Sailors load a 2,000lb bomb onto an FA/18 Super Hornet aboard the USS Dwight D Eisenhower, July 31st 2016. The US continues to provide the bulk of the Coalition's firepower. (US Navy/ Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Nathan T. Beard)

Second anniversary of Coalition war sees ISIL under pressure – but civilians at greater risk

Written by Chris Woods on August 8, 2016


Research by Latif Habib, Kinda Haddad, Alex Hopkins, Basile Simon and Christiaan Triebert

The US-led Coalition enters the third year of its war against so-called Islamic State having already conducted more than 14,300 airstrikes against the terror group – and with thousands of ground forces also now committed.

ISIL is under significant pressure on multiple fronts, having lost much of its territory over the past year. The cities of Ramadi and Fallujah are back in the hands of Iraq’s government, with Mosul encircled. The US’s Kurdish proxies have also captured a swathe of northern Syria from ISIL – and stand poised to seize the key town of Manbij after a brutal campaign.

But millions of civilians still under occupation face the greatest risk yet from Coalition actions, with the number of likely deaths almost doubling in the past year. In total, Airwars estimates that at least 1,568 civilians have so far died in strikes. The Coalition puts that figure at just 55 dead, despite an estimated 52,000 weapons so far being released.

War by the numbers

While the Coalition estimates it has killed more than 25,000 enemy fighters, just four of its own personnel have so far been declared lost in combat. Jordanian pilot Muath al Kasabeh was murdered by ISIL on January 3rd 2015, shortly after his plane came down in Syria. Three US fighters have also been killed in action – one each from the Army, Navy and Marines. Sixteen others have been wounded in ground actions, despite the US insisting it is not involved in a ground war aganist ISIL.

The war has intensified significantly. While the US and its allies conducted 5,977 airstrikes in the first year, attacks were up by 39% in year two – with 8,329 additional strikes declared to August 8th 2016. Washington continues to bear the heaviest burden, with 95% of all Coalition strikes in Syria and 68% of all actions in Iraq carried out by  the United States.

Among the allies the British remain the most active partner, with 905 airstrikes so far declared in Iraq and 53 in Syria. France (796 strikes), the Netherlands (an estimated 492 actions) and Australia (roughly 366 strikes) have also contributed strongly.

But others have now left the Coalition. Arab partners Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates had quit the air war by September 2015, after conducting about 135 Syria airstrikes between them. And Canada ended kinetic operations on February 15th 2016, after 251 airstrikes.

According to CENTCOM – which is leading the US military campaign – more than 26,000 enemy targets had been damaged or destroyed in the Coalition campaign to May 31st. More than 6,500 of these were buildings – illustrating the urban nature of the war.

To July 15th 2016, the war against ISIL had already cost the United States $8.4 billion – an average of $11.9 million per day. The UK – as the second most active member of the Coalition – has declared spending £280 million  ($365m) to March 2016.

Operation-Inherent-Resolve-May31-2016

A near-doubling of reported civilian deaths

The second year of the Coalition’s war saw a major jump in reported civilian deaths – a rise which cannot be explained alone by the 40% increase in the number of airstrikes. Likely civilian deaths from Coalition actions were up by 92 per cent on the first year.

While Coalition strikes present a significantly lower risk to civilians than those of Russia, the Assad regime or Iraqi forces,  Airwars still estimates that one civilian is being killed for roughly every nine Coalition airstrikes – a similar toll to that officially reported in Afghanistan, and in US covert strikes in places like Yemen and Pakistan.

In Iraq and Syria however, the US and its allies insist that on average one civilian dies for every 260 of their strikes – a highly implausible claim given the fierce tempo of the war and the routine targeting of heavily-populated areas.

In the first year of the war from August 2014, there were 193 alleged Coalition civilian casualty events tracked by Airwars across Iraq and Syria – with a claimed range of 1,130 to 1,561 fatalities. The US has confirmed 14 of these events, with 19 or more civilian deaths admitted. Airwars presently assesses another 80 of these events as having likely caused 496 to 692 additonal civilian deaths.

In the war’s second year the likely number of civilian deaths almost doubled – with 1,031 new fatalities thought likely. In total, 333 new alleged Coalition casusalty events were reported in the past 12 months, with a total claimed range of 2,332 to 3,177 deaths.

Only 36 of these 2015-2016 deaths have so far been confirmed by the US – and none by its Coalition allies. Among those slain was Dr Ziad Kalaf, one of four civilians now admitted killed by the US during a targeted strike in Mosul against an Australian ISIL recruiter in April this year.

Dr Ziad kalaf, killed in a US targeted killing operation in Mosul on April 29th 2016
Dr Ziad Kalaf, killed in a US targeted killing operation in Mosul on April 29th 2016

One reason for the sharp jump in the number of likely civilian deaths has been an easing of battlefield restrictions. In the early phases of the war, Coalition partners were under strict instructions to limit to zero wherever possible the number of civilians killed.

But now, the US and its allies are prepared to accept up to 10 civilian casualties in any action according to reports. During one strike on a bank in Mosul, the US had been prepared to accept up to 50 casualties in an effort to destroy millions of dollars of ISIL funds. One woman is now admitted to have died in that event, with five other civilians injured.

The recent siege of Manbij in Syria may be a portent of worse to come. In July 2016 alone, Airwars tracked 36 separate Coalition civilian casualty allegations in the vicinity – the highest number of reported of civilian deaths in two years of war. At least 190 civilians died in those Manbij actions, Airwars presently estimates.

“As the war enters its third year the Coalition will increasingly set its sights on the ISIL-occupied cities of Mosul and Ar Raqqa – where millions of civilians remain trapped,” says Kinda Haddad, head of the Airwars Syria team. “The US and its allies must prioritise the lives of local civilians if they wish to be seen as liberators. Unfortunately much commentary from the ground is now hostile. The single most prominent reason given is the Coalition’s apparent disregard for civilian life.”