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)