US-led Coalition in Iraq & Syria

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

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Published

March 28, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

In a blistering new report, Amnesty International has accused so-called Islamic State, the US-led Coalition and Iraqi forces of failing adequately to protect hundreds of thousands of civilians still trapped in Mosul. Airstrikes in particular are singled out for criticism: “Evidence gathered on the ground in East Mosul points to an alarming pattern of US-led coalition airstrikes which have destroyed whole houses with entire families inside,” notes Amnesty’s Donatella Rovera following a visit to the war-torn city.

“The high civilian toll suggests that coalition forces leading the offensive in Mosul have failed to take adequate precautions to prevent civilian deaths, in flagrant violation of international humanitarian law.”

Amnesty’s report is mostly focused on East Mosul, which was finally liberated in January. Yet the campaign to capture the west of the city – which began on February 19th – is exacting an even higher toll among non-combatants.

Identical twins Ali and Rakan Thamer Abdulla were among at least 101 civilians killed in a major incident in West Mosul on March 17th-18th, Airwars has learned. Their father and as many as 23 other family members also died with the twins at Al Jadida, in one of the worst losses of civilian life so far recorded in the grinding war against so-called Islamic State (ISIL).

The US-led Coalition has now said it carried out airstrikes on March 17th “at the location corresponding to allegations of civilian casualties” and is investigating. Five international allies regularly bomb at Mosul alongside the Iraq Air Force – the US, Britain, France, Australia and Belgium – and it is presently unclear which nation or nations carried out the confirmed strikes at Al Jadida.

Complicating matters further, there are also reports that Iraqi artillery struck nearby, and that ISIL may additionally have been involved. Some locals say that airstrikes set off a secondary explosion – possibly a carbomb or fuel truck – that then caused buildings to collapse in Al Jadida.

Reporter Anthony Lloyd of the London Times – who recently visited the scene – told Airwars he believed there may have been two or three related  casualty events at Al Jadida over a short period of time, adding to the confusion.

Many of those who died at Al Jadida perished alongside their kin. Entire families had gathered in house basements, which they hoped would afford them some protection from the ferocious air and artillery barrage targeting ISIL forces in the neighbourhood on March 17th-18th. Instead entire rows of houses collapsed, entombing those below.

Pictures posted to social media showed the twins, Ali and Rakan Thamer Abdulla performing at competitions and smiling with their family. The Facebook page for Gym Egypt – a large Arab bodybuilding site – posted a short note about Ali and Rakan, calling them “heroes of Iraq.” The twins were the son of Haj Thamer Abdulla, who according to local reports was also killed along with his sons and daughters – numbering 26 family members in all.

Other victims of the al Jadida disaster named in local reports include 12 members of the family of Khadr Kaddawi; 11 members of Basem al-Muhzam’s family; and 30 civilians from the Sinjari family.

Twins Ali and Rakan Thamer Abdullah, two popular local bodybuilders who were slain in western Mosul. Image courtesy of Iraqoon Agency.

‘We are investigating the incident’

Where responsibility lies for at Al Jadida is still unclear. On March 26th, CENTCOM commander General Joseph Votel said “we are investigating the incident to determine exactly what happened and will continue to take extraordinary measures to avoid harming civilians.” CENTCOM chief spokesperson Colonel John Thomas later told Airwars that the US was reviewing some 700 videos captured by aircraft in Mosul on several days around March 17th. 

Despite reports suggesting that its artillery may also have hit the street, the Iraqi military has blamed ISIL for the deaths, saying that 61 bodies had been recovered at the site of a booby-trapped house, which it described as “completely destroyed.” The statement added that “there is no hole or indication that was subjected to an air strike.”

That account strongly contradicted much field reporting and the accounts of other officials. A provincial health official, for instance, told Reuters that wide swaths of the neighborhood were destroyed in fighting. “Civil defense has extracted and buried 160 bodies up to this moment,” said the official. Earlier, Iraqi civil defense had reported at least 137 bodies were recovered. On March 27th, the Iraqi Civil Defense Department cited an even larger figure of 531 victims recovered from the Al Jadida neighborhood.

Pictures from the neighborhood showed dozens of bodies being buried in mass graves, wrapped in blue tarpaulins. Marcus Yam, a photographer for the LA Times, filmed a woman, Turkya Azudin, watching corpses being pulled from the rubble. Ms Azudin told him she had lost 18 members of her family.

To what extent Coalition airstrikes were responsible for more than 100 deaths at Al Jadida – either directly, or via secondary explosions – may also contain clues on why civilians are now more at risk on the battlefield. Though the Pentagon denies that its rules of engagement have been changed since Donald Trump took office, Iraqi officials have said it is now easier to call in US and Coalition airstrikes in western Mosul. In December, Coalition leaders also made the decision to allow lower level commanders the authority to call in airstrikes – but claimed these would still face the same scrutiny. 

Full statement from Coalition confirming changes were made in December to who could call in airstrikes. Claims that same scrutiny applies. pic.twitter.com/11evCT2hLH

— Samuel Oakford (@samueloakford) March 28, 2017

“Based on lessons learned during phase I of the Iraqi security forces liberation of East Mosul, the CJTF-OIR commander delegated approval authority for certain strikes to battlefield commanders to provide better responsiveness to the Iraqi security forces when and where they needed it on the battlefield,” Coalition spokesman Col. Joseph Scrocca told Airwars. “This is not a change to rules of engagement, but merely a procedural change.”

“What you see now is the result of fighting an evil enemy in a dense urban environment where ISIS is using civilians as human shields, using homes as fighting positions, schools as weapons storage facilities, and mosques and hospitals as bases for its terrorist operations,” added Scrocca.

Whatever the semantics, the reality on the ground is that civilians are at greater risk of harm. Across Iraq and Syria, Airwars has monitored claims of more than 1,200 civilian fatalites tied to Coalition activity during March alone. That level of allegations is on a par with some of the most intense periods of Russian activity in Syria during 2016.

This scene will haunt me for a while: Turkya Azudin watches workers pull out corpses from her home and count relatives she had lost: 18 pic.twitter.com/ig3sInm5Mp

— Marcus Yam 火 (@yamphoto) March 25, 2017

400,000 still trapped

In Iraq’s second largest city, a perfect storm now places civilians in extreme danger. Iraqi security forces have set up military positions in residential areas as the assault advances, drawing enemy fire while launching their own rounds – at times indiscriminate – into some of the most densely populated areas of Mosul. US-led airstrikes have hit some of these same neighbourhoods, along with ground-launched artillery, rocket and mortar strikes. Also on the ground, so-called Islamic State fighters routinely put civilians at risk by placing snipers on top of residential buildings, or by deploying explosives or truck bombs near civilian buildings.

According to the most recent United Nations estimate more than 400,000 civilians still remain trapped in a relatively small area of West Mosul. Given the intensity of the battle, high civilian casualties are inevitable. As one US Apache helicopter pilot said in a recent interview, “I can’t see into houses.”

“We have been trying to follow the issue of airstrikes and its impact on civilians – it is happening, and we have advised the government that conducting airstrikes in densely populated areas will necessarily result in civilian casualties, particularly given ISILs use of human shields which sources in Mosul and people leaving the area have confirmed,” said Francesco Motta, director of the UN’s Human Rights Office (HRO) in Iraq.

“Multiple sources have reported to HRO that ISIL have been deliberately locking families and civilians in their houses and placing offensive positions on the rooftops etc, in order to ensure serious casualties, and has been forcibly transferring people within western Mosul for this purpose. HRO has also received reports of civilians used as human shields being tied up to cars and used in public parades in areas of western Mosul under ISIL control.”

Amnesty International has also strongly criticised ISIL’s abuse of civilians in its latest report. But it says this does not excuse Coalition or Iraqi military actions which also place civilians at risk: “IS shamefully resorts to using civilians as human shields, a serious violation of the laws of war that amounts to a war crime. In a densely populated residential area, the risks for the civilian population become enormous. However, the IS’s use of human shields does not absolve Iraqi and coalition forces from their obligation not to launch disproportionate attacks,” says Donatella Rovera. Whatever ISIL’s tactics, it appears certain that hundreds of civilians have died this month alone as a result of incoming fire from Iraqi and Coalition forces. International and local media are uncovering ever more civilian casualty incidents. The Guardian found survivors of a March 22nd strike in Mosul that left at least 15 civilians dead. With so many major incidents across the city that week, the family’s plight had never been publicly reported at the time.

The question facing Coalition and Iraqi commanders – whatever their official rules of engagement or combat guidelines – is how many civilian deaths they are prepared to inflict in order to defeat ISIL at Mosul. There are already warnings of a hollow victory if the cost is too high. As Amnesty notes, “The civilian population has borne the brunt of the battle to recapture Mosul, with all sides displaying a chilling indifference to the devastating suffering caused to the city’s civilians.”

According to Amnesty International, 16 people were killed ‘in a Coalition strike’ at this location in Hay al- Mazaraa, East Mosul, on March 13th 2017

Published

March 17, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

Following an unprecedented increase in claims, researchers at Airwars have tracked their 1,000th alleged civilian casualty event tied to reported Coalition strikes in Iraq and Syria. Recent evidence indicates that in both countries, civilian casualties rose during the last months of the Obama administration and are now accelerating further under the presidency of Donald Trump – suggesting possible key changes in US rules of engagement which are placing civilians at greater risk.

The 1,000th alleged incident monitored by Airwars researchers took place in Raqqa governorate, where intense Coalition airstrikes have seen more than 600 munitions dropped in the first two months of the year alone.

On the night of March 11th-12th, at least 17 civilians in Kasrat Al Faraj were reportedly killed by a Coalition attack. Several local reports said that those killed were sheltering inside a building after being displaced by recent fighting, and that many were women and children. On March 14th, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the death toll had risen to “22 at least, including 6 children under the age of eighteen and 7 women citizens.” Another report from Syria News Desk indicated there were two raids – one on two schools “hosting displaced people” and another near the “the scientific research area southeast of Raqqa city.”

The 1,000th alleged incident coincides with a recent spike in civilian casualty allegations. Airwars best estimates suggest the US-led air campaign against so-called Islamic State has so far killed at least 2,590 civilians in Iraq and Syria since 2014. That year, Airwars tracked 62 reported civilian casualty incidents. In 2015, the first full year of attacks, researchers monitored 261 allegations. By 2016 that figure had risen to 454 cases.

The intensity of strikes in 2017 – notably around Raqqa and Mosul – has no precedent. To March 15th, a record 245 alleged Coalition civilian casualty events have been monitored by Airwars – roughly three events a day. At this pace, the number of alleged Coalition incidents this year could surpass 800.

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Intense fighting

Much of the recent casualty reporting is linked to parallel campaigns against ISIL at both Mosul and Raqqa. In Iraq’s second city, hundreds of civilians have been reported killed in just the first few weeks of March, as Iraqi Security Forces backed by Coalition air and artillery strikes attempt to dislodge ISIL fighters from the densely-packed western half of the city. Media reports have described the battle to oust ISIL as “reducing western Mosul to rubble.” Since the start of operations in the western half of the city on February 19th, almost 100,000 people have fled Mosul according to the International Organization for Migration.

Around Raqqa – where almost unreported the Coalition has bombed every day during 2017 – researchers at Airwars have so far graded as credible 43 of 99 reported civilian casualty incidents this year. Those 43 events are estimated to have claimed the lives of between 147 and 207 civilians. All but eleven of these 43 credible reported incidents around Raqqa have taken place during Donald Trump’s presidency.

Overall, as many as 9,200 civilian deaths have been alleged from 19,000 Coalition airstrikes. Airwars employs a strict grading system when evaluating these allegations. Only those incidents that have at least two credible sources and are accompanied by reported Coalition strikes in the near vicinity are assessed as “fair” – such as the 43 Raqqa incidents. Around 47% of the over 1,000 alleged civilian casualty incidents since 2014 meet this threshold, or have instead been confirmed by the Coalition as having killed or injured civilians. Other allegations contain conflicting reporting; are single sourced; or have been discounted, for example because reported civilians turned out to be combatants.

While the Coalition’s estimate of the civilians it has killed – 220 – is less than ten percent of Airwars’ baseline estimates, it has over the past year significantly increased the number of incidents under investigation.

Yet as of January 31st 2017 according to a senior official, the Coalition had only provisionally assessed or investigated 319 alleged civilian casualty events in total – just 36% of the total claimed incidents tracked by Airwars to that date. Though the Coalition has devoted more resources to its investigations – and engaged with outside monitoring – the torrent of casualty reports over recent months appears likely to further overwhelm military investigators. Additionally, there is the question of accountability for the US’s 12 Coalition allies, none of which have admitted to involvement in a single civilian death.

“Both the Coalition and CENTCOM have stepped up their investigations into civilian casualty allegations over the past year,” says Airwars director Chris Woods. “Unfortunately, these efforts have not kept pace with the rising tide of civilian casualty allegations being leveled against the Coalition. With two thirds of all claims not even assessed yet, any Coalition claims of low civilian casualties need to be treated with significant caution.”

#MOSUL_ALERT: 16,229 families (97,374 individuals), displaced from #West_Mosul in last 19days btw Feb 25 & March 15, as tracked by @DTM_IOM. pic.twitter.com/zLNRJYlfVd

— IOM Iraq (@IOMIraq) March 15, 2017

Around 100,000 civilians have so far fled the fighting in West Mosul

Looser rules of engagement

In late January President Trump requested a new plan from the US military to tackle ISIL, in which he called for “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.”

During his campaign for the presidency, Trump went further, explicitly threatening to target the families of ISIL fighters. “They are using them as shields,” he said in November 2015. “But we are fighting a very politically correct war. And the other thing is with the terrorists, you have to take out their families.”

In short, Trump has been demanding that the US military consider dropping many of the restrictions which help protect civilian lives on the battlefield. His January request could open the door for US military planners to prepare attacks that may be expected to – and indeed do – kill more civilians.

When discussing civilian deaths, many in the US military highlight recent developments in Afghanistan, where generals concluded after almost a decade of conflict that rising civilian casualties were undermining the NATO mission there, and proving an effective recruiting tool for the Taliban. Reforms were introduced via directives including the creation of a civilian tracking cell; more stringent targeting rules; and a top down emphasis on civilian protection as a mission critical concern. The measures by no means ended civilian casualties, but casualties caused by international airstrikes dropped steeply between 2008 and 2013.

In that context, Trump’s request “flies in the face of everything that was done in Afghanistan,” one former senior military intelligence officer who served in the country told Airwars.

In Afghanistan “IHL [International humanitarian law] was your lowest standard and then you are going up from there, and this is like IHL is your highest standard and the goal is how close to the chalk line can you get,” said the officer. “That’s really fucked up.”

“The question that’s out there is to what extent has any relaxation of rules of engagement or restrictions based on civcas been put in place by the new administration,” they added. “I don’t know – clearly we have reporting on an increase in civcas [in Iraq and Syria]. To some extent that’s going to be driven by high-op tempo in urban areas – but the US also has a very long history of doing that kind of stuff very well in Afghanistan with minimal civilian casualties – so it begs the question, what is different?”

There are signs elsewhere – in the US’s unilateral campaign against alleged al Qaeda linked targets in Syria – that a higher tolerance for civilian casualties may be emerging. As Airwars first reported on March 16th, US aircraft bombed what was described as an al Qaeda “meeting place” – adjacent to what officials knew to be a mosque in rural western Aleppo. At least 42 people, mostly civilians, were killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Parts of the mosque were also destroyed.

Exclusive: US Says it Carried Out Deadly Strike that Hit an Aleppo Mosque https://t.co/Y45M05Dplz

— Airwars (@airwars) March 17, 2017

Should the US further loosen its rules of engagement in Coalition activities, the civilian toll from strikes in Raqqa and other parts of Syria and Iraq may worsen. Though it remains unclear if and when restrictions on civilian casualties may be lifted, an executive order signed by former President Obama in July 2016 setting out civilian protections could be in Trump’s crosshairs. Noting the recent rise in allegations, advocacy groups are steeling for the worst – but say it it isn’t clear yet what has been decided.

Higher casualties could result from a number of changes. Pentagon commanders might set the overall permissive risk for civilians far higher than has been seen so far in the 30-month war. Lower-ranking commanders may also be given authority to approve strikes where there is a risk of civilian casualties.

Since January, alleged Coalition civilian casualty events have been outpacing those of Russia. Initial data for March provides further evidence that civilian casualty allegations are both becoming more common under President Trump, and are likely to outrun Coalition efforts to track and investigate them.

Airwars recorded 59 separate civilian casualty allegations in Iraq and Syria during the first 15 days of March, for which researchers assessed that at least 117 civilians were likely killed.  At least 36 civilians – and likely more – are estimated to have died in just the first 8 days of the month in Raqqa governorate.

The worst of these occurred on March 8th, in the east of Raqqa governorate. At least 14 civilians – including at least six children – were allegedly killed outside Al Blu Rashed village when a coalition strike reportedly hit a vehicle carrying them. The death toll was one of the few in recent months to garner wire reports – Associated Press, citing monitoring groups Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered, reported at least 20 civilian deaths. A day earlier, several local outlets, including Smart News, reported that five civilians were killed and at least 10 injured by another Coalition airstrike in al Salhabiya village.

A man searches through the rubble following an alleged Coalition airstrike on Omar Al Mukhtar school in Al Tabaqa, February 16th (RBSS)

‘Strategically beneficial’

In a letter dated March 10th more than 30 former US officials wrote to US Defense Secretary Mattis, encouraging him to ensure continued civilian protections similar to those set out by the Obama administration.

“The United States has always put a strong premium on minimizing civilian harm in armed conflicts, both because it is the right thing to do and because doing so is strategically beneficial.,” the letter stated.

“You could certainly loosen the standards for civilian casualties such that the commanders have more authority to take certain actions and take greater risk, and go after targets that are particularly high value, but where there is a greater possibility of civilian casualties,” says Luke Hartig, a fellow at the New America and former Senior Director for Counterterrorism at the National Security Council. “But our military commanders also understand the ways civilian casualties can set back our overall efforts and I have full confidence they will continue to operate with the utmost professionalism and discrimination in the use of force.”

“From what we’ve seen publicly, this administration is still finding its footing, and we don’t yet know exactly how it will respond to incidents of civilian harm,” Marla Keenan, senior director of programs at the Center for Civilians in Conflict told Airwars. Keenan added that it may be difficult to know if and when policy guidelines are officially changed. But President Trump – who during the campaign promised to “bomb the shit” out of ISIL – has indicated a willingness to escalate US airstrikes around the world, including most recently in Yemen, where the US launched more than 40 attacks in a five day period.

“We’ll have to wait and see—watching closely but not jumping to conclusions,” said Keenan, referring to civilian casualty policy in Syria.

The bulk of Coalition civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria occurred during Obama’s presidency. As Airwars noted at the time, hundreds of civilians were likely killed across Iraq and Syria in the short period from October 17th 2016 (the start of Mosul operations) until Obama left office. However between January 20th when Donald Trump became president and March 15th, Airwars has tracked 173 new alleged Coalition civilian casualty events – with 1,214  to 1,859 claimed non-combatant fatalities between them. While many of these allegations have yet to be properly assessed, the tempo of reported civilian fatalites is clearly accelerating.

Rescuers retrieve victims from an alleged Coalition strike in al Tabaqa, Raqqa governorate on February 28th. Image courtesy of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently.

Published

March 17, 2017

Written by

Airwars Staff

The Belgian Ministry of Defence has revealed that its F-16s carried out 639 sorties in Iraq and Syria between July 2016 and March 6th 2017, as part of the ongoing international war against so-called Islamic State. Of these sorties, 45% or about 287 were kinetic actions – meaning weapons were used. 

The fresh details about Belgium’s campaign were given at a press conference on March 14th – six months after the last such briefing. Belgium’s squadron of six F-16 fighters and seven pilots are conducting around 400 hours of sorties a month, or two to four sorties every day – a significant contribution from such a small force.

The Belgian campaign – which will end its second deployment in June – has been among the least transparent among Coalition partners. Even so Belgium continues to maintain that its actions have not killed or severely injured any Syrian or Iraqi civilians in more than two years of war.

Overall Airwars estimates that Belgium has now conducted around 390 airstrikes against ISIL since 2014 – with a higher than expected number of actions in Syria indicated in the latest release. This also suggests Belgium is the sixth most active member of the US-led Coalition.

Most Belgian airstrikes are focused at Mosul and Raqqa – where Airwars is also tracking high reported civilian casualties (Image source: Defensie – La Défense)

According to officials, 70 per cent of Belgian armed sorties since July 2016 have been around Mosul (down from 83% reported in September), with a further 12% in the Anbar area of Iraq, and 17% of actions near Raqqa in Syria – a rise of 10 per cent in recent months. A Coalition-backed advance on ISIL’s claimed capital has also seen record recent claims of civilian casualties.

Ministry of Defence officials have additionally reported that four types of munitions are in regular use by Belgium in Iraq and Syria – all of them 500lb or above. These are the GBU-12 laser-guided bomb; GBU-38 and GBU-31 GPS-guided munitions (the latter a 2,000lb bomb); and the GBU-54 combined laser/GPS-guided bomb. Unlike its closest ally the Netherlands, Belgium does not yet use the 250lb Small Diameter Bomb, known for its claimed precision. According to spokesman Colonel J. Poesen, “those have been ordered”.

Belgium says it is using four types of munition in its anti-ISIL strikes (Source: Defensie – La Défense)

‘No civilian casualties’

Belgium claims it applies both a lengthy pre-strike assessment process, and extensive post strike battle damage assessments for all of its airstrikes. It says that this careful approach, supported by two imagery analysts based in Ramstein in Germany, and four legal advisors including a red card holder (in Udeid, Qatar) means Belgian forces have not killed a single civilian. In the words of Colonel Poesen: “We have a clean record. Cleaner than some other countries.” However, it was later admitted that “zero risk does not exist” and that “there are limitations”.

While Belgium clearly attaches significant importance to civilian lives, a clean record would be unprecedented in a hot war such as the present anti-ISIL conflict – particularly when most strikes are now in urban areas. Airwars currently estimates that a minimum of 2,590 Iraqi and Syrian civilians have died in Coalition airstrikes – more than ten times the present Coalition estimate of 220 deaths.

Given that 70 per cent of recent Belgian actions have taken place around Mosul and 17% near Raqqa, it appears unlikely its forces have not been involved in any civilian casualty incidents. Hundreds of civilians have been credibly reported killed in airstrikes at both locations in recent months.

The Defence Ministry’s claim also cannot be tracked against the public record, since no dates or specific locations for Belgian strikes have been published – and with no details of any civilian casualty investigations made public. 

In a major Airwars transparency audit published in December, Belgium was rated as one of the least transparent members of the Coalition. Press conferences and the publication of monthly updates – which the MoD appears to have resumed – are signs of some improvement. Even so, public accountability and transparency continue to be problematic.  Without knowing where and when hundreds of Belgian strikes took place, the “zero civilian casualties” claim remains a claim, with the actual human cost of Belgian strikes unknown.

On March 20th, Belgian civil society is holding a conference on civilian casualty monitoring. And two days later, Airwars has been invited to present its latest transparency study to the Parliament’s Defence Committee.

Belgium performs poorly against other Coalition partners when it comes to transparency

▲ A Royal Belgian Air Force F-16 refuels over Iraq, October 10th 2016 (USAF/Tech. Sgt. Larry E. Reid Jr)

Published

March 16, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

This article was updated on March 17th to reference new reports in Step News and the Washington Post. 

Military officials have confirmed to Airwars that a strike in rural Aleppo which reportedly left dozens dead in and around a mosque was carried out by US aircraft.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitor, said that at least 42 people, mostly civilians, were killed in a strike that “targeted a mosque in al-Jinah village” in the western countryside of Aleppo on March 16th. “The death toll is expected to rise,” said the monitor.

Video posted by the White Helmets showed men being dug out from rubble at the site. Local activists told al Jazeera that the attack took place during evening prayer, when the mosque was full of “up to 300 people.” Other accounts put the death toll far higher.

Initial reporting was conflicting, including assertions that Russian forces or the Assad regime were to blame. Photographs reportedly from the site and posted on social media also appeared to depict weapons fragments similar to those found at previous US drone strikes in Syria.

Photo shows the remnants of a bomb used in the airstrike on the ‘Umar ibn Al-Khaṭṭāb mosque in the rebel-held village of al-Jinā, w-Aleppo. pic.twitter.com/aGsqMjcWIJ

— Sakir Khader (@sakirkhader) March 16, 2017

@bellingcat @Arn_Del @green_lemonnn @chrisjwoods @airwars @samueloakford pic.twitter.com/sYvHgRKGvS

— Syrian Lense (@SyrianLense) March 16, 2017

Airwars was initially told by US Central Command (CENTCOM) that a strike was carried out late on March 16th, but in Idlib governorate. That is where the bulk of US strikes against alleged al Qaeda-linked targets have taken place since 2014. The unilateral American campaign exists in parallel to operations conducted by the anti-ISIS Coalition. Strikes and reported civilian casualties from both have risen significantly since last fall.

However, a US official later clarified that the US raid in fact took place in the vicnity of al-Jinah village, which is located in western Aleppo governorate, just a few kilometers from the border with Idlib. CENTCOM spokesperson Maj. Josh Jacques said the target was  “assessed to be a meeting place for al Qaeda, and we took the strike.”

“It happened to be across the street from where there is a mosque,” said Jacques. He said the mosque was not the target, and that it wasn’t hit directly. Both CENTCOM and the Pentagon told Airwars that they were further investigating the attack.

Videos identified by researchers at the citizen journalism outlet Bellingcat appeared to show parts of the mosque destroyed, while others remained upright. 

Northern side of mosque has collapsed due to American airstrike, but largest part still standing. https://t.co/ak75roognl h/t @CT_operative pic.twitter.com/jM1CG2y8Ci

— Christiaan Triebert (@trbrtc) March 17, 2017

Citing local sources, the outlet Step News said the strikes hit a gathering known as a Dawah. A local group, reported Step “holds a meeting in one of their centres every Thursday which is attended by dozens of students of religious studies, sheikhs, sharia experts and fighters in the Islamic factions and civilians from the region.”

On March 17th, the Washington Post, citing a U.S. official, said that the attack “involved two Reaper drones, which fired four Hellfire missiles and dropped at least one 500-pound GPS-guided bomb.”

The death toll, which could not immediately be confirmed, appears to be at least the second largest ever from US strikes aimed at alleged al-Qaeda targets in Syria. On January 19th, more than 100 fighters gathered at a training camp in Idlib were reportedly killed in a raid that involved a B-52 bomber. Most of those killed were said to belong to the militant group Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al Nusra, officially claimed to split with the terror group in July 2016, renaming itself Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Since January 2017 it operates under the umbrella group Tahrir al-Sham. The US military carries out attacks against alleged al Qaeda targets under the same 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) that Congress passed several days after the 9/11 attacks. The strikes employ an expansive definition of “associated forces” – a phrase not used in the AUMF, but which has been adopted by the Pentagon and successive US administrations. It could now apply to thousands of fighters in Syria.

 

Published

March 7, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

Hundreds of civilians have allegedly been killed in western Mosul during the first week of March during battles to capture the city, according to reports monitored by Airwars.

Airwars has reviewed eleven separate incidents that occured over the first six days of the month, each of which was blamed – in part or wholly – on the Coalition by at least one source. Local reports allege that between 250 and 370 civilians were killed in these attacks. Four of these incidents have thus far been graded by researchers as fairly attributed, meaning there were two or more credible reports blaming the US-led alliance, and with Coalition airstrikes confirmed in the area. Those four incidents alone indicate between 71-79 civilian deaths.

Our reporting from inside Mosul strongly suggests a big uptick in civilian casualties from airstrikes & shelling https://t.co/il5ZYEVCaW

— Patrick Osgood (@PatrickOsgood) March 7, 2017

News agencies and local monitors have also reported significant civilian casualties in west Mosul in recent days

The other events feature contesting reports that also blamed Iraqi forces or so-called Islamic State. Whoever the perpetrator, the reported upswing in civilian casualties in the first days of March serves as a bloody harbinger of the civilian toll in western Mosul. The right bank of the Tigres River was left by Iraqi forces for last, as it contains the bulk of Mosul’s civilian population and is far more densely settled than neighborhoods in the city’s east, which Iraqi security forces declared liberated in late January.

Iraq launched operations to capture western Mosul on February 19th – four months after it entered the eastern side. The UN estimated at the time that some 750,000 people remained in west Mosul, a figure that has only marginally diminished since then.

Thanon Alaa Younis, reported killed in Coalition airstrikes in the Farouk neighborhood on March 1st. Image courtesy of Mosul Ateka.

Civilian casualty incidents from airstrikes in western Mosul were already being reported during the campaign to liberate the east of the city, and continued into the last weeks of February. However the reported death toll appear to have escalated in March. (For reference, an analysis of civilian deaths in January can be read here).

One of the deadliest recent incidents occurred on March 1st, when a mosque used for shelter by displaced family was hit by several airstrikes. Ninevah Media Center reported more than 80 civilians were killed or wounded, while Mosul Eye put the number killed at “more than 50.” The outlet MNN attributed the attack to the Coalition, while Reuters cited three local eyewitnesses who blamed unidentified aircraft. One victim, identified as Thanon Alaa Younis, was listed by Mosul Ateka as among the dead.

On the same day, Airwars researchers monitored reports of at least four more civilians killed and 14 injured after airstrikes in the vicinity of Sha’aren Market. Reports did not attribute the strike.

On March 2nd several outlets – at least one of which cited ISIL affiliated media – reported that 20 civilians were killed and 18 wounded in a Coalition bombardment of west Mosul’s Shifa neighbourhood. Some reports said a strike hit a residential building. Also in west Mosul – this time in the Nabi Sheet neighbourhood – 14 civilians from three families were alleged killed by a Coalition airstrike that targeted what may have been a car bomb. FaceIraq identified one of the families as that of Nazim Abdul Rahman.

Though reports do conflict and are not always entirely clear, there are confirmed signs that the civilian toll in western Mosul has been massive. According to the UN’s humanitarian agency, more than 500 people escaping the city have been treated at “trauma stabilization points” for conflict-related injuries. The number of displaced also indicates a clear trend: In the week between February 27th and March 4th, the UN estimated that some 42,000 people were displaced fromn Mosul, including 13,350 on March 3rd alone.

The following day, March 4th, saw fresh attacks on west Mosul – centered this time in the Al Mahatta neighborhood – that allegedly left at least 36 civilians dead, including five children. Those estimates and associated images appeared to originate with ISIL-controlled media, though the incident was picked up by more than a half-dozen outlets. Iraqi Spring Media Center published extremely distressing photos, apparently taken from a video, that showed several dead toddlers lying in what appeared to be a hospital or morgue. Both the Coalition and Iraqi forces were blamed for the attack.

Children reportedly killed in a March 4th strike in western Mosul. Photo is a screenshot of a likely ISIL propaganda video that was archived by Iraqi Spring Media Group.

What may have been the deadliest incident in western Mosul to date occurred on March 5th, when local sources indicated that as many as 130 civilians were killed during an assault on a government compound in the Dawassa neighborhood. Both Coalition and Iraqi forces were cited for attacks, and several outlets reported that US Apache helicopters were involved. Images reportedly of the neighborhood that were posted to social media showed the area in ruins.

https://twitter.com/Moghred_Ninawa/status/838459085334974464

Sigtnificant damage is being reported locally in some west Mosul neighbourhoods

On March 6th, new reports indicated that between 25 and 33 imprisoned Iraqi police and security forces were killed by Coalition strikes near the central railway station. There were reports that the site of the attack had been used as a detention facility, and a number of ISIL fighters was also reported killed.

As Reuters also reported on March 6th, Iraqi officials now believe the fight in Mosul “will enter a more complicated phase in the densely populate old city.” The Iraqi military estimates that “several thousand” militants remain. Unless measures are taken to reduce civilian harm, death tolls similar to those seen in the first six days of March may well continue for weeks to come.

▲ Smoke rises after an airstrike, during the battle against Islamic State militants, at the district of al-Mamoun in Mosul, Iraq, March 1, 2017. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani - RTS10XG7

Published

February 14, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Armoured targets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘At risk of exposure’

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

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

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

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

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

Published in conjunction with Foreign Policy