US-led Coalition in Iraq & Syria

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

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May 5, 2017

Written by

Airwars Staff

A version of this article is published by Bellingcat.

Christiaan Triebert is Airwars’ volunteer geolocator, helping us to determine coordinates for civilian casualty incidents. As an award-winning researcher at Bellingcat, he focuses on a variety of topics, including post-strike analysis of attacks like that on the mosque in al-Jinah.

Note: Hundreds of official videos showing airstrikes against targets of the so-called Islamic State (ISIL) in Syria and Iraq have recently been removed from the public YouTube channel of the Coalition. In a written statement to Bellingcat, the Coalition said higher-quality versions of the videos were being uploaded to DVIDS for “greater transparency and increased availability.” However, an initial assessment appears to show that not all videos have been migrated. Coalition offficials have also given a different account to Airwars in the past as to why the videos were removed, suggesting their presence on the official YouTube channel no longer matched strategic goals. Airwars is permanently archiving all known Coalition and CENTCOM videos issued since August 2014, to ensure their continued availability.

The publicly provided locations issued by the Coalition for its airstrikes in Iraq and Syria may be off by as much as 93 kilometers, according to a new and detailed analysis of released military videos. After 1,000 days of the anti-ISIL campaign, these disparities pose question marks for monitors attempting to understand where US and allied strikes took place, and then match them to civilian casualty reports from the ground. They also makes clear that Coalition casualty assessors would be unwise to use their own published reports as a guide to where airstrikes have actually taken place,

In its Transparency Audit of the Coalition, published in December 2016, Airwars noted problems with the public reporting process. Difficult to navigate internal logs “in turn led to quite vague military reporting.” Locations, then, could only be taken as approximate. One CENTCOM senior official explained the situation in some detail:

“When the aircrew come back [from a strike mission], as you drill into a geographic location, some of those areas have towns that consist of three or four people. So typically what’s going to be in the strike log is going to be the largest city nearby. And they’ll annotate, ‘Conducted a strike near Mosul.’ In fact it’s going to be some small town that’s 23 clicks [kilometers] outside of Mosul. If they put that on the strike log, once it goes through the ‘Enterprise’ [slang for the Combined Air Operations Centre] no one knows where that is.”

Officials were keen to stress that if an incident was being investigated, “we do have the ability to go back and drill down into the detail.”

200 videos

While earlier videos were posted by CENTCOM, the first video depicting an airstrike was uploaded to the Coalition’s own official Youtube channel on April 11, 2015. Over 200 airstrike videos followed over nearly two years. By far the majority (around 68% as of April 24, 2017) of Coalition airstrikes have been conducted by the US. Airstrike videos are also disseminated through other channels, such as the ministries of defence of Coalition members, including the British, the French, the Jordanians, and the Iraqis.

Additionally, at least one US Navy air squadron had also uploaded videos separately to their own YouTube channel (since taken down.) While Bellingcat has crowdsourcing projects running for those specific MoD videos as well, they are not included in this analysis.

So far, 67 percent of the airstrikes shown in the Coalition airstrike videos have been successfully geolocated. You can access all Bellingcat data, which will be updated as soon as there are new geolocations, including from DVIDS HUB, on Silk. Bellingcat used Meedan’s Check platform to geolocate the videos, and the project is open to everyone to join By far most of the strikes shown in videos uploaded to YouTube (as of April 28, 2017) were geolocated to Iraq.

Broken down by provinces, the highest number of airstrikes were geolocated to the Iraqi governorates of Nineveh and Anbar, followed by the Syrian governorate of Aleppo, as of April 28, 2017.

Generally, the Coalition gives an indication of a geographical location by labeling the videos “near [location X]”. There are only a handful of videos that do not contain the word “near” but simply mention a location. This analysis considers “near” as being within a 10 km range of the claimed location and a label is considered “accurate” when it falls within that range. Of all geolocated videos, 68 percent were determined to be accurate. Videos outside of the 10 km range strayed up to around 93 km of the claimed location, and for one video no location approximation was given.

Many of the videos with a significant distance from the claimed location are oil-related facilities that are indeed ‘near’ Deir ez-Zor or Al-Bukamal, such as an oil separation facility at the Al-Ahmar oil field. In a desert with few or no settled areas nearby, these location claims may still be considered relatively accurate.

However, there are other incidents that appear to be less concisely located. Perhaps the most concerning incident of all the geolocated videos was a strike on an IS “concealed tactical vehicle” that was claimed to have been conducted on March 23, 2015, which was labelled as “near Al Hawl”, a town in north-eastern Syria. However, the targeted building has been successfully geolocated to a building in Jayar Ghalfas, a town in northwest Iraq.

A screenshot from a Coalition video claiming to show an airstrike on an IS ‘concealed tactical vehicle’ near Al-Hawl, a town in eastern Syria. The building was geolocated to Jayar Ghalfas, a town in northwest Iraq, as the Microsoft Bing satellite imagery (36.137411, 41.297414) on the right shows. The location is around 30 km southwest of Al-Hawl.

Though this video was labelled as being in a different country than where it actually took place, it is still relatively near Al-Hawl — around 30 km away.

When Col. Steve Warren, at the time the Coalition’s spokesperson, gave an “Ask Me Anything” on the social media and news aggregation website Reddit, this author asked him about this particular incident. Col. Warren replied that this was “an administrative error that it’s listed as Syria rather than Iraq”, explaining that Al-Hawl in Syria “was the nearest identifiable city to the strike.”

The reply by Col. Warren, the Coalition’s spokesperson on the question why it was labelled near to a town in Syria but showed a location in Iraq.

More recently, the US erred in its labelling once more, when a controversial strike on a group of individuals gathered in a mosque in Al-Jinah, Syria, was initially labelled as being in the Idlib governorate. While close, the building was actually in nearby Aleppo governorate. This strike was not an official Coalition attack – and was instead the United States unilaterally targeting alleged al Qaeda fighters. The US carries out nearly all of the alliance’s anti-ISIL bombings in Syria, and military assets can be used for both campaigns.

When asked for clarification about this incident, a CENTCOM spokesperson told Bellingcat that they “don’t mean to cause any confusion. Different internal reports may have listed this differently.”

The Coalition thus seems to use a limited number of labels for their targeted location areas. The “Al Hawl, Syria” label was probably closer than their nearest other Iraqi location label, “Sinjar”, around 50 km northeast of Jayar Ghalfas.

The Coalition’s ‘region’ labels

Which region does the Coalition use to label one airstrike as “near Mosul” but the other one as “near Al Hawl”? To get a better insight in which regions are used by the Coalition, the geolocator @obretix mapped all geolocated airstrike videos, and then used a Voronoi diagram – which is a partitioning of a plane into regions based on distance to points in a specific subset of the plane. In this case, the points are thus all “near” locations mentioned by the Coalition. The geolocations are then corresponding to a region that is closer than any other point.

As the following image shows, Al-Hawl is indeed the closest location to the target struck by the Coalition (circled in red) in the number of areas the Coalition has used.

An excerpt from a Voronoi diagram of an impression of the regions used by the Coalition, based on the geolocated videos. The geolocated airstrike of March 23, 2016 that was labelled near ‘Al Hawl’ is circled in red. Map by @obretix

There are more interesting insights the maps reveals. While the Coalition does use a label for “near Kubaysah”, a city in Iraq, some strikes within the city’s perimeters were labelled as “near Hit” — a city nearby but still less accurate than using a label there was for that city.

A detailed view on the Kubaysah/Hit region on the Voronoi diagram map, showing that two videos labelled as “near Hit” were in fact closer to Kubaysah, which also has its own ‘location label’.

Another example of remarkable region labels is the use of hamlets, such as “near Washiya” and “near Sultan Abdullah” – places with only a few houses. but close to respectively Aleppo and Mosul. “Near Aleppo” is not used in any of the YouTube videos, while “near Washiya” has been twice for a target only a double dozen kilometres away from Aleppo city. Why would these small hamlets be used as a region label, while the case of Jayar Ghalfas could not get its own region label? Is this intentional? This is a question that remains unanswered.

Overall, all location claims were all within 100 km distance of the claimed location, and all of these claims were relatively accurate as to the location it referred to — unlike the Russian airstrike videos, which were in some cases massively inaccurate.

A detailed view of the area around Aleppo city in Syria. A video close to Aleppo was not tagged as “near Aleppo” but “near Washiya” (orange dot), a tiny hamlet in the northern countryside

Civilian Casualties

It is possible that civilian casualties take place in a portion of these videos. Some, such as the video of airstrikes on the University of Mosul in March 2016, may in fact show airstrikes that caused significant civilian casualties.

Perhaps the most striking example of a video showing civilian casualties came from an airstrike on September 20th-21st, 2015, targeting an IS “VBIED network” according to the Coalition at the time. The video – which showed a structure destroyed by an explosion – was deleted after questions were raised, but  was archived and re-uploaded by others, including investigative journalist Azmat Khan.

But was this really a “VBIED network”? Under the original upload, a commenter posted that the structures shown were his family’s home in Mosul.

“I will NEVER forget my innocent and dear cousins who died in this pointless airstrike. Do you really know who these people were? They were innocent and happy family members of mine.”

Days after the strike Dr Zareena Grewal, a relative living in the US wrote in the New York Times that four members of the Rezzo family had died in the strike. On April 2nd 2017 – 588 days later – the Coalition finally admitted that it indeed bombed a family home which it had confused with an ISIL headquarters.

“The case was brought to our attention by the media and we discovered the oversight, relooked [at] the case based on the information provided by the journalist and family, which confirmed the 2015 assessment,” Colonel Joe Scrocca, Director of Public Affairs for the Coalition told Airwars.

Even though the published strike video actually depicted the unseen killing of a family, it remained – wrongly captioned – on the official Coalition YouTube channel for more than a year.

It is worth mentioning that all of the targets in the Coalition’s videos appear to be ‘clean’ objects like vehicles, factories and fighting positions. It almost looks like video game, just like IS’s propaganda videos of suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (SVBIEDs). The Coalition’s videos appear only to showcase the precision and efficiency of Coalition bombs and missiles. They rarely show people, let alone victims.


May 4, 2017

Written by

Alex Hopkins

At 2,45pm local Iraqi time on August 8th 2014, two US F/A-18 aircraft dropped 500-pound laser-guided bombs on a mobile artillery piece near Erbil being operated by so-called Islamic State fighters. That attack marked the beginning of a major war which would draw in twelve other partners; spread to Syria and beyond; and which would lead to the deaths of tens of thousands of soliders, militant fighters and civilians.

For 1,000 days the US-led Coalition has now bombed ISIL targets across Iraq and Syria. While the terror group has been pushed back in both countries, the civilian toll has been significant. Some of the deadliest incidents and highest numbers of casualties have been observed in recent months, as parallel operations have unfolded in the Iraqi city of Mosul, and in Raqqa governorate, where Kurdish forces backed by Coalition airstrikes continue to pummel the city and surrounding villages. 

To mark this significant milestone in the aerial campaign Airwars is publishing a series of articles written by its researchers, who between them have tracked reports of civilian deaths over 33 months. Though the Coalition has so far admitted to more than 350 civilian fatalities – and has taken steps to improve the quality of its own monitoring – this number is nearly ten times lower than Airwars’ own minimum estimate.

Majed Mohammad al Aswad, the latest of 1,400 likely Coalition victims so far named

These civilian casualties also have names. Of the more than 3,200 civilian deaths presently assessed as likely by Airwars, the names of more than 1,400 Iraqi and Syrian victims are so far known. Majid Mohammed Al Aswad (pictured), Hussein Al-Mohammed Al-Aklah and Hassan Al Abdullah Al Aswad are the latest additions – killed in a likely Coalition strike on Tal al Jayer in Syria on May 2nd.

A significant amount of information has been posted online by civilians affected by Coalition strikes, with the Airwars public database already at half a million words and growing. Yet it would take the US-led alliance nine months to admit their first civilian casualties – and international media too was slow to report on civilian deaths. Compared to coverage of Russia’s brutal aerial operations in Syria, relatively little space was devoted until recently to investigate what has been happening to the men, women and children harmed by Coalition bombs and missiles.

In Mosul, where in recent weeks reporters have proven capable interrogators of the campaign and its civilian toll, Iraqi and Coalition efforts to limit casualties have been haphazard at best, says Airwars’ Baghdad-based researcher, who has visited the front lines five times since October.

The head of the Airwars Syria team reflects on why coverage of Russian and Coalition actions has been so different – even as the civilian casualties inflicted by both parties has converged. And our Amesterdam-based researcher describes a stark contrast between the bloody daily reports tracked from the battlefield, and the sterile, casualty-free war described by most Coalition partners.

Experts also give their thoughts on 1,000 days of war. “Our goal is always for zero civilian casualties,” says Colonel Joseph Scrocca of the US-led alliance. “Coalition forces comply with the law of armed conflict and take extraordinary efforts to strike military targets in a manner that minimizes the risk of civilian casualties.”

Yet Fadel Abdul Ghany of the Syrian Network for Human Rights is one of a number of monitors criticising the 1,000 day campaign. “By not identifying who in the Coalition forces is committing the massacres in Syria, and not offering frank and clear apologies or starting to compensate the victims, it is implied that there are no consequences to such flagrant violations. This has given the military command a green light, promoting a culture where there is no real interest in taking careful decisions or carrying out serious investigations,” Abdul Ghany argues.

The air war against ISIL is simultaneously one of the most public of campaigns, and one whose victims are still easily lost. How are we to make sense of the ongoing war after 1,000 days? We start by explaining the big numbers – from bombs dropped to civilians killed.

The big numbers

Every day since August 8th 2014, Airwars has received a daily public strike report from the US-led Coalition. This is our primary source for information on where and when the US and its allies say they are are bombing, and forms a crucial component of our extensive datasets and graphics. What does this data tell us?

Through May 2nd 2017, the Coalition had carried out a total 21,064 strikes: 12,562 in Iraq and 8,502 in Syria (these figures also now include ground artillery.) The US continues to be the most active partner, carrying out 95% of all Coalition strikes in Syria and 68% of all actions in Iraq according to the latest official data. 

The first of more than 21,000 strikes so far declared by US-led Coalition, August 8 2014

Among the allies, the British remain the second most active partner, with 1,214 airstrikes declared in Iraq and 92 in Syria. France follows with 1,206 reported total strikes. The Netherlands (which paused its campaign on June 27th 2016) is responsible for an estimated 493 strikes, while Australia has carried out an estimated 489 actions. 

The term ‘strike’, however, can be misleading. One strike report may actually include multiple targets hit by numerous aircraft from different allied nations, over some hours. Munitions data released during the war can therefore be a more reliable indicator of the significant degree to which the war has intensified.

From August 2014, the start of kinetic operations, through the end of March 2017, 76,649 munitions had reportedly been dropped on Iraq and Syria – though the real number may be much higher. 

There was a seven per cent rise in bombs and missiles dropped between 2015 and 2016. However, the first three months of 2017 saw a sharp increase in munitions released, representing a 58% rise over January–March 2016. 

However US Army strikes, some unilateral actions and helicopter attacks are still not counted in these monthly tallies, and recent figures provided to Airwars showing 5,500 munitions dropped by the Coalition on Mosul only in March were far higher than the supposed tally for all of Iraq and Syria. 

Marked intensification: January – March 2017 were each record months for munitions dropped across Iraq and Syria

$13 million per day

According to the US Department of Defense, to March 31st 2017 the war against ISIL had cost the United States $12.5 billion since August 8th 2014 – an average daily expenditure of $13 million over 967 days of operations.

So what has the bombing achieved? Latest estimates released by the Pentagon claim that over 70,000 ISIL fighters have been killed since June 2014 – a number which does not appear consistent with earlier government assessments, such as one in September 2014 which claimed that ISIL had between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters combined in Iraq and Syria. The international Coalition itself has lost seven fighters in the war. In February 2015, ISIS released a video showing a Jordanian pilot being burned to death.

Additionally,  many thousands of allied Iraqi and Syrian forces have died. According to Middle East Monitor citing Al Jazeera, 8,000 Iraqi soldiers and Federal Police  have likely been killed in the fight against ISIL.

The rampup in the Coalition-assisted campaign from 2016 onwards has seen much ISIL territory rolled back. At its peak in 2014, the terrorist group controlled more 100,000 square kilometres of Iraq and Syria containing around 11 million people. According to an April 2017 assessment by RAND, it had since lost 57% of its territory – and there had been a 73% reduction in the number of people living under its control as of early 2017.

Graph via RAND Corporation

Syria: over six million civilians displaced

The real impact of the 1,000 day war has been on those civilians on the ground still trapped in ISIL-held territory in Iraq and Syria. Airwars estimates that at least 3,294 non-combatants have died in almost 600 events assessed as having likely carried out by Coalition warplanes in Iraq and Syria.

Furthermore, Russian actions in Syria in support of the Assad regime and against ISIL have killed thousands more civilians. Due to the volume of allegations, Airwars has been unable to fully assess Russian events beyond April 2016. However from September 30th 2015 to April 30th 2016 alone – the period for which strikes have been fully vetted – it is our provisional view that between 2,210 and 2,984 civilian non-combatants are likely to have died in Russian airstrikes.

Millions of other civilians are experiencing the worst refugee crisis since World War II. From the start of the Syrian conflict in March 2011, an estimated 6.3 million people have been internally displaced inside Syria and more than five million have fled the country and have been registered as refugees, according to figures from the United Nation’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

A further 13.5 million Syrian people are in need of humanitarian protection, including basic items such as food, medicine, clean water and shelter. This figure includes five million people in hard to reach and besieged areas.

The escalation of the campaign to oust ISIL from Raqqa which began on November 6th 2016 has exacerbated the humanitarian situation there. “We are concerned for the safety and protection of an estimated 400,000 people in Raqqa who live in hard-to-reach areas under ISIL control,” says Linda Tom, Public Information Officer for OCHA Syria. “This may change, as we are getting reports of population movements in several areas including in the south-east, Shahid Azid Camp and Jib Al-Shaair Camp, but we now estimate the number of recently displaced people to be over 100,000.”

The aftermath of heavy shelling in Central and Western Mosul neighbourhoods (via Amjed Gk, Facebook)

Iraq: millions still homeless

The humanitarian situation in Iraq also continues to worsen. According to figures from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), from January 2014 to April 2017 nearly five million Iraqis across the country had been displaced. Of these more than three million are still currently displaced, while more than 1.7 million have returned to their areas of origin.

The battle for Mosul has had a profound impact on civilians, forcing increasing numbers to flee their homes as the fighting has intensified and moved into more densely populated areas. From the official start of the Mosul campaign on October 17th 2016 to April 20th 2017, IOM estimates that more than 400,000 Iraqis had been displaced due to operations there, while only 100,000 have so far managed to return. 

“Many of those in need of urgent assistance are in close proximity to the battlefield, and some of them are still at great risk due to military operations in the western part of Mosul [under ISIL control],” said IOM Iraq Chief of Mission Thomas Lothar Weiss. 

The battle for Mosul has been described as the most bitterly fought campaign since World War Two, with comparisons being made between ISIL’s ferocious resistance and Japan’s last stand on the island of Okinawa. Yet the enemy in Iraq and Syria is like few encountered before – one which will reportedly go to any lengths, including purposefully putting civilians in the firing line, to hold on to their final strongholds.

Climbing every week: 400,000 civilians have been displaced by Mosul operations since October 17th 2016. (graph courtesy of UN Migration Agency (IOM))

Different data: human sentiment

The huge number of munitions fired and forces deployed against a diminishing number of enemy fighters who are consistently losing territory, means that ISIL will most likely be defeated outright militarily. This leads to questions about whether the force used by the Coalition and local forces is productive or counterproductive in the longer term, in order to bring stability to the region.

“Because there appears to be no strategy in place which integrates the political and diplomatic challenges and how military forces support those desired political and diplomatic outcomes, then we are at high risk of essentially fighting one of these never-ending conflicts,” warns Chris Kolenda Senior Military Fellow at King’s College London. “Even if ISIS is defeated, have we just set conditions for the next insurgency – or have we even set conditions for the US and UK to no longer be relevant actors in Iraq and Syria, because we have so lost the political and diplomatic contest and neither country is welcome anymore?”

Winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of Iraq and Syria’s civilians is therefore essential, and as civilian casualties mount, the Coalition risks losing much-needed goodwill. As part of the report he co-authored, The Strategic Costs of Civilian Harm – Applying Lessons of Afghanistan to Current and Future Conflicts, Kolenda referenced research carried out by Jason Lyall into sentiments expressed by civilians following airstrikes on Afghan villages. It revealed that in areas where the Taliban had a greater local affinity than the government, that when the government or Coalition caused civilian harm the Taliban were given a boost.

Kolenda – who also sits on the advisory board of Airwars – suspects a similar situation may be playing out in Iraq and Syria with ISIL. Furthermore, he believes that this vital tracking of local sentiment is missing from the current war. “There’s a huge gap in the Coalition’s understanding of the nature of this conflict and the effects of civilian harm on our long-term aims of gathering and analysing that data,” he says.

“What we haven’t learned from these kind of wars is that people vote with their feet to the side they view as most credible and most able to protect them. Failure to gather and analyse the population sentiment data for these airstrikes shows that we just don’t understand one of the basics of this kind of war  – that people have agency.”

Destruction at Raqqa December 12th 2016 following a Russian or Coalition raid which killed 21 civilians (via Raqqa is Being Slaughtered)

A ‘just war’: Are the big numbers warranted?

As we move beyond the first 1,000 days of the air war against ISIL, these already giant numbers – the thousands of airstrikes, the munitions dropped, the billions of dollars spent – continue to rise. With the marked escalation of the Coalition campaigns in both Raqqa and Mosul there is also now a sense that we are reaching the ‘end game.’ Yet also likely to rise are those numbers detailing the profound human impact of the war – the alarming rate of civilian casualty incidents, and the ever-rising number of people forced to flee their homes as they seek refuge from the fighting.

Yet how much do the big numbers of this complex war resonate with people away from the battlefield? Moreover, is there perhaps a general view that no matter how bad the metrics, they are somehow justified?

“The prevailing view in the United States,” says Chris Kolenda, “is that ISIS is a terrorist organisation which just needs to be eliminated and it’s unfortunate that there are civilian casualties in the process. Americans tend to believe that the ISIS cancer will metastasize if left unaddressed. Most believe that ISIS causes far more damage to civilians in Iraq and Syria and that ineffectual US military efforts, due to excessive restrictions, will prolong the war and place more civilians at risk of harm.”

Ordinary Iraqis and Syrians on the ground – who have already endured 1,000 days of airstrikes in the effort to defeat Islamic State – might disagree. For too many civilians, each new day brings the ominous sound of yet another air raid, once more putting them in fear of losing their homes, their loved ones and their own lives. It is a situation which we, far away from the battlefield, can barely begin to comprehend.

Bodies are removed from the scene of a US airstrike at Fadhiliya, which killed eight members of one family on October 22nd 2016 (Picture courtesy of Fazel Hawramy)


May 4, 2017

Written by

Airwars Staff

For two years Kinda Haddad has tracked and assessed for Airwars more than a thousand alleged Coalition and Russian civilian casualty incidents in Syria. In recent months, as the battle against ISIL has intensified, reports of civilian deaths around Raqqa caused by the US-led alliance have risen steeply. Yet in contrast to the siege of Aleppo, international media coverage has largely been absent. Here Kinda offers her thoughts on why two bombed cities might be treated so differently.

Researching allegations of civilian casualties made against Coalition and Russian air strikes in Syria in real time – while listening to the radio news as I do in my daily life – has become a vivid exercise in cognitive dissonance.

Claims against Russia are, it seems, often quickly picked up and reported on extensively, and especially so at times when Moscow’s actions are at their harshest and most intense.  In the autumn and winter of 2016 for example, Russia and the regime of Bashar al Assad were doing their utmost to retake Aleppo from the rebels. The two allies put the city under a crippling siege and bombed it without any discernible consideration for the presence of civilians. Indeed, on many occasions both Russia and the regime appeared to purposefully target civilian infrastructure and medical facilities.

That brutal campaign succeeded in gaining control of eastern Aleppo in December 2016.  The cost in civilian lives was enormous, and a great proportion of those killed were women and children.  In less than four months leading up to the fall of Aleppo more than 1,000 civilians were reportedly killed by Russian strikes. In November alone, the Syrian Network for Human rights tied 358 civilian deaths to Russia. During all of 2016, the group estimates that Russian forces killed more than 3,900 civilians.

Whatever one thinks of the regime and of Russia, the fact that the plight of civilians was highlighted is what I would expect from a free media in a free society, as part of their job of ‘speaking truth to power’. And they did so in spades.

There was a considerable degree of attention paid by international media to events on the ground, with Russia’s actions in the news all day, every day. Civilians who had escaped were interviewed extensively and the misery and losses they had endured were highlighted. It was so bad I would often turn the radio off. Despite all the awful material I view daily I still find the recorded sounds of shelling and the voices of people more distressing.

The White Helmets rescue civilians from the rubble following Russian or Assad regime airstrikes on Aleppo, July 8th 2016. (via, Alsharq News)

Crippling assault

A few months on and Airwars is monitoring a very similar situation with the Coalition both in Raqqa province in Syria, and in Mosul city in Iraq – each ISIL strongholds for several years.

As with Aleppo, Mosul is under crippling assault – and like the Russians who work alongside the Syrian army, the Coalition is working alongside Iraqi government  forces, carrying out air and artillery shelling.

Despite repeated statements that the Coalition takes great care to avoid targeting civilians, events on the ground reflect a different version of events. The level of casualties has been shocking, with between 1,308 and 2,435 civilians claimed killed by the Coalition in Mosul in March 2017 alone. There remains a high level of confusion as to what degree the Coalition and Iraqi forces – and ISIL – are causing these deaths. The same happened in Aleppo, where it became very hard for people on the ground to distinguish between Russian and regime warplanes. Artillery in particular – used heavily in Mosul – is difficult to tell apart.

While the Russian campaign has shown a clear pattern of targeting civilians, the Coalition insists that it pursues a much more careful operation.  Yet the level of civilian casualties from both the Coalition and Russian operations are simply too high – and in the case of the Coalition it is not appropriate, or just, to dismiss hundreds of incidents as “mistakes.” Every day – not week – we are seeing several such “mistakes,” with no explanation from the Coalition. This gives the distinct impression that when faced with a military target,  neither side cares much as to whether civilians are present or not.

Raqqa Silence

International media was slow to report on high civilian deaths at first. However recent weeks have seen major field reports and investigations from international and regional news groups – which have helped pressure both the Coalition and Iraqi forces into reducing harm to civilians.

But across the border in Syria’s Raqqa province it’s a very different story – even though many of its cities and towns have been put under siege by the Kurdish SDF, and with Coalition air raids escalating in a way we have not seen since the beginning of the war against ISIL in Syria in September 2014. March saw the worst casualty levels yet with between 320 and 860 civilians likely killed in Coalition strikes in Syria, a sixfold increase on the previous month. Ninety per cent of these deaths were around Raqqa.

Where we used to see a handful of allegations a week we are now monitoring several cases a day. Many of these bear high death tolls. For example up to 17 people, most of them women and children, were reportedly killed as they tried to escape Al Tabaqa on April 24th 2017. Their cars were targeted and everyone in the vehicles perished.

#IntlCoalition forces committed #massacre against children and women in al Tabaqa city in #Raqqa on Apr 24 #SNHR

— Syrian Network (@snhr) April 24, 2017

And there are so many incidents like this every week. Sometimes there is very little information. But other times there is a flood of detail from local outlets and social media, including names and photos of the victims. On those days I check how the incident is being reported internationally, and invariably there is…. radio silence

Unlike the allegations made against Russia at Aleppo, claims of civilians killed by the Coalition around Raqqa seem to attract little to no international media attention. Yet the sources for allegations both against the Russians and the Coalition are often identical -activists on the ground, with access to a network of people in the various locations where civilian casualties are occuring.

As in Aleppo, Coalition strikes are many times occurring right in the middle of city and town centres – Mosul, Raqqa, Al Tabaqa, al Mansoura and so many other urban locations. These are civilian villages, towns and cities occupied by ISIL. Some of the residents may be sympathetic to the terror group but most of them are not. It is not a democracy, not a choice to live under ISIL. These are places full of people who have no other option but to remain.

The Coalition is likely to win the war with a high civilian toll, just as Russia helped win at Aleppo. But in order to win the peace, a new strategy is needed with civilians at its heart. We can see in the opposition areas where Russia is operating how hated Moscow is. Inevitably, the same now appears to be happening in areas where the Coalition is operating, with local monitors routinely claiming ‘massacres’ and ‘war crimes’.

Leaving scores of civilians dead, wounded, lame and traumatised is not a wise long term strategy for winning a war that is avowedly being fought on behalf of those exact same civilians.

▲ A man carries a young girl in the aftermath of an airstrike on Al Haydariya, Aleppo, on April 26th, 2016 (via RFS news).


May 4, 2017

Written by

Airwars Staff

The stark contrast between local accounts of civilian deaths in Iraq that I analyse each day, and the sterile portrayal of the air campaign against ISIL by Coalition militaries, is often striking. As the Airwars researcher focused on Belgium and the Netherlands, bridging the gap between these two positions has become a key part of my daily work.

On a regular working day I move back and forth between military discourse about a ‘clean track record’ and ‘zero civilian casualties’ (Belgium) and ‘we are transparent enough’ (the Netherlands) on the one hand – and counting the number of dead after airstrikes on a West Mosul neighbourhood.

Belgium and the Netherlands launched their first bombs in October 2014 – and have carried out respectively about 390 and 500 airstrikes each (although the most recent numbers are lacking). In almost 1,000 days of war, they have not admitted a single civilian casualty between them.

For the United States the gap between its killing a civilian and publicly admitting the fact is now around six weeks. The Netherlands says it is still investigating one incident from December 2014 – more than two years ago – and refuses to divulge any details of a second case.

Belgium, for its part, had firmly claimed “zero civilian casualties” – until it was revealed that the country was possibly involved in a catastrophic incident in New Mosul on March 17th 2017. The Minister says he now awaits the results of Coalition investigations – but the country’s own Public Prosecutor has already decided not to investigate.

Transparency “behind closed doors”

Last month Airwars presented its civilian casualty data to the Belgian Parliament’s Defence Committee and called for more openness. Yet that same day, the Committee’s Chair claimed in an opinion article that Airwars dealt in “semi-truths” and that our “conclusions were wrong”. She suggested that YouTube and Facebook were unreliable sources for civilian casualty investigations. Instead, she argued, “an entire team of professionals at the Combined Air Operations Centre (CAOC)” was best suited for this job. Moreover, she claimed “full transparency in Parliament” and deemed Belgian parliamentary control sufficient to check the actions of the military.

Yet the Belgian parliament is only informed about the country’s airstrikes in secret closed-door sessions, while the public is told nothing. And the Coalition only employs two civilian casualty assessors – with a backlog of more than 700 alleged incidents yet to be investigated. 

In fact social media can be crucial in identifying civilian casualty events: for instance in a September 2015 Mosul case that the US has recently admitted. International media ignored the event completely at the time, which was only known at first by locals posting reports on Facebook. 

Both the Netherlands and Belgium continue to lurk at the bottom of transparency tables for Coalition participants, generally still refusing to say where, when or what they bomb. Yet on the ground, affected civilians continue to be at great risk from airstrikes, and they suffer too from a lack of accountability and recognition. A closed-door parliamentary meeting does not equate to public accountability, in our view.

An Iraqi-Dutch perspective

On the occasion of 1,000 days of war, Airwars also spoke with Mahmood and Husain Al Sabari, both students and members of the Union of Iraqi Youth in the Netherlands, about their view on the war and the involvement of the Netherlands. The two Dutch-Iraqi brothers – one now living in London – said that what troubled them most were not the Dutch airstrikes or lack of transparency, but the absence of awareness about the role of Western countries in contributing to instability in the Middle East.

Mahmood thinks that launching bombs is not the way to get rid of dictators or extremist groups. “Yet the Dutch military contribution is marginal, compared to the role of the US and other countries. What is most painful for us, is the lack of knowledge among fellow Dutch youth about the Western involvement in the region. This is regarding the bombs, but more importantly in terms of the ongoing arms trade and the decision to choose sides by training certain groups. And then it seems that people do not see the link with migration, which is framed as a problem, a crisis. That is really frustrating sometimes.”

Husain agrees. “That is why we don’t really talk about this topic with peers anymore. The lack of knowledge makes it feel like we’re on a different wave-length; we really speak a different language when it comes to this.”

When asked what they think of the poor transparency records in the Netherlands, the brothers say they are not really shocked. Mahmood admits that “since six or seven years, I have come to view Western democratic principles as rather hypocritical.” Husain, for his part, said he did not really know why the Dutch are so silent about the air campaign. He suggests that it might be an attempt to keep a reputation of  “a dove of peace”. He continues: “But you know, people don’t really care. They don’t care about accountability. Maybe just a few people, like you, do.”

This 1,000 days of war highlights once again the continuing importance of accountability and the need to bridge realities. Airwars’ call for more transparency and visibility is gaining support in both the Netherlands and Belgium, and is a view shared by supportive media, NGOs and political parties.

(Belgian MoD/ Sedeyn Ritchie)

▲ A Belgian Air Component F-16 Fighting Falcon approaches a U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker from the 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron before aerial refueling during a Combined Joint Task Force- Operation Inherent Resolve mission over Iraq, April 11, 2017. The F-16 has been a major component of the combat forces committed to the war on terrorism, flying thousands of sorties in support of operations in the Middle East. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Joshua A. Hoskins)


May 4, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

We asked key experts who have been closely following the Coalition’s military campaign against so-called Islamic State what 1,000 days of war means to them. Here’s what they had to say.

Fadel Abdul Ghany, director of the Syrian Network for Human Rights

After 1,000 days have passed since the beginning of the international coalition forces’ raids against Daesh, I believe that the human cost has been high if we consider what was achieved in terms of destroying headquarters and undermining their manpower. We believe that it is in no way justifiable to cause this high level of casualties, not to mention the extent of the material losses.

Several days ago, we issued a report on the bombing of bridges by international coalition forces in the governorate of Deir Ez Zawr. This is a simple indicator of what we believe to be negligence, and the result of the lack of accountability. By not identifying who in the Coalition forces is committing the massacres in Syria, and not offering frank and clear apologies or starting to compensate the victims, it is implied that there are no consequences to such flagrant violations. This has given the military command a green light, promoting a culture where there is no real interest in taking careful decisions or carrying out serious investigations.

Colonel Joseph Scrocca, Coalition Director of Public Affairs

Since 2014, the global coalition of 68 international partners has supported our partner forces in Iraq and Syria with more than 21,000 strikes against ISIS fighters, equipment and resources. These strikes allowed our partner forces to liberate 50,000 square kilometers of territory and more than a million people; and are helping to ensure the peace and security of the region and all our homelands. 

Our goal is always for zero civilian casualties. Coalition forces comply with the law of armed conflict and take extraordinary efforts to strike military targets in a manner that minimizes the risk of civilian casualties.

The Coalition takes all allegations of civilian casualties seriously and goes to great lengths to ensure transparency in our assessment and reporting processes. ISIS is the cause of massive human suffering and the greatest threat to the people of Iraq, Syria, and the world, and they must be defeated.

Belkis Wilke, Senior Iraq researcher at Human Rights Watch

For the last 1,000 days we have seen a broad coalition of states, led by the United States, supporting Iraqi, Kurdish, and non-state armed groups   in military operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. A mounting number of civilian deaths over recent months has raised concerns about the way the battle against ISIS is being fought. Iraqi, Kurdish, and other ground forces supported by the coalition have been responsible for serious violations including enforced disappearances, forced displacement, and the use of child soldiers.

The coalition should take all feasible precautions to minimize civilian loss and should thoroughly and transparently investigate reported civilian deaths, and in the case of wrongdoing, hold those responsible to account. Coalition members should investigate whether foreign military assistance contributed to laws-of-war violations and should end military assistance to units repeatedly involved in violations. They should also use their leverage with parties they support on the ground to undertake credible investigations into alleged war crimes and hold perpetrators to account.

Micah Zenko, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations

It is really an air campaign created for today’s media age: releasing daily strikes totals, routinely declaring estimates of enemy combatants and civilians killed, and posting always-flawless video clips. This data and imagery shapes perceptions of the war by feeding the insatiable demands for information. It is as if the lens through which the outside world sees the war is as important a mission as finding and striking the enemy.

Lily Hamourtziadou, Iraq Body Count

What was the coalition’s strategy, what were its objectives in embarking on another military campaign of air strikes over Iraq? Compellence, posturing and, mostly, offence seem to be the objectives, all of which contain their own political, ethical, and economic strategic goals and implications. After 1,000 days of striking, at least 49,081 civilians have been killed overall in Iraq, of which over 26,000 have been killed by Islamic State forces and 5,318 by the coalition.

If the objectives were the extermination of IS, or their retreat, surrender, or confinement, the campaign has failed; if the objectives were the protection of civilians and the provision of stability, the campaign has failed; if the objectives were the demonstration of military might and political and technological superiority, the campaign has failed; if the objectives were the control of resources, finances and regimes, the campaign has failed. If on day 1,001 and on day 1,002 and on day 1,003, and every day, more civilians die from shelling, air strikes, IEDs, suicide bombers, car bombs or executions, the campaign has failed.  No victory can come at such a human cost.

Hassan Hassan, Senior Fellow at Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy

My hometown is still under ISIS control, and has been since the summer of 2014. With some exceptions, civilians there often praise the US strikes especially if compared to Russian and regime bombings in Syria. Most complaints I hear are about the destruction of infrastructure like bridges, roads and oil facilities. Civilians in those areas had lived on a wartime economy that was functioning before ISIS took control, but the airstrikes disrupted that without providing alternatives to the people there.
There is now more fear over civilian casualties than ever before, and this is because of the stage at which the operation against ISIS has reached. In crowded western Mosul and Raqqa, more people are dying or expected to die. This is most unfortunate for the anti-ISIS fight because this should be the time to show restraint and focus more on making ISIS, and only ISIS, look bad, as its caliphate collapses. The reality is that abuses are back in Iraq and Syria, and people will soon turn their anger toward their new overlords.

James Rodehaver, coordinator, Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria

The Commission has noted repeatedly that while civilian protection should be a paramount concern for all parties to the conflict, it is often noticeably absent. All parties using air power in the Syrian armed conflict must adhere to the laws of war and core civilian protection principles of distinction and proportionality in the use of such weaponry under international humanitarian law. All means necessary should be employed to distinguish properly between civilian and military targets and to respect protected sites, particularly hospitals, medical personnel, mosques and religious objects, and schools.

The Commission has opened investigations into incidents of civilian casualties caused by all parties to the conflict, including civilian deaths and injuries resulting from air strikes. We only publish findings from our investigations once we have been able to gather evidence to meet our legal standard of proof.

Violations Documentation Centre

The Violations Documentation Centre confirms that, during almost three years, the International Coalition forces failed, in many instances, to respect the principles of International Humanitarian Law (IHL). A number of the attacks carried out against the so-called Islamic State, breached the principle of “Proportionality in Attack” of Rule 14 of customary IHL against the targets, and caused many civilian deaths most of which are elderlies and children – in addition to many injured and missing people. Additionally, the coalition forces breached on many occasions the principle of distinction between military and civilian targets and failed in estimating the collateral damage in civilian lives. The verified direct testimonies VDC collects after each attack, confirm that many of them did not prove to be of any military importance for the International coalition.

Thus, VDC reminds all conflict parties in the “International Coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham”, of the absolute requirement, under IHL, to avoid targeting civilians and that targeting civilians is a described war crime. The VDC calls for the sparing of civilians completely in accordance with the 1949 Geneva Conventions, the first and second additional protocols of 1977, and the rules of customary International Humanitarian Law.


May 4, 2017

Written by

Airwars Staff

Baghdad-based Latif Habib has been tracking and researching alleged Coalition civilian casualty incidents in Iraq for Airwars for more than two years – and has been on the front lines during the Mosul assault on five occasions so far. Here Latif reflects on why the campaign to capture Iraq’s second city has proved so lethal for civilians still trapped within. 

The plan to liberate Mosul from the control of so-called Islamic State has undergone several changes. Initially the reported aim was to leave an escape route from the western half of the city for the use of militants and possibly also civilians, in order both to relieve combat pressure and to protect civilians. Instead, hundreds of thousands of civilians have been trapped in West Mosul in what is becoming a fight to the death with ISIL. 

Plans and actions have differed radically between the right bank of the Tigris – geographically, the western half of the city – and the left bank, or eastern side. Initially, during operations to capture the east which began in October 2016, the Iraqi government and military leaders advised civilians to remain in their homes during the fighting. Coupled with the use of elite anti-terrorism forces who were well trained in urban warfare, this was a relative success – although as Airwars has reported, hundreds of civilians still likely died.

However, the same plan in far denser western Mosul has cost the lives of large numbers of civilians, in large part due to continuous aerial and artillery bombardment carried out by the Coalition and Iraqi forces. More than 5,500 bombs, missiles and rockets were used by the Coalition in Mosul in March alone, with thousands more munitions likely fired by Iraqi forces. 

These attacks have targeted Daesh facilities and units along with the headquarters of their leaders. But in many cases they have also struck the neighborhoods and markets of the Right Bank, hitting civilians and causing great loss of life. Several of the raids reportedly targeted areas where citizens were also present, including buildings and mosques that were being used as places of refuge for families displaced from other neighbourhoods where military confrontations were also taking place. This has led to even higher casualty figures.

A leaflet dropped on Mosul warns civilians to stay away from ISIL-held buildings

‘Sixty per cent of West Mosul destroyed’

The leadership of the international Coalition has continued to use long range rockets, mortars and artillery as well as airplanes to target Daesh fighters, especially inside the residential neighbourhoods of the Old City.  One particularly deadly raid on March 16th-17th hit residential buildings in which dozens of civilian families were gathered in the al Jadida neighborhood – all of them residents of the area. At least 280 civilians are now thought to have died in bombardments on the immediate neighbourhood, according to Iraqi civil defence.

Many questions remain unanswered about how these houses could have been targeted by the international coalition and Iraqi forces, with no conclusive findings so far. In my own view, there has been no serious effort to learn from the grave mistakes so far made by aircraft of the international coalition, or to deal with the resulting excessive human losses. All the arguments and excuses offered by US officials and leaders in the field have done nothing to change the tragedy of the civilians on the ground, and have not removed the suspicions among many Moslawis of the Coalition.

The excessive use of weapons like mortars and heavy machine guns inside the city, and random shelling by both sides, has caused additional casualties. The Federal Police, who are not trained in urban warfare but were even so used heavily in the battle for West Mosul, have reportedly caused a great deal of destruction. Daesh snipers also position themselves on the rooftops of buildings turning civilians into an indirect target, while the terror group’s suicide truck bombs have caused great destruction to civilian areas.

Already, many hundreds of civilian have died in the Old City, with its narrow streets and alleyways, where very intense firepower was used to compensate for the fact that Iraqi tanks and heavy equipment could not enter. Elite counter-terrorism forces who fought in eastern Mosul suffered heavy losses in that battle, and have been replaced in the west by less experienced soldiers and police. Airstrikes, rockets and artillery and mortar bombardment have, it is claimed, destroyed as much as 60% of West Mosul.

According to the United Nations the battle for Mosul is the biggest urban assault since World War Two – which has already lasted a month longer than the siege of Stalingrad. The failure by both the Coalition and the Iraqi government to create safe corridors for civilians to leave during the fighting – instead requiring them to stay in their homes – has contributed greatly to the very high number of civilian casualties now being reported.

▲ U.S. Soldiers assigned to Battery C, 2nd Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division fire their M777 towed 155 mm howitzer during a fire mission near Mosul, Iraq, Feb. 03, 2017. Battery C is supporting Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, the global Coalition to defeat ISIL in Iraq and Syria. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Craig Jensen)


April 18, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford

A lethal US drone strike in Syria on March 16th did target a mosque – as locals have always insisted and American officials have denied – according to new analysis by Forensic Architecture, Human Rights Watch and Bellingcat. Researchers also allege that the US launched Hellfire missiles at civilians as they fled the mosque, killing many.

The new reports make use of before and after imagery of the buildings; eyewitness testimonies; and architects’ drawings to demonstrate that the United States did indeed target the Sayidina Omar Ibn Al-Khattab mosque, located about a mile southwest of al-Jinah in Aleppo governorate.

“Our analysis reveals that contrary to US statements, the building targeted was a functioning, recently-built mosque containing a large prayer hall, several auxiliary functions and the Imam’s residence,” according to Forensic Architecture.

In its own report Human Rights Watch argues “that US authorities failed to take all feasible precautions to avoid or minimize civilian casualties in the attack, a requirement under the laws of war.”

Forensic Architecture’s video showing bombed al Jinah building was a functioning mosque

In a detailed video report released April 18th, Forensic Architecture – based at Goldsmiths College at the University of London – presents evidence, including videos and pictures taken before and after the strike, accompanied by 3D modelling, that identifies and illustrates various sections of the mosque. The northern portion, which was destroyed, included “a dinning area, the toilets, a ritual washing area and the secondary, smaller prayer room.” Witnesses said that several hundred people were in the building, including around 50 in the smaller prayer room, which is also known as the “winter prayer hall.”

According to local residents who spoke with Human Rights Watch, the attack began “just before or around” 7PM. The attack took place slightly over an hour after what would have been Maghrib (sunset) prayer and roughly 15 minutes before Isha’a (night) prayer. One witness said that many people would stay in the complex, moving from the prayer hall to kitchen area “to eat and rest before the night prayer.” Four witnesses that researchers at Human Rights Watch spoke with estimated there were 300 people attending a religious lecture at the mosque when the attack began.

After two 500lb bombs destroyed the northern segments of the building, worshipers and those inside the main prayer hall in the southern part fled. At this point, many of those fleeing were fired on by what researchers working with Forensic Architecture, as well as Human Rights Watch later identified as likely Hellfire missiles. This account – of larger bombs and at least several Hellfire missiles being fired – is in line with the total number of munitions earlier reported by the Washington Post.

“Exchanging architectural plans and photographic analysis with people on the ground we managed to reconstruct a detailed model of the mosque,” said Omar Ferwati, project coordinator for Forensic Architecture. “We believe that the US forces that targeted the building misidentified the nature of the building, leading to high levels of civilian casualties.”

Working with Mohammad Halak, head of the local White Helmets rescue team, researchers determined that eight people were killed and 11 injured “as a result of the first two blasts within the norther part of the building.” Among the casualties were the Imam’s wife Ghousoun Makansi who died when the couple’s upstairs apartment was also destroyed in the attack; as well as two brothers – Mohammad Khaled Orabi and Hassan Ombar Orabi, aged 14 and ten. According to Forensic Architecture, the rest of the casualties were due to missile strikes which then hit the area outside the mosque. On a road, researchers were able to match marks – geolocated by Bellingcat – with those traditionally left by Hellfire missiles.

Such ‘double tap’ strikes gained infamy during the most controversial periods of the CIA’s drone campaign in Pakistan.

US denials

Airwars was the first to report confirmation of US involvement in the al Jinah strike, which was perpetrated with the use of drones on the evening of March 16th. Monitoring by Airwars presently puts the death toll at at least 37. The White Helmets, who estimated that over 50 perished, provided the names of more than two dozen of the dead included five children.

Al-Jinah is just across the border from Idlib, the Syrian governorate where the US has carried out an increasingly intense unilateral campaign against alleged al Qaeda-linked targets. Initially, US officials told Airwars the strike had taken place in Idlib. Operations like the one that targeted al-Jinah are officially separate from the anti-ISIS campaign elsewhere in the country.

Forensic Architecture and collaborating researchers identified two large craters in the northern section of the building.

Shortly after the strike, the Pentagon released a picture of where the drones had hit, showing the left (north) side of a building crumpled from impact, while the remainder of the structure appears still standing. Across from destroyed sections is a smaller structure, which looks to be untouched.

US officials still insist that the target, successfully hit that night, was ‘an Al Qaeda in Syria meeting location,” and that the smaller building across the street had been identified by the Americans as a mosque, and therefore avoided.

“Intelligence indicated that al Qaida leaders used the partially-constructed community meeting hall as a gathering place, and as a place to educate and indoctrinate al Qaida fighters,” Pentagon spokesperson Eric Pahon told Airwars after the attack.

Yet Forensic Architecture concludes that this identification was incorrect, along with initial claims that the strike had taken place across the border in Idlib, and that no civilians were killed. Researchers at Bellingcat determined that the civilian casualties due to the strike “are partially the result of the building’s misidentification.” Central to the disparity in accounts was an apparent American determination that because they had identified one mosque, the building across the street – which was in fact a larger, newer mosque – couldn’t be one as well.

Witnesses, including the director of Aleppo’s Civil Defense, told Human Rights Watch that victims were not wearing military clothing. In its report, Human Rights Watch said it “has not found evidence to support the allegation that members of al-Qaeda or any other armed group were meeting in the mosque.”

“The US authorities’ failure to understand the most fundamental aspects of the target and pattern of life around the target raises the question whether officers were criminally reckless in authorizing the attack,” concluded HRW researchers.

The Bellingcat study includes details of the Tablighi Jamaat, “a non-political global Sunni Islamic missionary movement which focuses on urging return to primary Sunni Islam.” The group – which says one of its classes was struck – has at least 12 million supporters globally according to Bellingcat. The open-source collective also includes a detailed timeline of the Al Jinah event.

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


April 4, 2017

Written by

Samuel Oakford
It began as a unilateral US campaign against Al Qaeda elements plotting overseas attacks. But now this expanded shadow war risks embroiling the United States in Syria’s affairs long after the last ISIL stronghold has fallen. An Airwars special report, in conjunction with Foreign Policy

The unilateral American shadow war against al Qaeda-linked militants in Syria is now in its 30th month. Unlike the anti-Islamic State campaign, where the United States releases daily strike reports, the war against al Qaeda is less transparent, receives less media attention, and involves both the US military and intelligence apparatus. What began as a narrow mission in Syria — targeting al Qaeda terrorists allegedly focused on international attacks — has in the past six months expanded in both scope and intensity, according to local reports and interviews with US officials.

Outside the headlines, this war is also causing a steadily increasing death toll among Syrian civilians. One of the latest strikes in the long-running US campaign occurred on March 16th, when US drones struck a mosque complex in the town of al-Jinah, in northern Syria. The United States says it is investigating the attack but insists it didn’t hit a mosque. To the incredulity of locals, it claims to have instead struck a nearby building where “an al Qaeda in Syria meeting” was taking place. One witness told the local outlet Smart News: “[T]his is a praying center … peaceful civilians praying. I am one of them, there are no terrorists here.”

Rescuers work to free victims after a March 16th US drone strike in al-Jinah, Syria. Screenshot from video by Moaz Alshami Shada

President Barack Obama had laid the groundwork for increased strikes against al Qaeda last fall, as his administration broadened the definition of who was a legitimate target in northern Syria. These strikes have continued with a similar intensity since President Donald Trump took office. Because of this escalation, Washington now finds itself ramping up to fight an ambiguously defined opponent that is deeply enmeshed in the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The surge in civilian casualties, meanwhile, risks further antagonizing Syrians towards the United States, thus creating a vicious cycle that risks extending the 16-year US ‘War on Terror’ far into the future.

During the past 30 months, Airwars researchers have tracked more than 30 apparent unilateral American strikes, almost all in the rebel-held northwestern Idlib province. Using the lowest estimate for each incident, these strikes have likely killed at least 91 civilians. The real strike and overall casualty numbers are probably far higher. First, while the United States does publicize some unilateral strikes — as it did for six strikes in January — others have gone unreported, including drone attacks apparently carried out by the CIA. Secondly, it is difficult to properly attribute some strikes, such as a February 7th strike in Idlib city that reportedly left two dozen civilians dead but has also variously been blamed on Russia and the Syrian regime. The Airwars data set includes all strikes publicly acknowledged by US officials, as well as other strikes that we believe are likely to have been carried out by the United States.

Nevertheless, the trend is clear: The United States is escalating its unilateral air war in Syria. More than half of the 35 likely US strikes that we have been able to clearly source have occurred in the past six months. Though these operations have been largely obscured by the ongoing and massive military campaigns in Mosul and Raqqa, they also seem poised to increase in the weeks and months ahead.

 Opening salvo

A young girl Basmala, one of 13 civilians reported killed in a US cruise missile attack on September 23rd, 2014. (Via Syrian Network for Human Rights)

The first US airstrikes in Syria occurred on September 23rd 2014. According to locals in the town of Kafr Daryan, the target of the attack that night were members of the Syrian affiliate of al Qaeda, known then as Jabhat al-Nusra or Nusra Front. Along with a number of fighters, at least 13 civilians reportedly died, including a husband, wife and their two children.

US officials said the cruise missiles that landed in Kafr Daryan were intended for a special cell within the Nustra Front planning attacks abroad, which they dubbed “the Khorasan Group.” The bombings marked the start of intermittent strikes against al Qaeda in Syria that have continued ever since, in parallel to the better-known and much larger coalition campaign against the Islamic State.

In 2014, the United States took pains to make clear that it was not striking all Nusra Front targets, but instead those it identified as intent on attacking the West. Likewise, it maintained that those it struck were not focused on defeating Assad. Less than two months after the Kafr Daryan attack, U.S. forces carried out fresh strikes against five more targets in Idlib. In a news release sent out the day after one of those strikes in November, CENTCOM stressed that it was only hitting the Khorasan Group, which it defined as “a network of Nusrah Front and al-Qa’ida core extremists who share a history of training operatives, facilitating fighters and money, and planning attacks against U.S. and Western targets.”

“These strikes … did not target the Nusrah Front as a whole,” the US military release continued. “They were directed at the Khorasan Group whose focus is not on overthrowing the Assad regime or helping the Syrian people.”

Likely remnant of a cruise missile fired at targets in Kafr Daryan. (Via Amnesty International).

Wider goals

More than two years later, the United States no longer refers to the Khorasan Group, whose core members have allegedly been killed. Though Jabhat al-Nusra renamed itself Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and claims to have split with al Qaeda in July 2016, the United States continues to target its fighters, insisting that any changes have been merely cosmetic and the group’s links to the international terrorist group remain intact. James Clapper, then Director of National Intelligence, called the Nusra name change a “PR move … to create the image of being more moderate.”

A UN counterterrorism official who spoke with Airwars gave a similar account: “It was just a rebranding. … [T]hey thought ‘oh no, a lot of people don’t like us because they think we were associated with al Qaeda.’” Since January, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham operates under the umbrella group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which it founded, and remains headquartered in Idlib.

A former senior official in the Obama White House told Airwars that the administration began paying greater attention to the Nusra Front in early 2016, and by the fall had devoted more assets to combating it, including drones that had previously been used against the Islamic State. “That was predicated by a series of intelligence products that frankly spooked a lot of people,” the official said. “While the national focus had been on [the Islamic State], and the fear had been on an [Islamic State] attack, the sense was the near-term threat to the homeland and that threat that had the potential to grow the most in the coming months and years was posed by Nusra.”

In November 2016, the Washington Post reported that the White House had by now given the Pentagon “wider authority and additional intelligence-collecting resources to go after al-Nusra’s broader leadership.” Significantly, Obama ordered that all Nusra leaders — not just so-called legacy members of al Qaeda or those involved in planning external attacks — were to be targeted, an account confirmed to Airwars by two former Obama administration officials.

Current and former US officials insist that the recent increase in strikes is in large part a product of greater intelligence and knowledge of plots. But this period, beginning last fall, also coincides with significant and strategic gains made by the Syrian regime and its allies — ultimately to the point that officials in Washington no longer assumed Assad would be pushed from power. The Obama doctrine of supporting certain opposition groups against the Assad government did not yield the desired results, particularly after Russia intervened in Syria in late 2015. It was only a year later, when the opposition appeared to have little chance of taking the entire country, that the United States significantly escalated its campaign against al Qaeda. As one administration official told the Washington Post, the White House could no longer go along with what it called “‘a deal with the devil’ whereby the United States held its fire against al-Nusra.”

“Before, the Americans would have to really sell the idea of targeting opponents of Bashar al-Assad, or groups that were fighting [him],” according to Hassan Hassan, senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. With the fall of Aleppo in late 2016, he added, “[T]here was a tacit understanding that the game was over.”

Unclear authorization

All US military strikes against alleged al Qaeda in Syria have been carried out under the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed by Congress just days after the 9/11 attacks. The Pentagon says the same is true of the anti-Islamic State campaign, even though that group broke with and has fought al Qaeda. In Syria, the United States makes use of an expansive definition of so-called associated forces of al Qaeda — a phrase that was not included in the AUMF, but that has been adopted by the Pentagon and successive U.S. administrations. More than 15 years after 9/11, it could now apply to thousands of fighters in the Syrian civil war, many of whom may care little about striking the West.

Michael Hayden, former head of both the National Security Agency and CIA — and a prominent backer of drone warfare — says the AUMF is no longer fit for its original purpose. And he faults Congress for failing to redefine these war powers earlier. “The public debate seems to have moved well beyond it,” he told Airwars in a telephone interview. “There is no political space in which to have this discussion right now with everything else that is going on.”

In January, the Pentagon issued a news release following two attacks in Idlib targeting senior al Qaeda figures that may have subtly reflected the expanded nature of the campaign. “We are confident,” the release said, “these strikes will degrade al-Qaida’s ability to direct operations in Syria.” Jabhat Fateh al-Sham is estimated to have well over 10,000 fighters, so a campaign against the entire organization would be radically different from the initial effort to disrupt a cell of al Qaeda terrorists planning international attacks.

In response to a question from Airwars, Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon insisted that “not much has changed,” and pointed out that the same January release still referenced al Qaeda’s commitment “to carrying out terrorist attacks against the United States and West.”

Asked to clarify what groups — and how many individuals — are now within the scope of the American campaign, the Pentagon said it would not release intelligence information and only stated, “We do target al Qaeda in Syria.”

Remains of a vehicle targeted by the Coalition in Idlib on October 17th 2016. The attack also reportedly injured three civilians (via Step News)

Insurgents vs. terrorists

Are elements in al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate planning attacks abroad? Those who have watched the civil war for years say “yes,” but that it’s complicated.

“Intelligence suggests that al Qaeda in northwest Syria is engaged in putting together the infrastructure, recruiting necessary fighters and putting in place a plan that could one day be activated to conduct attacks,” says Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and author of The Syrian Jihad.

Lister doubts, however, that this planning is occurring within the context of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the umbrella group that includes a broad subset of the Syrian opposition. He and other analysts now worry that the United States risks sparking a war with the broader anti-Assad movement.

“The announcement of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham [HTS] almost certainly means that large new sections of north Syria’s rebels are considered al Qaeda-linked, and thus included in that target set,” said Sam Heller, a fellow at the Century Foundation who researches the Syrian civil war. “And with every passing day, HTS assimilates more of the northern opposition. Whether the United States will strike them remains to be seen.”

In that context, the March 16th strike on part of a religious complex in the town of al-Jinah has raised deep concerns — not only for its high civilian toll, but for the precedents it sets for the type of targets the United States is willing to hit. While locals described the building as a recently constructed mosque, US officials insisted to Airwars that the mosque was not hit, which they said was a short distance from the actual target.

Residents, however, say the larger structure that was struck was also a part of the mosque complex — a description supported by open-source imagery — where more than 200 people were meeting for religious teaching. Casualty figures have varied, from 37 to more than 60 victims.

A post-strike image released by the Pentagon. US officials claim the structure hit was not a mosque — locals say otherwise.

Pahon told Airwars that the airstrike target was “an Al Qaeda in Syria meeting location … killing several terrorists. Intelligence indicated that Al Qaida leaders used the partially-constructed community meeting hall as a gathering place, and as a place to educate and indoctrinate Al Qaida fighters.”

Discussing the strike, the UN counterterrorism official said the sheer number of people in the building meant that regardless of the presence of al Qaeda leaders, the strike was reckless — reminiscent of previous airstrikes since 9/11 that have worsened animosity toward the United States.

“It’s precisely the wrong approach to try to prevent terrorists in the future,” the official said.

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.

— Sakir Khader (@sakirkhader) March 16, 2017

Charles Lister, who contends that the United States has thus far been effective at striking a balance in Syria by only going after senior al Qaeda leadership, said no evidence had yet emerged of any targets that warranted the al-Jinah strike.

“That nothing at all has come out still to this point strengthens the accusation that this may have been a case of mistaken target selection,” he said. “Whatever the case, the damage is done — as far as genuinely moderate Syrians within the opposition are concerned, the al-Jinah incident demonstrated that there was little difference between the US and the Assad regime or Russia.”

From Obama to Trump

The last unilateral strike of the Obama administration underscored just how much the target set in Syria had expanded during his presidency. On January 19th, a US Air Force B-52 bomber — along with other aircraft including drones — struck west of Aleppo, reportedly killing more than 100 fighters in what the Pentagon described as an al Qaeda training camp. It was one of a number of strikes that month, which the United States claimed had between them killed at least 150 terrorists.

Heller said it appeared the camp was being used jointly by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and a smaller number of fighters from a separate group called the Nour al-Din al-Zinki Movement. The two groups had grown steadily closer during the past year; a little more than a week after the strike, Zinki would officially join Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

This expanding definition of which groups represent legitimate targets for a strike may be poised to grow even further during the Trump administration. The new American president, who during the election campaign promised to “bomb the shit” out of the Islamic State, has asked the Pentagon to consider relaxing the rules of engagement in Syria and Iraq as part of the campaign against that group. This month, Trump authorized the CIA to carry out its own drone strikes in Syria.

HUGE news via source:

Al-Qaeda deputy leader Abu al-Khayr al-Masri has been killed in a U.S drone strike near Al-Mastoumeh in #Idlib.

— Charles Lister (@Charles_Lister) February 26, 2017

Images posted after a US strike which reportedly killed senior al-Qaeda leader Abu al-Khayr al-Masri. Subsequent reports indicated the strike was carried out by the CIA. 

For the moment, US military personnel remain mostly focused on the Islamic State and the dual campaigns to capture Mosul and Raqqa. Recent weeks have seen the highest reported civilian casualties of those operations. In March alone, more than 1,700 civilian casualty allegations have been lodged against the US-led coalition in both Iraq and Syria. Many of these incidents are contested, but a number of deadly strikes, including a raid in west Mosul that reportedly left more than 100 dead, have raised serious questions about how Coalition strikes are approved.

The White House has not said whether it will free up even more resources to attack al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate with a wider air war. That said, the campaign shows every sign of continuing to grow. In Yemen, the Trump administration and the Pentagon have already overseen an unprecedented increase in airstrikes, targeting what they claim are al Qaeda militants — a signal, perhaps, of their intent to pursue the group with greater intensity in Syria and elsewhere.

But as in Yemen, progress has been fleeting. As the Assad regime’s hand has strengthened, so has Jabhat Fateh al-Sham’s. The United States, in effect, is escalating its campaign against al Qaeda only when the group has achieved an outsized representation in a diminished opposition.  The war — a different front, but part of a 16-year-old campaign — may just be beginning.

“Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is much stronger than people think,” Hassan said. “They are more organized than other groups. They are in tune with the local sentiment, they know people want to focus on Bashar al-Assad. … It is very similar to the beginning of the ISIS war.”