfare where a force’s own ability to destroy an enemy over extended periods has been matched by their own relative safety from harm. By comparison, partner forces on the ground suffered casualties at hundreds of times the rate of the Coalition’s.

A heavy civilian toll 

In contrast with high Coalition tallies of ISIS fighters killed, estimates of civilian deaths have been treated conservatively by belligerents and, in many cases, by the media. The air campaign against ISIS began in Iraq on August 8th 2014, when US jets bombed targets as part of an effort to stave off the terror group’s attempt to capture, enslave or exterminate fleeing Yezidis in northern Iraq. By then, the extremist group had already captured large areas of Western and Northern Iraqi, including Iraq’s second city Mosul.

Eight days into the US intervention the first civilian casualties tied to US strikes were alleged. On August 16th outlets including the German press agency DPA and Al Jazeera reported that 11 civilians had been killed in Sinjar. According to local accounts, munitions aimed at fleeing ISIS fighters had instead hit civilian homes in the area. More than three years on, the Coalition has yet to assess this first claim – one of hundreds of Iraq allegations so far unaddressed by the US-led alliance.

It wasn’t until November 20th 2015 that the US first admitted responsibility for any civilian deaths in Iraq. Initially, the US said four civilians had been killed in a March 13th strike in Hatra that same year. Not publicly reported at the time, the incident was brought to the attention of the Coalition by the owner of one of two cars bombed near an ISIS checkpoint. After a Washington Post investigation, CENTCOM raised its estimate of civilians killed to 11. Among the dead were five children and four women. A redacted investigation was posted online by CENTCOM — a practice neither the US or Coalition would continue. Links to the original investigation have now been removed.

Out of some 800 local allegations against the Coalition in Iraq which have been identified by Airwars, the alliance has so far confirmed responsibility in 107 incidents – conceding a minimum of 471 civilian deaths and 97 injuries.

Eighty additional civilian deaths have been confirmed by the Coalition in unidentified events which were the result of non-US Coalition actions — strikes which could have taken place in either Iraq or Syria. America’s allies still refuse to accept responsibility for any of those 80 deaths.

Based on available public evidence, Airwars researchers currently assess 180 further incidents as likely the responsibility of the Coalition. The present Airwars estimate of the total number of civilians killed across all 287 events is between and 2,129 and 3,152  non-combatants.

Beyond the Coalition’s much lower estimates of how many civilians were killed due to its own strikes, the UN in Iraq has released only minimum figures for estimated civilian deaths which they acknowledge to be far below the true toll. In the case of one key province – Anbar – where much of the recent fighting has occurred, the UN has rarely offerted any casualty data. In its most recent monthly report, UNAMI, said it had once again been unable to obtain casualty figures for the province at all.

Only one group, Iraq Body Count, has attempted to systematically capture the death toll caused by all parties in Iraq since before ISIS first began its expansion. From January 2014 – when ISIS captured Fallujah – Iraq Body Count has recorded more than 66,000 civilians having been reported killed in violence throughout Iraq. Their monitoring has led to a preliminary count of 9,791 deaths during operations to recapture Mosul. Clarifying and unraveling reports will still take time, said Iraq Body Count co-founder Hamit Dardagan, who also works as the organisation’s principal analyst.

“After ISIS’s ousting we have a range of reports of mass graves of different age, and disentangling all these will take a lot of time, especially in relation to the more immediate reports that appeared and may in some cases have concerned the same victims,” said Dardagan. “The same need to disentangle multiple accounts of aggregate deaths holds true for OIR and Mosul. We have seen the official accounts, as you will have, but one wonders how even they could be near-finished as yet.”

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Possible under-reporting of civilian harm

While there is little dispute that many thousands of Iraq civilians died in the past 42 months of war, understanding how non-combatants met their deaths often remains a significant challenge.

The Iraqi military has so far issued no estimates of the civilians killed by its own operations. The tally from ISIS killings, while likely running into many thousands, remains to be fully assessed.

The total number of deaths locally alleged from Coalition actions in Iraq between August 16th, 2014 and December 5th 2017 ranges from 9,736 to 13,972 civilians killed in 800 claimed events – though Airwars currently assesses the likely minimum tally at between 2,129 and 3,152 civilians killed, based on available reports.

In 276 cases, Airwars researchers were not able to determine who carried out the reported strike, and these remain labelled as ‘contested.’ Most of these incidents took place in 2017, predominantly in Mosul. This ambiguity in monitoring reflected an increasingly chaotic situation in the final year of fighting.

There are also worrying indicators that civilian casualties in Iraq from all military actions may have significantly been under-reported. Just over half of all admitted Coalition events in the country were never publicly reported at the time – we only know about these civilian harm incidents because Coalition pilots and analysts internally flagged concerns.

In addition, while the number of Coalition strikes overall in Iraq and Syria were roughly equal, Airwars has tracked almost twice the number of confirmed and likely civilian deaths from Coalition actions in Syria (3,823) than it has for Iraq (2,129). That disparity is thought to be linked to the far poorer local quality of civilian casualty reporting by NGOs and media within Iraq. How many more casualties were never reported we cannot know.

“Civil society groups are much better developed in Syria, after six years of war. Many have undergone extensive training in Turkey and have become expert at documenting violations,” said Benjamin Walsby, Middle East researcher at Amnesty International. “Generally speaking, Iraqi groups were not as well developed as their Syrian counterparts.”

Because of this gap in consistent monitoring – and the Coalition’s own lower estimates –  the individual investigations of journalists and human rights workers like Walsby have played a key role in better understanding the toll of the war. In November, journalists Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal, writing in the New York Times, estimated that based on a field study of attacks in Northern Iraq, the actual toll of Coalition strikes in certain areas could be upwards of 30 times what has been publicly acknowledged.

The destruction of cities 

The number of bombs and missiles unleashed on both Iraq and Syria rose considerably as the fighting escalated. Figures for munitions released by Iraqi forces have not been issued so far, while ISIS bragged of deploying hundreds of vehicle borne car bombs during the fighting. An average of five VBIED attacks were faced daily by Iraqi forces during fighting in East Mosul.

Accorded to US Air Force figures, the number of weapons released from aircraft under Coalition control rose from 6,292 in 2014 to 38,993 during the first 11 months of 2017. However, these figures exclude fire from Coalition helicopters, and ground based sources like artillery and HIMARS rockets. According to Coalition figures provided to Airwars, the number of munitions fired into Mosul during the 9-month battle to liberate the city exceeded 29,000. France alone reported more than 1,200 artillery strikes on Mosul.

The fighting has left swaths of urban areas in ruins, often the result of Coalition and Iraqi airstrikes and artillery fire into areas where ISIS proved difficult to dislodge. In the battle for Ramadi, where elite counterterror forces were back by heavy Coalition and Iraqi aerial support, UN analysis of satellite imagery showed more than 5,600 structures were damaged, nearly 2,000 of them destroyed.

A graphic produced by the United Nations showed damage to buildings in Ramadi.

Particularly damaging in the fight for Mosul were improvised rockets, hurled into the Old City by Iraqi forces. “The scale of death and destruction wrought upon Mosul and other parts of Iraq is almost unfathomable,” said Walsby, “Much of this was caused by Coalition airstrikes and Iraqi forces’ use of rocket assisted artillery, among other tactics. Fighting IS was difficult, but there were many things that Coalition forces and their Iraqi partners could and should have done differently to prioritise protection of civilians.”

In total, Airwars presently estimates that between 1,066 and 1,579 civilians were likely killed by Coalition strikes in the vicinity of Mosul between October 17th and mid July. However this may represent a significant under-reporting, with a determination of responsibility presently impossible in many further cases. Overall, researchers monitored between 6,320 and 8,901 alleged civilian deaths in which the Coalition might have been imnplicated – with thousands more ISIS fighters and Iraqi ground troops also killed.

As this Airwars chart shows, reported civilian deaths in Iraq rose dramatically in 2017, reaching peak levels in March with the battle for West Mosul.

The limits of precision warfare

The deadliest strike admitted to by the Coalition across Iraq and Syria took place on March 17th 2017, in the al Jadida neighborhood of West Mosul. At least 105 civilians were killed when the Coalition dropped two 500-pound bombs which targeted snipers on the roof of the building. American officials claimed the house was rigged to explode, though locals have maintained that was not the case.

Though US and Coalition officials have insisted the anti-ISIS operation has been the most “precise air campaign in the history of warfare”, its undeniable physical and lethal toll has shown certain limits to high-tech warfare as it is currently being fought in urban areas.

Too often during the fighting in Raqqa and Mosul, heavy air and artillery strikes were used to clear buildings of ISIS fighters where the immediate presence of civilians appeared to be unknown.

“There’s no doubt that the technology is advanced and we can put rounds in places where we’ve never been able to before, but in urban environments the enemy can turn every building, every room into fortified positions you are taking out infrastructure and you are taking out civilians if they are in what the enemy wants to be a part of,” said John Spencer, a former army infantryman and deputy director of the Modern War Institute at West Point.

“If we know that the character of warfare has changed, and the people that want power figure out that’s where they get the most advantage, we should be adapting.”

While the overall civilian casualty toll has been relatively high, perhaps more remarkable was the number of Iraqis who were able to escape the fighting – despite the intensity of battle. Through October 31st of this year, 3,173,088 Iraqis had been displaced by fighting across the country according to the UN. 2,624,430 had returned to where they were previously displaced from. Through October 18th, 793,422 people had been displaced from Mosul, and 300,576 had so far returned to their homes.

Aftermath of alleged coalition strike on Mosul May 21 2015 (via Mosul Atek)

A lack of allied accountability 

In an apparent effort to improve transparency among its Coalition partners, in April 2017 the US ceased identifying its own strike numbers in Iraq and Syria. However, based on earlier modelling and military reports from other countries, the US clearly carried out the vast majority of actions — well upwards of 90% in Syria.

In Iraq (where the Baghdad government invited the Coalition and its members to operate) non-US partner nations played a larger role – responsible for about one third of all Coalition airstrikes. As of December 1st 2017, the UK had launched the most strikes in Iraq of any ally, with 1,357 reported. It was closely followed by France – which declared 1,265 airstrikes and more than 1,100 artillery actions. Australia conducted approximately 600 strikes; the Netherlands 490; Denmark 258; Belgium 370 and Canada some 246 airstrikes.

With the exception of Australia, no Coalition member besides the US has admitted to a single civilian casualty in more than three years of war. This remains true despite an Airwars investigation that revealed in May 2017 that the US military had determined that at least 80 civilian deaths were the responsibility of other Coalition members. Even now, those deaths remain unclaimed by any nation. Family members of most victims of Coalition strikes in Iraq still cannot know what country was responsible for those deaths.

Key improvements in civilian casualty monitoring were introduced by the Coalition during the war – including the move to regular monthly casualty reports; a significant expansion of the alliance’s CIVCAS cell; the regular releasing of assessment co-ordinates; and the Coalition’s engagement with external agencies such as Airwars. Even so, more than half of the alleged casualty events tracked during the war have yet to be assessed – and it remains unclear how committed the Coalition allies will be to properly investigating this backlog as the ‘hot’ war ends.

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An uncertain future

The war to defeat ISIS as a territorial entity in Iraq had the backing of the United Nations and the international community – and the active support of more than 70 nations. “The military victory over ISIS must be applauded,” said Sahr Muhammedally, Middle East and North Africa director at CIVIC. “Now comes the harder part for the Iraqi government and anti-ISIS coalition to restore critical infrastructure destroyed during operations; and clear buildings and roads of booby traps so people can return home safely. There must also be a robust presence of properly trained security forces to provide security and prevent revenge attacks against returning civilians.”

Like Syria, Iraq is not a member of the International Criminal Court, meaning that even ISIS’s crimes there do not fall under its jurisdiction. While the UN Human Rights Council has created a Commission of Inquiry for Syria, it has not yet done so for Iraq.

This September, however, the UN Security Council authorized a probe of ISIS’s crimes in Iraq which will preserve evidence for eventual criminal prosecution. Groups like Human Rights Watch criticized the move for falling short of a mandate to consider all crimes allegedly committed during the fighting, including by Iraqi, Kurdish and Coalition forces.

“ISIS drew worldwide condemnation and generated widespread publicity. It had to be defeated; we are all too aware of its unspeakable crimes,” said Amnesty’s Walsby. “What is yet to be properly acknowledged is the terrible price that thousands of Iraqi civilians paid for their liberation, at the hands of Iraqi and Coalition forces. Any victory statement that fails to acknowledge this is both deeply flawed and could prove short lived.”

“The challenges in Iraq after ISIS are many, but ensuring that all Iraqis are protected from harm and their losses dignified and recognized is essential to build the foundation for stability and reconciliation in Iraq,” said Muhammedally.

—–

Note: Since our report was posted, two important stories were published December 20th by the Associated Press and NPR, concerning the civilian toll in Mosul.

After an extensive investigation involving on the ground interviews, local morgue reports and reference to NGO databases – including Airwars’ – the AP determined that between 9,000 and 11,000 Mosul residents died during the 9-month assault on the city. Their analysis showed that roughly one third of those deaths were the responsibility of US-led Coalition or Iraqi forces. The likely civilian toll from morgue records “tracks closely with numbers gathered during the battle itself by Airwars and others,” wrote the authors of the AP report.

Based on figures obtained from the Mosul morgue, NPR put the number of civilians killed in the city at “over 5,000.” That number, NPR noted, “is likely more than the number of ISIS fighters believed to have been in Mosul and presumed dead.”

▲ A stunned local at the scene of an alleged Coalition strike on the Sunni Waqf building in Mosul, September 29th 2015 (via NRN News)

Published

December 2, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

Three weeks after journalists Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal published a damning New York Times account of civilian deaths caused by anti-ISIS airstrikes, the Coalition has yet to respond publicly. The investigation represented the first large scale, methodical ground survey of airstrikes and the harm they have caused in the war, in this case from three areas of Northern Iraq targeted by the Coalition. Civilian casualties were found to be 31 times more likely than the alliance was admitting.

Airwars recently sat down with Khan and Gopal in New York City to learn more about how they carried out their investigation. Below are highlights from the interview, lightly edited for clarity.

Airwars: No one had completed this kind of scientific study before during the conflict. Going into it, what did you expect to find? How did it compare to what you encountered?

Azmat Khan: We began planning this in February 2016. By April I was on the ground [In Iraq] and I was embedding with local forces, both Shia militias and then with Peshmerga forces, in certain frontline towns. I remember early on seeing how pivotal these airstrikes were in terms of re-taking cities.

There was one town that was really important to Shias, and so dozens of Shia militias had tried to retake it — Bashir — from where ISIS had launched mortars with chemical agents into a neighboring town, Taza. I watched several Shia militias based in Taza try and fail to retake Bashir, putting in all of their troops. Then the peshmerga agreed to try and retake it, and they put in maybe a fraction of the number of troops, but were supported by Coalition airstrikes in a way the militias weren’t, and Bashir fell within hours.

Azmat Khan

It really showed me the extent to which these airstrikes played a pivotal role in re-taking territory, but also the level of devastation. Many parts of Bashir were just up in smoke, when I visited the day after it was re-taken.

Unless you were on the ground, you couldn’t get a real sense of that scale. There’d been good accounts looking at civilian casualties — but nobody had looked at both those that successfully hit ISIS targets and those that didn’t, so a systematic sample. That’s what we teamed up to do. As more cities were being retaken, we though there’s an opportunity to do this.

I think what surprised me was I expected there to be vast discrepancies between the Iraqi Air Force’s civilian casualty rate and the Coalition’s, but the 1 in 5 statistic [1 in 5 airstrikes, they found, killed civilians], that appeared to be consistent across the board, in the entire sample of airstrikes, as well as those identified only as Coalition. That shocked me.

Anand Gopal

Anand Gopal: We had actually done a lot of reporting on airstrikes in civilian mass casualty incidents that didn’t make it into the piece — early on in Hawija; the takeover of Ramadi which was really devastating; Fallujah and Tikrit as well. I think initially we were both really shocked in the difference between what we were getting anecdotally and what was being reported. That’s sort of what inspired this initially. It took a little bit of time for us to figure out the best way to do this would be house to house – systematically.

Khan: It was hard to do that until October… that’s when they [Iraqi forces] were up to the Christian neighborhoods, Bartella was taken around this time. They had started the official campaign, but they weren’t in East Mosul.

Airwars: So It’s October 2016, that’s when you are starting the systematic sample?

Khan: That’s when I was first able to visit a significant number of airstrikes in downtown Qayyarah, a large enough sample to understand that this is possible, we can successfully do this. We came back in January, and then several more times.

On the ground

Airwars: How did you go about this work?

Gopal: For example in downtown Qayyarah you could see that every fourth house was destroyed. So we decided to start at one point in a town and go systematically and just go street by street. We went with various people, police officers and others.

Khan: First I went in with a local blacksmith; later on we went with federal police officers. We went in with many different people at many different times, just to make sure that we were protecting against any potential bias. .

Gopal: We also had to make sure we didn’t miss any of the destroyed places, so we got satellite imagery and [got an analysis of] the before and after satellite imagery to actually mark the destruction, for instance. Many of them are airstrikes, but some of them are demolitions. After ISIS was ejected, people come and demolish [an ISIS] house in retribution. Some of them were not the result of airstrikes at all.

Khan: Those are not in our sample. We excluded anything that was damaged from something else, like a demolition.

Gopal: Two challenges — one is to isolate those that were due to airstrikes from the rest, and the second is to figure out if it is Coalition or Iraqi.  

Airwars: So once you had these cases on the ground, did you match them with reported strikes?

Khan: I had early on gone in and done a calculation – I think there were 450 or so airstrikes officially labeled as “near Qayyarah”, the entire district, not even just downtown,  according to the Coalition’s daily summaries of airstrikes. Then we went through the civilian death casualty reports acknowledged by the Coalition, and found two civilian death reports, one of which was later amended to an injury.

And then we checked Airwars as well, to see whether any allegations matched, and I know there were at least two certain matches from our sample in downtown Qayyarah. Then we looked at open investigations to see if any might match. But of the 75 civilian deaths in that sample of 103 airstrikes, none of those 75 civilian deaths we found had been admitted to or acknowledged to by the Coalition, to date. And none of the 21 deaths from strikes that fell even just within 50 meters of a logged Coalition strike had been acknowledged by the Coalition.

Airwars: That’s mindboggling.

Nadia Aziz Mohammed looks on as Mosul civil defence officials search for the bodies of 11 family members, killed in a June 2017 airstrike (Photo by Sam Kimball. All rights reserved.)

Airwars: And your sample, if anything, likely would have shown fewer civilian deaths — less than West Mosul?

Khan: Yes, the strikes in our 103 sample — which is how we arrived at the 1 in 5 rate — did not include West Mosul, and they occurred before the rule change in December [when the Obama administration made calling in airstrikes easier in support of Iraqi forces].

Gopal: For complex tribal and patronage reasons, strikes in the areas we looked at may be more accurate than those in, say Anbar province. This is because they are populated by the Jibburis, a large tribe whose members maintained a close relationship with US forces over the years. This dates back to a split between Jibburi sheikhs and Saddam Hussein in the late 1980s; by the 2003 invasion, these sheikhs had become one of America’s few Sunni allies, and they were rewarded with police and government posts.

This put them on the opposite side of al-Qaeda in Iraq, and by 2014 they had become known for their fierce resistance to ISIS. This means that the Coalition enjoyed a far better and more extensive informant network in northern Iraq than it did in Anbar. Given our focus on Ninevah and not Anbar, it is likely that if there was any geographic bias, it led us to undercount the civilian casualty rate.

‘Incredible devastation’

Airwars: What was it like on the ground when you talked to people?

Azmat: It was really tough because there is so much sensitivity involved; many are very traumatized.You also have to be very, very clear that because you are a journalist, you are not an aid worker, which is how many people can sometimes view Westerners. Even asking questions about losses — you have to be so careful about that, and it involved usually meeting with as many survivors or people who were eyewitnesses.

If anything, these people we interviewed skewed pro-government, because they were the ones who were allowed to return. All of our interviews happened with people who were living in these areas. We aren’t at a camp saying, “Tell me about your home?” We were at these places where the [strikes] had happened and we knew and could verify that these people live right next door.

Gopal: I know many children of ISIS members had probably been killed, but they are not in our sample because those families have fled or have been arrested and are kept in camps.

Airwars: What did the places you went to look like?

Gopal: Qayyarah was heavily damaged, I’d say. Every street – probably every three or four houses.

The Coalition’s own video of its attack on the Rezzo family home – since removed from its official YouTube channel

In all, Khan and Gopal found that among 103 airstrike cases they identified after house to house surveying, one in five had caused civilian deaths – a figure greater than 31 times what the Coalition itself had acknowledged in the survey areas.  

Khan: I’ve been to every one of the 103 [sites] and there were some distinctions. In Shura, by the time of liberation most of the airstrikes happened during the liberation period, not all but most. During the liberation period Shura was pretty depopulated; civilians had mostly left. So it was destroyed. It had just been shot up. Apparently ISIS fighters were staying in tunnels underneath homes. These houses, you could just find incredible devastation, but probably the least amount of civilian death because civilians had left at the time of the bombing.

In terms of verifying allegations, our work went far beyond interviews and analyzing satellite imagery. In addition to interviewing hundreds of witnesses, we dug through rubble for bomb fragments, or materials that might suggest ISIS use, like artillery vests, ISIS literature, sometimes their bones, because nobody would bury them.

We also got our hands on more than 100 sets of coordinates for suspected ISIS sites passed on by local informants. Sometimes we were able to get photos and videos as well. And ultimately, we verified each civilian casualty allegation with health officials, security forces, or local administrators.

The killing of a family

During the course of their research, Khan and Gopal learned of the case of Basim Razzo, who lost his wife and daughter, and his brother and nephew next door, when their homes were misidentified and bombed by the Coalition on September 20th, 2015. Basim barely survived the strikes, but set off on a long quest to have the US government admit its error.

The Coalition’s pre-targeting of Basim’s home – surveyed extensively, filmed by drones —  was what Khan and Gopal call “the best case scenario.” And yet even in this case – most strikes are given nowhere near the attention – the Coalition failed utterly to identify the structures as civilian in nature, and as having no connection whatsoever to ISIS.

In fact, the Coalition was so assured of the strike’s success that it uploaded a video of the attack online. Initially identified in the video as a car bomb factory, Khan and Gopal later learned the Coalition had internally identified it as an ISIS headquarters. It was none of these things.

Cousins Najib and Tuqa, both killed in a Coalition airstrike on September 20th-21st 2015 (Picture courtesy of the Altalib family)

Airwars: I want to talk about Basim. Why did you feel you had to tell this story through his own?

Khan: Basim’s case actually represented so many of our findings. It was important to us that we also use a character and a story that we could follow very closely through the process, and obviously a large part of that was that Basim was exceptional at documenting his own case very early on.

One of the biggest reasons is that he is the “best case” scenario. This is a man who has Western contacts, who speaks fluent English. There had been a [Coalition] video uploaded, so if anything should result in some kind of accountability, this is the best case scenario. This is a deliberate airstrike, not a dynamic one. It was an “ISIS headquarters,” which we were told, when I was at the CAOC (Combined Air Operations Center), a very senior intelligence officer told me that a target with one of the highest thresholds to meet is usually an ISIS headquarters… In so many ways Basim’s case was the ultimate, highest most deliberative process.

Airwars: When you say the best case scenario, you mean the best case on the Coalition side in terms of what intelligence they could have, and they still screwed up in such a fundamental way?

Gopal: if there was ever a strike they could get right, this would be the one. They have weeks to plan it, they have it as an ISIS headquarters. And so you know, if it’s an ISIS headquarters, the threshold for actionable intelligence has to be much higher. It can’t just be drone footage that doesn’t see women and children.

Airwars: They identified it as a headquarters and what was the genesis of that? In the story you talk about – it’s infuriating to read – that they didn’t see women and children.

Khan: One of the things I asked at the CAOC in Qatar was how do you identify local patterns of behavior. For example, I said, under ISIS a lot of women are not leaving their homes. So when you are looking at these pattern of life videos, are you taking these variable local dynamics into account? How do you distinguish for example when you are bombing in Iraq and one of these areas, how do you distinguish between patterns of behavior that are specific to Iraq vs. bombing in Afghanistan. What are the differences?

I was told that they could not get into a great deal of detail about ISIS’ “TTPs” — tactics, techniques, and procedures — their understanding of how ISIS generally operates.  They told me that these are developed through the intelligence community, in coordination with a cultural expert, but that they could not offer more detail about it.

Gopal: At the end of the day, it appears there are no consequences for getting it wrong, so there are no incentives to try to get it right.

Another piece of this is there were a number of strikes and incidents that appear to have violated principles of proportionality. Where you bomb an entire house and kill a bunch of civilians for one or two snipers. None of that ended up in the story, because we were, again, trying to interrogate the best case scenario.

Airwars: There’s a fighter on the roof, and they blow up the entire building. You’ve documented that as well?

Gopal: We have plenty of cases like that, but they were after the rule change in December 2016, (and not in the sample of 103 strikes), so a number of cases in late December early January in east Mosul where this was happening. We have a little sidebar in the story that mentions one instance very briefly —  for example, three civilians in one house were killed after at least one ISIS sniper broke into their house and used their roof.

Changing the rules

Note: After civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria began noticeably increasing during 2017, journalists began asking whether the rules of engagement in anti-ISIS operations had changed. Top US officials at first claimed they hadn’t, but later noted that a December rule change had made it easier for lower ranks to call in airstrikes at Mosul.

Airwars: You mentioned these rule changes. There was a lot of talk about what Rules of Engagement mean, and whether that changed in Iraq or Syria, or whether it’s a semantic conversation. What did you understand as having changed, and what did you see on the ground as a result?

Gopal: We didn’t use the term rule of engagement for this reason because it is a contentious term. Personally, and I’m speaking in a personal capacity, I do think that [the December authorization change] qualified as a rules of engagement change…

What we know is in December the number of people who had the authority to call in airstrikes was broadened. Commanders closer to the ground were able to call in airstrikes and both of us know from tracking this very closely on the ground that there was a marked difference.

We have to separate other differences, because there is a phase of battle change, they went from East Mosul to West Mosul which means you have a skyrocketing of civilian casualties. That’s going to happen because you are going there. There are questions of tempo and the number of strikes you are conducting. But from December 20th, from then immediately began to see a change. The number of cases we documented in East Mosul, just within 15 days it was like night and day so it was a real change on the ground.

Airwars: There were other variables, as you mentioned. From afar it’s not easy to splice out what is responsible for what.

Gopal: Right. The Battle for West Mosul didn’t start until the end of January, early February. But we saw this change in the casualties in December.

It is very clear after December 20th – the best actual experiment you can have is just look at the strikes in East Mosul. The neighborhoods before and after December 20th on either side of it are both in East Mosul. You look at the rate before and after and it’s countable. One can look at that and make an estimation. You can look at the Airwars archives before and after these dates, but just in east Mosul.

Airwars: The Coalition repeated over and over how precise the campaign was. What was your sense of this? Did you feel they were deluded? Did you feel they were obscuring the truth, did you feel that they just didn’t get it? Did you feel they were just trying their best?

Khan: Clearly, we have people who care a lot about this issue; they are not unfeeling. And one of the first things that they will often point out is, “We are not doing what the Syrian and Russian air force is doing.”

Mohannad Rezzo, who died in a 2015 Coalition airstrike (via Mosul Ateka)

Sam: Do you feel it’s almost as if because this Russian campaign is happening at the same time they don’t have to be as careful because anything is better than what the Russians are doing?

Gopal: Of course Russian strikes deflect attention from what they are doing. The big difference is of course whatever the Russian air force is doing – which is horrible, undoubtable – they haven’t come out with a particular claim that they’ve killed some 400 civilians in 14,000 airstrikes— but the fact that the Coalition is making this claim means that it—it forces all of us journalists and researchers and academics to hold them to account to that.

More broadly I would say I think it’s in a way unfair almost to compare the two cases—the Syrian/Russian case and the Coalition case—because they are really the result of totally different histories and norms. What I mean is it used to be the case that – it was once accepted for the US to say target civilians. This is World War II in Dresden and firebombing Tokyo, the Korean War. Trump said the US wants to completely destroy North Korea; it would have been the second time they’ve done that. They would target civilians, they would target civilian infrastructure.

That shifted in Vietnam. Even though the laws of war had changed much before after Geneva, it shifted in Vietnam because of a really powerful antiwar movement that forced certain types of norms to be instituted within the military itself. That is the same paradigm we are living in now. The Coalition shouldn’t pat itself on the back that it’s not killing as many civilians as Russia. It’s the result of a process in which millions of people basically demanded and fought for that, against the wishes of the US military for generations.

‘Not a word from the Coalition’

Airwars: Have you had any official response since you’ve published this piece?

Khan: We had been in contact for about a year with questions, which they had been providing responses to. We had been checking coordinates from our sample in their logs. And more than a month before publication, we provided detailed information about all of the civilian casualty allegations that fell within 360 meters of logged Coalition coordinates: the names of dead of injured, photo evidence, contact information of survivors or witnesses or others they could reach on the ground,, before and after satellite imagery, and other evidence, and asked for any response or comment on any of them.

Although they answered other questions, we did not get a response about any of those allegations, and followed up a few times, including asking whether new investigations would be opened as a result of those allegations. And since the piece has been published, we still have not received a comment on that.

Gopal: We didn’t get a denial, we got nothing.

Khan: About the civilian casualty incidents not a word.

Anand: Not a word.

▲ Four members of the Rezzo family died in September 2015 when the Coalition confused their home with an 'ISIS headquarters.' Officials have finally admitted they got it wrong (Picture courtesy of the Altalib family. All rights reserved.)