Donald Trump visiting CENTCOM headquarters in Florida February 6 2017. The president has instructed the US military to roll back key safeguards protecting civilians on the battlefield (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

As claims escalate under Trump, Airwars tracks 1,000th alleged Coalition civilian casualty event

Written by Samuel Oakford on March 17, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

Intense fighting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looser rules of engagement

In late January President Trump requested a new plan from the US military to tackle ISIL, in which he called for “recommended changes to any United States rules of engagement and other United States policy restrictions that exceed the requirements of International law regarding the use of force against ISIS.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Strategically beneficial’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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