US-led Coalition in Iraq & Syria

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

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Published

July 28, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

Seven weeks into US-backed operations to capture Raqqa from so-called Islamic State (ISIS), more than 100 children are among the many civilians reported killed by heavy Coalition airstrikes and artillery fire targeting the city – as well as in actions by proxy SDF forces on the ground, and from attacks by ISIS itself.

In June, Airwars estimated that at least 340 civilians in Raqqa were likely slain by Coalition strikes and artillery. That pattern has continued into July. According to a running assessment, at least 140 additional civilians perished due to Coalition strikes in the first three weeks of the month.

Since June 6th as many as 119 children are among those killed in and around Raqqa according to local reports, with most of the young victims named.

Local accounts describe street fighting and dangerous explosive fire into the city that has increased dramatically since the official start of operations on June 6th. By mid-July, the US confirmed that Syrian Democratic Forces were suffering heavy casualties – a toll so high that the Pentagon had to publicly counter reports that ground operations were paused.

Instead the US insists the joint campaign will employ new strategies, but that these are not due to the civilian toll. At least one SDF commander disagrees however – telling Syria Direct that the tempo of the assault on the eastern half of Raqqa had been reduced ‘to prevent civilian casualties and preserve historic sites.’

The Coalition says that 45% of Raqqa has so far fallen to SDF forces – though a tough fight remains.

Map of progress made by our partner forces in the operation to liberate #Raqqa as of 24.07 via @SyriacMFS pic.twitter.com/E9lPrDMxvG

— The Global Coalition (@coalition) July 25, 2017

Intense barrage

Over the past month and a half, an already heavy barrage of airstrikes and artillery aimed at the city has turned more ferocious. According to US Central Command (CENTCOM) data supplied to Airwars, roughly 4,400 munitions were fired into Raqqa by the Coalition during June alone – a huge rise from the 1,000 unleashed in May. These numbers rival what was seen during the worst fighting in Mosul – a city many times larger in size.  

Airwars researchers monitoring events in Raqqa say that reports of strikes killing multiple family members, often children, are common. At least 30,000 civilians are believed to still remain trapped in the city, many having already fled there from other parts of Syria. ISIS is forcibly preventing these civilians from leaving.

“Although we are still seeing some incidents where one or two people are being killed there are also many incidents of entire families being wiped out by air and artillery strikes. Often they are described as internally displaced,” said Kinda Haddad, the chief Syria researcher at Airwars.

US officials maintain that Islamic State fighters are using civilians as human shields, much as they have in other cities besieged by Coalition-backed forces. In Mosul, Amnesty International recorded testimony of residents who said ISIS had set booby-traps with explosives to keep civilians penned in, and in some cases had welded them into buildings amid fighting. A representative of the monitoring group Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered (RBSS) confirmed that in Raqqa too, ISIS was putting civilians between their own fighters and the Coalition.

“Every day there is heavy shelling, whether by artillery or aircraft,” RBSS said, adding that according to the group’s estimates, 50,000 civilians are in ISIS-held areas of the city. “No one is providing guidance to civilians, the civilians are the biggest losers.”

On July 6th, a mother and her three children were reported killed and at least two other family members were injured after Coalition strikes hit the al Ferdos neighborhood of Raqqa. Several local sources named the children as Jana Nour al Hariri, Shatha Nour al Hariri and Mohammed Nour al Hariri. A picture of Jana posted by Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered showed a baby of no more than a year or two, smiling when still alive.

Jana Al Hariri, killed – along with four members of her family – in an alleged Coalition raid on Al Ferdous, July 6th 2017 (via Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently)

Seven more children were reported killed on July 13th, when an airstrike reportedly hit close to a bakery near Fern al Ma’ari in Raqqa. On the same day, another girl named Bayan Awwad al Billo was reported killed in the city, according to local sources. Photos showed her limp body after an airstrike allegedly hit the house of her family.

That children have so often been the victims of such strikes was predictable, said Fadel Abdul Ghany, director of the Syrian Network for Human Rights. Of those with the means to bribe their way out of Raqqa, many were men who feared mandatory conscription by ISIS as the battle for the city approached.

“Children remained, and a huge amount of the killing is of children,” he said.

The list of slain children continues to grow. On July 16th seven members of the Salah Al-Mana family were reportedly killed in an alleged Coalition strike. A week later, local outlets reported that two children – Ro’a and Ahmad Aliji – were killed alongside their father Husam and at least three others in a strike near the Tariq Bin Ziad school in Raqqa.

And on July 25th, Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered posted graphic photographs of children it said had been killed by “Coalition airstrikes and #SDF shelling on Raqqa.”

In total, Airwars has tracked as many as 119 children alleged killed in Coalition actions since June 6th. Based on the quality of local reports, at least 87 and as many as 100 of those deaths appear likely to have resulted from US-led actions.

Those who made it out of Raqqa in recent weeks have relayed to aid officials that civilians injured by strikes are cornered, and unable to reach help.

“Patients say large numbers of sick and wounded people are trapped inside Raqqa city with little or no access to medical care and limited chance of escaping the city,” said Vanessa Cramond, medical coordinator for Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Turkey and north Syria. “MSF is extremely concerned for the wellbeing of those who can’t get out.”

Investigating civilian deaths

Even as civilians are cut down inside Raqqa, investigators are just beginning to grapple with the heavy toll from strikes that took place during the encirclement of the city earlier this year.

Since the start of 2017, Airwars has recorded more than 1,300 likely civilian deaths tied to Coalition air and artillery strikes in support of Syrian Democratic Forces in Raqqa governorate. The Kurdish-dominated SDF surrounded Islamic State’s self-proclaimed capital in the months leading up to June: more than 700 civilians were estimated killed in attacks during March, April and May.

Human Rights Watch recently visited Tabqah and al Mansoura, to the west of Raqqa. Both cities are now controlled by the SDF, but reportedly suffered major civilian casualties from airstrikes before being captured. One raid, on a school in Mansoura  on March 21st, was by some accounts the deadliest of the entire Coalition air campaign. At least several dozen civilians were likely killed – though there were claims by some that 200 or more died in the event.  

However even before an official investigation could be concluded, Coalition commander Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend told reporters on March 28th that he believed no civilians had been killed in the incident.

“We haven’t completed our assessment of that event yet,” said General Townsend. “But my initial read is: not credible. I think that was a clean strike.”

The Coalition’s civilian casualty assessors subsequently echoed the General’s conclusion, determining the incident to be Not Credible. It remains unclear to what extent Townsend’s remarks might have influenced the Coalition’s investigative process. However, Human Rights Watch, along with an independent UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, have determined that many civilians – largely internally displaced people – did die in the attack.

Airwars monitored multiple local reports at the time of the event which also suggest such a toll. Airwars also provided the Coalition with local media reports detailing an influx of IDPs to the al Mansoura area a few weeks prior to the event – something the US-led alliance appears to have been unaware of at the time of the attack.  

“Afterwards, we got an allegation that it wasn’t ISIS fighters in there; got a single allegation it wasn’t ISIS fighters in there; it was instead refugees of some sort in the school,” Townsend told reporters.  “Yet, not seeing any corroborating evidence of that.”

“What we were able to confirm is that several Coalition attacks in these two towns resulted in significant civilian casualties,” said Ole Solvang, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s emergencies division. “In some cases, the civilian casualties happened when Coalition aircraft carried out close air support attacks to support Syrian Democratic Forces who were in direct contact with ISIS fighters on the ground, striking houses where civilians were hiding.”

“In other cases, it really seems that the Coalition failed in its homework, launching attacks before properly understanding what buildings were being used for, and how many civilians were there,” he added.

Lt. Gen. Townsend has made additional comments which raise questions about the Coalition’s civilian protections. After the UN’s Commission of Inquiry rang alarm bells at significant numbers of civilians being killed in airstrikes around Raqqa, the General responded incredulously.

“Show me some evidence of that,” he said to the BBC.

On July 2nd, Townsend also told the New York Times “we shoot every boat we find” along the Euphrates River. The Euphrates and nearby riverine land has been the site of dozens of documented civilian deaths in the past month, including civilian boats attacked and sunk; and numerous residents killed as they searched for drinking water as clean supplies in Raqqa have dwindled.

Lt Gen Stephen Townsend has recently downplayed Coalition civilian casualties – despite the contrary findings of international agencies and NGOs and local monitors  (Image via US Army/ Sgt. Von Marie Donato)

Russia returns

Adding to the woes of civilians in Raqqa governorate, Airwars researchers have also monitored an increase in pro-regime strikes in the area. In recent weeks regime forces, backed by airstrikes have captured areas to the southeast of Raqqa as they move to capture Deir Ezzor – itself the site of deadly Coalition air raids in July.

Local monitors have reported that Russian planes are dropping leaflets instructing residents to evacuate towns in eastern Raqqa. The use of cluster munitions and barrel bombs has also been reported, along with civilian casualties.

On July 23rd, Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered reported upwards of 60 pro-regime airstrikes “on the villages and towns of the eastern Raqqa countryside.” Strikes on the town of Zour Shamar that day reportedly claimed the lives of six civilians and left nearly 20 injured.

The worst raid in recent weeks appears to have taken place on July 24th, when a purported Russian raid hit the Juweizat camp near Al-Sharida in the southern countryside, allegedly killing 40 civilians.

“The most startling thing to note the last few days is that a big chunk of the incidents we have picked up were contested between the Coalition and Russia and in some cases the regime,” said Airwars researcher Haddad.  

Amid the carnage, international media and NGOs are thin on the ground at Raqqa compared to their recent presence in Mosul. Without local monitors, little information about civilians being killed — including their names — would find its way out. As Coalition-backed forces and the regime race one another to capture ISIS strongholds, civilians are likely to continue to pay a significant price.

Syrian army advances against Islamic State southeast of Raqqa city in push to reach Deir e-Zor, SAA source tells us. https://t.co/owkh1YlCkW pic.twitter.com/LYuhIdpaZG

— Syria Direct (@SyriaDirect) July 26, 2017

Published

July 17, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

Civilian casualties from the U.S.-led war against the so-called Islamic State are on pace to double under President Donald Trump, according to an Airwars investigation for The Daily Beast.

Airwars researchers estimate that at least 2,300 civilians likely died from Coalition strikes overseen by the Obama White House—roughly 80 each month in Iraq and Syria. As of July 13, more than 2,200 additional civilians appear to have been killed by Coalition raids since Trump was inaugurated—upwards of 360 per month, or 12 or more civilians killed for every single day of his administration.

The Coalition’s own confirmed casualty numbers—while much lower than other estimates—also show the same trend. Forty percent of the 603 civilians so far admitted killed by the alliance died in just the first four months of Trump’s presidency, the Coalition’s own data show.

The high civilian toll in part reflects the brutal final stages of the war, with the densely populated cities of Mosul and Raqqa under heavy assault by air and land. But there are also indications that under President Trump, protections for civilians on the battlefield may have been lessened—with immediate and disastrous results. Coalition officials insist they have taken great care to avoid civilian deaths, blaming the rise instead on the shifting geography of battles in both Iraq and Syria and Islamic State tactics, and not on a change in strategy.

Whatever the explanation, more civilians are dying. Airwars estimates that the minimum approximate number of civilian deaths from Coalition attacks will have doubled under Trump’s leadership within his first six months in office. Britain, France, Australia, and Belgium all remain active within the campaign, though unlike the U.S. they each deny civilian casualties.

In one well-publicized incident in Mosul, the U.S. admits it was responsible for killing more than 100 civilians in a single strike during March. But hundreds more have died from Coalition attacks in the chaos of fighting there.

“Remarkably, when I interview families at camps who have just fled the fighting, the first thing they complain about is not the three horrific years they spent under ISIS, or the last months of no food or clean water, but the American airstrikes,” said Belkis Wille, Iraq researcher for Human Rights Watch. “Many told me that they survived such hardship, and almost made it out with the families, only to lose all their loved ones in a strike before they had time to flee.”

Across the border in Raqqa, where the U.S. carries out nearly all the Coalition’s airstrikes and has deployed artillery, the civilian toll is less publicly known but even more startling. In the three months before American-backed forces breached the city’s limits in early June, Airwars tracked more than 700 likely civilian deaths in the vicinity of the self-declared ISIS capital. UN figures suggest a similar toll.

A girl passes a bomb crater in West Mosul, April 12th 2017 (Image by Kainoa Little. All rights reserved)

Annihilation Tactics

A number of factors appear responsible for the steep recent rise in civilian deaths—some policy-related, others reflecting a changing battlespace as the war enters its toughest phase.In one of his first moves as president, Trump ordered a new counter-ISIS plan be drawn up. Second on his list of requests were recommended “changes to any United States rules of engagement and other United States policy restrictions that exceed the requirements of international law regarding the use of force against ISIS.”

In short, Trump was demanding that the Pentagon take a fresh look at protections for civilians on the battlefield except those specifically required by international law. That represented a major shift from decades of U.S. military doctrine, which has generally made central the protection of civilians in war.

On Feb. 27, Secretary of Defense James Mattis delivered the new war plan to Trump.

“Two significant changes resulted from President Trump’s reviews of our findings,” Mattis later said at a May 19 meeting of the anti-ISIS Coalition. “First, he delegated authority to the right level to aggressively and in a timely manner move against enemy vulnerabilities. Second, he directed a tactical shift from shoving ISIS out of safe locations in an attrition fight to surrounding the enemy in their strongholds so we can annihilate ISIS.”

Though the U.S. military had shifted to such annihilation tactics—a change cited with glee by the Trump White House—Mattis claimed there have been no updates to U.S. rules of engagement. “There has been no change to our continued extraordinary efforts to avoid innocent civilian casualties,” he told reporters.

We are winning because @realDonaldTrump and Sec. Mattis have jettisoned a strategy of attrition for one of

ANNIHILATION. https://t.co/08xfMF2KX3

— Sebastian Gorka DrG (@SebGorka) July 11, 2017

When Airwars asked the Department of Defense whether, once implemented, the new plan was expected to lead to more civilian casualties, officials did not answer the question and only pointed to Mattis’ remarks.

Yet beginning in March 2017—the month after Mattis handed over the new plan—Airwars began tracking a sharp rise in reported civilian fatalities from U.S.-led strikes against ISIS. In part this was due to the savagery of the battle for Mosul. But in Syria—where almost all strikes are American—likely civilian fatalities monitored by Airwars researchers increased five-fold even before the assault on Raqqa began.

Local monitors including the Syrian Network for Human Rights, Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights have also reported record Coalition civilian deaths in recent months.

Airwars itself tracks local Iraqi and Syrian media and social media sources for civilian casualty allegations, then makes a provisional assessment of how many were killed. The Coalition’s own casualty monitoring officials recently described Airwars as “kind of part of the team” when it comes to better understanding the civilian toll. However the US-led alliance has also contested many of the allegations tracked by Airwars, and its researchers are currently engaging with the Coalition to assess these incidents.

Reported Coalition civilian deaths jumped up steeply shortly after US Defense Secretary Mattis’ new plan to defeat ISIS was adopted in late February 2017

Despite disagreements over estimates, all parties agree that casualty numbers are steeply up. There is less agreement on why. Ned Price, spokesman for the National Security Council under the Obama administration, says recent reports strongly suggest the kind of change in rules that Mattis is denying.

“There is a tremendous disconnect between what we’ve heard from senior military officials who are saying there has been no change in the rules of engagement and clearly what we are seeing on the ground,” he said in an interview.

Nevertheless, the Obama administration had reportedly already become more tolerant of civilian casualties towards the end of the president’s second term. Authorization procedures for anti-ISIS strikes were loosened prior to Trump taking office, amid high attrition among Iraqi ground forces as they battled to capture East Mosul.

“The rise in allegations is attributable to the change in location of Iraqi operations against ISIS, not strategy,” said Coalition spokesperson Col. Joe Scrocca. “East Mosul was much less populated than west Mosul and the infrastructure is more modern and more dispersed. The month of March saw the start of ISF operations in the much more densely packed west Mosul. West Mosul has many more people, is much more densely populated, and the infrastructure is much older and more tightly packed.”

“In regard to Syria, where previous to March, the SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces] was predominantly operating in sparsely populated terrain, strikes increases is attributed to Coalition support to SDF operations to liberate Tabqah and isolate Raqqah,” he added.

In Syria, there are a number of other potential factors at play. The U.S. has deployed its own troops on the ground to advise and call in airstrikes for the SDF, and fire artillery into ISIS controlled areas. Protecting those forces will now be a priority for U.S. airstrikes—though may place any nearby civilians at greater risk of harm. Local monitors say the SDF’s own spotty track record of accuracy in their strike requests over the past several years has also been magnified by the stepped up pace of the campaign in and around Raqqa.

“I think it’s not helpful to get into an argument about whether the ROE [Rules of Engagement] have or have not been changed,” said Andrea Prasow, deputy Washington Director at Human Rights Watch. “The bottom line is more civilians are dying. Whatever the reason, that should concern the U.S. greatly.”

At the State Department, Larry Lewis—in January still its top official dedicated to civilian casualties—felt the implications of Trump’s request to the military were clear. “If we are losing opportunities to hit ISIS because we are nervous about civilian casualties, if it is not required by law—then we are saying really look at it hard,” he told Airwars in an interview, explaining the new messaging. “To me that is a striking contrast with the past administration.”

For Lewis— who was the lead analyst for the Joint Civilian Casualty Study, which inspected ways that U.S. forces could reduce civilian casualties in Afghanistan—the new administration is making a wrongheaded assumption.

“There is this misnomer that mission success is inversely proportional to reducing civilian casualties,” said Lewis. “That’s not what the data said.”

When his position was not renewed by the Trump State Department, Lewis left in late April.

“We have spent a long time advancing the idea that preventing civilian casualties is not only a moral imperative, it’s also an operational one,” said another former State Department official who recently worked on civilian casualties. “These lessons come directly from our military’s counterinsurgency experiences in Afghanistan and are endorsed by members of our military at some of the highest levels. But so far we haven’t seen or heard anything that shows President Trump understands that.”

‘I’m going to lose my sh*t’

By most accounts, the Obama administration became increasingly focused on reducing civilian casualties from U.S. actions—both on and off the conventional battlefield. In July 2016, Obama issued a new executive order, one which Lewis helped draft, that codified procedures for limiting civilian casualties in war, and put in place interagency reviews and annual reporting. (A former State Department official confirmed that interagency consultations on civilian casualty trends are no longer taking place under the Trump administration.)

Early in the campaign against ISIS, tolerance for civilian casualties outside of dynamic attacks was minimal, said Col. Scott “Dutch” Murray, who served as the Director of Intelligence for Air Forces Central Command. Murray led all deliberate targeting against ISIS in Iraq and Syria until 2015.

“The default answer was zero civilian casualties for all deliberate strikes,” he said.

Civilian casualties nevertheless grew as the campaign wore on under Obama. The U.S.-led Coalition continued to drop thousands of bombs targeting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, killing more than 2,300 civilians in airstrikes under Obama according to Airwars estimates. Still, there was a sense among some in the military that they had been shackled, and were being prevented from pursuing ISIS with heavier firepower.

“I was one of those people—some days it was like if I see another article about ISIS folks going around the Corniche in Raqqa and the U.S. does nothing, I’m going to lose my sh*t,” said a former senior counterterrorism official who served in the region under the second Bush administration and Obama. “I think Trump wanted to give the military what they wanted, and I think the military got it.”

Deaths up 400%

As conflicts intensify, it can be difficult to assign culpability for all strikes—especially in Mosul, where deaths are blamed variously on the Coalition, Iraqi forces, or ISIS.

But in March alone, Airwars could still estimate that the number of civilian deaths likely tied to the Coalition in both Iraq and Syria rose by more than 400 percent. The month after Mattis delivered the new plan, U.S.-led forces likely killed more civilians than in the first 12 months of Coalition strikes—combined.

The deadliest incident so far admitted by the Coalition in either country took place on March 17 in the al Jadida neighborhood of Mosul. According to U.S. investigators, at least 105 civilians were killed when an American jet dropped a 500-pound bomb on a building where they sheltered. The U.S. said its forces aimed for two ISIS fighters on the roof, but the entire building gave way—a clear sign, claimed investigators, that the building had been rigged with explosives by ISIS. Survivors and Mosul civil defence officials denied the U.S. narrative, insisting they had seen no evidence of ISIS explosives.

The scenario itself—a small number of gunmen darting in and out of view before drawing heavy fire from Coalition forces—was one which Airwars had repeatedly highlighted as leading to civilian deaths. In one profiled case from December, eleven members of a family were killed when the Coalition bombed a house—reportedly after a single ISIS fighter had been seen on a roof two houses down. The toll in al Jadida represents a significant portion of the 603 casualties publicly conceded by the Coalition. That tally has grown considerably in recent months, but is still many times lower than Airwars’ own estimates of at least 4,500 civilians likely killed.

Devastation in Raqqa following an alleged Coalition airstrike on May 27th 2017 (via Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently)

Better than the Russians?

On April 13 of this year, U.S. forces in Afghanistan deployed a 21,000-pound GBU-43/B “Mother of All Bombs” against ISIS forces in the Nangarhar province of eastern Afghanistan. The bomb was the largest used by the U.S. in any conflict since World War II. Explaining the decision to use the weapon, which the White House evidently hadn’t directly approved, Trump told reporters at the time he had given the military “total authorization, and that’s what they’re doing.” Later that day, a reporter from The Hill called CENTCOM’s press office, where a purported spokesperson answered.

“We mean business,” said the person who picked up. “President Trump said prior that once he gets in he’s going to kick the S-H-I-T out of the enemy. That was his promise and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

Though the response was later called unauthorized by CENTCOM leadership, a new tone had emerged—or reemerged. “If your leaders are emphasizing the high value of Raqqa and Mosul, while saying less about the strategic and moral risks of hurting civilians, it’s going to affect your judgment,” said Tom Malinowski, Assistant U.S. Secretary of State until this January.

“But I’m not sure how to disentangle that from other factors,” he added. “It was inevitable that civilian casualties would rise as the fight moved into densely populated areas, where ISIS would use civilians as a shield. By how much, I don’t know.”

Meanwhile, in Syria, the understaffed Coalition investigations team was struggling to keep pace with the number of civilian casualty reports. At Airwars, there were so many Coalition allegations that its own researchers temporarily had to pause their full vetting of Russia’s strikes in Syria to stay on top of the fast growing workload. Airwars tracking also shows that in every month of 2017, more alleged civilian casualty events have been attributed to the U.S.-led Coalition than to Russia—a remarkable reversal. “We know that the Russians target civilians and Assad drops barrel bombs,” said the former senior counterterrorism official. “DoD wants to be better than that, but it’s the fog of war—how do we know we are being better?”

#InternationalCoalition forces is the second perpetrator of massacres in #Syria after #SyrianRegime forces in the first half of 2017 pic.twitter.com/crw7cY9gj3

— Syrian Network (@snhr) July 5, 2017

‘Critical Flaw’

With reported Coalition civilian casualties steeply rising, international agencies rang the alarm bells.

In May, the UN’s human rights chief called out the bombing campaign. Then in June a UN-appointed Commission of Inquiry for Syria, which previously wasn’t even investigating foreign airstrikes in the country, now said the U.S.-led campaign was causing a “staggering loss of life.” By the end of the month, at least 173 civilian deaths from air and ground strikes were reported by the UN, which suggested that both the SDF and Coalition could be skirting the edges of international law.

The Coalition dismissed the most serious of the Commission’s allegations—that many civilians sheltering in a school near Raqqa were killed by an airstrike on March 21st—after an investigation that did not involve interviewing locals.

U.S. officials similarly dismissed well-documented allegations that a March raid in Aleppo on al-Qaeda linked targets had left dozens of civilians dead without speaking to a single witness. Lack of interaction with sources on the ground—who readily speak with groups like Human Rights Watch — has been identified as a “critical flaw” in the U.S. government’s methodology.

Instead of addressing the issue of high reported civilian deaths, top Coalition commander Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend has gone on the offensive. He lashed out at the UN Commission, calling into question their description of civilian casualties as staggering.

“Show me some evidence of that,” he told the BBC.

On July 2nd, Townsend reported that Coalition forces were firing on anything moving on the River Euphrates, along which Raqqa lies. “We shoot every boat we find,” he told a reporter from the New York Times. Airwars has documented numerous civilians reported killed in recent weeks as they had attempted to flee Raqqa by way of the river. Shortly after Townsend’s remarks, Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered reported that at least 27 people in Raqqa had recently been killed attempting to fetch water around the Euphrates.

2) Four June cases where (mostly named) civilians reportedly bombed as they fled Raqqa by boat. Cars also being bombed as civilians flee pic.twitter.com/HX3SqJoJgF

— Airwars (@airwars) July 3, 2017

Then, on July 11th, Townsend lashed out at Amnesty International, after it cited the Coalition in an investigation for potentially unlawful attacks that took place in Mosul.

“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’re speaking from a position of authority,” Townsend told reporters.

Amnesty responded by pointing out the Pentagon never replied when the group’s investigators provided them with preliminary findings and asked for their input. With the battle in Mosul all but complete, organizations like Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) have instead called on the U.S. to be more cautious in their deployment of firepower inside Raqqa. The group wrote in a recent assessment that the Coalition should “avoid, to the extent feasible, airstrikes as a primary tactic, and consider tactical alternatives—for example, properly trained SDF conducting more door-to-door clearing operations to minimize civilian harm.”

But a massive casualty toll among Iraqi partner forces in Mosul—coupled with new demands from President Trump to speed up the war while reducing protections for civilians—could mean there is less appetite among U.S. officials on the ground to hold back approval for strikes. “I think the U.S. has to conduct a balancing test of a quick win and the accompanying high civilian casualty rate, versus a longer, more cautious victory, which might result in more civilians harmed at the hands of ISIS, or more coalition casualties,” said Jay Morse, CIVIC’s military liaison and a former Pentagon JAG. “It’s not an easy decision, and either route will prove harmful to civilians.”

Kori Schake, a former director at George W. Bush’s National Security Council and editor author of a recent book with Mattis, agreed that allowing local forces to call in U.S. airstrikes could increase the number of civilians killed. But the Obama White House was too careful, she said.

“The previous administration seemed to believe wars could be fought and won without casualties, and the professionals in this administration have the grim experience that’s not possible,” she added. “I am skeptical our military is any less careful without the White House second guessing them.”

Col. Murray says that while the current White House is clearly more permissive, it may not be fair to directly compare the conflict as it existed under successive administrations.

“Now when you bomb Raqqa there is actually potential to have success on the ground,” he said. “I think they’ve now erred more on the military advantage gained by a strike versus holding back for the sake of not killing civilians.”

But Fadel Abdul Ghany, director of the Syrian Network For Human Rights, said that what his organization and others have monitored speaks for itself. On July 1st, the Network reported that the Coalition had killed more than 1,000 civilians in the first half of 2017.

“We believe that the U.S. administration is seeking a quick victory,” said Abdul Ghany. “But the speed comes at the expense of accuracy, and therefore at the expense of the loss of more lives.”

▲ Multip[le bodies are removed June 13th by civil defence (via Mosul Ateka)

Published

July 1, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

Additional reporting by Latif Habib, Alex Hopkins and Eline Westra

Mosul is almost completely back in the hands of Iraqi government forces, after one of the most brutal city assaults witnessed in decades. While there has so far been no formal declaration of an end to the assault, Prime Minister Haider al Abadi has already said that “We are seeing the end of the fake Daesh state, the liberation of Mosul proves that.”

Yet even as Iraqis celebrate the routing of the terror group ISIS (so-called Islamic State) from their nation’s second city, the scale of death and destruction visited upon Mosul is becoming clearer.

Thousands of Moslawis have credibly been reported killed since October 2016, with West Mosul in particular devastated. The Coalition alone says it fired 29,000 munitions into the city during the assault. Five times more civilians were reported killed in west Mosul versus the east of the city, Airwars tracking suggests – an indication of the ferocity of recent fighting.

Doctors working with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) near the last frontlines report that they have still been receiving mass civilian casualties – up to half of whom are children.

“They come with shrapnel wounds, bleeding even from their eyes, shot in the head, after being buried under the rubble, traumatized by the air strikes, the artillery, the snipers, the bombs, having lost their whole family – and too, often, dying on arrival,” said Iolanda Jaquernet, a spokeswoman for the ICRC. “They have survived with very little food or water, without any access to healthcare, in hiding, and often indeed unable to reach a health facility until it was too late.”

“We have no overall figures, but certainly our colleagues from the mobile surgery team at the hospital have seen a tremendous increase in civilian casualties over the past weeks,” she added.

According to city officials, as much as 80 per cent of West Mosul has been completely destroyed. Civilians still emerging from the battlefield are often bloodied and starving – traumatised by Iraqi and Coalition bombardments; and by atrocities commited by ISIS.

According to reporters accompanying Iraqi forces, the stench of death is everywhere in the Old City – with civil defence officials reporting that as many as 4,000 bodies still remain unrecovered in the rubble. It is likely to be many months before the full death toll is known.

https://twitter.com/iraqi_day/status/880698291792605184

Bloodied civilian survivors are escorted from the Old City – ISIL’s last stronghold in Mosul – by Iraqi federal police on June 30th

Three months longer than battle for Stalingrad

Operations to retake Iraq’s second largest city from ISIS began on October 17th 2016, and effectively lasted for 256 days – three months longer than the epic Battle of Stalingrad in World War Two.

An estimated 100,000 Iraqi security personnel, 40,000 Kurdish fighters and about 16,000 pro-government fighters took part in the battle. Military casualties have been high. Although the government refuses to release official figures, thousands of Iraqi forces have been credibly reported killed or injured.

The Coalition is declining to estimate how many ISIS fighters were killed in the battle for Mosul. Instead an official told Airwars: “Through our operations, the Coalition has degraded ISIS fighters on the front lines, but also their command and control apparatus, leaders, industrial base, financial system, communication networks, and the system that they use to bring foreign fighters in to fill their ranks in both Iraq and Syria.”

But the civilian toll too has been high. Over the course of the Mosul assault, Airwars tracked over 7,200 alleged civilian fatality allegations in the vicinity of Mosul which were blamed on the US-led Coalition. Most of these incidents remain difficult to vet, and in the majority of cases several actors in addition to the Coalition are blamed – including ISIS and Iraqi security forces.

Even so, Airwars researchers presently estimate that between 900 and 1,200 civilians were likely killed by Coalition air and artillery strikes over the course of the eight month campaign. Many hundreds or even thousands more may have died in Coalition actions – though it may be impossible in many cases ever properly to attribute responsibility. Coalition airstrikes on the city were carried out by the United States, Britain, France, Belgium and Australia – while both the US and France also conducted heavy artillery strikes in support of Iraqi forces. French forces alone have reported over 1,160 artillery actions.

In one tragic incident confirmed by the US, up to 12 civilians were killed or wounded after one of its airstrikes hit a school in Faisaliyah neighborhood in East Mosul on January 13th. In its March civilian casualty report the Coalition conceded that  “during a strike on ISIS fighters in a house it was assessed that eight civilians were unintentionally killed. During post-strike video analysis civilians were identified near the house who were not evident prior to the strike.”

Airwars was able to speak with a witness, Qusay Saad Abdulrazaq, who lost his two young children in the attack. The father said in a letter that the Coalition strike had hit the Al Marafa private school at 9am that day. His children, Abdulrahman and Aesha, did not survive. When Airwars spoke with Mr Abdulrazaq two months after the incident, he had finally been able to bury the recovered body parts of his children.

فريق بي بي سي يصل إلى مدنيين عالقين في #الموصل. روى العالقون قصصا مؤلمة وهم يشاهدون أحبائهم جثثا هامدة ولا يستطيعون دفنها. #العراق pic.twitter.com/qznnBMhtns

— BBC News عربي (@BBCArabic) June 30, 2017

BBC Arabic’s Feras Kilani reports from devastated Old Mosul, June 30th 2017

Victory declared

Victory was effectively declared by Iraqi forces on June 29th after they captured what remained of the once-treasured al Nouri Mosque, where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had declared the terror group’s ‘caliphate’ in a 2014 speech. On June 23rd Iraqi and Coalition officials accused the group of rigging the structure with explosives and blowing it up as fighting closed in. By most accounts only a few Mosul city blocks now remain under ISIS control, though fears remain of terrorist sleeper cells in liberated neighbourhoods.

In addition to copious and often indiscriminate fire from Iraqi forces and ISIS, the Coalition has launched over 1,000 airstrikes in Mosul since October 17th, in addition to artillery, helicopter, rocket and mortar fire. With high civilian casualties reported, Airwars joined with international NGOs during the battle to urge Iraqi and Coalition forces to end their use of heavy and indiscriminate weapons on the city.

Belkis Wille, Iraq researcher at Human Rights Watch, says the battle has wrought devastation on civilians, their homes and the city: “With the massive spike in airstrikes and indiscriminate ground-fired munitions by Iraqi and US forces, we have seen entire city blocks obliterated, and hundreds of civilians wounded and killed in the crossfire,” she told Airwars. “ISIS has used the civilians still under its control as human shields and carried out numerous abuses including chemical weapons attacks and executions of those trying to flee.”

The deadliest incident so far admitted to by the Coalition took place on March 17th, when US planes bombed a building in the city’s al-Jadida neighborhood. The structure collapsed, leaving at least 105 civilians dead according to military investigators – though locals claimed the true toll was far higher. The Coalition also claimed the structure had been rigged with explosives by ISIS, though the city’s civil defence officials deny this. The al Jadida incident was ranked “contested” by Airwars until the Coalition admitted to it months later – suggesting that many more civilian deaths may yet be ascribed to international forces.

ISIS’s remaining strongholds in Iraq, including Hawijah, are likely to be the next target of Iraqi and Coalition actions. But for the people of Mosul many troubles remain. Almost 700,000 Moslawis are still displaced by the fighting according to the UN office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Even after liberation, some Mosul residents are still being forced to leave. On June 30th, the UN’s human rights office reported that it was alarmed by a “rise in threats, specifically of forced evictions, against those suspected of being ISIL members or whose relatives are alleged to be involved with ISIL.”

It will likely be a long time before many can return. The physical destruction in Mosul – and most of all in the more densely packed western side – is still being assessed. But footage of neighborhoods, including those around the Old City, show a catastrophic level of damage that will take years to reconstruct. According to Iraqi officials, the cost of phsyical reconstruction is likely to be tens of billions of dollars.

▲ 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)

Published

June 27, 2017

Written by

Airwars Staff

On the evening of March 16th 2017, US forces repeatedly struck a mosque complex near al-Jinah, located in Aleppo governorate along the border with Idlib. Local civil defense reported that at least 38 bodies had been recovered. Investigations by Human Rights Watch, Bellingcat and Forensic Architecture all concluded that not only had the US hit a mosque – which it at first denied – but also that a significant number of civilians had died.

On June 7th Brigadier General Paul Bontrager, deputy director of operations at CENTCOM, briefed an invited group of reporters. Bontrager insisted that only one civilian was killed, a person of “small stature’ – most likely a child. The death of the one civilian was approved beforehand as proportional and the strike was considered legal, said Bontrager. This, despite multiple failures to identify religious structures in the area before attacking.

To date no version of the investigation Bontrager summarized has been released. The transcript of his briefing — the only official documentation of the American investigation into al-Jinah – has also not been posted publicly. Public knowledge of the investigation consists of what Pentagon reporters chose to include in their coverage. Airwars was invited on the June 7th call and has received permission to post the transcript in its entirety, which we do so here in the interests of public accountability.

“This should not be the end of this investigation, and the Pentagon should release much more detail about what it knows,” Ole Salvang, deputy emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, told Airwars after the briefing.

BEGIN:

Presenters:  Captain Jeff Davis, Director, Defense Press Office; Colonel John Thomas, Director, Public Affairs, Central Command; Army Brigadier General Paul Bontrager, Deputy Director for Operations, U.S. Central Command

June 7, 2017

Department of Defense Off-Camera Press Briefing by Brigadier General Bontrager

CAPTAIN JEFF DAVIS:  Hi.  Good morning, everybody.

And we’re here at the Pentagon, going to be joined here by General Bontrager, who will walk us through this.  We’re at the Pentagon here today about — what do we have? — a couple dozen reporters here that are covering us.

So today, we’re going to be joined by U.S. Army Brigadier General Paul Bontrager — B-O-N-T-R-A-G-E-R.  He currently serves as the deputy director for operations, the deputy J-3, at the U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa.

He will be discussing the command investigation into a U.S. airstrike that took place March 16th near Aleppo, Syria.  After the general’s opening statement, we’ll pause and allow some questions here from this group.

General Bontrager, we’ll turn it over to you.

SPEAKER:  Hey, this is (inaudible) in Tampa.

Good after — good morning.  Thanks for attending today’s discussion about the investigation.  I want to offer a few scene-setting remarks and then we’ll turn it over to the investigating officer for his description of what he found.  And then we’ll take questions.  We’ve got about 45 minutes set aside for the discussion.

We are on the record for the investigating officer.  My words right now are on background, so we don’t confuse what I say in your reporting with what the investigating officer says on the record.  His comments take precedence over mine.

About this investigation, each case is unique.  We investigate the unique circumstances of each case, and then we take the findings of each case and seek to apply what we can learn more broadly with the goal of continuous improvement.

So, you’re going to be hearing conclusions from the investigating officer about what happened and recommendations for the future.  To make sure we’re all talking about the same strike, it was March 16th, 2017 in Syria.  This is the investigation that involved the photo that you should have in front of you, where we reported initially that we struck close to a mosque.  This is a case where our bombs hit an Al Qaida meeting in the building next to that mosque.

One more thing I know the investigating officer will discuss and answer your questions about, what it is that we mean when we say we hold ourselves to the highest standards.  This investigation is part of us being unsparing in our self-critique of whether we are meeting the highest standards.

In this case, I’ll tell you right up front that the investigation was an important event, and this investigation highlighted things we can do better.  Specific improvements have stemmed from this investigation.  Things have been improved because of the investigation report.

Commanders have used this information from this investigation to initiate some remedial actions and process reviews to ensure we are meeting the highest standards.  All of the recommendations the investigating officer brings up and shares with you today have already been considered and addressed in command channels.

One more aside.  I can tell you that we have seriously reviewed information from a Human Rights Watch report that came out recently concerning this strike, and we used it to further assess if we could learn from their conclusions and their research.

As always, the investigating officer is not in a position to discuss policy.  His role here today to keep us — to keep us all focused, is to discuss the specifics about what happened in this case and what we might be able to do continuously to improve the processes for ensuring that target engagement authority has the best, most complete information available at the rights times to enable the right decisions.

You’ll hear reference to what we believe are common terms for you, this group of reports, like dynamic versus deliberate strikes, and target engagement authority.  But if you need to ask for an explanation of those terms, feel free to ask.

With that, the next voice you’ll hear is the investigating officer, Brigadier General Paul Bontrager.

BRIGADIER GENERAL PAUL BONTRAGER:  Okay, good morning.

I am U.S. Army Brigadier General Paul Bontrager.  And I was appointed as the investigating officer for this investigation, following the U.S. airstrike in al-Jinah, Aleppo province, Syria on March 16th of this year.

Joining me on the investigation were military officers and civilian specialists who assisted me as subject-matter experts in intelligence, targeting, joint fires, and legal matters.  None of us were involved in the strike or the decisions leading up to the strike.

As the Army Regulation 15-6 investigating officer per the appointing order, it was the role of our team to gather information surrounding the facts of the al-Jinah strike, analyze those facts, and provide recommendations to the commander.

As always, there are ways to improve the strike processes and base our investigation.  This is what we found in this case.  Although we did not have access to the scene, the investigative team interviewed dozens of people.  We reviewed all available video and images, operational reports, and intelligence reports associated with the strike, while researching all regulations, standing operating procedures, commander’s guidance and other pertinent information.

We simply were following every bit of information to see where it led, leaving no stone unturned.  We finalized our report findings and recommendations, and now that it is complete, we are following through with our promise to be open and transparent, which leads us to this media opportunity today.

We want to tell you what we can about what we found in the investigation, with the exception of classified information, of course.

Okay?  Now, I’ll take a few moments to summarize the facts, details and findings of the investigation.

On the afternoon of March 14th, 2017, intelligence indicated that Al Qaida and Syrian militants would be attending a meeting with Al Qaida leaders from the region near al-Jinah village, Aleppo province.  On March 15th, our forces received additional intelligence which reinforced the likelihood of a meeting taking place in the immediate future.

On the afternoon of March 16th, intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance assets confirmed reports of a meeting forming in the specific building that intelligence had pointed to previously.  Of note, this is an ungoverned area of Syria that is not in the control of the Assad regime government, nor under the control of any militias that we support in the fight against ISIS.  It is a confirmed and well-known Al Qaida operational area.

Once it was confirmed the meeting was imminent, the dynamic targeting process began with the intent to strike the target building while the Al Qaida meeting was in session.  At that point, a strike cell began working to support the target engagement authority.  The target engagement authority — this is the individual with the authority to approve the strike.  The strike cell took the process for action to ensure all information was made available before the final decision to strike, and of course, that any strike could comply with all laws and regulations.

The strike cell confirmed that the meeting was a valid military target and that the target could be struck proportionally to avoid unnecessary collateral damage.  When the target engagement authority believed he had complete information, he made the decision to conduct a kinetic strike.  The strike came from above by F-15 Strike Eagle aircraft and MQ-9 remotely piloted aircraft.

The F-15s dropped 10 bombs on the building and the MQ-9 shot two missiles to strike a target that emerged outside the building.  The munitions penetrated the building and caused superficial damage to adjacent structures.  We are unable to ascertain exactly how many individuals were killed.  We estimate approximately two dozen men attending an Al Qaida meeting were killed in the strike with several injured.

Importantly, this investigation found that the strike complied with operational and legal requirements.  The strike hit an Al Qaida meeting.  We simply found no credible information to discredit the initial intelligence.

GEN. BONTRAGER:  Sadly, we did assess that there was likely one civilian casualty.  Our assessment is due solely to the individual’s stature relative to other fighters attending the meeting.  We believe the individual was a male and through — and though the evidence is not conclusive, he was not a fighter.

There is a possibility he was a civilian.  We are unsure if that person survived, but we do believe that he was injured in the strike at a minimum.

One of the factors we were tasked to explore in this investigation was whether reports of large numbers of civilian casualties were true.  In short, we considered media reports that indicated a large number of civilians were killed, but our investigation did not uncover evidence to support those claims.  We are not aware of large number of civilians being treated in hospitals after the strike.  We are confident this was a meeting of Al Qaida members and leaders.  This was not a meeting of civilians.

Next I will draw your attention to the image that was released to the public after the strike and consider some of the discussion around that photograph.  That picture that I’m told you have there in front of you, shows pretty dramatically that our bombs struck a building between a small building and a larger building that appears to be under construction.  The small building on the left is a small mosque that sustained slight damage.  The larger building on the right is also mostly untouched.  One of the things this image shows us and our investigation validated was that the strike was remarkably precise.

The munitions struck the exact building they were intended to strike and did not cause significant damage to adjacent structures.  And I will avoid classified details, but the effects visible in the photograph are evidence the bombs were appropriately fused to limit collateral damage.  You can see that vehicles parked outside the building are still intact and right side up.  You can see that the mosque was slightly damaged but left standing.  You can see that the adjacent larger building was left mostly untouched as well.  The target, a meeting of Al Qaida, that we aimed for was the only structure that was hit.

To summarize up to this point, those are the basic facts and conclusions of the investigation.  Now, I will talk about our findings and how the investigation shows that there are things we could have done better.  Moving forward, we need to be as hard on ourselves as the situation requires, ensuring we improve in the future, and there were things that did not meet our highest standards.

A concern from the strike is that all the best information did not make it to the target engagement authority at the time he had to make the decision about the strike.  A word here about dynamic versus deliberate targets.  Once a target is deemed a fleeting target, a series of decisions and timelines follow.

Dynamic targets drive immediate actions.  Setting the scene of — seeing the — setting the scene in a certain way creates a lens, for instance, through which intelligence indicators are interpreted and deciding a target is a dynamic target accelerates the process, which sometimes, if not vigilant, can cause a rush to the most obvious answers.

In this case, when the decision to strike was made, the target engagement authority was not made aware that the small building on the left was actually a mosque or that this complex of buildings under construction had, under normal conditions, a general religious purpose.

What we determined afterwards was that the building on the left of the image you have there in front of you was a small mosque in a complex in which a new larger mosque was under construction, more specifically the Omar al-Khatab mosque.  None of the buildings were annotated on our no-strike list as category one facilities, which is a register of entities that must be carefully evaluated before an approval to strike.

GEN. BONTRAGER:  Again, looking at the photo in front of you, you can clearly see — you can clearly see the building that was struck.  And you can see the small mosque to the left.

Now, if you look to the right of the building that was struck, you can see the larger building.  That building is actually attached to the building we struck by a stairwell and a breezeway walkthrough.  These two buildings, the one we struck and the larger building that we did not strike, were both under construction and actually had a religious purpose.

We believe the building we struck was intended to be a school or madrassa, and the larger building a future mosque.  We have a responsibility to identify and characterize no-strike entities as accurately as possible and provide this information to decision-makers in a timely manner.

To summarize, neither the small mosque nor the two buildings under construction were on the category one no-strike list.  The small mosque certainly should’ve been, and I will come back to this point in a moment.

As previously — as previously mentioned, the failure to identify the religious nature of these buildings is a preventable error.  This failure to identify the religious purpose of these buildings led the target engagement authority to make the final determination to strike without knowing all he should have known.  And that is something that we need to make sure does not happen in the future.

Let me reemphasize, the investigation found that at the time of the meeting, the structure hit and the people who were targeted were valid targets because they were engaged in an Al Qaida meeting.  They were using the religious facility for an Al Qaida meeting.

When that is determined, it is not a difficult process to seek authority to strike a target that is being used at the time for militant purposes.  Since the target engagement authority did not know it was a religious complex, he never invoked the process to remove the category one no-strike protection.

Most frustrating was that some of the intelligence team did know this was a religious complex, but the analysis did not get to the no-strike list nor to the target engagement authority.

A more deliberate pre-strike analysis should have identified that the target was part of a religious compound.  Having that information could have been relevant to the target engagement authority’s decision to strike.

Before engaging a no-strike list entity, there are further approvals that need to be granted.  In this case, the real time use of the meeting place for an Al Qaida meeting would have permitted the strike.  But the target engagement authority should have had all the information needed to make the more informed decision in real time.

Our standards are simply higher than that.  One of our team’s recommendations would require buildings under construction be granted the same protection status as their intended end use.

Finally, a couple more topics.  Our team recommended we pay particular attention to manning associated with shift changes and manning related to our red team of skeptics who play a valuable role in getting to good decisions with agility.

On shift changeovers, the investigation found irregularities that contributed to a lack of situational awareness, knowledge and understanding among the strike cell individuals.  Specifically, important information was not adequately communicated during personnel changeover to the incoming shift.

We also found an imbalance of subspecialties assigned to the strike cell.  They did not have in place to best possible complement of experienced trained people who could have better developed and vetted the information in front of them, even in a — a dynamic strike.

Therefore, we recommended a manpower review be conducted to ensure the right mix of personnel are assigned to the strike cell and are present at the right place at the right time.  I think implied here is an understanding of the desire for us to have the most robust, red team possible process to apply to every strike.  Red team is military speak for experts who are given the challenge of asking the toughest questions, providing a skeptical eye to the analysis as it forms in real time.  This is not a situation where individuals are overly deferential to rank or position.

There is an expectation, rather there is a requirement for anyone to speak up and question any facts, assumptions or decisions at any time throughout the strike process.  Our team believes that a robust red team environment was lacking on the strike floor.  There should have been more questions asked.  We should have — would have given the target engagement authority a better chance to make decisions with full knowledge of the intelligence and information available at the time.  These are not things that we can get wrong as we work to ensure the individuals who make the decisions whether to strike have the best and most complete information in front of them when they need it.  The best red team is an important mechanism to allow us to make the best decisions.

In conclusion, we struck our intended target and — and eliminated several Al-Qaida terrorists.  Though our investigation identified some critical information gaps that contributed to a misinformation and an overall lack of understanding of the situation, we ultimately struck a blow against Al-Qaida.  But that does not excuse us from taking a hard look at what we could do better, particular in terms of process and procedures.  We hold ourselves to a high standard.  We cannot let desire for good results degrade our standards.  We need to get it right and with certainty and we will.  With that, I am happy to take your questions.  And let me add, if I don’t adequately answer your questions, please re-ask them there.  I’m here to provide full visibility as I see it and I don’t — I don’t want — to — be let off the hook on a hard question although I might regret saying that later.

CAPT. DAVIS:  Oh they won’t let you off sir, I assure you.  We’re going to start with Phil Stewart with Reuters.

Q:  Just first of all, you said you interviewed dozens of people.  Were any of those people connected to the — were actually in — in — on the ground at the time?  Or were these all, you know, officials involved in the strike?  And did you speak to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights which has a very different assessment of the people that were killed.  And then lastly, could you give us any information on the individual, this lone individual civilian who was wounded.  How do you know?  Did you see him in a video feed leaving the compound?  How do you know about that lone individual?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  OK, Phil.  So I — (inaudible) — three parts there.  Let me start nugging away at this, if I don’t get it right again please come back and re-ask.  So, the — the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, no, we did not speak to — to anyone there.  We did reach out to the organizations that had published different documents, for example, the Human Rights Watch asking for any information that they had with regard to the strike.  To again, try and get — gather any evidence that was out there and that offer still stands for Human Rights Watch, Syrian Observatory, anybody else who has something we would — we would be — we would welcome.  We would welcome it.  Can you repeat the other parts of the question please?

Q:  Well just on that one point, so did you speak to anybody who was actually on the ground.  You said you spoke to dozens of people.  How do you — how would you characterize those people?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  Right.  So we did not — we did not speak with any — anyone on the ground in Syria except for the — the individuals in the unit that conducted the strike.  We simply didn’t have access to — to anyone in the location of the strike.  So — so the answer to that is a simple no.  We spoke to dozens of people throughout the process — the approval process, the strike cell, as well as — as anyone who had any — any information with regard to the — the intelligence available or the — or what else was available.

Regarding the last part of your question, which I think concerned the lone individual.  Let me be completely clear here, what we — what we saw was a small-in-stature – smaller-in-stature person accompanying an adult, clearly an adult, into the meeting site.  And that alone is what — what we saw that made us call this individual a civilian.

However, it should also be known that this was known to the target engagement authority pre-strike.  He was identified — the T.E.A. — the target engagement authority was aware.  The proportionality assessment was made, and it was still deemed a legal strike.  So with regard to that, the proper authorities were — were consulted.

Q:  And you don’t believe he’s a child?  They aren’t ready to say that.  You think he might have been an adult?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  I frankly don’t know — don’t know who he was.  It was a civilian is how we’re characterizing him.

CAPT. DAVIS:  Okay.  Next to Bill Hennigan, the L.A. Times.  Bill, make sure you speak up.

Q:  Okay.  So, you didn’t talk to anybody on the ground and nobody visited the site.  Is that — that correct, right?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  That is correct, Bill, and that’s common.  It’s a rare thing with strikes like this that we can get on the ground in person, or that we can talk to anybody on the ground is not uncommon at all.

Q:  Can you talk a little bit about what — what you actually did sit through in order to come to the conclusions that you did?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  Yes, Bill, so we — we sifted through every — from the initial time when intelligence was made available about the strike, we sifted through every bit of e-mail, documents, chat screens.  It was as comprehensive as we could.  There was nothing that was possible to be presented that we did not look at.  We looked at all available video over the — that was available considering this target.

This was a fairly quick-turn target once the — the events, once it was determined dynamic.  And then it was over very rapidly as well.  So, the individuals involved in it, it was both in-country forward and elsewhere with the strike cell.  Those are the folks we — we focused on with regard to determining what information was available at the time and whether or not the target engagement authority had that information.

Q:  That strike cell is in — is that in Erbil or Syria?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  The strike cell is the cell that had the responsibility for conducting the strike in this situation.  And they’re primary role is to inform the target engagement authority.

Q:  Where — where — is it in-country?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  I don’t believe that’s in the scope of what I’m going to discuss today.

Q:  Okay.  So — so if — and you also mentioned that there was a shift changeover.  So approximately how long did this process take — take through?  And also, on top of that, you know, there was — last year, we had a strike where Syrian forces were accidentally hit because of a changeover, because information did not make its way from one — one staff to the next.

Were there any learned lessons that were applicable in this particular incident?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  So, this — this particular event took place over days, as I said — three days total.  Once the event itself, the dynamic strike process began, that’s when it was a matter of hours and that’s when it was a very quick turn.  And during that process, there were a couple of key individuals that swapped out.  That’s what I’m talking about with regard to shifts — shift-change.

It wasn’t like a full-scale, you know, group of people got up and left and a new group came in.  That’s not what I’m talking about.  He’s talking about certain — certain folks that swapped out and again, we’re being — maybe being unfairly critical of ourselves, but they simply could have done a better job passing information from one individual to the next.

Q:  And the learned lesson from that Syria strike last year?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  All other strikes and investigations inform our processes.  This is — this is how up to this point we’re able to have a remarkably high amount of success.  I mean, literally thousands of strikes with a tremendously small percentage of strikes that go poorly.  So any other investigation definitely informed the process up to this point.

However, every — every process, every event is unique and I only know the particulars about this particular one right here.

Q:  Okay.  You said that there were members on the team that perhaps knew that this was — could be on the no-strike list.  And that that information did not find its way to the right authority.  Was there anybody — was there any — has anybody been reprimanded or punished as a result of this oversight?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  So, let me go back and clarify something.  None of these buildings — the small mosque, the — the building we struck, or the larger mosque under construction — none of them were on the no-strike list.  What we’re saying is that there were people in the process that had — that had identified that the small mosque as a mosque.  That mosque should have been put on the no-strike list, but it wasn’t.

Let me be clear also that there was no requirement to address the — the status of that small mosque because it was not to be struck.  We weren’t — there was never a plan to strike it.  So that — that was fine.  The bottom line is it should have been on the list and it wasn’t on the list.

Regarding the building that was struck and the larger mosque, the one — the building under construction, by letter of the law, there’s no requirement that they had to be on the list as well, because they were not — they were not completed structures.

What we’re saying is — common sense, and in fact practice up to this point, we have had times similar to this where somebody was savvy enough to say this might be a religious structure; let’s treat it as a cat-1 no-strike structure, even though it’s not on the list.  And they would have pushed it up higher for authority.

The problem that we have with this one is there were people that saw the mosque, the small mosque, didn’t add it to the list immediately when they should have.  And there were other people that looked at the building to be struck and the building to the right of it, the larger building, with skepticism and thinking this might be religious in nature, and they didn’t raise that concern either.

So the bottom line — and that — and that ultimately was one of our recommendations.  And that was we believe, and that is a change that is being codified in regulation, that anytime a structure, even under construction, is deemed to possibly have a no-strike category of protection, it immediately gets that level of protection.  You don’t wait until something is done and that sort of thing.

So that is — that is an area that we think we can do better.  And again, we’re — I can’t speak to whether or not it would have changed the outcome.  What I can speak to is the information that was available to the target engagement authority was not as complete as it could have been.  And we need — those individuals, we need to give them every benefit with regard to every bit of information that is available and we simply did not do that in this case.

Q:  So there were no letters of reprimand or any punishments doled out?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  So, I’m — I’m glad this came up because I did not include this in my opening statement.  But — but I wanted to address it.  And that is also that there was no negligence found at any part of this investigation.  And again, this is — this is not some — this is not an investigation that we just breezed through.

We sifted through every detail.  There was not — there was no negligence found.  There was no, sort of, anything malicious at all that could be determined.  So none of our recommendations reflected that anyone should receive any sort of reprimand.

That being said, that’s not our decision anyhow.  It is a command decision and whether or not somebody was reprimanded is — is — is again not for me to say.

Q:  (inaudible) — just lastly — (inaudible) — was there any HVIs there at the strike?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  What we know with certainty is this was an Al Qaida meeting and there were Al Qaida regional leaders present.

Q:  Thank you.

CAPT. DAVIS:  Next to Tara Copp, Stars and Stripes.

Q:  Hello.  (inaudible) — most of my questions, but if a madrassa — if the adjoining buildings had been known as a madrassa, potentially a school, that would have also put them on the cat 1 list.  Is that correct?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  You’re — you are exactly right, Tara.  That would have afforded them cat 1 no-strike protection.

Q:  OK.  I actually — (inaudible) — did actually ask most of the questions that I had.

CAPT. DAVIS:  Okay.  We’ll go to Lucas Tomlinson, FOX news.

Q:  General, knowing everything that you know now, would you still have conducted the strike?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  Well, Lucas, that is a hypothetical that I — I don’t think is — I’m in a position to — to answer.

Q:  Is it?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  What I can speak to — did you have another question?

Q:  Is it a hypothetical?  Knowing what you know now, would you go back and do the strike at the same time, same place using the same assets?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  Lucas, yeah, that’s — were I a target engagement authority, I think that would be a more appropriate role for me to answer.  I was not the target engagement authority.  I did not have the real time information flowing in as it — as it was coming in.  I can say with all certainty that at the time of the strike, before the strike, at the time of the strike and now, it remains a valid military target and it remains a — a legal strike.

Q:  So you would do it again, or the targeters would do it again if presented the opportunity at that time and place?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  I simply do not — do not — I’m not in position to answer that question, Lucas.

Q:  And lastly, was striking this target, considering it was Al Qaida regional leaders, was it worth it given the proximity to these other religious structures?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  So, Lucas, I think you’re talking with regard to proportionality and it was certainly determined a proportional strike with regard to — to the Al Qaida meeting that was in place.  And again, let’s go back to review what we had, which was a — credible intelligence of this Al Qaida meeting with — with leaders present.  And if you can imagine what that means with regard to pay-off — possible pay-off and a blow to Al Qaida in the area.  It would possibly be significant and that was the mindset moving forward that day.

Q:  Thank you very much.

Q:  Can I jump in real quick?

CAPT. DAVIS:  Sure.

Q:  Just as a follow on that.  If the buildings would’ve been on a do-not-strike list, how is it still considered a legal strike now, just to clarify?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  OK.  A very — very relevant question to — and I’ll try and explain that.  So, the fact that something is on the no-strike list does not mean that it cannot be struck, it just means that it requires a different process and a different approval.

So, any structure, madrassa, or other — or any other structure at all, if it’s being used for a military purpose can be struck.  It is a — it can be a legal target to strike.  It simply has to go to a different level for approval authority.

And that — that did not happen in this — in this instance.

CAPT. DAVIS:  We’ll go to T.M. Gibbons-Neff, Washington Post.

Q:  Thanks for doing this, General.   First question, were there any non-DOD assets involved in the targeting of this meeting?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  This was a solely and completely DOD strike, T.M.

Q:  Got it.  And — and we talked a lot about accountability.  But who exactly would be held accountable?  Which command was this?

Was it an Air Force strike?  Was it a special operations strike?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  T.M., this — this was in fact a — a special operations task force with responsibility in that — in that region.

Q:  Got it.  And last question, kind of regarding this shift changeover and people aware of that it might have been a mosque.  It just sounds like, with everything that you’re saying, that there was no clear pattern of life established on this structure before it was struck.  Is that kind of what you’re talking about by being the cutting corners?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  So, the intelligence that — that — that brought us to the point of — of considering the strike, and then the — the surveillance that was placed over the — the building location gave the team a high level of confidence that knew — they knew precisely who was in the building and what the target consisted of.  So — so, I would say that the pattern of life was certainly suitably established prior to this strike.

CAPT. DAVIS:  Next to Lolita Baldor, Associated Press.

Q:  General, I just wanted to make sure you — other than this one smaller-in-stature person, do you have a high degree of confidence that the only people killed or injure were al-Qaida members or a — how high of a confidence are you that those who were killed were injured were al-Qaida members?  And I guess, just to — and — and how do you reach that conclusion if other groups suggest they were not?

And you weren’t able to talk to anyone on the ground.  How certain can you be that they were all al-Qaida members?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  So, so, Lita, in — in a — I’ll — I’ll just have to come back to the — the intelligence that was available to us before the strike, at the time of the strike, and post strike.  And every effort we made to gather evidence, talking to anybody who anything to provide with regard to this — to this strike.

And we’ve simply found no — zero credible evidence to discredit the intelligence.  And that includes additional intelligence collected post-strike regarding the strike itself.

CAPT. DAVIS:  OK, Nancy Youssef, Buzzfeed.

Q:  You mentioned that there were a series of recommendations.  Can you tell us how many recommendations there were?  Who those recommendations go to?  And who — and if — who determines whether to follow through on them?  And what happens if they’re not followed through?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  So Nancy, the — the recommendations go to the — the commander of the — of the unit that — that assigned me to do this investigation.  And it is completely his responsibility to determine which — which recommendations to follow and to follow up to make sure that they are — they are implemented.

And the — and I’ll run down a brief summary of the findings that I — I — I mentioned in my earlier dialogue.  There was the overarching problem of incomplete information flow to the target engagement authority.  There was the problem that we found of individuals swapping duties in the strike cell without an adequate hand-off of available information as well there.

There was the category one no-strike list issue, where individuals had noticed that the — there was a small mosque not on the strike — no-strike list and did not immediately add it.  And there was other individuals that suspected that this was a religious compound under construction and they didn’t bring up somewhat of a common sense approach of should this be considered as a cat 1 structure.  So that was another significant thing that we found.

There was the manning review.  There was a couple positions that, and again we are — we are being somewhat harsh on ourselves, but there were people that we thought could have been more experienced and — and could have been more emboldened with regard to their duties in the strike cell.   So that’s — that’s something else that we pointed out.

And the last — the last point was about the overall environment — the climate in the strike cell has got to have — it has to be almost an argumentative environment where folks are — are pointing out things and regardless of rank, they’re — they’re being critical of — of each other.

So — so those are the — the — the main parts and I would — and to the best of my knowledge having talked to the commander, I believe each and every one of those has been acted on in a positive way.  But if I can go back, all the things I just talked about with regard to passing of information and not being bold enough to speak up and that sort of thing, that’s what we’re talking about here.  This is not a place where we found any negligence on any individual or group of individuals.

Q:  What unit is that?  And how long were they in charge of the strike operations in Syria?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  I’m sorry.  Can you repeat the question please.

Q:  Which unit did this — did this report go to?  Or who requested it?  And how long are they in charge of such operations?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  So, this is a special operations task force and they are in charge of these operations throughout several theaters forever.

Q:  (inaudible) — but is it a specific unit that like a brigade or a battalion?  Or is it — does it transcend that?  That’s what I’m trying to understand.

GEN. BONTRAGER:  Yes.  You’re right.  It transcends that.  It is a special operation task force.

Q:  And then you mentioned regional leaders that were targeted.  Can you give us any more specifics?  Did they know the names of the people who were there?  Or was it a belief that a group of regional leaders were there?  And when you say “regional,”  what does that mean?  What kind of responsibility do they have within Al Qaida?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  Yeah, right.  And that’s sort of specific — specific parts of the intelligence that we simply can’t talk about.  But very confident in the intelligence that was available at the time.

SPEAKER:  So we’ve got time for one or two more questions.

CAPT. DAVIS:  Yeah, we’ve got a couple of follow ups.

First from Tara Copp.

(CROSSTALK)

CAPT. DAVIS:  You’re good.

And next from T.M. Gibbons-Neff.

Q:  Yes, back to the special operations task force for just a few minutes.  I assume that that’s JSOC.  Did the engagement or the approval for this engagement ever leave that task force?  As in, did anyone else in CENTCOM review the information prior to the strike?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  So, the — the approval process worked correctly when we’re talking about the level that it went to, except for the removal of the no-strike protection.  That’s one that should have — that should have been elevated that wasn’t.

Other than that, everything was done at the correct level.

Q:  And that level was within the task force?

GEN. BONTRAGER:  It was within the strike cell at the appropriate level.

CAPT. DAVIS:  All right.  I just wanted to check with the operator to make sure we didn’t have anyone dial in from out of town that wanted to ask anything.

OPERATOR:  If you would like to ask a question, please press star-one.  One moment.

CAPT. DAVIS:  We may not have anybody there.

(CROSSTALK)

CAPT. DAVIS:  Yeah, well, I think CENTCOM might have had someone dial in from down there.  But I don’t think we have anybody in the category, but just checking.

Okay.  Last call for anyone else.

General, thank you for your time in doing this.  I know (inaudible) down at CENTCOM will be available for any follow ups you may have.

Thanks, everybody.

-END-

▲ The Pentagon issued this photograph to demonstrate, it claimed, that it had not bombed a mosque. Forensic Architecture says the opposite is true

Published

June 9, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

As many as 100,000 civilians trapped inside the Islamic State-held city of Raqqa are being given conflicting evacuation instructions according to Coalition statements and local reports, as US-backed ground forces finally assault the city supported by air and artillery strikes.

Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) started their slow encirclement of Raqqa last November. Artillery and airstrikes have rained down since then killing hundreds of civilians in the near region according to monitors, though the final operation to take the city commenced officially only on June 6th. In a press release published that day, the Coalition stressed that “The SDF have encouraged civilians to depart Raqqah so that they do not become trapped, used as human shields or become targets for ISIS snipers.”

A Coalition spokesperson elaborated that the SDF “have communicated with the citizens of Raqqah through several means, to include leaflets dropped by Coalition aircraft, urging them to evacuate the city if it is safe to do so.”

On May 28th, the monitoring group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) uploaded to social media two such leaflets it said had been dropped over the city. One told residents to use the document as they sought refuge with SDF soldiers. Leaving ISIL-held areas is not without risk, with militants routinely documented firing upon and killing men, women and children attempting to flee.

Another leaflet reportedly dropped by the Coalition instructed civilians to hide the paper and – without telling anyone they were leaving – to approach an SDF soldier with a strip of something white. “This is your last chance,” said the leaflet, translated by an Airwars researcher. “Failing to leave might lead to death. Raqqa will fall, don’t be there at that time.”

The Coalition initially dropped leaflets telling people in Raqqa to flee the ISIL-occupied city – only to reverse its decision days later. This leaflet was reportedly dropped on the city. (Via Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently)

Reversed decision

However only a day after the Coalition’s announcement, officials informed Airwars on June 7th that ground forces had reversed tactics and no longer wanted civilians to leave. “Since transitioning to offensive in Raqqah yesterday, SDF is now encouraging civilians to stay in their homes, shelter in place, and avoid ISIS fighting positions,” said spokesperson Colonel Joseph Scrocca. Earlier efforts, he stressed, had “helped evacuate more than 200,000 civilians from Raqqah.”

“However, as the SDF enters the city, they do not want civilians placed in harm’s way by the fighting so they have asked them to remain indoors and away from ISIS positions,” said Scrocca. The SDF, he added, “are using a variety of technical and non-technical means such as leaflets, radio broadcasts and internet messages.”

Airwars reached out to local monitor Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered, which said it was unaware of the new posture and stated that residents were still under the impression that they were best off leaving.

“They dropped these papers and told the people who want to flee to take them and go to SDF areas,” said a member of the group who spoke to Airwars via the organization’s Facebook account. “If they want them to stay, then why did they drop papers and tell them to leave?”

SDF spokesperson Jesper Soder claimed that the leaflets posted by RBSS were not genuine, though he largely conceded that residents had received mixed-messages.

“We have told the ones closest to our positions to try to flee towards us,” said Soder. “And the ones that are far away to stay inside and hide inside. Also flyers have been dropped in Raqqa telling civilians to hide or seek refuge at our positions.”

It was unclear however exactly how the SDF was able to differentiate populations in the city.

“If the Coalition is going to issue directions to civilians, they should be coordinated and consistent,” said Marla Keenan, senior director of programs for the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC). “Conflicting instructions create even more confusion on the ground in an already confusing and dangerous situation for civilians.”

Airwars has been tracking high civilian casualties in Syria – predominantly around Raqqa – for some months.

It remains unclear exactly how many civilians are still inside Raqqa. Jens Laerke, spokesperson for the UN’s humanitarian agency OCHA, told Airwars that reports indicated some 95,000 people had fled the city, but that between 50,000 and 100,000 civilians remained. The Coalition estimates that roughly 2,500 fighters are lodged among them.

ISIL has systematically put civilians in danger, and the Coalition has repeatedly highlighted the terror movement’s use of non-combatants as human shields in Mosul – a tactic the alliance says could be repeated in Raqqa. Human rights officials caution that the dropping of leaflets and dissemination of other warnings does not change the legal responsibility of the Coalition and SDF to protect civilians caught up in the fighting.

“The presence of ISIS fighters among civilians does not absolve anti-ISIS forces from the obligation to target only military objectives,” said Lama Fakih, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The issuance of effective advance warnings of attack to the civilian population do not relieve attacking forces of their obligation to distinguish at all times between combatants and civilians, and to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians from harm.”

The stakes remain incredibly high in Raqqa and its environs, where the likely death toll from airstrikes in recent months surpasses anything Airwars has previously monitored – all before the start of fighting inside the city itself (see graph.)

In the three months leading up to June, researchers at Airwars estimate that over 600 civilians were killed in more than 150 Coalition or SDF attacks. That tally includes a minimum 284 civilian deaths in March, 215 in April and at least 220 in May. Already in the first eight days of June, dozens of civilians have been reported slain in air and artillery strikes.

Coalition data further illustrates the intensifying campaign. In May, the number of declared airstrikes around Raqqa more than doubled from the previous month, from 116 to 289.

According to a spokesperson, “In Syria, over 1,800 munitions were fired [in May] of which approximately 1,000 were in support of operations to isolate Raqqah.” Those Coalition figures also include artillery and rocket strikes, but do not include attacks by allied SDF ground forces.

‘Insufficient precautions’

As reports of casualties around Raqqa mount, there are concerns that the Coalition and its SDF allies are not taking enough care to protect civilians.

At the end of May, the UN’s human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein raised alarm at airstrikes in Raqqa and other parts of northeast Syria. The UN pointed to several incidents, including a May 14th strike in Al-Akershi that reportedly killed 23 farm workers, including 17 women.

“The same civilians who are suffering indiscriminate shelling and summary executions by ISIL, are also falling victim to escalating airstrikes,” said Zeid. “Unfortunately, scant attention is being paid by the outside world to the appalling predicament of civilians trapped in these areas.”

“The rising toll of civilian deaths and injuries already caused by airstrikes in Deir-ez-Zor and Al-Raqqa suggests that insufficient precautions may have been taken in the attacks,” Zeid said. “Just because ISIL holds an area does not mean less care can be taken. Civilians should always be protected, whether they are in areas controlled by ISIL or by any other party.”

According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, during May the alliance was responsible for more non-combatant deaths in Syria than the Assad regime, Russia, or so-called Islamic State.

A total of 964 civilians were killed in #Syria in May 2017https://t.co/Xfp8qpA7Yz pic.twitter.com/7JlEZtkG0M

— Syrian Network (@snhr) June 2, 2017

Accounts of civilian casualties from airstrikes around Raqqa are often well sourced and, unlike contested reports in other theatres such as Mosul, generally indicate one clear culprit: the Coalition.

For instance, several dozen accounts cite the Coalition for an airstrike on May 21st in Kdeiran village, located in western Raqqa governorate. ISIL-controlled media released a graphic video of the aftermath, but many other sources, including the Syrian Network for Human Rights and the Syrian Observatory also reported the incident. The Syrian Network said that at least 15 civilians were killed, including 4 children. At least nine victims were named by local sources.

In another event, Airwars was able to gather more than three dozen reports of an attack that left at least four civilians dead in Al Suweidiya village on May 30th. A number of outlets concurred that a Coalition strike had hit a house belonging to the Al-Razaj family. Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered named four victims: Rima Al-Enezan; Abdul Rahman Hussein Al-Razaj; and Aya Hussain Al-Razaj.

On June 5th, the day before the Coalition announced the start of final operations inside Mosul, its planes allegedly fired on civilians gathered near boats along the Euphrates River, killing at least eleven. Some outlets put the death toll higher and said the civilians were attempting to flee Raqqa – as they had been instructed by the SDF.

Fresh concerns for the safety of civilians were raised June 8th after ISIL released video footage apparently showing the use of white phosphorous shells on the city by US or Coalition forces.

Isis claims US led coalition using White phosphorous in Raqqa video dated June 8 #Syria pic.twitter.com/5Ul5J1c0MH

— Fazel Hawramy (@FazelHawramy) June 9, 2017

How long the fighting in Raqqa will continue remains uncertain. Fabrice Balanche, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute, estimates that if ISIL is allowed to leave the city – as was the case in nearby Tabaqa – battles could cease in as little as two months. But US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has since warned that the Coalition plans to annihilate remaining ISIL forces.

“We have already shifted from attrition tactics, where we shove them from one position to another in Iraq and Syria, to annihilation tactics where we surround them. Our intention is that the foreign fighters do not survive the fight to return home to North Africa, to Europe, to America, to Asia, to Africa,” he recently told CBS News.

If the heavily fortified city is instead encircled, cut off and assaulted one neighbourhood at a time, the operation could last far longer, with associated risks for trapped civilians. Operations to capture Mosul in Iraq are still continuing eight months after they first began.

▲ U.S. Marines with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit fire an M777 Howitzer during a fire mission in northern Syria as part of Operation Inherent Resolve, Mar. 24, 2017. The unit provided 24/7 support in all weather conditions to allow for troop movements, to include terrain denial and the subduing of enemy forces. More than 60 regional and international nations have joined together to enable partnered forces to defeat ISIS and restore stability and security. CJTF-OIR is the global Coalition to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Zachery C. Laning)

Published

June 8, 2017

Written by

Airwars Staff

The battle involving Iraqi and US-led Coalition forces against the so-called Islamic State (ISIL) in west Mosul’s Old City poses a considerable threat to civilians and civilian objects, international humanitarian and human rights organizations said today. All warring parties should cease using explosive weapons with wide area effects and inherently indiscriminate weapons in densely populated west Mosul. ISIL’s unlawful use of civilians as “human shields” and the difficulty of identifying civilians in buildings increases the risk of civilian casualties.

The United Nations has estimated that 200,000 civilians remain in the two-square-kilometer area in west Mosul’s Old City, which Iraqi and US-led coalition forces are encircling in preparation for the battle there.

“More than 12,000 munitions were used by the US-led Coalition at Mosul between March and May alone, according to official data – comprising airstrikes, rocket and artillery salvos, mortar attacks and helicopter actions. In addition, thousands more munitions were released by Iraqi air and ground forces – at times with little apparent discrimination. This despite the city still containing hundreds of thousands of trapped civilians,” says Airwars Director Chris Woods.

“The result of this ferocious bombardment on a densely populated city has been inevitable – with thousands of Moslawis reported killed in Coalition, Iraqi government and ISIL actions. Determining responsibility is proving particularly challenging, given the high number of munitions involved. We urge both the Coalition and Iraqi forces imediately to end the use of wide area effect and indiscriminate munitions in Mosul, in order to save lives.”

The groups expressing concern are: Airwars; Amnesty International; Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC); Human Rights First; Human Rights Watch, the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), and War Child.

‘Disproportionate military attacks’

On May 25, 2017, anti-ISIL forces dropped leaflets urging civilians to immediately leave areas under ISIL control. Anti-ISIL forces should take all feasible precautions to minimize harm when carrying out attacks and ensure that civilians can safely evacuate the Old City and get humanitarian assistance both inside and outside the besieged area. With the offensive to take west Mosul entering its 109th day, the situation for civilians trapped there is growing increasingly perilous. Those fleeing Mosul have told humanitarian and human rights organizations that markets are being emptied of food, with civilians subsisting on little more than wheat and rainwater.

In mid-February, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) supported by the US-led coalition, known as the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR), began the offensive to retake west Mosul, a densely populated set of urban neighborhoods.

Rising civilian casualties from aerial operations have heightened concerns regarding coalition and Iraqi forces’ use of airstrikes. The use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects such as air-dropped bombs of 500lbs and above, which have been used in the context of the operation, in densely populated civilian areas of western Mosul may be resulting in civilian casualties and damage to civilian objects that is excessive to the anticipated military objectives of the strikes. Such disproportionate military attacks are prohibited under international humanitarian law.

Iraqi forces have also been launching locally fabricated rockets, commonly known as improvised rocket-assisted munitions (IRAMs), into west Mosul. Images published by media outlets and the US military also depict US forces and Iraqi forces firing mortars and unguided artillery rockets into western Mosul. Both of these weapons are inaccurate and can be unlawfully indiscriminate if used in heavily populated areas.

The difficulty of detecting civilians in the packed city, even with advanced targeting systems and continuous observation, make it difficult to determine accurately the number of civilians occupying a target area prior to approving strikes. The dangers are increased by ISIL’s use of civilians as “human shields,” which is a war crime.

Dozens of newly displaced people from west Mosul, including the Old City, have told humanitarian and human rights organizations that ISIL fighters forced them and their families to move with them up to three times, packing large numbers of families into small neighborhoods still under their control. They witnessed fighters summarily killing dozens of men as punishment as they and their families tried to flee ISIL control. They also saw ISIL fighters fire on groups of civilians as they fled; and some saw fleeing civilians shot and killed.

As the fighting intensifies and ISIL increases its use of civilians as shields, anti-ISIL forces should use all available means to verify the presence and location of civilians in the immediate vicinity of any fighters or military objectives targeted. In December 2016, US forces made procedural changes in its targeting that may increase the likelihood of civilian casualties.

All parties to the conflict are prohibited under the laws of war from conducting deliberate attacks against civilians or civilian objects, as well as indiscriminate, or disproportionate attacks. Indiscriminate attacks are attacks that strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction. An attack is disproportionate if it may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life or damage to civilian objects that would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated from the attack.

Individuals who commit serious violations of the laws of war with criminal intent – that is, deliberately or recklessly – are responsible for war crimes. Individuals also may be held criminally liable for attempting to commit a war crime, as well as assisting in, facilitating, aiding, or abetting a war crime.

The laws of war require that the parties to a conflict take constant care during military operations to spare the civilian population and to “take all feasible precautions” to avoid or minimize the incidental loss of civilian life and damage to civilian objects. When used in populated areas, munitions with large payloads of high explosives can have a wide-area destructive effect, and it is not possible when using them to distinguish adequately between civilians and combatants, almost inevitably resulting in civilian casualties.

Weapons such as mortars and multi-barrel rocket launchers when firing unguided munitions and IRAMs are fundamentally inaccurate. This can make discriminating between civilians and combatants during an attack on a densely populated area virtually impossible. Human rights and humanitarian organizations and journalists have documented the use by Iraqi forces of IRAMs that lack the ability to be aimed beyond a basic orientation toward the target and are inherently indiscriminate.

Mortars and multi-barrel rocket launchers firing unguided munitions used by anti-ISIL forces can be aimed and adjusted by an observer, but are area-fire weapons and, when used in densely populated areas, are prone to unlawful indiscriminate use. Iraqi and US-led coalition forces should avoid all use of these weapons in the densely populated Old City of west Mosul.

Signatories: Airwars Amnesty International Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) Human Rights First Human Rights Watch International Network on Explosive Weapons War Child

Fundraising Update

We have had a good start to our Airwars public appeal for $50,000 to help us improve our research and advocacy work, at a time of escalating civilian deaths. But we still have a big hill to climb. If you can, please donate. And also do please share our GoFundMe page as widely as possible witrh your social networks.

Published

June 7, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

US military investigators have concluded that despite a series of errors, a deadly March air raid in northern Syria was legal and may have killed just one civilian, a child – an account starkly at odds with those of human rights groups and locals.

Yet at the same time officials now concede that in a “preventable error,” targeters and pilots were unaware at the time that they were conducting air strikes on part of a mosque complex.

Speaking to reporters on June 7th, Army Brigadier General Paul Bontrager, deputy director of operations at CENTCOM, said that though US officials had failed properly to classify religious buildings that were in the strike zone, the unilateral American attack on the Sayidina Omar Ibn Al-Khattab mosque complex in Al Jinah was lawful, and had achieved its objective of disrupting a gathering of “al Qaeda leaders”.

US investigators now argue that what they targeted was a structure attached to a mosque. They identified two separate buildings that they claim were under construction, something Bontrager said meant they did not technically have to be on No Strike Lists – though he said it would be recommended that this practice be changed. Bontrager said the US believed that what it had targeted was planned eventually to be a “school or madrassa” and that the larger part of the complex – which was relatively less damaged – was a “future mosque.”

However, analysis carried out by Human Rights Watch, Bellingcat and Forensic Architecture – backed by footage of the site taken before the attack – said that the al-Khattab mosque complex was fully functional.

Locals told Human Rights Watch that the structure appeared unfinished because of insufficient funding. The northern section, reported Human Rights Watch, contained a kitchen and eating area, toilets and washing room. The upstairs held “several rooms that were sometimes used for religious classes for children and the imam’s apartment.” This section of the mosque was directed targeted, determined the three groups.

According to local reports, at least 38 people were killed in a hail of bombs and missiles that began around 7pm on March 16th.  Investigations carried out by the three NGOs established that US forces fired on the northern part of Al-Khattab mosque while it contained worshipers. Hellfire missiles then reportedly targeted many of those who fled the initial attack. Military investigators now say that F-15 jets released 10 bombs, while a single MQ-9 reaper drone subsequently fired two missiles.

“Legal Strike”

US authorities had said publicly in the aftermath of the attack that they were targeting an al Qaeda meeting place at al Jinah, and that they had purposefully avoided a mosque they knew to be in the area – which they identified as a smaller structure adjacent to Al-Khattab.

Yet remarkably, Bontrager now says that even that smaller mosque was not something the “target engagement authority” was actually aware of – meaning that approval of the strike was made without knowledge that either the older and smaller mosque, or the newer and larger al-Khattab facility, had any religious significance. That in turn indicates the pilots carrying out the attack were unlikely to have been aware that they were striking a mosque complex.

“None of the buildings were annotated on our No Strike List as Category 1 facilities, which is a register of entities that must be carefully evaluated before an approval to strike,” said Bontrager, describing the misidentification as a “preventable error.”

“This failure to identify the religious purpose of these buildings led the target engagement authority to make the final determination to strike without knowing all he should have known, and that is something we need to make sure does not happen in the future,” he said.

Had the mosque been identified as such and put on a No Strike List, it would have been subject to more rigorous vetting. Nevertheless, the strike would have been permitted due to the alleged gathering of militant leaders inside, claimed Bontrager. And even the presence of a child did not deter the attackers. 

“What we saw was a smaller in stature person accompanying an adult into the meeting site, and that alone is what we saw that made us call this individual a civilian,” said Bontrager. That likely presence of a child was known to planners of the final stages of the attack. “The target engagement authority was aware, the proportionality assessment was made and it was still deemed a legal strike.”

“The investigation found that at the time of the meeting the structure hit and the people who were targeted were valid targets because they were engaged in an al Qaeda meeting,” reporters were told in a Pentagon briefing. “It was certainly determined a proportional strike with regard to the al Qaeda meeting that was in place.”

Investigators did not divulge which al Qaeda “leaders” were present or killed during the attack, something they have done previously after unilateral American airstrikes in Syria. The outcome of the attack from a counter-terrorism perspective remains vague.

’38 civilians killed’

CENTCOM’s findings, which have not yet been released outside of a briefing for select reporters, are likely to raise further questions about the incident. Investigators did not visit the site of the attack, which is in a militant-held area. But they also did not speak with any locals who witnessed the attack. Still, Botranger said investigators were “confident” that they did not hit a gathering of civilians, instead killing “approximately two dozen men attending an al Qaeda meeting.”

By comparison, in examining the strike Human Rights Watch spoke with 14 people with close knowledge of the incident, including four people who were at the mosque, as well as first responders and local journalists. Those witnesses told HRW that a religious lecture had concluded and many attendees were lingering ahead of night prayers when the bombing began.

Syrian Civil Defense reported the recovery of 38 bodies, and published the names of 28 victims. Among the named dead were five children, the imam as well as his wife, Ghousoun Makansi.

“It is hard to understand how the Pentagon can determine with such confidence who was killed and not in the attack without having spoken to anybody on the ground,” said Ole Solvang, deputy emergencies director at Human Rights Watch.

“The absence of any details about what intelligence the attack was based on and whom the Pentagon thinks it killed in the attack only compounds questions about how it reached these conclusions. This should not be the end of this investigation, and the Pentagon should release much more detail about what it knows.”

▲ Post by Aleppo White Helmets on March 17th, 2017, depicted the aftermath of an alleged Coalition airstrike on Al Jina.

Published

May 9, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

After nearly three years of anti-ISIL airstrikes, Coalition member Australia has begun to release bi-weekly strike reports detailing its operations in Iraq and Syria.

The first strike report, issued on May 8th, references the period from April 18th to the 30th. The Australian Ministry of Defense says its pilots carried out airstrikes on seven days during that time, all in Mosul. 

Civilian casualties from airstrikes were alleged in the city on five of the seven days that Australia reported striking Iraq’s second largest city. However with multiple allies bombing the city from the air and ground – as well as attacks by so-called Islamic State – attribution for recent incidents has proved very challenging. Australia did not make any reference to civilian casualties in the strike report, only stating that “All ADF [Australian Defense Force] personnel comply with International Law and limitations designed to protect coalition forces and minimise the risk to civilians.”

Australia has released its first detailed strike report in more than 30 months of airstrikes

‘Welcome step’

The strike report and new posture is a far cry from the ADF’s stance earlier this year, when it replied to a Freedom of Information request by stating it “does not specifically collect authoritative (and therefore accurate) data on enemy and/or civilian casualties in either Iraq and Syria and certainly does not track such statistics.” The ADF later told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to speak with US officials – not Australia – about civilian casualties involving its forces.

In December 2016, Australia was also prominently featured in an Airwars audit of the Coalition as one of the alliance’s least transparent members. Airwars called on the country’s military to release both the time and location of its strikes in Iraq and Syria and any details of cases where it assessed and investigated possible civilian casualties resulting from Australian strikes.

“We’ve been calling on the ADF for some time to join other allies in reporting the date, place and target of strikes, so this is a significant and welcome step forward for Australian transparency and public accountability,” said Airwars director Chris Woods, who authored the December audit.

Earlier this month, the ADF said that a March decision by the Coalition to review its strike reporting had led to Canberra’s move to review its own procedures.

“This decision comes after weighing the importance of reporting ADF airstrikes in Iraq and Syria against the potential propaganda advantages it might provide Daesh and any risk to the safety of ADF personnel on operations,” said the ADF. Authorities will release their own civilian casualty assessments, said the ADF, “in addition to CJTF-OIR’s monthly civilian casualty report.”

Casualty cases

To date, Australia has admitted that its forces took part in Coalition attacks on two occasions that led to “credible claims of civilian casualties.” Both cases were brought to light in September 2015 as a result of Airwars working with Australian media.

However, Australian officials said that a review of video of the first strike, which took place on October 10th 2014 near Ramadi, “assessed that no civilian casualties occurred.” Two people were observed in the target area of the second strike, on December 12th, 2014 in Fallujah, but the AFD stated “there were no reports of civilian casualties occurred” due to the strike. “Neither of these incidents resulted in substantiated civilian casualties,” the ADF concluded.

As of May 8th, Airwars estimates that the Coalition is likely responsible for at least 3,294 civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria. No non-US partner has admitted to killing a single civilian.

Airwars is also calling for the ADF to release details of all previous Australian strikes in Iraq and Syria so that all reports can be checked against public claims of civilian casualties.